Faith and Reason: Love or War?

Reflecting on the relation between science and faith, Marty McCarthy, an Episcopal priest and good friend, wrote to me:

“Revealed truth gives us the context for holding scientific (reasoned) truth for what it is.  Knowing how to relate these two is a delicate task, and must be discussed closely, and then spoken to clearly enough that enquiry is enlivened and purpose for science is held in “grace”   Otherwise, science may be cowed by revelation, just as the opposite is true today.” 

His note triggered an inquiry about the relation and its implications for teaching children. I end with some questions that are the shadow dominating all of our public discussion of education, culture, politics, etc.

In what follows you can read natural science for philosophy and not be inaccurate. I quote from Daniel Sullivan’s “An Introduction to Philosophy: The Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition”:

The concord of faith and reason, with the careful safeguarding of the nature and rights of each, was not achieved until the time of St. Thomas, who opposed equally those who introduced philosophy into theology and those who tried to reduce theology to philosophy. St. Thomas carefully distinguished between theology and philosophy so that the nature of one could not be confused with the other.It is the nature of philosophy to proceed solely by way of rational evidence and demonstration based on such evidence; therefore we should never appeal to revelation in support of a philosophical thesis.

It is the nature of theology to base itself on the word of God, drawing out the implications of revealed truth in the light of faith; although it may use philosophy as an instrument, it cannot be reduced to philosophy….Having thus distinguished between…faith and reason, St. Thomas is careful to make the point that although they are distinct they are not separate: “The gifts of grace are added to nature in such a manner that they do not remove but perfect it. So it is with the light of faith that is infused in us gratuitously: it does not destroy the light of natural knowledge with which we are by nature endowed.”

A truth in one order cannot contradict a truth in another order. A truth in philosophy cannot contradict a truth of faith: “Now although the natural light of the human mind does not suffice for the manifestation of the things that are made manifest by faith, yet it is impossible that what is divinely taught to us by faith be contrary to the things with which we are endowed by nature. For one or the other would then have to be false, and since both come to us from God, God would be to us an author of falsehood, which is impossible.”Because a truth of the natural order cannot possibly contradict a truth of the revealed order, the philosopher or scientist is free to investigate nature as far as his researches can carry him, in the full confidence that he cannot discover any truth that will contradict revelation.”

On the other hand, theology exercises a kind of negative jurisdiction over philosophy and the empirical sciences, in the sense that where there is an apparent contradiction between reason and faith, the theologian claims the right, in view of the infinitely more sure source of his truth, to tell the philosopher or the scientist that he has erred somewhere and must go over his reasons again. “For if in what the philosophers have said we come upon something that is contrary to faith, this does not belong to philosophy but is rather an abuse of philosophy arising from a defect in reason.”

Sullivan, pages 256-258

I have been compelled to return to Genesis 1-3 repeatedly because that is where the entire Christian worldview is laid down: a God who creates by speaking, God as the source of language and therefore the holiness and priority of language, man in God’s image, man as breath of God and dust of the earth -a spiritual being with body and soul, things identified by “kind”, the cosmos as “very good” and therefore the holiness and priority of knowing the cosmos as a good in itself, man as steward of the earth and therefore the holiness and priority of knowing the cosmos as a practical responsibility, dare I say – woman as created as a help fitted to the man to fulfill the work assigned to mankind (steward and fill the earth), an enemy of God who seeks our downfall, disordered desire as the root of sin, sin as the source of death,  and the promise of a soon to come Redeemer.  

These are not truths of philosophy or natural science, but of theology. They are revealed by the word of God and are thus “an infinitely more sure source of his truth” than the reasonings of the scientist or philosopher. But the natural scientists, especially biologists, insist that many or all of these truths have been disproven by the natural sciences.

If then, as it seems to me, what the philosopher and what the theologian believe themselves to have discovered seem to be in contradiction, it behooves the theologian to advise the philosopher and the scientist where his reasoning has gone astray while also examining carefully his own arguments to be sure that he is not lording it over the revelation of the word of God. That requires, in turn and as a practical matter, that the theologian know science and philosophy, not just the Bible.

The theologian cannot simply tell the philosopher or scientist that his conclusions are incorrect. He must get inside philosophy and science and show precisely where the exploration left the path of truth.

Here we see the unholy implications of the dissolution of the Christian church. St. Thomas could speak of the work of the theologian with a great deal more confidence than we can today. While the church had split into east and west, the western church had not yet dissolved into warring parties arguing over details of revealed truth and leading the nations to despair.

It is easy to see that one of the causes of the intellectual disintegration of our age is precisely this radical separation of theology from science/philosophy in which the two are treated not only as different modes of inquiry (which they are) but as unrelated sources of truth (which they are not). Here is an attempted beginning of an inquiry for theologians and philosophers to engage in together:

  1. Does the evidence of the natural sciences lead to the conclusion of Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian evolution, an evolution that breaks down “kinds” and leads to the “origin of species” or does the Cartesian logic of the modern natural sciences build the conclusion into the premises?
  2. Does Genesis 1 preclude Darwinian cross-species evolution in the command of God to the creatures to reproduce after their kind?
  3. Does Genesis 1 preclude a universe that is many millions of years old? Is the age of the universe significant in the light of Genesis 1?
  4. Are purposes and essences excluded from scientific investigation by the very nature of the sciences?
  5. Is any other kind of knowledge higher than and more reliable than knowledge gained through scientific inquiry?
  6. What does it mean to know something? Is knowledge viable in a Darwinian cosmos? How do these questions affect the way children are taught, what they should be taught they can know, etc. What other faculties of perception do humans have that need to be cultivated?
    NB Dewey had a great deal to say on this matter and should be read carefully.
  7. Is language a product of evolutionary development or a gift from God? How does this affect the way children are taught language and its role in human development?
  8. Does Darwinism overthrow the entire western tradition of knowledge, as Dewey claims? On what does he base his claims? Why have they been so widely received and applied in education?
  9. Does the fact that evolutionary approaches have led to fruitful and beneficial insights in biology, the neurosciences, etc. demonstrate the truthfulness of a Darwinian worldview or merely the usefulness of the evolutionary model on a microcosmic scale.
  10. Is Darwinism compatible with Christian theology? Where is it and where is it not? Where they are incompatible, does the evidence for Darwinism create a demonstration?
  11. What is the relation between theology and the natural sciences? Which speaks with more authority? Why?
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One Response

  1. Regarding (9), there is some debate among those committed to the Darwinian position as to how useful evolution is as a day-to-day guide to biology. The official position is “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” But a theory that explains too much is no more useful than a theory that explains too little. Evolutionary explanations are easy to construct AFTER a study is conducted, but one could just as easily have constructed an evolutionary explanation had the study reached the opposite conclusion. It is so easy to create post hoc evolutionary explanations that the theory has little predictive value.

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