For a 90° turn: meditation on faith and reason

OK, I’m going into overload here; I have to shift gears or I’m going to fry the engine, and besides, I have other things I need to be thinking about. So, while I will no doubt have more to say about John McCain, Sarah Palin, and their detractors before long, I’m going to take a deep breath and send my brain in a different direction: specifically, the issue of the relationship between faith and reason.

One of our best guides in this regard is St. Augustine, in whose writings this issue looms large. It’s only to be expected that this should be so; as a philosopher, he is committed to reasoning his way to truth, but as a Christian he must accept some things as true on faith rather than by his reason, and these two stances might seem incompatible. It’s a major part of Augustine’s task as a philosopher to reconcile these seeming opposites, to prove that Athens does indeed have fellowship with Jerusalem.

Before he can begin building his case, Augustine must define his terms. In doing so, he draws a sharp distinction between knowledge, which is the result of rational thought, and belief, or faith. Knowledge is “the rational cognizance of temporal things”; in other words, it is the understanding, brought about by reason, of the things of this world. Belief, by contrast, is a matter of “consenting to the truth of what is said.” Rather than being an act of the reason to discover something to be true, it is a decision of the will to accept something as true. However, the statement that faith is an act of the will rather than a product of human reason does not automatically make faith opposed to reason. This is a critical point; otherwise, reason and faith are irreconcilable and the entire enterprise of Christian philosophy is in vain. Augustine offers several arguments to show that faith is indeed reasonable, and thus that faith and reason can and do complement each other.

The first point is that faith does not spring out of nothing, but out of rational thought.

For who cannot see that thinking is prior to believing? . . . it is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded; although even belief itself is nothing less than to think with assent. . . . everybody who believes, thinks—both thinks in believing, and believes in thinking.

This means that faith is not antithetical to reason but a possible product of it; reason can lead to faith.

Augustine further argues that faith leads to knowledge, not merely belief. He draws this argument from Scripture, citing the words of Christ in John 17:3 (“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,” ESV) and Matthew 7:7 (“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” ESV). His point is,

One cannot speak of that being found which is believed without knowledge, nor does anyone become prepared to find God who does not first believe that which he is afterward to know.

The goal of faith, according to this interpretation, is to bring the believer to a point where it is possible to gain true knowledge of God, not simply to rest in believing things about God. Thus reason and faith complement each other in the quest for understanding.

The reason why this is so, according to Augustine, is that some truths are too big for the mind to comprehend them through reason alone. Citing Isaiah 7:9, he says,

We must first believe whatever great and divine matter we desire to understand.

Our minds are limited, and thus our reason cannot see all truths. Since reason lacks force to compel us to accept these truths, we can do so only by an act of the will.

As such an act isn’t grounded in our own reason, it must be based on authority external to ourselves. Augustine even declares,

For those who seek to learn great and hidden truths, authority alone opens the door.

As he sees it, while reason is higher and more fundamental than authority, authority must precede reason in operation, at least for human beings, in order to ensure that reason proceeds in the proper direction to reach truth. He sums up the relationship between the two by saying,

Authority demands faith, and prepares man for reason. Reason leads him on to knowledge and understanding.

For Augustine, then, the quest for understanding begins with faith in authority, which prepares the soul to use reason to gain understanding of that which is believed. This does not mean, however, that reason is “useless to authority; it helps in considering what authority is to be accepted.” This is very important to Augustine, because faith is worthless if it is misplaced. Those who place their faith in God are on the road to true understanding, because God, the creator of all, is the source of Truth Itself. Those who place their faith in a false authority, however, can never reach true understanding, because the foundation for their reason is flawed. Reason thus has an important part to play in finding a true authority to accept.

In Augustine’s understanding of the pursuit of truth, then, reason and faith are intermingled. Reason provides a basis for faith by determining which authority is worthy of acceptance. From that rational basis, the individual chooses to accept that authority as true. That authority in turn prepares the individual to seek understanding, and gives a foundation for the use of reason in that search. Thus reason and faith are integrated in the search for truth, keeping all of life together as a whole rather than splitting it in two.

It’s important to note here that for Augustine, a questioning faith is true faith because it is seeking to grow in understanding. That is the proper aim of faith, to apply reason to gain understanding of God and the things of God. While Augustine grants that those who fail to do so will still reach heaven, he does not believe that they are truly happy, for they are falling short of that for which they were made.


Posted in Quotes, Religion and theology, Scripture.


  1. So…I like Augustine, but I do think you can see his philosophical standpoint coming through in a way that might be limiting. For him, the pure life is the life of contemplation, the philosophical life of the mind. Its a little dualistic holdover, maybe, from his training in Hellenistic thought, where in reason and the will are hovering above the crass material.

    I think that this leads to a blind spot – his process will appeal to someone else who approaches the issue in a similar way, but only to a point. Its easy to find someone who reasons, doesn’t accept the authority Augustine accepts as worthy, and stops there. At that point, Augustine’s method ceases to be useful for them because it is short-circuited.

    In short, I think you need add experience, at the very least into the mix with reason and faith. Augustine wouldn’t likely give it equal credence, but I think we should, benefiting from philosophies which have arisen since, or existed in other cultures.

    I would also like to add a fourth element which is somewhat oblique to reason – the thing that the mind does which makes myths true and metaphors true and which intuits things which cannot be effectively expressed logically or verbally. The via negativa/apophatic theology of the mystics, perhaps. The beautiful fiction. The Something Else.

  2. Agreed. I tend to think of experience as the testing and winnowing process–neither faith nor reason operates in a vacuum, obviously; experience is the process of checking both against reality. As for intuition, I believe it’s a form of reason–but yes, I do agree that there’s another element here that we primarily see in the mystics, although I’d probably call it a perceptive work of the mind rather than a creative work.

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