Sunday, November 27, 2011

Faith and Reason

In the long history of mankind’s search for Truth, much has been written and more has been said about the dichotomy of faith and reason.  For many people, the two stand poles apart as mutually exclusive contraries.  One can have faith but not use reason, or one can reason and thereby be faithless.  More moderate minds find a common ground between faith and reason, and view them not as opposites but as complements.  Faith can inform reason, and reason can guide faith.  But which comes first?  The Church asserts that faith must precede reason.  A while ago the Church News editorialized:

The prophets have counseled us to put faith first as we strive to reconcile faith and reason.  This life is a test of faith, not Intelligence Quotient. We must put our faith first as we seek learning.1

Interestingly, we are counseled to do two things here: first, to have faith; second, to seek learning.  While this seems a simple enough instruction, having faith first is often easier said than done.  For many, the seeking of faith occurs simultaneously with the seeking of learning.  The Lord provided for this predicament in his counsel,

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and by faith (D&C 109:7).

There are many “best books” in the Western canon, and their authors typically draw upon both faith and reason as both contraries and complements.  In many philosophical arguments, the pendulum swings to extremes of faith and reason.  In the most successful religious philosophies, the pendulum comes to rest in the center, and the conclusion reached incorporates both faith and reason.  When the philosopher’s conclusion matches the student’s life experience, the result can forge a stronger testimony, as a brief example will show.

During innumerable hours of navigational duty aboard many ships, I had the experience of observing and using the movements of the heavenly bodies to make myriad mathematical calculations.  These bodies—the stars, the planets, the sun, the moon—move with such scientific precision that their motions can be predicted and applied to accurately determine a vessel’s position at sea within a quarter-mile.  Additionally, these celestial movements are used to determine compass error within a fraction of a degree and times of tides accurate to the minute.  These heavenly bodies have no intelligence of their own.  They do not speak; they merely move.  Yet for all their seeming simplicity, these movements are clearly orchestrated.  The precise and reliable path of the sun, for example, rising from one horizon, crossing the meridian, and dropping down to the opposite horizon—not to mention the simple yet magnificent beauty of the ocean that it colors and illuminates—stands as a mute witness to the creative genius of a Supreme Being.  Standing on the bridge wing of a ship at sea, one comes to know through the silent witness of the stars on a clear night that the Spirit of the Lord really does stand watch over the deep.  The heavens themselves build one’s testimony.

This testimony, a product of faith, later became strengthened through reason.  The navigator’s observations were not unique; on the contrary, they existed already in a more articulate form in one of the “best books.”  After I left the sea and became a student of philosophy, I studied the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Arguing from reason, this great philosopher proved the existence of God in five different ways.  One of these ways, the Argument by Design, happily matched my experiences aboard ship:

We see that things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.  Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.  Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.  Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.2

In the scriptures, the Lord himself concurred with and elaborated upon this line of reasoning, and in a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith he explained:

And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.  And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years—all these are one year with God, but not with man.  The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power (D&C 88:43-45, 47).

A testimony grounded in faith is strong in itself.  The same testimony nourished by reason becomes even stronger.  Faith and reason combined, then, lead the searching soul to the Lord.3

1 “Faith before reason,” Church News, July 28, 2001, p. 18.
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, tr. English Dominican Fathers, New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947, v.1, p. 14.
3 Author’s note: A shorter version of this essay originally appeared under the title “Fides et Ratio” in The Nashua 2nd Ward Newsletter on October 28, 2001.  Subsequently, I incorporated a portion of it into “The Second Mate,” which appeared in Children of the Sea, Children of the Lord on my blog.  I am pleased to present it here in its entirety for the first time.