The role of faith and reason as means to salvation was debated for four centuries after the death of Jesus Christ. The early church fathers were disciplined thinkers who first developed logical apologies to defend Christianity from its persecutors; and then after Constantine and the progressive acceptance of the religion into the Roman state Christianity, necessary during the long years of persecution, continued their exegesis to convince non-believers to adopt the true faith.
None of them, however doubted the existence of God; and were only concerned with his nature and that of the humanity and world he created. Did God create the world out of nothing (ex nihilo)? Or following the reasoning of Plato did matter exist but only in a chaotic form waiting for divine enterprise to give it order and meaning? Did Jesus Christ always exist in divine spirit equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit, or was he secondary and subservient to the Father who gave him life? What in fact was Jesus’ nature? Was he fully divine, fully human, or a mystical combination of both.
St. Augustine, perhaps the most influential of early church theologians made it clear in his Confessions and The City of God that faith must precede reason. The only way to fully understand the mysteries of God was to put faith in his divine wisdom. It was he who would lead the seeker to full understanding and complete belief. Although his journey to faith was a long and difficult one, he found faith and was then, like the Christian thinkers who preceded him, used reason to explain and justify the words and intent of the Bible.
Agnostics on the other hand use reason to determine whether God exists or not. How could one take the Bible as the inspired word of God, they argue, if much of the Old and New Testaments is derivative. Many Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths precede or are contemporary with the stories of the Bible. The flood, the murderous relationship of brothers, the virgin birth, Moses’ heroic march out of slavery to the promised land, resurrection, and the complex relationships between Man and God were not new. If the Bible were truly divine, then God would have corroborated its stories with historical events.
If God is omnipotent and omniscient then why did he create mankind in the first place; and why did he create beings which were disobedient, disrespectful, venal, and evil? Why did he choose to create the world when he did, given the eternity of time which preceded creation and followed it? Why did he confect such a universal drama when he could have, as Genesis suggested, created man in his own good, righteous image?
Tolstoy, like Augustine, wrote a memoir of religious quest - A Confession – and in it chronicled his odyssey from non-belief to faith. Tolstoy struggled with questions of God, existence, suffering, and the nature of good and evil using every logical methodology he knew. He studied history, art, mathematics, political philosophy, and science in hopes of finding answers. Finding none, he turned to religious writings, but found no solace or rewards there either. He, a supremely logical man, could not abide the a priori judgments he found in religious texts.
In the end he gave up and backed into faith. If billions of men before him had believed in God; and if millions of Russians, Europeans, Amazon tribes, and Eskimos believed in him now, then there must be something to faith.
Tired from his efforts, exhausted at decades of pursuing leads down blind alleys and always coming to the same conclusion that neither faith nor reason could lead him to an understanding of why he was created and why the world was configured the way it was, he gave up. Adopting faith as a default was an understandable but easy way out of his dilemma.
Evangelical Protestantism puts a premium on faith and dismisses logic altogether as a way of finding God and attaining salvation. One’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ is all that matters, and such a relationship can only be achieved through abandoning reason and opening one’s spirit to the divine. Although this behavior has intellectual roots – the Protestant theory of grace focuses on faith rather than works and the absolute adjudication of Jesus Christ on Judgment Day – it is only part of hymn and liturgy.
Islam is based on obedience and subservience to God. It is a comparatively simple religion without the theological complexity of Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Mohammed did not arrive at his severe monotheistic beliefs through the same academic, intellectual efforts of Jewish and Christian thinkers. Mohammed saw a divine vision in a cave not far from Mecca and for him that was enough.
Revelation was not a matter of intellectual inquiry and deconstructing faith to discover divine essence. He, like Saul of Tarsus, saw God and from then on his life would never be the same.
Islam and evangelical Christianity share the same belief in the absolute power of God, that salvation can only come through him and abiding faith and fealty.
Pope John Paul II severely criticized Christian fundamentalism because it ignores reason, dismisses Augustine and Aquinas and there conviction that both reason and faith must coexist. Both theologians understood the primacy of faith but believed that only by logically considering ideas such as the Trinity, divinity, resurrection, and crucifixion and how they figure in the quest for salvation, would one’s faith be solid, unwavering, and invincible.
Yet few believers, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Hindus bother with such intellectual presumption. Brought up in faith, taught to believe and to respect the Almighty, they choose to celebrate their faith rather than question it. Most Hindus worship a multiplicity of gods, unaware of the sublime philosophy of Oneness that underlies the religion. Similarly few Christians spend much time on John 1: 1-5 and his sublimely sophisticated conception of divinity; or on Genesis 1-11 where the same profound issues are presented.
The distinction between religious scholarship and the faith of the people has never been more pronounced. As the world becomes more complex, more competitive, more dangerous, and more unknowable, faith becomes essential. Faith provides simple answers, solace, comfort, and even peace. It matters little that people arrive at faith in non-rigorous ways and are far removed from the deliberations of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.
In fact logic is overrated in more ways than one. While logic essential to navigate one’s way through the day, and without it there would be no architecture, bridges, medicine, or the computer; still it offers no privilege to those who feel the need to sort things out before they die. “Too soon old, too late schmart” goes the Jewish saying.
Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of the same name uses logic to construct what he believes is a perfect world, one which allows him freedom, a modicum of pleasure, freedom from want and suffering, and even happiness. As he lies dying, he realizes that all his carefully-laid plans have come to nothing. He is faced with extinction and has never even considered eternity. He is afraid of death because he has had neither faith nor the right kind of reason.
Many critics have lamented the dismissal of fact in the current (2016) election. How can people dismiss Donald Trump’s distortion of fact, truth and reality? How can they be so complaisant and lazy? Yet these critics have overvalued logic and reason and disregarded the visceral human tendency of illogical belief.
Conspiracy theorists have analyzed what is a very common phenomenon in the United States. People believe the most impossible scenarios; and once they have crossed the line and adopted one illogical theory, it becomes easier and easier to adopt many more. They have suggested that conspiracy theories are the result of social marginalization, psychological weakness, lack of education, indifferent upbringing; but have concluded little. People suspend logic easily, often, and without question.
It does not seem coincidental that there are so many people of faith in the United States and so much dismissal of reason. If one takes the Bible as the word of God without question (even Augustine and his colleagues understood the importance of Biblical allegory and interpretation) then it is not surprising that one accepts secular propositions of faith as well.
The coming post-human age in which everyone lives in a world of virtual reality – a complete symbiosis of mind and computer – is the logical result of a diminishing concern with reality, truth, and fact. Logic in this highly-personalized, subjective world will be worth little.
We are different from the animals, says the Bible, because we have reason; and God himself endowed Man with the free will to make logical choices. Only through such rigor could one choose between right and wrong. Yet as Dostoevsky has pointed out, men only look for mystery, miracles, and authority. Faith is all that is required. Free will is irrelevant.
This all leaves most of us nowhere. As we get older questions of life, death, and eternity become more pressing. We all deal with them in our own way; but most of us reach the end without every being schmart.