Reconciling Faith and Reason

4 Dec

Evangelicalism has had problems reconciling faith and reason. At least, that is what Molly Worthen–a self-confessed medievalist turned journalist and now historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–argues in her new book The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelism.

The book has been getting some attention. Mark Edwards provides a brief review of it at the Religion in American History blog.

Worthen herself is making the rounds a bit, too. In the latest Fides et Historia (journal of the Conference on Faith and History), her remarks are published as part of a symposium in review of Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism. Moreover, she was recently at another symposium at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics in St. Louis.

While in St. Louis, Worthen was interviewed about her book. Among many interesting comments about evangelicals, she had this example of the evangelical difficulties of reconciling faith and reason:

Evangelicals are trying to reconcile two ways of knowing, to keep faith and reason fused in a way that is really hard to do nowadays. Just as an example, I think this is crucial to understanding the creationist movement today. I think it’s a mistake to understand creationists as “anti-science,” at least if we want to understand how they see themselves. The reality is that the creationist movement comes out of a tradition of Biblical interpretation that understands itself as deeply rationalist, deeply scientific, that rests on the premise that God’s revelation is all one, that God is perfect and unchanging, and therefore his revelation must be perfect and unchanging too. Our two modes of encountering his revelation, in scripture and in the created world, cannot contradict each other. One theologian associated with this tradition named Charles Hodge famously said that scripture is a “storehouse of facts.” A theologian’s job is to “arrange and harmonize” those facts just as a scientist gathers data in nature and makes sense of that data. And so to really understand the creationist movement, you have to see that creationists see themselves as being good scientists, as using the faculties of human reason as God intended, and in a much more effective, truer way than secular, non-believing scientists do. To understand reality accurately, they say, you must take as your founding assumption the truth of God’s revelation. I think that is crucial for understanding the frame of mind of creationists and how they view their project.

Closely related to this, in her view, is the importance to many, but not all, evangelicals of biblical inerrancy:

In some sense, the idea of Biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible has no error, is an ancient one. The earliest Christians were concerned to safeguard the Bible as a source of perfect truth. But that project developed a new dimension in the century after the Reformation as a certain group of Protestant theologians—mainly those in the Reformed tradition descended from John Calvin and his Swiss and French colleagues, although there were some Lutherans in the mix, too—found themselves surrounded on the intellectual battlefield. On the one hand, they were fighting off the foes of the atheistic Enlightenment who were challenging the Bible’s truth claims. On the other hand, they were facing the scholastic theologians of the Catholic Counter-Reformation who were picking apart Protestant ideas in that annoyingly logical fashion that scholastics have. So these Protestant theologians were caught in a bind, and they responded by trying to out-rationalize the Enlightenment philosophers and be just as logical as the Catholic scholastics. They are really the founding fathers of the modern doctrine of inerrancy and this hyper-rationalistic, pseudo-scientific approach to scripture.

Now, this is only one of a number of approaches to Biblical authority that evangelicals developed. Take evangelicals in the tradition of John Wesley. John Wesley was generally very humble in his claims about what a human being could really know, and he developed what is now summarized as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the idea that to discern God’s will, a Christian has to bring scripture into conversation with personal experience, human reason, and church tradition. And on top of this, Wesleyans came to emphasize Christ himself as God’s word, God’s central revelation, more than scripture. This gave them, historically, a little bit more wiggle room to accommodate the fruits of scientific discovery. Another example of an alternative approach to Biblical inspiration is the Anabaptist tradition. Traditionally, Anabaptists didn’t have a highly developed theory of Biblical inspiration. They were more concerned with the Bible as a guide to day-to-day living and weren’t so inclined to use it as a science textbook.

In the context of the battles between fundamentalists and modernists in the early twentieth century in America, many conservative Protestants across all of these traditions became very alarmed about cultural changes they saw, the way in which the authority of the Bible over human life in America seemed to be wobbling. Many of them were persuaded by this call to defend the inerrant Bible that originated among these Reform fundamentalists, so the doctrine of inerrancy filtered into these other traditions as well. And in some ways, they suffered from theological amnesia: some members of these traditions lost touch with their own heritage. So this one particular theory of how you interpret the Bible and apply it to modern life became seductive, persuasive, and certainly had the advantage of some very effective activists, people like Francis Schaeffer, who really created, I think, the theological ballast for the political platform of the ascendant Christian Right in the 70s and 80s.

So what is evangelicalism? How does Worthen define it? It is a set of Protestant Christians who take seriously a set of questions:

I wanted a way of defining evangelicals that would allow me to corral people who seemed to be part of the same conversation, who seemed to care about what one another got up to, even if they disagreed radically on nearly every point of doctrine. I wanted a way to include Mennonites and Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, even if some of these folks would adamantly reject the label of evangelical if you applied it to them because it often implies a particular political position. As I looked at the long stretch of history, the definition that I found interesting and useful was this: evangelicals are Protestants who since aftermath of the Reformation have been circling around three questions. Those questions are: First, how do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you maintain one coherent way of knowing? Second, how do you become sure of your salvation? How do you meet Jesus and develop a relationship with him, to use the language that some evangelicals prefer. And third, how do you reconcile your personal faith with an increasingly pluralistic, secular public sphere?

While these are, in some sense, universal human questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level, they have a unique power over evangelicals because evangelicals don’t have a magisterial, central authority to guide them. Now, I know that we should not exaggerate the power that the Vatican has over Catholics. But no matter how furiously many Catholics may quarrel with what the pope says, the pope is still an immensely powerful center of gravity. The magisterium is a structure that frames one shared conversation relating to a shared tradition. Likewise, I would say that liberal Protestants, in practice, treat human reason as their magisterium—either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.

In contrast, evangelicals sincerely try to please all the sources of authority in those three questions that I mentioned. They try to satisfy the standards of secular reason and spiritual experience and scripture and do right by the public square. Because they’re torn in these different directions—this is the “crisis of authority” in the book’s subtitle—they have a fraught relationship with the sphere of secular, intellectual life and also politics. I think this is a way in which observers have misunderstood evangelicals. They toss out this epithet “anti-intellectual” and they say, “Evangelicals are anti-intellectual because their community is totally authoritarian and they unthinkingly obey their pastor.” To me, that’s actually the opposite of what’s going on. The truth is that they’re torn by these conflicting authorities, and the resulting confusion and anxiety explains their relationship with secular, modern life.

Read the entire interview with Worthen here.


One Response to “Reconciling Faith and Reason”

  1. Closet_Theologian_209 December 5, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    What’s so great about reason, anyway? Is there reason to love? Can reason draw us closer to a God so irrational to define itself as love?

    Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
    Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
    You throw the sand against the wind,
    And the wind blows it back again.
    And every sand becomes a gem
    Reflected in the beams divine;
    Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
    But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

    The Atoms of Democritus
    And Newton’s Particles of Light
    Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
    Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
    William Blake

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