The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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

This reflection was delivered at Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris on Sunday, February 25, 2007 and was translated by Ralph C. Hancock. It is featured in the current issue of Modern Age.

What is truth? This is a question that we seldom formulate in these terms, but that we often ask, when we ask ourselves if we really see what we see. Do we really see what we see? To verify, we try to touch. Truth needs a touchstone; it is itself a touchstone. We sense that we have hold of the truth when we can touch what we see. We are in error when we cannot touch what we see—or, rather, that is, what we think we see. A child tries to catch his shadow; the adult has learned to distinguish between what he thinks he sees and what he can grasp. Reason, one might say, is what allows us to link sight to touch. This is often very difficult for us, unlike the cat, which, perceiving the mouse, does not hesitate over what he has to do. One glance and whoosh! Our movements are much less graceful than the cat’s; we are a wandering and limping species because it is hard for us to link sight and touch. It is hard, and so we need reason, and reason is work. Why do we make mistakes, why are we capable of error? Because our eye is much bigger than the cat’s, bigger even than the lion’s, because our eye is huge; it is the eye of the mind. We can see all that is, all that can be, because our intelligence is open to being as such. We can even see what does not exist, since we can imagine it—thus the disproportion between the unlimited scope of what we conceive and the narrowness of what we can touch and verify. And reason ceaselessly runs from one to the other, from what we conceive to what we can verify.

I shall not attempt to define faith, since I am not a theologian and thus have no authority in this area. I shall only observe that the notion of faith in the strong sense that interests us this evening appeared with Christianity and has remained proper to Christianity. With the Incarnation, truth offered itself to be seen and even touched. The very principle of being offered itself to Thomas’s observation. Then it withdrew. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet shall believe” [John 20.29, RSV]—those who have faith. Faith attains its object without seeing or touching it. Instead of going ceaselessly back and forth, instead of working, it suspends human effort and waits for everything, hopes for everything, expects everything from God.

Reason is more essential to our being than is faith. Reason makes us human. We are human beings only by this faculty of erring and recovering ourselves. To despise reason is to despise one’s own being. The greatness of Europe, what makes her unique among the great civilizations, is that she has never relented in the work of reason, she has never tired and never ceased to make reason the touchstone. Europeans have never ceased to bring even Europe’s own faith, the Christian faith, before the tribunal of reason, even during the eras that we designate as “eras of faith.”

Christian faith, for its part, accepts being called to appear before the tribunal of reason. It is distinctive of the Christian God to leave man to his own counsel, and to put the fulfillment of the plan of salvation as it were at the mercy of human freedom. This is why Christianity is not a law, but a faith. This is why the Bible is not a teaching dictated by heaven like the Koran. It is a chronicle, full of detours, of an often-broken and ever-renewed covenant between divine goodness and human freedom.

Reason’s questions do not leave faith without reply. Faith says to reason that one who ceaselessly verifies will never find the truth that is the end of its seeking, in both senses of the term. Would not reason’s activity be in vain if there were not a point where man’s truth was gathered, a point towards which faith directs us, and hope and faith carry us? However necessary, and even noble, may be the work of reason, the moment comes when one must consent to allow the truth to come towards us.

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.

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.

And yet the believer, like his rationalist or agnostic fellow-citizen, is always “outside himself,” always already taken up in human bonds that, like the non-believer, he is striving to strengthen, to make more just or sweeter. Each as much as the other must give a reasonable account of these bonds. We are trying to build a society within the limits of reason. With reason we have built these “enormous machines of happiness and pleasure” that protect our rights. And reason allows each to understand and calculate his interests well, and to make them compatible with those of others. But this extension of the self, this enlargement of the self, this participation of the self in something larger than itself, which is implied in every human bond, from the slightest to the grandest—can reason ground this, can it first even understand it? It can if it engages itself with all its strength in the search for being, for the being such that no greater being can be conceived. But then, at this extreme limit of its strength, it is necessary to accept, or not to accept, suspending its effort, but not its movement, and to let the greatest being come towards it; and then rational man must consent, or not, to let the truth come towards him.

One of the fathers of modern rationalism, the philosopher Bacon, remarked that Pilate, having asked “what is truth,” did not stay to wait for an answer. Reason, which questions, does not always listen to the answer; but the believer who believes he has the answer often has not listened to the question. The rationalist and the believer do not limp on the same foot. Thus they sustain each other, despite everything, and our limping species makes its way towards truth. Perhaps.

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