Faith and Reason in the LDS church

The last few weeks in my USU 1320 Humanities class we have been discussing medieval philosophy and faith and reason.  A student who watched the LDS Conference over this last weekend told me about a reference to a faith-reason synthesis in a talk by Marcus Nash that made her think of the material we have been covering in class.

Here is the talk in full, but here is passage I wanted to reflect on:

“If, because of unbelief or doubt, you find your faith wavering, remember that even the ancient Apostles implored the Lord to “increase our faith.” Bearing in mind that faith and reason are necessary companions, consider the following analogy: faith and reason are like the two wings of an aircraft. Both are essential to maintain flight. If, from your perspective, reason seems to contradict faith, pause and remember that our perspective is extremely limited compared with the Lord’s. Do not discard faith any more than you would detach a wing from an aircraft in flight. Instead, nurture a particle of faith and permit the hope it produces to be an anchor to your soul—and to your reason. That is why we are commanded to “seek learning … by study and also by faith.” Remember, faith precedes and produces miracles for which we have no immediate explanation within our experience, such as a Dutch oven full of food from two small biscuits or simply enduring in faith against all odds.”

It is hard to read his airplane analogy and not think of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio.  There he says, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

But to what extent are the two making the same point?  What does it mean to have a faith-reason synthesis anyway?

To begin let’s quickly review some highlights from Fides et RatioFides et Ratio concerns the relationship between faith and reason and emphasizes their compatibility.  It is a long standing view in the Catholic tradition that the true faith cannot contradict reason. Any apparent conflict is only apparent and could, in principle, be shown to be so.  One of two things will have gone wrong – either reason somehow went wrong (bad science, false premise, a fallacy) or else the faith has been misinterpreted or misunderstood (or that the faith in question is simply false).

John Paul II also emphasizes the mutual dependence and enrichment of faith and reason; neither faith nor reason can thrive alone.  Faith can inform reason in several ways such as helping to preserve reason from error.  John Paul II recognizes a kind of autonomy for philosophy, but argues that without faith it can easily fall into relativism or nihilism.

My focus here is on the role of reason, so I am going to emphasize the sense in which reason can help to inform faith.  As a rule, everything that helps us better understand Scripture, its images and representations, is valuable to theology.  Scientific literary methods are an important part of adequate exegesis.  John Paul II and others have emphasized how important it is for theologians to study science since the scientific study of the world can be vital to an understanding of revelation.

Thus on the Catholic view of a faith-reason synthesis, just as faith can inform and direct reason, so reason can inform the faith.  For example, we ought to come to a different interpretation of, say, the creation story in Genesis in light of greater scientific understanding of the material universe.  This is not a threat to the certainty of the faith.  As St Augustine once remarked, “One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and the moon.  For He willed to make the Christians, not mathematicians.”

Turning to the Nash talk at the LDS conference.  Is he proposing a faith-reason synthesis in the same sense?  Is what he is proposing a faith-reason synthesis at all?

In the paragraph quoted above, Nash certainly starts off sounding as if he is proposing something quite similar to what I have described from Fides et Ratio and other Catholic sources.  He calls faith and reason “necessary companions” which are both “essential”.  This all looks quite promising.  But what should we make of his example?  In his example, reason seems to contradict the faith.  In his response to this, he emphasizes the extreme limits of our rational powers.  This is characteristic of what John Paul II, in a section of Fides et Ratio, critically calls a feature of modernity – that it has “preferred to accentuate the ways in which [reason’s] capacity is limited and conditioned.”

Does Nash mean that in cases of apparent conflict, interpretations of the faith cannot move and so reason must always be set aside while we patiently await a more complete understanding?  Or that theology should be wary of philosophy?  While Nash refers to faith as reason as two companion wings, the example suggests that the reason wing is seriously crippled because of its limited perspective.  This is a different way of speaking than you would find in Fides et Ratio.  Catholics tend to not focus on the intrinsic limitations of reason, but rather on the extent to which sin can be an impediment to reason’s proper functioning.

I think the question comes down to this: should faith – say, an interpretation of Genesis – EVER be modified because of reason in Nash’s view? He emphasizes, as does John Paul II, reason’s need for faith and the sense in which reason needs faith to be properly directed.  But in what sense does Nash think faith needs reason, and how can reason enrich and inform the faith?

This are questions without obvious answers from Nash and perhaps Mormonism generally.  Nash’s talk is too short and only just touches on this faith-reason synthesis, so I am having to make a lot out of a very brief reference.  But my guess is the faith-reason companionship Nash has in mind is not nearly as robust as one finds in the Catholic tradition.  Mormons certainly embrace reason in various fields – science, technology, etc.  And they seem eager enough to talk about how reason or even philosophy depends on faith and theology for direction.  But the enthusiasm for reason and philosophy wanes, and the eagerness to highlight its limitations rises, when it comes to theological questions.  (Aside: in no way do I think this tendency is unique to Mormonism).  I am speaking in generalities here, and I am sure there are exceptions to the rule.  But my sense is that the exceptions are, well, pretty exceptional.  The tendency expressed in the Nash talk reflects a general tendency to emphasize the limits of reason in order to set it aside, a tendency most often expressed to me in the form of suspicion about the “philosophies of men” (I have heard that line from LDS students on hundreds of occasions, but I cannot find where it comes from in the Book of Mormon, D&C, etc).  Mormonism (along with Protestantism) is, I think, a product of the same modernity that John Paul II is eager to critique.   On the Catholic view, theology is the master discipline since her object is higher, but philosophy is something close to an essential handmaiden to theology.

My sense of Mormon theology is that it is in a state of development.  Most of what I see in LDS theological circles is something a former student called “practical theology” – how to live a good life, live out the LDS vision of the family.  Sometimes, to be frank, it is all a bit “chicken soup for the soul”.  This is the sort of thing you typically hear at LDS Conference and see on the shelves of the Deseret Bookstore.  There seems to be relatively little energy behind clarifying and articulating a theology.  Perhaps some consider this to be a waste of time.

Having said that, the mere mention of a synthesis and companionship between reason and faith seems to me to be a very positive step for the LDS faith.  Perhaps it is a beginning of a more complete commitment to the essential role of philosophy in theology.  What the LDS tradition has going for it in such matters is its youth, which gives it lots of room to develop.  I hope to see more of this kind of talk, and more substantive treatments of it.

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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8 Responses to Faith and Reason in the LDS church

  1. richard sherlock says:


    Mormon theology is not in a state of development in the sense that Irenaeus will eventually lead to Origen and Augustine. He is why. Unlike patristic thinkers Mormon’s simply do not want it to develop. Philosophical theology is simply foreign to the Mormon way of looking at the world. It isn’t that Mormon’s do it and get it wrong. They do of course. But the real problem is that they don’t really want to do at all.

  2. Melanie Hicken says:

    In Isaiah 55:9 in the Kings James Version, it says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This scripture supports Nash’s point of how reason can at times be crippled. It teaches that there will absolutely be times when we won’t understand because our ways and our knowledge is below God’s. If you look in history, there are countless times when people could not understand something, and thus created their own explanation for it. For example; disease. Because people at the time did not then have the technology or means to discover what was wrong/what was causing the symptoms they saw, they explained away mental illness and even the most menial disease by believing that there was some sort of evil spirit, or the judgements of God coming down upon this person. Was not this an example of our reason being below the reason of God? If it happened then, why can’t it happen now? Until some later date, we can’t know for sure if what we define as the reason for something is only our weak, humanistic explanation. There are times, and will be times, when our reason does not coincide with our faith. In the Book of Mormon it says, “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” This very definition of faith shows that our reason must be suspended at times to truly exercise faith. This setting aside of reason is not to diminish the need of reason. I believe that when our reason does not coincide with our faith, as it surely will, we do not sit idly by awaiting an angel to come from heaven and declare to us why our reason was not at this time enough. Instead, we should recognize our own smallness, ignorance, and even weakness, ask for knowledge, as it says in James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him,” and then proceed to study on the subject. As you you show God that you truly desire to know and to learn, because of your faith, which is active, you will be led to study and strive to know more, and he will answer us. How many times do we hear, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”?

    Although I believe that reason can at times be crippled, I recognize the need for reason with our faith. As our faith increases and we grow in the knowledge of our God, our reason will also increase. We’ll look around and rather than our reason not coinciding with our faith, it will support it. The knowledge that we lacked, asked for, and received, will support our reason, which will support our faith. I do not think that Nash meant to undermine the necessity of reason. I think that he focused on how our faith can support our reason because so often in our world, faith is undercut by reason. However, I would point out that reason can also support our faith when it wavers. When we wonder if there really is a God, we can look at the world around us, recognize the amazing beauty that we are surrounded by, or look at the miracle of life, and our reason will tell us that there must be some greater being. In this, our reason can also support our faith.
    Returning to Isaiah 55:9, the reason faith is necessary is because our reason won’t be enough alone. There must be times of doubt and trial, and misunderstanding so that we can actively use and practice faith. I would end with the thought, from Psalms 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”

    • Kleiner says:

      Melanie –
      Thank you for your thoughts on this. I wanted to respond to a few things you said.

      Certainly John Paul II, the Catholic tradition, and the Christian tradition generally would all agree that God is higher than man. If anything, non-LDS Christianity drives this point home even harder than Mormonism since Mormonism thinks man and God are “members of the same species” and so are not metaphysically distinct. Point is, everyone would agree that God’s ways transcend the ways of men. This will include a limitation on our rational understanding of God. John Paul II is not, and I am not, proposing a “rationalism”. God is infinite and our intellect is finite, so God will always be mystery to us. Reason needs faith to complete its own project (reason alone will not suffice). To put it another way, theology completes the project of philosophy.

      But I don’t think your particular example is really an example of this. You give the example of how, in the past, we did not understand disease. But our lack of understanding about disease did not arise because of some inherent or in principle limitation to our reason. In principle, we could understand disease better and we do understand it better now. That is not an example of our reason being below God’s, unless you think the only difference between our reason and God’s reason is that he is further down the road in figuring things out than we are. Now that I say that, that is precisely the LDS view (what it is to be God just is being a perfected man). But the Catholic view is going to say more – God is not just “further down the road of understanding things” than we are, God is transcendent and infinite and we are finite. And so the question concerning the relation between faith and reason concerns not just what we happen to understand through reason now (which we may, with more investigation, come to understand better in the future), but also what the in principle limitations and possibilities of reason are. Given that God is infinite, our finite reason will have a built-in limitation, an in principle need for completion in faith and theology. But I don’t think this entails (and neither Nash’s analogy or JPII’s would suggest) a “suspension” of reason but rather a cooperation and a mutual enrichment.

      I think how we word things here really matters. You say that “our reason must be suspended at times to truly exercise faith”. I do not agree with that claim, or at least I worry about that wording. I don’t think reason needs to be “suspended” or “set aside”. Faith transcends reason, but does not suspend it. Faith transcends reason because the content of faith is God’s own self-revelation. Through faith we can know God in a way that transcends how our finite and limited reason could ever attain on its own.

      Here is the odd turn, then. The view I am expressing actually makes more room for faith than perhaps even the LDS view. If God is material and immanent and finite, he is not metaphysically distinct from other things and so could be known, in principle, in the way we know other beings in the universe. But on the view I am developing here, no amount of development of human reason will, by itself, bridge the gap between the immanent and the transcendent. You need an incarnational faith to complete reason’s own trajectory. So I am far from diminishing the importance of faith and its necessity. Might we, by diminishing reason, also diminish faith? Or by diminishing faith, also diminish reason?

  3. Richard Sherlock says:


    I appreciate what you say but it is not really a response. In the classic medieval and early Christian period philosophy, not just reason in general, was thought to be an essential grounding of theology. You could not be a serious theologian without it. Could persons lead a fine Christian life without it? Of course. No one disputes this. But is reason essential in probing and explicating our faith? I an others would say yes. If God is a physical being then He is located in time and space and cannot be outside of time a know the end from the beginning or see the future immediately before Him. Reason sets this issue before our faith and we should use both reason and faith to reach the best conclusion we can as the issue is presented.

  4. Tanoya says:

    I somehow feel partly responsible for the fragmentation of the university, being a natural scientist and all. It seems that natural science is put on some pedestal in the university and all other sciences try to emulate it, but they can’t, the methods that work for natural science work for natural science because of what it is and what it tries to explain—which is basically the tangible. The other sciences deal more with the intangible which we only know are there because we can see the consequences. It’s funny for me to see how high value is placed on the “being scientific” most scientists that I’ve come in contact with don’t really “believe in science” per se—it’s really more of just a technical skill now in seeing how well you can apply the method to different questions. I think that most contempt for the social sciences and humanities comes from the fact that they really can’t apply the natural science method to their work. They are competing in a game and instead of using their own strengths they attempt to use the strength of, I guess what they perceive, the strongest. To me it’s like saying which is the best: speed, strength, or cunning?

    I think that Bloom’s solution of turning back to the Great Books will help the humanities and social sciences discover their own strengths and usefulness. I mean, in a utilitarian world the thing which can produce the best uses will be valued so far we’ve only been highlighting one use: that of the physical nature of man which the natural sciences are best at answering because, as Bloom points out, the other sciences will/ can no longer make claims or believe in their own foundations. I’m sure that at first it will probably be wildly unpopular and highly criticized, but I think that it will once again begin to be admired because it is standing up for something. I like that quote in the book that says: “Men, although they are individually rascals, are collectively a most decent lot: they love morality.” (p.328) It’s true, people for the most part, know and praise in one way or another what is good and despise what is bad. If the humanities and social sciences had scientists who were just as dedicated to their science as the natural scientists they wouldn’t be things to be swept under the rug and ignored, I think that people would start to pay attention to them.

    (I didn’t really comment on the “Faith and Reason” but Colossians 2: 8 is probably the origination of that phrase “philosophies of men” )

  5. wilson says:

    Re: original post… and pardon the lack of cohesion.

    My belief is that that the reason wing, if you will, is absolutely crippled by a limited perspective. I want to be able to see into the quantum foam and objectively perceive virtual particles before a collision. I want to be able to impartially observe the influence dark matter has on heavenly orbs’ passage through the universe. I want these things to answer question about creation or about eternity. The lack of perspective is, I submit, demonstrable by our inability to analyze those other dimensions. It is plausible that before birth and after death (and for a fortunate few of various philosophical observations, during mortality) we are able to perceive more than our three dimensions.

    And faith does need reason. Faith needs people to read Genesis 1 and ask “If a day as we know it is a rotation of this sphere, then what is a day to a deity in an infinite universe?”

    I’m certainly not a spokesperson for my faith, but I don’t consider the articulation a waste of time. I will say that there are some people with whom I attend church who are either unwilling or unable to think critically about our theology. I’m not, necessarily, saying that’s a bad thing. If someone’s hands are full with the chicken’s soup, then it’s not prudent to ask that much more of them. We shouldn’t run before we walk.

    In Thoreau’s description of the morning he states, “millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.” I, also, don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone is a genius in their own right. Intelligence is not democratic. Some people will never begin to articulate their own beliefs simply because they can not. To them, perhaps, “practical theology” is sufficient. And inasmuch as they are actually becoming better human beings, it should be encouraged.

    Now I don’t claim to have achieved any degree of Thoreau’s awakening, but those of us who have sense enough to see the relativity of certain religious tenets are anxiously engaged in theological clarification. I should note that we believe the clarification is compulsory to refining a “testimony” and not in any way contradictory to the direction of church leaders. We are taught that critical analysis is the catalyst for nearly all religious knowledge. It’s the same reason we believe the ploughboy Joseph knelt in a forest. It’s the same reason for which the prince Siddhārtha abandoned his throne. And while it may be taboo in our paradoxical Mormon culture to use that grey stuff between our ears for something besides saying, “Amen,” Mormon doctrine teaches us to scrutinize our beliefs. The result of that scrutiny is often a subscription to religious pluralism and a happiness that comes from forsaking ignorance.

  6. mragecon says:

    ^many apologies, again, for grammatical errors.

  7. ukforever says:

    Hello Harrison, et al.- I stumbled on your blog and find it very interesting because I recently intellectually left Mormonism, I have always been very interested in Catholicism, and I’m just barely venturing into philosophy. I’ll be following your conversations. The bad feeling towards “the philosophies of men” comes directly from the text of the LDS temple endowment.

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