content top

What's Old is New Again

Posted on: November 10, 2019

Category: Theology

Quest Thoughts: What is Old is New Again

Certain issues, questions, and concerns never go away; they may change their form or context, but they seem to hang around forever. One such issue is the relationship between reason and faith.

In the twelfth century, Rupert of Deutz (1075 - 1129), complained about and even mocked new forms of knowledge that had arisen late in his lifetime. He thought that the Christian faith belonged to the simple-minded, to people like Peter, Andrew, and Mary of Magdala, whom Christ called. That old-time faith, according to Rupert, was being distorted by the new masters of theology who were coming into prominence in his day.

The new masters were those who studied Aristotle - at that time newly rediscovered - and who sought to express the Christian tradition in ways compatible with new understandings in logic, history, and rhetoric. Alain de Lille (1128 - 1203) called this renaissance of faith and knowledge ars fidei, the art of faith. To people like Alain, new discoveries were items of good news that challenged the church of his day to practice the “art” of theology in a new voice. This twelfth-century renaissance would shortly produce some of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages such as Albert the Great (1200 - 1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), and Duns Scotus (1266 - 1308). Rupert of Deutz would have none of this, however. He opposed the new knowledge, dismissed the masters of theology, and upheld the disciples of Jesus as simple, uneducated people who had no need of such knowledge. It is as if Rupert was a type of Donald Trump who would have said, “I love the under-educated,” had he known the line.

It’s hard to know how popular Rupert of Deutz was in his lifetime, but while we likely all have heard about Thomas Aquinas, likely very few of us have heard about Rupert of Deutz. Yet, Rupert raises an eternal question: to what extent, in any age, is it wise for Christians or people of other faiths to set their faith against reason and new knowledge? Rupert's story suggests that such acts, however well-intended, risk leaving their version of faith in the pile later generations will call irrelevant. If the response of faith to new forms of knowledge is the mockery of knowledge, then the faith in question is unlikely to hold vibrancy and meaning in its time. Still, did Rupert make a good point? Is simplicity important? What is the relationship between faith and reason?

We might turn to Thomas Aquinas for some guidance, for Aquinas was the leading intellectual of his day. To Aquinas, there is no contradiction between faith (understood as trust, not belief) and reason (understood as the natural order, not personal intelligence). Reason relates our very human nature to the cosmos; we, like everything else in nature, have a reasonable order. In other words, we work. We are not automatons but living, breathing, and working bodies. So, to Aquinas, we belong to the reasonable order of creation. We can see then, since we belong to the order of creation and since creation is reasonable, that Aquinas could not imagine why anyone would place reason (the order of creation) against faith (the trust of the order, that is, the trust of God). What limits us is our understanding of the order of creation. We can only get so far with our own, private reasoning. At some point, as an individual, we have to start trusting that the cosmic order of things will take care of itself even if we don’t understand it. To Aquinas, the church holds certain sacraments, such as the Eucharist, that reminds us of the big picture and of our need to let go of private reason to trust the larger order of things. Aquinas, of course, speaks in the language of someone from the Middle Ages. His points are not always clear to us, and his understanding of things is wrapped up in a cosmic vision we no longer hold. For Aquinas, the universe was still three-tiered; for us, it is infinite, so far as we can tell.

Now, here is another important point that Aquinas makes. Simplicity does not mean ignorance. Simplicity means breaking large things down into smaller components, into things we can handle. Someone like Aquinas would not have said, “I love the under-educated”; rather, he would have said, “Let’s make sure we have a good education system.” He would have said this because he would never have accepted the idea that “faith” somehow mean ignorance.

In our day, the controversies and questions that involved faith and reason in the twelfth century remain in place but take different forms. We see the issue in obvious forms when the creation myth from the Bible is set against the scientific understanding of evolution. It should be obvious that the Bible is not science because science as we know it did not exist in biblical times. The real question about the creation myth is its meaning for human life, not its scientific value as a theory. Simplicity here should mean breaking down the creation myth into its simpler components so we can understand it in context.

Creation versus evolution is an obvious form of faith falsely set against reason, but more worrisome are the less obvious ways this happens. When a government seeks to reduce its deficit by cutting funding for education, the government is effectively saying that money rather than public education is a higher social value. The attitude that allows the value of public education to be demeaned is deeply rooted in the suspicion of education as a kind of threat to traditional ideas of public order. (We can hear in this Aquinas saying that education can never be understood as a threat to faith.) Anti-vaccination is another expression of “faith” being defined as that which is against reason. And climate change denial is still another expression that demeans science, often explicitly, in the name of faith and that rests, less explicitly, on the history of “faith” set against reason. We regard our own age as technologically advanced and, in terms of knowledge, far ahead of the Middle Ages. And yet a controversy from the Middle Ages continues to define, challenge, and trouble our own times.

Like Aquinas, I interpret faith as trust, not as “belief.” Only in our modern times has faith (fides) come to mean belief. If you have faith, then you must believe something whether about God, a religious doctrine, or a supernatural event. I do not use the word faith in that way. As an act of trust - trusting life, trusting nature, trusting the big picture - faith is part of life whether we personally believe anything or not. What I worry about is that “trust” placed in our best understandings of the world today is often undermined by beliefs that either refuse to trust contemporary knowledge about the world or refuse to acknowledge warnings about crises today in education, health care, and the environment.

“Faith” cannot be an enemy of knowledge because, if so, it then becomes an enemy of humanity. Faith set against reason, if I could speak in the name of Thomas Aquinas, is a ridiculous situation. Yet those who confuse simplicity with ignorance and ask us, in the name of faith, to hold narrow minds seem to remail among us. In response to them, I would say that the true act of faith is to open our minds and to face with courage the crises of our time with the best forms of knowledge we have.

©By David Galston

wrapper background