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 Ratio. Fides 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.