Explainer Extra

Faith and Reason

The pope says they should be “reconciled.’ How, exactly, is that done?

Last week, to mark his 20th anniversary as pope, John Paul II issued an encyclical, “Fides et Ratio,” calling on the faithful to reconcile faith and reason. Rationalists reasonably ask: How does one do that? If faith tells you that God created humankind in the garden of Eden and reason tells you humankind evolved from lower animals over millions of years, how do you reconcile those messages? If faith tells you that the Communion wafer is the body of Christ and reason tells you this seems highly unlikely, where do you go from there?

Various subdivisions of various religions have various strategies for reconciling faith and reason. Here are a few, on a rough spectrum from faith wins to reason wins:

1 Fundamentalism/Literalism

Literalist approaches to the Bible/Torah/Koran contend that when reason contradicts the word of God, reason is misguided. This philosophy is summed up in the battle cry of many a literalist: Nothing is impossible with God. Scientific proofs that contradict biblical stories of the great flood or creation are wrong and have been derived through erroneous means. The debate over evolution is probably the best-known example of the literalists’ combination of rock hard belief and relentless point by point challenge of the rationalist side.

Literalists often warn against too much reliance on knowledge as opposed to truth as revealed through Scripture. It is this obsession and lust for knowledge that caused the human condition (suffering, evil, painful childbirth, etc.) in the first place: Eve’s craving for enlightenment is what led her to eat from the tree of knowledge, after which God expelled her and Adam from paradise.

2 Faith Complements Reason

This is the position the pope takes in his latest encyclical. Faith and reason are argued to be logical complements. God empowered humans with reason precisely so that humankind might come to a better understanding of God and God’s creation. “Fides et Ratio” says there is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith. Each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action. Officially, the Catholic Church gives reason the same weight as faith. If you use your reason in the way it was intended, you will discover the wonder and mystery in God’s creation and, in turn, you will come to a greater understanding and appreciation of God.

Those who favor this approach often tend to see philosophy and Scripture as sharing the key to the ultimate truth. The pursuit of knowledge is good, not bad, because it leads closer to the actual truth: God and God’s plan. Without reason and knowledge, say Catholics and other believers in this way of reconciling reason with faith, the teachings of the Bible look like magical fables instead of moral teachings. Michael Novak, a theologian at the American Enterprise Institute, sums up the basic premise of this approach, saying that without lively attention to reason, Judaism and Christianity fall into sentimentality, superstition, and self-parody.

3 Apples and Oranges

Another school of thought contends that faith and reason occupy two different realms of knowing. They are so dissimilar that they cannot contradict one another. Reason encompasses the physical, while faith deals with the metaphysical. The seen and unseen are independent of each other: You don’t read the Bible for answers to scientific questions, and you don’t read a biology textbook to find out how to live.

The basic premise of this line is that the findings of faith and reason are not at odds–only their methods are. Reason is objective–discovered in the outside world. Faith is subjective–discovered within. Faith is about the metaphysical world, that world of events, occurrences, and mysteries that by their very nature can never be proved objectively.

4 Cultural/Historical Relativism

Relativists hold that religious texts written centuries ago must be interpreted within the cultural and historical context of their times. The Bible and Koran were written when the scientific laws the 20th century takes for granted were nonexistent. The writers had to make their points in terms that people of the time would understand. For example, had the writer of the Genesis creation story been composing for a 20th century readership, he or she would have explained God’s hand in the evolutionary process as opposed to the more magical creation story in the Bible. Likewise, had Talmudic authors had the sanitary conditions of today, laws for keeping kosher might have been much less stringent or possibly omitted altogether.

Though this approach will seem quite reasonable to rationalists, it is one of the more controversial approaches to reconciling faith and reason. Its critics complain that God’s truths are not and cannot be relative to the time they are written. There is a moral absolute that supersedes cultural and historical contexts.

5 Religious Texts as Allegorical Moral Literature

Possibly the antithesis of literalist theories, this approach assumes that the Scriptures were written solely for the purpose of conveying a moral message. Much like Aesop’s fables, these theological works are said to use myth, imagery, and symbolism to instruct readers how to lead a good life. They are not historical or factual documents, since all the events within were composed as literary tools.

Once again, this is an oft-criticized approach. If the Bible and Koran are simply books of myths with morals, then they are no different from any other moral literature–they are stripped of their sacred significance.

The challenge the pope has thrown down is a formidable one. Reconciling faith and reason is hard work. There are other ways to go about it, but these five should be enough to get you started, God willing.