The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 16, 2017

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

This dialogue will be without end and without conclusion, but not without effect. Each side will understand itself better. And now and then one will abandon what he had thought for the other position because it will seem truer to him. To change for the truth, to change in pursuit of the truth, such is the beautiful risk that man alone is capable of taking, and before which today he withdraws more and more.

This dialogue between faith and reason is not necessarily calm, nor even always “respectful” as this adjective is now understood. We attach a lot of importance to respect, and rightly so, but we often mistake what it is that must be respected, what it is that deserves respect. Respect is addressed to persons, because, as Kant famously said, dignity belongs to “humanity” as such, to the fact of being human. But it makes no sense to address this respect due to persons in the same way to actions, thoughts, or words, which are objects of legitimate judgment, whether of approval or blame. Thus it is perfectly legitimate that rationalists criticize, even severely criticize, religion, whether it is a question of religion in general or of a particular religion.

For most serious rationalists, religion is a weakness of the brain. I do not see why they should not have the right to say so. Nor do I see why those among them who are given to mockery would not also mock religion. After all, the believer who sees, or believes he sees, who hears or believes he hears, things his rationalist neighbor neither hears nor sees—how could the latter not be brought at least to smile? Rather than asking plaintively that their faith be respected, believers might make it more respectable by showing themselves capable of defending it, even by taking the debate to the rationalist camp, where the best use is not always made of reason.

I am not asking that we apply ourselves joyfully to exchanging insults and sarcasm, but simply that we take the question of truth seriously. Dostoyevsky says somewhere that if he had to choose between Christ and truth, he would choose Christ. This saying has always seemed to me to be the peak of foolishness. Only truth is worthy of choice. Such things should not need to be said in a country like France. More than any European country, the axis of our history, moral and political as well as spiritual, has been dialogue, preferably vigorous dialogue, between faith and reason, for example, between Voltaire and Pascal—Voltaire, who was not always very respectful of believers, and Pascal, who pursued the rationalist with a lively insistence.

But if believers today are so concerned with respect, this is perhaps less due to pusillanimity than because they take upon themselves the viewpoint of the rationalist, and see faith as a survival from earlier times that cannot confront the public light of reason, and that must be protected as part of their private lives. Religion that so encloses itself in the fortress, thought to be invincible, of the self’s feelings, abandons the public space to its nakedness and leaves it stripped of all trace of religion. In a society that has left religion behind, the believer judges it to be impossible, and moreover, illicit, to leave the private realm of the heart.

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