On Christmas Day of 2017, Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he argued on the basis of Jesus’ teaching that, while faith and doubt are complementary, faith is nevertheless superior to doubt as a guide to life, thought, and morality. As a corollary, Wehner argues that faith is consequently also superior to both doubt and reason for such purposes. For the purposes of this reply, I will assume that Wehner intends for his argument to apply to both comparisons synonymously: faith vs. doubt, faith vs. reason. This equivalence is justified by Wehner’s own argument. The problem with Wehner’s argument is that it undermines itself if we attempt to apply it in contexts other than the purely individual and idiosyncratic.
The self-referential character of Wehner’s argument is implicit at the outset. Wehner asks
Why is it that, according to Jesus, faith is better than proof?
This immediately begs the question “Better for what?” In some obvious sense, we can be thankful that most people do not interpret Jesus’ preference for faith in an unqualified sense. We can be thankful, e.g., that an aircraft engineer does not “have faith” that the laws of aerodynamics do not apply, that a surgeon does not “have faith” that the appendix is on the left side of the lower abdomen, etc. Wehner rather explicitly acknowledges that faith and reason have different areas of applicability. But that only leaves the question begged, not answered.
Without actually saying so explicitly, Wehner seems to imply that faith is better, or at least as good, as reason for providing a basis for social consensus and cohesion in much the same way as reason does.
Christians would say, in fact, that reason is affirmed in Scripture — “Come now, and let us reason together,” is how the prophet Isaiah puts it — and that faith properly understood is consistent with and deepens our understanding of reality.
This is where matters begin to get really interesting, and that for two reasons: (1) yes, reason does provide a certain general basis for social, political, and even moral cohesion in any society. If we know the Nile floods at certain times of the year, we can probably "reason together" that it is best to plant crops so as to leverage increased fertility of the new topsoil the floods bring. We can also "reason together" that, for the sake of social cohesion, it is probably best to prohibit murder and theft. Etc., etc. But (2) to what extent are we justified in the inference that faith provides a similar basis of commonality? Commonality is important because the Isaiah text says "Come now and let us reason together", not " ... reason individually" and perhaps least of all " ... reason idiosyncratically". Do religious ideas and doctrines conduce to anything like a similar solidarity of thought and action? Probably not. Israelis and the indigenous inhabitants of the Levant could probably "reason together" on certain principles of planting and harvesting. But they disagreed violently as to whether their respective gods – YHVH for the Israelites; Molech for the latter – demanded, e.g., infant sacrifice. In fact, Israel even disagreed even with its own Deity about religious principles and practices.
“Reason[ing] together” vs. faith is not an outright false comparison. But asserting without qualification that faith and reason / doubt are complementary is just true enough to be misleading. To "reason together" -- and to do so with intellectual integrity -- means to be willing to admit, rather like a marriage therapist dealing with a fractious couple, that both sides of an argument have at least some truth on their side, and that neither party has cornered the market on same. You cannot “reason together” with integrity while assuming that God is always right and the human party to the conversation is always wrong. You cannot have a genuine argument -- you cannot truly "reason together" -- with someone (or Someone) who is by definition always right. But to assert no more than that God only has some truth on God's side is logically equivalent to asserting that, at least in some ways, God may be in the wrong. In fact, the position in italics above is essentially Prof. David Blumenthal's thesis in Facing the Abusing God. That is true "reason[ing] together".
So because “reason[ing] together” is “reason[ing] together,” there is a social and communal dimension to the conversation that Isaiah advocates, because Isaiah’s text was addressed to the Jewish community-as-such. That is the discursive fissure that divides reason, properly so called, from faith and that renders comparisons of the two highly problematical: for reasons I discuss below, it is much easier to agree on the conclusions of reason than on the revelations of faith. The former can lead to reconciliation. The latter often leads to violence. And the only means of reconciling the two is to adopt an understanding of faith that has “always already,” and prior to the "reason[ing] together," been rendered consistent with reason. Given that, the conclusion is already foregone: God is always right, and humans are wrong.
(You have to be meticulously careful when using expressions like "reason" and "liberty" with respect to God. In the biblical understanding of those terms, such locutions have to be hedged about with the implicit understanding that we are discussing such subjects on God's terms, not necessarily on ours, which has the effect of tacitly "pre-validating" God's stance. E.g., North Koreans are perfectly free to "reason together" with Kim Jong Un and to exercise their liberty -- provided that their reasoning always leads them to agree with Kim, and they exercise their liberty consistent with Kim's wishes.)
The result: Reason and Faith remain two incorrigibly different ways of apprehending the world. That is not to say – here I agree with Wehner – that there are no points of contact whatsoever between the two. I have addressed this issue at length elsewhere. Yes, there is a sense in which we just accept “on faith” that physical law in the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light-years away is the same as physical law here on earth. Yes, there is a sense in which we accept “on faith” that mathematics is always and everywhere consistent. Etc., etc. Neither of these “faith-based” suppositions is strictly susceptible to empirical proof. So if in an important sense, rationality (and its corollary, doubt) is grounded on faith, what distinguishes this faith from the religious faith to which Wehner refers? Why are the two not on the same level epistemologically? At least two reasons:
(a) Reason works (often through doubt) ... One's metaphysical and ontological presuppositions being whatever they may, reason, scientifically applied, works. If you and I had the requisite equipment and the proper training, we could, independently of each other and with no collusion whatsoever, measure the speed of light, and we would both arrive at the same answer -- 300,000 kilometers per second -- within the miniscule limits of our measuring equipment. The very fact that I am writing this column on a laptop computer suffices to demonstrate that reason works. But, be their faith ever so great and their prayers ever so impassioned, I have never seen the faith of a faith-healer suffice to, e.g., re-grow an amputated limb. In some important sense -- and that preceding phrase is a critical qualification on my part; hence the italics -- faith does not work. In radical contrast, we humans have been using math for, conservatively, about 6,000 years and have been doing astronomy for roughly that long, and neither of the above principles has ever gotten us into trouble.
(I say this entirely without rancor. The problem here is not with faith, but with our expectations vis a vis faith, and with our use of faith as a means toward an end, much like using a hammer to remove a brain tumor. Faith does not “work” if we expect faith to function in a person’s life as an efficient / instrumental cause – which is contrary to the nature and purpose of faith. I have also written about this elsewhere.)
(b) With faith, there are no truth-criteria ... At least, there are no trans-personal truth-criteria such as we rely on for measuring the speed of light. Catholics have faith that when Jesus said to Peter "Upon this rock I will build my Church", Christ was naming Peter as the first Pope. Protestants have an equally strong faith that such was not Jesus' intent. Who is right? Who is wrong? And why? There has been no way to decide either truth-claim since at least the middle 1500s, probably longer than that. One need not buy whole-hog into claims about magisterial infallibility, conciliar or papal, to agree that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church did provide a criterion for assessing the truth of religious propositions, and that the loss of this common standard resulted in epistemological chaos in the "big Tent" Christian Church. When members of the Orchestra abduct the Conductor, break his baton, throw him out of the auditorium, and invite the musicians to play their own music -- jazz, heavy-metal, baroque, salsa ... -- you must expect, for better or for worse, that the Orchestra's sound will become dissonant as a matter of course.
Absent truth-criteria -- absent some kind of magisterium, absent some kind of epistemological "supreme court" -- "reason[ing] together" with integrity in the above sense becomes more important, not less. What participants in that conversation all have in common, despite their other differences, is reason and respect for evidence, something merely “feral” faith cannot provide. The alternative is a purely private, personalistic, idiosyncratic faith -- pretty much the kind of faith John Milton had after the Restoration in 1660.
At that point, with no truth-criterion beyond or besides purely personal meaning, the only kind of faith we have, the only kind of faith we can have, is my faith -- "What Jesus means to me" -- a kind of Kierkegaardian faith: essentially, faith in faith. You could write the history of European civilization during the centuries immediately following the Reformation in terms of the violence occasioned by attempts to put the great epistemological Humpty Dumpty back together again: to use naked force against entire nations to enforce a uniformity that was lost the moment Protestants separated, doctrinally and institutionally, from the Catholic Church. For better or for worse, all the blood and iron of the 16th and 17th centuries could not put the toothpaste back in the tube or un-ring the bell.
So what restrained "feral" religious passion -- the much-vaunted "power of faith" -- and thus prevented Europe from bombing itself back into the Stone Age? The short answer is Reason powered by Doubt as mediated by the more or less concurrent European Enlightenment, which I have written about elsewhere, The same European Enlightenment that people of good will, committed to tolerance, freedom of inquiry / expression, individual rights, and equality before the law must fight to preserve against the depredations of the current climate of authoritarianism and fascism -- and not just in the United States. Since disagreements over religious convictions admitted of no religious standard for adjudication, leaving only violence, bloodshed, and force, the nations of Europe gradually and over time began to learn, painful step by painful step, to submit all disagreements, eventually even religious disagreements, to the arbitration of reason, observation, and evidence. I have elsewhere described this process by comparison to control rods moderating the incipient catastrophe of a nuclear reactor on the edge of undergoing meltdown. During at least the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was a Continent-sized Chernobyl looking for a place to explode. But Europeans learned to agree to disagree. It was a near thing, even so: e.g., as late as the 1790s, a person of no less eminence than Immanuel Kant could be suspended from teaching on the basis of his published writings on the nature of Reason in relation to religion.
But had the Enlightenment not eventually culminated in the secularization of civil government, individual religious liberty, and what we Americans call "separation of Church and State," religion would have been eradicated no less than latitudinarian constitutional government. In other words -- and contra Mr. Wehner -- Reason and Doubt conspired to save Faith from itself.
James R. Cowles
Question mark ... Marco Bellucci ... CC BY 2.0
The Doubt of St. Thomas ... Caravaggio ... Public domain
"Allah" in Arabic ... Calligrapher unknown ... Public domain
Cavalry charge in 30 Years War ... Jan Martszen de Jonge ... Public domain
Signing of the Treaty of Westphalia (ending 30 Years War) ... Gerard ter Borch ... Public domain
US Constitution ... PublicDomainFiles.com ... Public domain
"The School of Athens" ... Raphael Sanzio ... Public domain