faith and reason

June 2, 2005

recently made a very interesting post on
theory-laden observations in science.  The argument
he refers to in what follows is an argument about circular reasoning in
certain ontological claims based on empirical findings.  He
argues, if I understand correctly, that the methodological choice to
view the human being as an object in biology and physiology ultimately
results in reinforcements for the metaphysical claim that a human being
is nothing more than an object.  That is, scientific observations
are taken to be “evidence” in support of the broader theory – which
ignores the fact that the observations are already “laden” with the
theory that human subjectivity is an irrelevant notion.  Circular
reasoning.

In connection with this argument, I asked
for some guidance in my ongoing preoccupation with the relationship
between religious faith and scientific rationality.  This was his
response:

I generally… do not see a conflict between faith and reason —
it could be my Catholic upbringing. On one side, I've found that
Christian theology permits an entirely defensible position. On the
other side, I've found that the conclusions of science and secular
philosophy do not lend the support to atheist metaphysical positions that
is often assumed.

On the question of how to reply, or how to
live with, the atheist, I again see two fundamental aspects of the act:
on one hand, defending theological positions against the atheist's
misunderstanding and fallacious logic; on the other hand, answering the
atheist's questions on his own terms.

The argument I give here is a good example. We could
use this argument against the atheist arguing for a reductive
materialist conception of man; and, thereby, in defense of a theistic
position to the contrary. However, it's not a
theistic argument.

I think this is the preferable strategy in the wide variety of disputed issues.

One
ramification of this strategy is that it eliminates the problem of the
theist and atheist perceiving each other as profoundly alien beings —
which exacerbates a variety of social issues and is, I think, contrary
to distinctly Christian notions of universality.

A disclaimer is
in order: following the logic of the original argument here, an atheist
may take the position that the only legitimate way of approaching
things in the world is 'as objects' — the way my biologist does. With
sufficient popularity, the category of 'reason' may be reduced to such
a perspective. At this point, a theist makes such a statement as I have
made here: that he does not see an in-principle conflict between faith
and reason. To this, many of his fellow theists are likely to respond
with outrage: imagining that he has claimed that God can be approached
and understood as an object.

In so doing, they unwittingly
reinforce and support the atheist's original position — that
approaching things as objects is the only legitimate form of reason. My
argument here is meant to demonstrate the contrary.

To say that
reason and faith are not in conflict, then, is not to say, as the
classical Greeks did, that one may, with formal reason alone, find the
essence of God. The Christian ought rightly to consider such a
perspective heretical.

To the contrary, it's to recognize the
explicitly constrained and also multifarious manifestations of the
thing which we call 'reason' — one complexity of which I have outlined
above, in the concept of approaching things as objects or not.

On
a similar note, theists advocating an inherent conflict between faith
and reason character 'faith' as 'a positive belief held in the absence
of reason.' As a curious parallel, this is, again, the
conceptualization the atheist would like to advocate.

However,
when the Christian is asked to have faith in Christ, I do not think
this is, generally speaking, what is intended. God does not make a
positive claim, like 2+2=5, which is contrary to reason, and define the
faith He requests of us as the belief in that claim. In the language of
my argument here, Christian faith is not faith in an object.

Rather,
faith manifests itself in a daily surrender to the will of God — a
will which does not, like a math professor, express logical statements
to be assented to; but rather, a will which guides the believer through
the existential currents of his life.

When a man lies dehydrated
in the desert, and looks up with his last breath with a profound smile
— marvelling at the beauty of God's creation — he is exhibiting his
faith; his surrender to God's will. Not only
is this not contrary to reason — it cannot be: for it relates to a category of existence completely independent of the belief or nonbelief in logical statements.

This is why, while I believe Christian theology is wholly defensible,
and the popular atheist position a misunderstanding of the science it
claims itself as a foundation, I do not believe that establishing these
points is, in any sense, an act required of the faithful Christian.
They are intellectual distractions; which is not to say that they are
useless. But the Christian is called to have an existential faith; an
interpersonal faith; and a personal relationship with God. None of
these constructs require intellectual elaboration, since they are
wholly other to what can be intellectually elaborated upon. 

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