Faith and Reason as Moral Ideals

August 6, 2010 | 12 comments
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The sense of many today that faith is antithetical to reason grows partly out of the Reformation and Enlightenment, in which people on both sides found they could not intellectually reconcile the conclusions of faith and reason. Just as importantly, faith and reason each came to represent a different moral ideal. As I see them, though, the moral ideals of faith and reason only make sense together, and faith and philosophy are two aspects of the same process. I wrote about this in some reflections of mine recently posted on the Mormon Scholars Testify website. Take a look, and tell me what you think.

12 Responses to Faith and Reason as Moral Ideals

  1. Dane Laverty on August 6, 2010 at 9:29 am

    I’ve been criticized for leaning too heavily on reason and not enough on faith. However, I think it’s worth separating out two kinds of faith — “faith in the unseen” and “faith in the absurd”. I’m comfortable with the first kind of faith, but not with the second. Faith in the unseen encompasses things like the existence of God, the authority of priesthood, and the validity of scripture. Faith in the absurd is about believing in specific doctrines, even when they have been clearly contradicted by the evidence of one’s senses.

  2. Adam Greenwood on August 6, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Very nice, Ben H.

    One other thought: at least in my experience, faith and reason are no more separable in practice than they are in theory. Everyone instinctively trys to find reasons for their beliefs and everyone has beliefs that they are *committed to* and care about.

    DL,
    its hard to see how a specific doctrine could really be contradicted by the evidence of one’s senses. If one saw the soul, then I suppose one could see if it were cleansed after baptism. But one doesn’t. And the criterion that ‘the evidence of one’s senses’ is the final arbiter of truth is not a criterion you can see with your senses. I happen to think its not a bad criterion, but like other criterions, you are getting it elsewhere.

  3. Mark D. on August 6, 2010 at 11:19 am

    The Catholic Church has a very strong tradition on the consistency of faith and reason. It is one of the things that Protestants tended to abandon, largely due to an emphasis on God’s sovereign will over his eternal nature.

    The idea that there are any natural laws is completely incidental to Protestant theology, where the same idea is the foundation of much of Catholic thought. Protestants tend to be fideists to the point that none of Protestant theology has any persuasive influence in the secular world. Where the Catholic tradition of natural theology follows a similar mode of analysis (and was indeed the forerunner of) modern natural science. Even where inconclusive in empirical terms, this gives Catholic style theology enormous persuasive force outside the Catholic world.

    And with the exception of James E. Talmage and perhaps a handful of others, LDS theology has tended to follow in the Protestant mode on this point. Laws of nature, if any, are incidental to any and all theological questions, and to be disposed of at a moments notice.

  4. Ben H on August 6, 2010 at 11:41 am

    As I suggest in my MST entry, Dane, one naturally and appropriately uses one’s judgment to decide what and whom to trust, or in other words in what or whom to put one’s faith. The evidence of one’s senses will appropriately play a role in this judgment. However, one can also have reasons to distrust one’s senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.), so they shouldn’t be treated as the ultimate arbiter. One of the enormous accomplishments of modern science has been convincing people not to trust their senses on what had previously been thought as plain as day (if you’ll pardon the pun), such as the idea that the sun goes around the earth. It looks and feels for all the world like the sun goes around the earth! So I wouldn’t single out the senses as some sort of ultimate arbiter.

    If we use “absurd” in a broader way to refer to what goes flagrantly against one’s own judgment (which typically draws on one’s senses, among other things), I sort of agree, but proper faith, where it exists, represents a deeper judgment (one’s own judgment, though it may be taking place more at the level of intuition or gut instinct) that someone else’s judgment is more reliable. Proper faith doesn’t mean believing someone else in cases where you don’t believe they are reliable. That would be absurd. But it is possible to judge that one’s own judgment (on any number of particular points) is not the most reliable. We do this all the time, and this is why it is only reasonable to exercise faith, and unreasonable not to.

  5. Ben H on August 6, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Mark D., I am surprised to hear you say that Mormons have tended toward fideism. My impression is quite the opposite. Think about 2 Nephi 2:11-13 or D&C 130:20-21.

  6. Clark on August 6, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I think there are elements of fideism in Mormonism but I agree that as a general epistemological principle it just doesn’t work.

    I think Mark’s point about laws of nature needs to be given a lot of caveats. Most Mormons I think believe there to be some ultimate law of nature they just are skeptical that are particular theory fully captures such laws. (At least in my experience) To such an extent that I think often scientific evidence is discounted far too hastily in preference to a particular theological belief.

  7. Mark D. on August 6, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Ben H, I think D&C 130:20-21 is a reasonable example, although “irrevocable decree” is an interesting concept. I don’t think it is that different than fideist theology in general. Here we rely on the proposition that God will not revoke his decree based on faith in his character.

    We might make the same argument with any divine command – but ultimately the question is always is something right because God commands it or does God command it because it is right. Fideism is based on the former position of course. Openness to the latter alternative notwithstanding, I think in LDS circles the fideist position gets most of the airtime, i.e. the reasons why a divine command or church doctrine are right are given short shrift when they are not considered irrelevant.

    I think that is a mistake to rely on a combination of faith, experience, and spiritual confirmation alone. I don’t think anyone can truly be steadfast in a gospel principle until he understands the why as well. Perfect knowledge does not come from experience alone, it requires understanding. Otherwise individuals are left relatively clueless whenever a situation arises outside of the bounds of prior experience. One cannot reliably ponder anything without a framework to evaluate the options. That is what rational theology is good for, a process that fideist approaches universally neglect.

    I think the Second Nephi scripture is a much better reference, but the question remains how much influence does it have in real life.

  8. Mark D. on August 6, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Clark, My point about laws of nature as well as natural law (in the ethical sense of the term) is that rational theology is pretty much impossible (or at least fruitless) if all general moral and theological arguments are invalid for lack of a foundation.

    It doesn’t matter at all whether one knows anything about what the fundamental laws actually are, just that they exist and ultimately dictate certain natural, moral, and theological considerations in a manner that cannot be disposed of on a whim.

    It is positively impossible, for example, to come up with a sensible theory of the atonement without admitting such considerations. It is also impossible to draw any basis for morality beyond social consensus or divine command if metaethics does not have a natural basis, and so on.

    Too many discussions go like: “God can be trusted. God says you should do this. If you do it you will be blessed.” If people never learn the reasons why (or at least a theory about the why) as soon as their faith waivers, it is as if their moral foundation has been ripped out from under them because they were never taught or never pursued the reasons why certain divine injunctions are a very good idea, and indeed morally obligatory completely aside from the proposition that they are of divine origin.

    That is reason number one in my opinion why fideism makes for a very poor basis for religion. People with a largely fideist background who become inactive are left without a rational basis to continue much of what they were taught when their faith was stronger.

  9. CT on August 6, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Ultimately, by saying “as a Mormon” you have a different perspective on the relationship of reason and faith, haven’t you granted that your perspective on the compatibility between the two is itself an article of faith? I guess I’m not clear about what sort of claims you’re making, though I’ll admit that I agree with much that is there.

    I think I tend to the more fideistic (I guess–the term is new to me) view that way down deep, faith and reason are incompatible guides/authorities/foundations for our lives, that knowledge of the Christian God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (and Joseph Smith) cannot come through reason alone. You can perhaps get to some natural theology (e.g., Aristotle’s unmoved mover), but moving beyond that requires the classic leap of faith. But of course this needn’t be a “blind” leap as you’ve pointed out, and it certainly doesn’t mean we let go of our reason entirely when confronted with the teachings of our religion.

  10. Ben H on August 7, 2010 at 1:38 am

    Mark D, when I read “There is an irrevocable decree,” I’m not sure God is actually the source of that decree. As in 2 Nephi 2, it looks to me like there are laws independent of God, which he must follow.

    However, it sounds like what you have in mind is not so much natural law as just plain reasoning. I will agree that when Church leaders speak, and when we talk about their counsel, and when we think about God’s commandments, yeah, the main emphasis is on following it because we trust him/them. That is the discourse of faith. Fideism is different because it rejects reason. Not mentioning reasons is different from rejecting reason. In the context of faith discourse, reason is peripheral because one has already judged that God and his Church are trustworthy. We may also be given reasons why things are true, though often even there, we wouldn’t necessarily have come to the conclusion that A leads to B on our own, but often we are being told that A in fact does lead to B, so we have a richer understanding, but it is still largely based on faith/trust.

    As for needing to use reasons more, it really sounds like you are saying that faith just isn’t worth much; it’s at best a temporary stop-gap that will give way if not followed quickly by rational conviction. I do think it is a good idea for us to have both faith and reasons for our religious convictions, so far as this is practical, but I think faith can carry us a long way and must, because it really is hard for us to reach the right conclusions on religious matters through independent reasoning, and as often as not, our independent conclusions are wrong. We really do need faith for the long haul.

    CT, yes and no. I have given reasons why a reasonable person must exercise faith, and a responsible person must have reasons for his/her faith. So I have given independent arguments for faith and reason requiring one another, with nothing peculiarly Mormon about them. So, no, my claim that faith and reason are compatible (qua faith and qua reason) is not a faith claim. It is a faith claim, however, to the extent that it is a claim about the content of revelation, a claim about faith specifically in the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe that true revelation and the will of God are fundamentally harmonious with reason, though it may take us a while to see the harmony. This is something I believe about God, which I do not believe about, say, traditional Christianity.

  11. Bob on August 7, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I would not rule out reason and the senses too quickly. I believe Miracles and Visions are aimed at these to begin Faith where there might not be any.

  12. Mark D. on August 8, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Ben H, I think it would be more fair to say that I believe that faith is fragile without some combination of experience, spiritual confirmation, and a reason to believe, and of the latter three I think a proper understanding of the moral principles involved is the most lasting and the most influential.

    Spiritual confirmation comes to those in the neighborhood of the truth all the time, and for very good reason. It is only when one understands that one can be confident he has hit the nail on the head.

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