I sometimes wince at my facile attempts to appear the scholar, both on this blog and in other areas of life. My small comfort amidst these failures comes only in that I usually know more than most 16 year olds (. . . usually). But even I, a pretend scholar, know enough to dismiss a book like The Closing of the Western Mind, where the author asserts that the concept of “Faith” destroyed the venerable goddess “Reason” in the medieval era. Such a perspective can only come with willful ignorance of the most obvious facts about medieval life, and blatant misunderstanding of men like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and a host of others. It assumes that we moderns are smart, those in the past, dumb.
But I also abhor the opposite fault, though it only appears to be its opposite. This approach seeks to prove desperately that, “The medievals were much like us, they used reason too, see, see, see!” But this attitude pays no compliment to the medievals, for once again the modern world forms the foundation of all his cares. I have commented on this attitude in reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, so I will not belabor that again here.
In rides Etienne Gilson to split the horns of this dilemma with his eminently accessible Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Gilson outlines three distinct approaches the medievals took to the dilemma of reconciling faith and reason, and the strengths of each. He does not favor one over the other (overtly at least) so much as provide a framework to view each more or less objectively.
Gilson begins with what he calls the Augustinian approach, whereby we “believe, that we might understand.” This approach put heavy emphasis on “faith,” but “reason” for Augustinians could ride comfortably in the backseat with faith at the helm — hence Augustine’s healthy admiration for Plato. But Augustinians had their subtle differences, which Gilson summarizes masterfully by writing,
In short, all the Augustinians agree that unless we believe we shall not understand; and all them agree as to what we should believe, but they do not always agree as to what it is to understand.
No better summation of the Augustinian school of thought exists.
Another school of thought put reason in the driver’s seat, and surprisingly, most proponents of this approach were Moslems, especially Averroes. This did not really catch on in the Christian west, with a few possible exceptions (maybe Abelard). Gilson avoids commenting on why, but I will speculate that this approach failed in the West because
- The Christian west understood that this relationship between faith and reason had no real Biblical foundation, and . . .
- This approach might have much more appeal to Moslems because one could describe Islam as Christianity dumped of all its mystery (The Trinity, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, etc.). These core Christian doctrines should not be viewed as irrational but supra-rational.
Most interesting to me was Gilson’s explanation of the third Medieval way, typified by St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, faith and reason co-existed peacefully because they lived in separate houses, whereas Augustine had them in the same house but on different floors. For Aquinas, God granted reason its own kingdom apart from faith, though its domain had less value and less magnificence than faith. Therefore, we don’t have to worry about the relationship between faith and reason because they have no real relationship, though both have their place.
I think I fall in the Augustinian category, but Gilson’s firm command of the material and easy and natural writing style will make me return at some point to consider Aquinas’ alternative.