The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

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Reason and Faith: A Lenten Reflection
Pierre Manent - 05/09/08

During the last four centuries we have built a rational order, devoted to experimentation and verification. We have organized ourselves to be free, as free as possible. No tradition or proposition, no inherited experience would be allowed to limit our power to recompose the world to our liking, to give new names to old things, or old names to new things—and so, for example, to call “marriage” whatever we wanted so to name. We have built what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called “enormous machines of happiness and pleasure” where we are sure to meet only our own will.

This liberal and democratic order abounds in benefits of every kind, and for this it deserves to be loved and defended. It has at bottom only one defect: it tends to be indifferent to truth. This is no accident, nor is it the result of a human weakness inseparable from all human order; it results, rather, from the very law upon which this order is built. This order abandons to science the concern for meeting up with the truth in some indefinite future—including the prospect of finding the true cause of faith in some locality of the brain—and, for the rest, it is satisfied to call its least examined prejudices “values.” This order is bothered by those who bother with the truth, and finds intolerant those who care about the truth.

But if the human race does not bother with the truth, if it is not concerned with truth, it loses its dignity, and then it is an abuse of language to assign rights to such a humanity. What rights can be accorded to an erring species unconcerned with seeking its destination?

Our political order for good reason separates reason and faith. As a political or public order, it intends to be based only on reason. Thus faith is a matter of personal conviction and of private life. This separation was once necessary. It remains salutary. At the same time, it weakens both reason and faith. Thus protected from all radical questioning, reason is satisfied to elaborate more and more sophisticated techniques, including social techniques. Faith takes refuge, and sometimes shrivels, in the heart, and tends to become confused with religious sentiment—more and more sentimental, less and less religious.

To be all they can be, or to approach this goal, reason and faith need each other. The point is not to confuse them, but to require them to respond to each other, or rather to question each other.

Reason demands of the believer his reasons for believing—not that faith could ever be simply rational, but because every human being ought to be able to give an account of what he thinks and does. Thus the believer is required to elaborate and present his reasons for believing, first in a God, and then in this God who is supposed to have entered into covenants with us as reported in Scripture.

Faith asks the agnostic or the atheist what is the basis of human bonds if there is no spiritual communion, and how he can understand himself if he is destined for nothing.

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