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Reviews > Book reviews >

Reason and the Reasons of Faith


T. & T. Clark £35 (0-567-02830-5); Church Times Bookshop £31.50

The heart has its reasons: Hugh Rayment-Pickard on rationality and ethical fruitfulness

 THIS book is launched from the premise that faith and reason are in crisis.

On the one hand, say the authors, we tend to think of acts of faith as irrational leaps in the dark. But faith is never a purely irrational act. Even a leap of faith is made in the expectation of rational benefit, otherwise it would be a suicidal jump of despair.

On the other hand, we often assume that reason operates clinically, without presuppositions and prejudices. But the exercise of reason is always to some purpose, or made from some premise that derives from faith. What we need, say the authors in this book in various ways, is a faith that employs reason, and a reason that acknowledges its debts to faith.

The book argues against both the "instrumental reason" of the Enlightenment (which uses reason to subjugate nature) and the unreason of post-modernism (which rubbishes the efforts of reason in the quest for truth). Instead, it advocates a theological rationality that can offer a critique of both secular reason and secular unreason.

Charles Taylor’s essay (the best in the volume) makes the point powerfully, arguing that faith and reason come together in ethics more than in metaphysics. Christians must not care for others simply because reason tells us to: duty must be fulfilled by love. Reason itself cannot tell us to love, because the source of love is faith. But love requires the discipline of reason if it is to rise above mere good intention and sentimental feeling.

I enjoyed the informative discussions in this book, although it is hardly an easy read, and I suspect it is beyond the interest of all but a professional audience. This is a shame, because the issues are too important to be restricted to the academy.

It is also a shame that the book is, for the most part, so carefully packaged in traditional Christian dogma. It takes almost no risks with the orthodox version of Christianity, and too easily falls back upon credal assertions that the model of all rationality must be the Christian Trinity.

But where does this leave Islamic or Jewish rationality — or, indeed, the secular rationality that, for all its weaknesses, has yielded us so many practical benefits? There is a danger that all non-Christian reasoning will be regarded as second-rate, meaning that Christians will be tempted (as they often are) to speak down to others from a position of assumed intellectual superiority.

Carver T. Yu’s essay "Covenantal Rationality and the Healing of Reason" strikes a contrarian note in the volume. He argues that reason must be dialogical, in other words a conversation. "It is in interpersonal encounters that the arrogance of reason is exposed." Reason deconstructs our idols of religious self-sufficiency and dogmatic assurance, throwing us back upon a more radical trust in the universal human experience of being in the world. So the discussions between and beyond the faiths are always a conversation of equals.

History shows us that orthodox theological rationality can lead to both the Inquisition and St Francis of Assisi. This is why the proper test of reason is not doctrinal correctness, but, as St Paul puts it, ethical fruitfulness: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In the end, this is how we tell the difference between the true and the false exercise of reason.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Area Dean of Kensington, London.

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