The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Faith is one of the single most contentious topics in the Great Conversation, and that is saying a great deal.
Faith has been defined as everything from a leap in the dark to “the evidence of things not seen,” from a rejection of rationality to the one virtue left in demons. While sometimes used as a synonym for the term religion, faith is also an idea in its own right. It has played a vital and, unsurprisingly, often bitterly contested part in the history of Western thought, especially Christianity.
In the ancient pagan world, faith was not a common concern to most people. Εὐσέβεια (eusebeia), typically translated as “piety” (itself from the Latin pietas, with which the Romans translated the Greek), was occasionally listed as a fifth virtue alongside the cardinal four. But piety was more about reverent dutifulness to the gods, and even to one’s family, than anything we’d call belief; there was no pagan equivalent of the creeds, still less of a religious authority. There were widely shared rituals and literature, but these were not theological in any sense we would recognize (except perhaps the mystery religions). Indeed, one of the things that many ancients found exotic—that is, simultaneously off-putting and attractive—about Judaism, and Christianity when it arose, was the intellectual and therefore exclusivist claims they made.
The Abrahamic religions tend to emphasize faith as something with intellectual “content,” in some ways more akin to classical philosophy than classical paganism. Not all these religions define themselves primarily in terms of belief; Judaism in particular is rooted in the Torah, which is inherently practice-centric. Even Christianity and Islam, both of which lay great emphasis on professions of correct doctrine as religious acts, nonetheless insist that intellectual assent is of little value unless accompanied by moral and spiritual goodness. The New Testament’s language is illustrative here: the word πίστις (pistis) is conventionally translated “faith,” but it has two meanings: belief, in a more or less intellectual sense, and trust, with more of a relational character, which together exhibit this layered concept of faith.
Christianity and Islam have also historically shared a deep concern with the proper relationship between religious faith and human reason. During the Islamic Golden Age, of whom Avicenna and Averroës are the most famous exponents, many of the same debates that characterized the High Middle Ages were also of burning interest to educated Muslims. This was especially pertinent to the philosophy of Aristotle. Most fundamental was, if reason appears to say one thing but revelation (the Quran or the Bible) contradicts it, how do we reconcile the two? The much-vaunted, historically dubious “war between science and religion” is about nothing else, from Copernicus to Darwin and beyond.
The resolution of this difficulty was one of the great projects of medieval Catholicism. Some divines, like the thirteenth-century Siger of Brabant, were accused of arguing for a doctrine of “double truth,” allowing people to accept contradictory conclusions as each true “in their own sphere.” This amounted to a denial or rejection of reason in order to allow for faith, a variety of fideism. Some people use fideism simply to mean that faith involves ideas reason cannot prove, or which seem paradoxical; but it usually means that reason and faith are inherently hostile to each other. We tend to associate this view with atheism today, but it has also been espoused by religious people—a few centuries later, Martin Luther notoriously called reason “the devil’s handmaid.” By contrast, one of the reasons St. Thomas gained lasting fame is that he denounced “double truth” and fideism in the strongest possible terms, insisting that faith must be compatible with reason because all truth is essentially one. Even so, both then and in most Christian theologies today, faith is considered a supernatural gift, one that may be compatible with reason but goes beyond what reason can do alone. In the Divine Comedy, Dante uses Virgil and Beatrice as symbols of reason and faith respectively: Virgil supports and guides Dante through both hell and purgatory, yet Virgil himself needs advice from the “locals” in purgatory, and when Beatrice appears to take Dante into heaven, Virgil departs. Being a good Thomist, Dante makes Virgil “compatible” with Beatrice and places him under her direction and protection, but Virgil can only come so far before Beatrice alone takes over.
A similar attitude toward faith is set forth by philosophers like Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard. Neither denied the legitimacy or usefulness of reason, but they emphasized that reason alone is not capable of doing the work of faith. Pascal is widely known for “Pascal’s Wager,” which is often described as an argument for the existence of God, though in fact it is not so much an argument as—well, a bet. Pascal believed arguments in favor of faith could be reasonable, but not compelling: as he put it in his Pensées, “We have an incapacity of proof, insurmountable by all dogmatism; we have an idea of truth, invincible to all skepticism.” It is not irrational to believe, and not irrational to disbelieve. But all of us have to make a decision of whether to believe or not, partly because even “not deciding” will in practice amount to one or the other. So we have to bet on which is true, and we have to bet with our lives. There is no way around it.
Turning to Kierkegaard, he explored faith from a multitude of angles, often writing mutually contradictory books under a variety of pseudonyms, of which perhaps the most famous is Fear and Trembling. In it, he tries to approach faith through one of the most hideous stories in the Bible: God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. He insists on both the personal horror and the moral outrage of the command, which make up the terrible, baffling paradox that God is the one commanding it—and insists that genuine faith can be had on no other terms. Reason calls on us to resign ourselves to the fact that some things are impossible; faith starts from this point, and proceeds to believe that “all things are possible with God.” Faith, for Kierkegaard, is not worthy of the name unless it is faith in the face of the impossible.
St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching
Abū Hāmid al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers
St. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim
Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Scott Alexander, Unsong
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy some of our other installments in this series on the great ideas, from duty to opposites to the senses. And be sure to tune in to our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 23rd June, 2022.