Sunday, January 31, 2010

Faith and Reason

Yesterday, while engaged in my quarterly task of cleaning out the garage, I was thinking about the relationship between faith and reason. It is, I realized, a dynamic relationship which spans all of life.

When we are children, we live in a world of faith. We take most things on faith - the love of our parents, the goodness of existence, the benevolence of Nature. As we grow, and as we begin to experience more of reality and to use our reason, the field of faith diminishes. Things that had been mysteries become puzzles, and those puzzles demand answers. Maturing is, therefore, a movement away from faith toward reason, until many of us reach the point where we banish faith altogether. An intellectual arrogance sets in, in the garish light of which everything seems susceptible of explanation. The world becomes disenchanted, the comforting precepts of religion fall away, and we are left to confront the true mysteries of existence: Why am I here, Who am I, What is the meaning of my life, What happens to me after death? In face of those corroding questions, we often become cynical, surrendering to hopelessness, to the growing conviction that such questions can never be answered.

It is at this point that the rationalist succumbs to doubt - the disheartening certainty that Truth does not exist, or if it does, that it can never be attained. Faith is killed in us, and we surrender ourselves to a mortal existence which, we fear more and more, will be extinguished with death. Most of my acquaintances are in this condition: Either they do not allow themselves to think about such overwhelming questions at all, busying themselves with quotidian cares which they convince themselves are of utmost importance, or they abandon the idea of faith altogether, and content themselves with mocking it in the cleverest possible terms for the benefit of others who are as lost as they.

What is missing in all this, I think, is a kind of balance: a balance between faith and reason which understands that the two are not at odds, but must, in fact, be embraced together if resolutions to those abiding questions are to be wrought. Faith without reason is little more than superstition, and reason without faith is, more often than not, simply solipsism. Those who argue for the preeminence of faith over reason make the same mistake, in mirror image, as those who use reason to dismiss faith.

For as we grow older and near the end of life, we begin to feel inexorably the tug of that instinct of faith in the warm bath of which we began our lives. We do, or ought to, understand that reason can take us only so far in the search for Truth. That, like any other corporeal entity, reason has its limits; indeed, could not exist without limits. But the Truth of which we are in search transcends limits, and so, reason, no matter how comprehensive or well honed, is an inadequate tool for the attaining of it.

The faith of childhood is a naive faith, and the reason of mature age is a circumscribed reason. But the reason of advancing age yearning as it does for faith, coupled with a faith which reflects a lifetime of experience and reason, may together be adequate to the task which confronts us at life's end: obtaining insight into the enlightenment which only death can bring to life.