Scholars Discuss Relationship Between Faith and Reason

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? This question, first asked by Tertullian in the third century, is perhaps the most famous articulation of a tension present in Christianity since its founding: the dialectic between faith and reason. A number of internationally recognized scholars came to Fordham University in New York in June to discuss how reason and faith intersect and clash, a topic that has been much debated in recent years in arenas ranging from popular culture to academia to papal addresses. Charles Taylor, John W. O’Malley, S.J., the Rev. Michael Himes and Christine Wiseman served as keynote speakers for the conference, entitled “Faith and Reason 2009: A Dialogue at the Heart of Jesuit Education,” which was held from June 16 to 18 at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.

Adventures in Reason. Charles Taylor, a leading contemporary philosopher, began the conference with an address on “Reason and Its Adventures Since the Enlightenment,” identifying some areas where societal trust in reason had taken a wrong turn in recent centuries. Two of his more prominent critiques dealt with the degree to which Western cultures accepted the notion of “reason alone” as a hermeneutical tool (as opposed to its traditional scholastic twinning with faith), and the overweening confidence placed in reason for the interpretation of reality and the betterment of human societies.


Ultimately, Taylor noted, even reason requires interpretation, reflection through tradition and community, and articulation by way of hunches, insights and even a kind of “epistemic faith” in order for it to be most useful. To elevate reason beyond its capabilities and limitations is to make it an idol just as much as any fideist or fundamentalist makes an idol of his or her particular articles of faith.

Four Western Cultures. The historian John W. O’Malley, S.J., of Georgetown University, followed the next morning with “Reason in Four Cultures: the Prophetic, the Analytic/Scientific, the Humanistic, and the Artistic/Performative.” O’Malley asserted that medieval universities traditionally were rather secular enterprises, in the sense that their goal was largely the practical education of students, and it was only with the humanist-inspired development of the “college” that the notion of training well-rounded students for the benefit of the common good became popular. The Jesuits in particular excelled at the development of these smaller colleges devoted to a Renaissance curriculum.

O’Malley also discussed the nature and mission of contemporary American Catholic universities, stressing that they not only have a social responsibility, but that part of that responsibility is to teach and treat the subject of religion honestly and with rigor. While professional schools and graduate programs might seek to train students for specific careers, the humanities should retain their pride of place at the undergraduate level. And it is still possible, O’Malley declared, for a university “to be both secular and Catholic.”

Perspectives on Faith. The Rev. Michael Himes, a theologian at Boston College, spoke next on “Faith and Its Adventures Since the Enlightenment,” defining faith as more than simply adherence to a statement of belief; it is also an act of allegiance and an incorporation into a body of believers.

Since the Enlightenment, Himes noted, faith has been considered to be in conflict with reason not only because the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries spurred a desire for a “universal religion” based on reason, but because the explosion of scientific knowledge and historical awareness made it difficult for any religion to assert its own truth claims at the expense of others. And yet reason has been caricatured and deemphasized through the centuries by believers, particularly after the “turn to the will” became a popular notion in Western thought.

Himes also noted that contemporary Islam’s struggles with modernity offer an opportunity to reflect on how Western Christianity has dealt with its experience of post-Enlightenment reason, and commented that the sudden popularity of polemical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens testifies to continued misunderstandings between faith and reason.

Himes concluded with an image of the intellectual tradition of humanity as a cocktail party where every teacher works as a host, inviting each new and perhaps uncomfortable guest to come and mingle with history’s greatest minds and most generous souls. “We have the privilege,” he reminded participants, “of helping others to love what we fell in love with ourselves.”

Character and Service. The final address was delivered by Christine Wiseman, provost and chief academic officer at Loyola University Chicago. She spoke on “Reason and Faith, Character and Service,” addressing ways in which a Catholic university might form character and promote service among its students. She identified personal modeling as the first of these. When faculty and administrators model lives of faith as informed by reason, they create a narrative for students to remember and value. Wiseman identified institutional modeling as a second response, suggesting that the unique role of a Catholic institution is to make it possible for students to search for reality in the sciences but also to search for truth at levels that transcend the personal and look beyond to the “common good.”

A third method for navigating the relationship between faith and reason can come from the experience of scholars working for truth in diverse fields such as the liberal arts, Wiseman noted: poetic expressions of the human quest for truth embody the goals of a Catholic university as much as any articulation of reason.

The conference was organized by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and was sponsored by the East Coast provinces of the Society of Jesus on behalf of administrators, faculty and staff from the 12 East Coast Jesuit universities. “As our institutions continue to wrestle with what makes them unique in the increasingly brand-driven world of higher education,” noted the New York, New England and Maryland Jesuit provincials, “we thought that an exploration of faith and reason would offer a perfect forum for reflection and connection across disciplines and institutions.”

Intellectual Fault Lines. Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, pointed out in his introduction that although the words “faith and reason” sound as if they go together, like “bread and butter” and “love and marriage,” there is serious disagreement in the academic world. He pointed out that a proposal at Harvard three years ago to name a mandatory course “Faith and Reason,” was watered down to “Culture and Belief.” “It is not too much to say that the pairing of faith and reason, whether in tandem or in opposition, has become a shorthand or code signaling all kinds of intellectual and political fault lines,” Steinfels said. “No doubt this is partly a reflection of our stubbornly binary way of conceptualizing all sorts of matters, as in male and female, conservative and liberal, or PC and Mac.”

After each major address, a panel of respondents offered further reflections before breakout sessions were held for participants. More information on the conference can be found at


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