Faith and Reason Part II: When Knowledge Becomes an Idol

I established in an earlier post that faith and reason, although different, ought to be viewed as gifts from God that enhance one another. They need not sit in contradiction. For the benefit of insomniacs everywhere, what I plan to discuss in this post is what happens when reason and faith are used out of their intended contexts, and when knowledge is elevated too highly.

Martin Luther famously called reason a “whore,” and “the greatest enemy that faith has.”  Karl Barth referred to knowledge as an “idol.” How then, do we reconcile this with Biblical verses that explicitly view knowledge and reason as good things?

Proverbs 10:14 says, “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.”

Proverbs 13:16 says, “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” 

2 Peter 3:18 tells us to “grow” in the knowledge of our Lord, and in Colossians 2:3 Paul refers to knowledge as a “treasure” that is hidden in God.

Paul says in Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters; that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” 

I would suggest that faith and reason are two different sorts of means that can be used to achieve the same end: knowledge. 

There are of course different types of knowledge. We can obtain knowledge of lower things, such as how to plan a budget well; and we can reach for knowledge of higher things, such as the trinity. There are also the highest kinds of knowledge, which we cannot obtain while we are fallen and finite: that is full knowledge of God (c.f. Psalm 139:6)

Now, faith is used as a means towards the knowledge of higher realities, such as knowledge of the things of God. We know from Hebrews 11 that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” and that “without faith it is impossible to please God.”  It is by faith that I can know the things of God that reason cannot explain to me. I cannot rationalise how or why God loves me, but I know by faith that he does, because of “the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19).

Reason, on the other hand, is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically. It can enable us to obtain knowledge of lower things, such as mathematics, molecular biology, and how clocks work. It is by reason that I am able to know the unlikelihood of me marrying Orlando Bloom. I can wish and wish and wish all I like, but through the powers my rational mind, I know with a fair degree of certainty that sadly, it will not come to pass.

Is faith therefor a cop-out from reason? An elaborate superstition that fills in the gaps for the things we cannot empirically measure (yet)?

No. And this is why:

The Bible says that God created the world and said that it was good (Genesis 1). In this world, there are lower goods, which are the things we can obtain knowledge of through reason (that is, through empirical observation or logical deduction) . Then there are higher goods, which are the things of God that we can know because a) God generously poured them out to us, and b) we have the gift of faith. Then, of course, there is God, who is the highest good, and whom we cannot fully know because we are finite and fallen.

Faith and Reason2

(Edit: this diagram is a modified version from the original, where God was depicted a bit more lofty and out of reach. A friend of mine rightly pointed out the problem, which I have amended).

Notice that faith does not begin where reason left off. Faith begins at the same place as reason: with me. If faith began where reason left off, then it would indeed be a cop out, like Richard Dawkins and Anthony Flew suggest. However, because it begins with me, there is an area where faith and reason can intermingle, like gin and tonic.

There is of course an area where faith and reason cannot intermingle, and this is where things get tricky.

I would argue that reason and knowledge become an idol in our lives when they are put in the wrong place. It is that this point that they become the sort of “knowledge” that Paul says “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) If reason tries to reach too high and occupy the areas where faith alone should reside, then it is out of place. Likewise, when we place knowledge – be that of higher goods or lower goods – in the place of God, that is when it becomes and idol, as suggested by Barth. When reason tries to get rid of faith or take its place, that is when it becomes a sell-out, as suggested by Luther. This is when reason is merely tonic water, and therefore has no kick to it.

However, when knowledge is put back in its rightful context, it once again becomes a good. Likewise, when faith and reason are put in their rightful contexts, they can each be used as good means towards good ends.

There are times when we are required to employ faith alone. This is like having neat gin: absolutely necessary in some contexts but generally not recommended as an antidote to everything. It is through faith alone that we can be sure of our salvation. No reason can dilute that. But it is through a combination of faith and reason that we can formulate a doctrine of salvation. See the difference?

I leave you with the words of St Anselm of Canterbury:

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe I shall not understand’ [Isaiah 7:9]. 

Well then, Lord, you who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as you see fit, that you exist as we believe you to exist, and that you are what we believe you to be.” 

Proslogion ch1-2.

S

3 Comments

  1. Hey love,  How are you? Thanks for our blog, started reading it and will try and finish it today! My phone isn’t working atm so im not sure if I will be able to use it over the wknd Either way it would be good to decide a time and place to meet on Saturday. Alex has hurt his leg and can’t do much walking but maybe we could meet somewhere central in the early afternoon, or whenever you were planning to come down. Looking forward to seeing you!

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