God, Faith and Reason
in the Philosophy of Nicholas Wolterstorff
Fr. Russell A. Bantiles, Ph. D
What do you do when you hear or read on-line comments like this one from the president of a prestigious Catholic university in Davao City: “People are tired of obstinate claims to absolute truth, when the thinking world continues to seek (the) truth. People are tired of being told how to think, when they can think for themselves, and how to choose, when they can choose for themselves, and how to have sex when they can have sex for themselves”?
Your first reaction, perhaps, is that of agreement. For, truly, we never want invasion to our freedom and privacy. But what if you are told that the abovementioned comment – when read within the context of the debates on RH law – conceals an unhealthy understanding of reason that seeks the truth and a flawed view of faith that claims absolute truth? What if you realize how such comment implies that faith is opposed to reason? I’m sure you would reconsider your first reaction.
Today, the drama of the separation between faith and reason lingers. Its consequences can be seen even more clearly. During the height of the RH bill debate, for instance, the pro-RH and the anti-RH arguments show opposing views on faith-reason relationship. The anti-RH would argue: “The Catholic teachings on contraception are based on natural law which is accessible and applicable to all”. This presupposes that faith complements reason in its access to the natural law. But the pro-RH would respond: “Even the interpretation of natural law can vary from one religious tradition to another”. It clearly indicates that reason may oppose faith.
Situations like this have prompted me to choose this very interesting topic for my doctoral dissertation. Besides, the motto of the Saint Francis Xavier College Seminary – Fides et Ratio – has inspired me to pursue the discussion by citing some salient points that Blessed Pope John Paul II elucidated in his encyclical of the same title. In the light of this papal document, I ventured to dialogue with a contemporary brilliant thinker, Nicholas Wolterstorff.
The Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology and a Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, Nicholas Paul Wolterstorff is a Calvinist pastor and a prolific thinker whose wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests include metaphysics, aesthetics, political philosophy, epistemology, theodicy and philosophy of religion. Together with Alvin Plantinga and William Alston, he is considered one of the founders of Reformed Epistemology, a philosophical movement whose central claim is that belief in God is a “properly basic belief”, which means that, it doesn’t need to be inferred from other truths in order to be reasonable. Founded on the 16th-century Reformed theology, particularly in John Calvin’s doctrine on sensus divinitatis (that God has planted in us a natural knowledge of Him), this view represents a continuation of the medieval thinking about the relationship between faith and reason – but, I would say – with a remarkable difference!
For, while Thomas Aquinas tells us that faith and reason are harmoniously complementary, as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (FR, Introduction), Wolterstorff holds that reason must function within the bounds of faith. Thus, his book is entitled, “Reason within the Bounds of Religion”, in striking contrast with Kant’s “Religion within the Bounds of Reason”.
On the theoretical level, I find Wolterstorff’s view on the relationship between faith and reason quite problematic. While his notion of faith as trust resembles the Catholic view – except his claim that believing is a mental state, not an act of the will – his notion of the rationality of faith is restrictive as it is deontological, which means, that a person is rationally justified in believing certain propositions unless he neither has nor ought to have adequate reasons to cease from believing them. Wolterstorff says, “Our beliefs are rational unless we have reasons for refraining; they are not non-rational unless we have reason for believing. They are innocent until proved guilty, not guilty until proved innocent”.
This view is defective because the rationality of faith would depend solely on whether or not we have or we ought to have enough reasons to cease from believing. In other words, the rationality of faith hangs on the obligations (hence, “deontology”) to believe. With Aquinas, the Catholic position maintains that our act of believing is rational because it is the act of the will – an assent to the truth. Believing is the act of the whole human person, who trusts in the words of the other. For Aquinas, believing is thinking with assent, an act of the deliberating intellect. It is in this act where the rationality of belief is demonstrated, not in the fulfillment of some obligations to believe. In this act of the will, the person wholly expresses not only his perennial search for the truth but also the essence of his humanity.
However, on the practical dimension, Wolterstorff, I would say, is very Catholic, except his tendency to restrict reason within the bounds of faith. Like Pope Benedict XVI, he maintains that where faith and reason really meet is in our ordinary life. The harmonious relationship between faith and reason must be incarnated, for instance, in the practices of Christian philosophy (like in academic research and investigation), of Christian education (schools and universities) and of Christian religion in the public square. Religious convictions, he said, must be heard in public debates. Wolterstorff agrees 100% with Fides et Ratio in saying that a Christian philosopher must practice philosophy from a Christian perspective, that is, in “a Christian way of philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith” (FR, no. 76).
As an application of his thesis, “Reason within the Bounds of Faith”, Wolterstorff endeavors to explain philosophically some basic Christian tenets; for instance, that God speaks. Naturally, he does this within the framework of his protestant and Calvinist conviction of sola fidei, sola Scriptura. He explained divine discourse (that God speaks) through the philosophical speech-act theory, which traces its origin in J. L. Austin’s How to do things with words. Along the way, he had to contend with the firmly-rooted Thomistic doctrine on divine simplicity and to struggle against the prevailing theories on Scriptural interpretation. Here, I had to demonstrate how this highly respectable author may have maintained the erroneous claim that God is not simple; that He is not eternal, instead, everlasting; and that God speaks to us exactly the same way we speak to each other.
In my overall assessment, Wolterstorff’s restriction of reason within faith manifests a “distrust of reason” that Fides et Ratio speaks about. In turn, this so-called suspicion in reason’s inherent capacity to know the absolute truth could be provoked by the adoption of non-cognitive and anti-metaphysical philosophical positions similar to those of phenomenalism. Analytic philosophy, to which Wolterstorff is subscribed, coupled with his relational ontology (as opposed to constituent ontology), have somehow contributed to this disbelieving attitude. (Constituent ontology claims that the properties of things constitute these things, while relational ontology denies it. The red gumamela, for instance, for a relational ontologist, exemplifies the universal property of redness, but such the redness of the gumamela does not constitute the flower).
Confronted with Wolterstorff’s claims, I defend the complementariness of faith and reason. At the same time, I uphold the encyclical’s cognitive and metaphysical thrust by claiming that reason may have been obscured by sin, but it continues to possess that desire and that capacity placed by God in the human heart to search for the truth, to know it and to adhere to it once it is found.
Vindicating reason’s capacity for truth and its harmonious relationship with faith is an urgent and a necessary task. The Church’s claim on the absolute truth through faith can and should never be placed in opposition to reason’s natural tendency to seek the truth. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “The believer’s search for the truth will accordingly take place through a movement in which listening to the word that has gone forth will continually be meeting with the seekings of reason. Thereby, on one hand, faith becomes purer and more profound, while, on the other hand, thought is also enriched, because new horizons are opened up for it” (Ratzinger, J., Truth and Tolerance, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pp. 207-208).
When one sees clearly this harmony between faith and reason, it will be difficult to make comments like saying, “People are tired of obstinate claims to absolute truth, when the thinking world continues to seek (the) truth”.