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Faith : September 23, 2001
Dichotomy or dialecticTEN SUTRAS ON THE FAITH-REASON DILEMMA
Rudolf C. Heredia
The author is a Jesuit and a sociologist. He is currently Director of the Social Science Centre, St. Xavier's College, Mumbai.
In an age characterised globally by secularism, there is an as-yet-creeping religious revivalism, a fundamentalism that is leaching across countries and even continents, like an ink blot on the global map. This has sharpened the dilemma between faith and reason. Our age needs a more insightful understanding of "reason" than the "Age of Reason" gave us, a more incisive comprehension of "faith" than that of the "New Age" movements today. Hence our query: what does being "reasonable" mean to faith, and again what does being "faithful" to reason require?
Typically in Western thought, a binary opposition between faith and reason readily leads to an unbridgeable divide between fideism and rationalism, which all too easily deteriorates into a schizophrenia between religious intolerance and rationalist dogmatism! Eastern thought more generally, however, implies a more inclusive understanding as expressed in our first sutra: faith and reason are complementary, not contradictory ways of seeking the truth.
Faith and Reason
More conventionally, faith is understood as giving one's assent to a truth on the testimony of another. Its credibility rests on the trustworthiness of the testifier, and not on the content of the belief itself. Hence our second sutra: what we believe depends on whom we trust.
Oftentimes claims of divine inspiration are made for the authority of religious testimony, or at times the testifier claims divinity itself. However, even a revelation of the divine to humans must inevitably involve human filters. Indeed, the very immediacy of a mystical experience necessarily involves the mediation of thought and language in its very first articulation to oneself, and more so in its later communication to others, if the experience is to be comprehensible to humans.
Now a reasoned assent to truth is not dependent on extrinsic testimony, but on verifiable evidence, based on intrinsic criteria. This rational method leads not to "belief" but to "knowledge". However, in practice, much of what we accept as "reasoned knowledge", scientific or otherwise, is largely on the authority of someone who "knows better". For every bit of information in our lives cannot be verified before being accepted. It is not just a practical impossibility; theoretically it would lead to an infinite regress, because the very methodology of any rational knowledge rests on basic premises, like the reality and intelligibility of the world we live in, which cannot be logically proven, but must be existentially experienced.
Hence we need to distinguish between the content of "reasoned knowledge" and the rational method by which it is arrived at. For in accepting the validity of this methodology we must also acknowledge its limitations. And so our third sutra: a rational methodology transgressing its inherent limitations can never yield "rightly reasoned" knowledge.
The sociology of knowledge has drawn attention to, and has convincingly demonstrated, how the underlying presumptions, which inevitably are socially derived, prejudice our presumed objectivity. For these presumptions and pre-judgements are beyond the investigative methodology of such reasoning itself. Indeed, they are not subject to reason so much as to the vested interests and established status, the "unconscious ideologies" and fundamental options of those involved. Consequently our fourth sutra: where we position ourselves influences how we reason.
Moreover, when non-empirical/ experimental sources of knowing are involved, other methods of ascertaining truth are required. Hermeneutics and deconstruction have today demonstrated the limits of the old Enlightenment rationalism and have offered alternative investigative approaches.
Faith as humanising
As with content and method in reasoned knowledge, so too with regard to faith, we need to distinguish faith as content, that is belief, and faith as act, that is fidelity. Why in fact do we accept the testimony of others? What makes such belief possible? Certainly without an act of faith in others it would be impossible to live our necessarily interdependent lives. Moreover, if we grant that we are not the ground of our own being, then this "faith" must transcend and reach beyond the horizons of the human. But if all truth is to be restricted to the empirical and all knowledge to be derived from logic, then clearly in such an empirical-rationalist frame of reference, there is no room for faith, for "what ultimately concerns man" (Paul Tillich). Hence our fifth sutra: whether or not we believe depends on our self-understanding.
In this sense faith becomes a "constitutive element of human existence" (Raimon Panikkar). The content of faith must fulfil this human dimension, i.e., to make the believer more human, or else it cannot be "good faith". And so our sixth sutra: if to believe is human, then what we believe must make us more human, not less!
This is precisely the test of "good faith" and it here that we must seek the reasonableness of our faith. Whereas with "blind faith" the act of faith becomes compulsive rather than free, and cathects on a content that promises security and perhaps even grandiosity, rather than one that expresses trust and dependency. Hence sutra seven: faith that is "blind" is never truly humanising; faith that is not humanising is, to that extent "bad faith".
Often, reason is used to investigate and even rubbish the content of faith, by applying a rational-empirical methodology. But this is precisely to misunderstand the language of faith, which communicates at the various levels of meaning, from the literal and the direct, to the symbolic and the metaphoric, and constitutes a distinctly different discourse. For an experimental methodology with its objective emphasis is quite inadequate to such a subjective act of faith. This demands a more self-reflexive and experiential methodology, which, while being subjective, is neither arbitrary nor irrational, but focuses on "meaning" and "meaningfulness", rather than merely measuring quantities and determining cause and effect. Thus our eighth sutra: only a self-reflexive, experiential methodology is meaningful to the discourse of faith; a rationalist, empirical one is alien to it.
Dilemmas and dialectics
Now if truth must have "meaning" and value must be "meaningful" at the level of lived praxis, then the crucial emphasis in matters of faith must be, not so much on belief, as on a commitment to authentic human life. So too, with reason, the critical stress must not be so much on a rationalist logic as on a sensitivity to the real boundaries of its discourse. Indeed, this dialectic between faith and reason can be very fruitful. For it is reason that must critique faith for its fidelity in humanising our life, rather than for its belief-content; just as it is faith that must commit reason to make it serve this same humanising enterprise, not merely by affirming its validity but also by constraining it within the domain of its own discourse.
This precisely becomes the basis for an enriching inter-religious dialogue. For, unlike the content, which may vary across various cultural and religious traditions, the act of faith, because it is constitutively human, will necessarily have a common religious basis across varying cultures and traditions. This is our ninth sutra.
A healing wholeness
Today religious revivalism justifies the unreasonable and even the irrational in the name of faith, while a rationalist secularism dismisses all religious beliefs as irrational and unscientific. This merely turns the dilemma between faith and reason into an irresolvable dichotomy not an enriching dialectic. And so our tenth and last sutra: an inclusive humanism must embrace both "meaningful faith", as well as "sensitised reason". For it is only thus that we will be able to bring a healing wholeness to the "broken totality" of our modern world, in Iris Murdoch's unforgettable phrase.
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