Every year a good number of first year students at Butler University choose to enroll in a two-semester core course called “Faith, Doubt and Reason.” And every year I get interviewed by students who are writing their final papers for the first semester. Since that’s likely to happen again, I thought I’d write down my answers.
Q: How do you define reason? A: Reason is, concretely, responding with integrity to all that we undergo. The crucial word here is “integrity.” I’m using it as a shorthand term that includes all of the following character traits at once: attentiveness, honesty, consistency, a capacity for self-criticism and a willingness to change if need be. If we lack any of these character traits, we’re not responding with integrity. Aristotle called this way of responding “practical wisdom” (I wrote a 246-page, jargon-filled Ph.D. dissertation on that in the 1980s, summarized here). The formal operations of logic and even scientific method are more abstract versions of this. They would never have developed if we did not recognize them as ways to respond with integrity to some of what we undergo, but they’re too artificial to work everywhere. Yet even where formal operations and controlled experiments seem too artificial, we still seem to find ways to respond with integrity. That’s my less-than-246-page answer.
Q: How do you define doubt? A: Doubt is a form of questioning that arises when what we undergo doesn’t seem to fit what is currently affirmed. Unlike Descartes, and more like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, I don’t think reason requires us to try doubting everything at once. Nor do I think we’re obliged to prove, or be certain about, what already seems true to us and other reliable-seeming people, as long as we don’t suppress honest questions (doubt!). But we are obliged to be honest when what we undergo doesn’t seem to fit what is currently affirmed. We may then have to modify what was affirmed or else reexamine what we’re undergoing (maybe it does fit, and we just haven’t figured out how). Example: In the midst of a looming crisis, a friend once counseled me, “Just remember that everything is perfect.” I responded, “If everything were perfect, I wouldn’t need reminding—forgetting is an imperfection.” He said, “That’s not what I meant by ‘perfect’.” I said, “OK, then what did you mean?” We continued to disagree.
There’s a kind of doubt that always accompanies what I would call undergoing God. Undergoing God always exceeds our affirmations about God. It never quite fits what we affirm, though some affirmations seem to come closer than others. It’s sort of a paradox. Our affirmations mean nothing apart from moments that never quite fit them, but they mean everything when they point us toward those moments.
Q: How do you define faith? A: I’ve said elsewhere that, ultimately speaking, faith is not believing in something absent but trusting the present reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, even though it remains beyond our grasp or control. It includes a provisional trust in the way we have come to speak of this reality, but our trust is ultimately in the reality that seems to have prompted this way of speaking, not in the way of speaking itself. It’s a way of responding with integrity to what we ultimately undergo.
That’s an attempt to describe the sort of faith that, I believe, everybody lives by even when they deny it. And yes, I’m very indebted to Paul Tillich for that.
For me that faith is inseparable from my and my tradition’s belief that we are all unconditionally embraced by the Communion of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ and thereby drawn to embody that Communion for everybody now and always. That Communion is, I believe, the reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, though I speak of it in those terms provisionally in order to point beyond them to the reality they can’t ever grasp. Other traditions, even some secular ones, seem to fare well using very different terms, and I welcome their insights. But I as a Christian don’t know of any better terms than those I’ve been using, and I’m committed to making them communicate better to everybody. I try to imagine a time when I might decide that some other tradition’s terms were better than these, but honestly, I can’t imagine that. This is my vocation, not theirs, and it’s survived more intellectual challenges than most people ever encounter.
Q: Can faith, doubt and reason coexist in the same person at the same time? Why or why not? A: Yes. Because they coexist already if we pay attention: at the very moment I am able to trust the present reality in which I ultimately find myself, I’m aware that I am not that reality, and that this reality remains forever beyond my grasp, and that’s a faithful form of doubt. If I don’t undergo that sort of doubt, then I haven’t undergone anything ultimate. My only option, if I’m to keep trusting, is to respond with integrity to this tension that I undergo. Honest faith raises doubts, and addressing those doubts with integrity calls for reason. Faith, doubt and reason are all ways of responding with integrity to what we undergo.
Q: Would you like to change any of your answers? Why or why not? A: Not now. Because that’s where I am, it’s pretty much where I’ve been for over 40 years, and I haven’t developed any regrets. I never say anything in exactly the same way, of course, but there’s more continuity than discontinuity here. I’d be surprised if that basic theme ever changed.