God and Rationality

Konkvistador probably wanted to go into the details of the state work and state/church separation and how the State interacts with God, and with reason. I just want to talk about the history of the relationship of God and reason. Or, more accurately, to do a historical summary of the relationship between revelation and reason, from the Early Middle Ages to our present day. In doing so I want to investigate the question of whether people are being pwnd by ideology.

Historical overview

Early Middle Ages

Augustine of Hippo, Aurelius Augustinus or St. Augustine wrote the City of God:

“The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 left Romans in a deep state of shock, and many Romans saw it as punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religion for Catholic Christianity. In response to these accusations, and in order to console Christians, Augustine wrote The City of God, arguing for the truth of Christianity over competing religions and philosophies and that Christianity is not only not responsible for the Sack of Rome, but also was responsible for the success of Rome. He attempted to console Christians, writing that, even if the earthly rule of the Empire was imperiled, it was the City of God that would ultimately triumph.”

St. Augustine was trying to respond to the sack of Rome. Part of what he wanted to do was to justify religious belief. Can it be justified through reason, or faith/revelation, or both?

“Augustine’s eyes were fixed on Heaven, a theme of many Christian works of Late Antiquity, and despite Christianity’s designation as the official religion of the Empire, Augustine declared its message to be spiritual rather than political. Christianity, he argued, should be concerned with the mystical, heavenly city, the New Jerusalem—rather than with earthly politics. The book presents human history as being a conflict between what Augustine calls the Earthly City (often colloquially referred to as the City of Man) and the City of God, a conflict that is destined to end in victory for the latter. The City of God is marked by people who forgot earthly pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God, now revealed fully in the Christian faith. The Earthly City, on the other hand, consists of people who have immersed themselves in the cares and pleasures of the present, passing world.”

“Augustine was one of the first Christian ancient Latin authors with a very clear vision of theological anthropology. He saw the human being as a perfect unity of two substances: soul and body. In his late treatise On Care to Be Had for the Dead, section 5 (420 AD) he exhorted to respect the body on the grounds that it belonged to the very nature of the human person. Augustine’s favourite figure to describe body-soul unity is marriage:caro tua, coniunx tua — your body is your wife. Initially, the two elements were in perfect harmony. After the fall of humanity they are now experiencing dramatic combat between one another. They are two categorically different things. The body is a three-dimensional object composed of the four elements, whereas the soul has no spatial dimensions. Soul is a kind of substance, participating in reason, fit for ruling the body.”

Augustine was a strong compatibilist between faith and reason. But more importantly, he set and popularised the dichotomy that influenced all further Christian theology

Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages there was not only the distinction  between the domains of scienta and faith but also the generalised conviction how the first (scienta, episteme, reason) was limited to make claims about matters of the second. This follows from Augustinian ideas, if there are two separate worlds, then it needs to be decided how one can get to know each world.

This state of affairs gave the opportunity to St. Thomas Aquinas to become the most illustrious Doctor of the Church. Thanks to Averroes, Aristotle had been reintroduced in Europe (which caused panties to get in a bunch). Aristotle defended reason as divine or partly divine, and this allowed Aquinas to attempt to synthesize reason and revelation, to make them compatible, against the current held Zeitgeist.

“Thomas believed that truth is known through reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation). Supernatural revelation has its origin in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is made available through the teaching of the prophets, summed up in Holy Scripture, and transmitted by the Magisterium, the sum of which is called “Tradition”. Natural revelation is the truth available to all people through their human nature and powers of reason. For example, he felt this applied to rational ways to know the existence of God.

Though one may deduce the existence of God and his Attributes (Unity, Truth, Goodness, Power, Knowledge) through reason, certain specifics may be known only through the special revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The major theological components of Christianity, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, are revealed in the teachings of the Church and the Scriptures and may not otherwise be deduced.”

That was his position on the double truth issue. Double-truth theory is the view that religion and philosophy, as separate sources of knowledge, might arrive at contradictory truths without detriment to either. Of course, sparked by the dichotomy that Augustine had set up.

High Middle Ages

Aquinas ended not being as influential as he had desired. After he had died Luther would spark the Reformation – which was massively influential. Being a skeptic of philosophy (reason) to get to God he promoted the Sola Fide (By faith alone) doctrine where one could get to God just holding on to the interior spark of the divine. Faith then had precedence over reason.
“Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason but none about loving God, which to Luther was more important. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he thereafter developed a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter’s emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and Scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.”
“Some have asserted that Luther taught that faith and reason were antithetical in the sense that questions of faith could not be illuminated by reason. He wrote, “All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false.” and “[That] Reason in no way contributes to faith. […] For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things.”

Modern period

The Enlightenment
That the Enlightenment is know as The Age of Reason should point as to what was winning the reason/faith fight by then.
The Enlightenment is the date where rationalisation and secularisation overthrow theology’s 1000 years hold on philosophy. Theological issues get reduced to a secondary status.
Interestingly, Descartes had managed to put reason and God on the same side. In his quest for absolute certainty he came up with the idea of an evil demon, that had been deceiving him forever. Thus, he could not be certain of any of his beliefs. After using this to justify his radical skepticism, he starts rebuilding his beliefs anew from immediately grasped and absolutely certain intuitive truths. He first build God, and secondly claims that God has all perfections and no imperfections and that the will to deceive is an imperfection. It thus follows that God exists (which he had derived before) and that God cannot be a deceiver. Thus, reason can get to higher truths by building up from immediately grasped and absolutely certain intuitive truths because God exists and is not a deceiver.
Whereas St. Thomas Aquinas was absolutely focused on God and uniting faith and reason was a secondary interest due to his admiration for Aristotle, Descartes was absolutely focused on reason having God as a crutch to his philosophical system.
German Romanticism
German Romanticism is a  reaction against the Enlightenment. Romanticism was “a European cultural revolt against authority, tradition, and Classical order (the Enlightenment); this movement permeated Western Civilization over a period that approximately dated from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. In general, Romanticism is that attitude or state of mind that focuses on the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the creative, and the emotional.”
The idea of the passions pitted agains reason was old -deriving from Roman Stoicism, where the Stoics sided with reason. Being a reaction to the Enlightenment the Romantics sided with emotion, and pitted emotion against reason.

Contemporary Period

Stretching the faith (revelation by God) vs reason dichotomy as far as I can, we can find it in the contemporary Zeitgeist. It is played as listening to “your heart over your head”, or listening “to your gut” – likely influenced by Romanticism.

The psychology of judgement and decision-making has further refined these notions but is still reliving the same frame. The Heuristics and Biases approach sets up 2 systems pitted against each other, a slower smarter one and a faster brute-force one. It then claims that one needs to overcome the intuitive responses with the slower system to achieve the correct answers (reason over the interior spark of the divine). The Fast and Frugal Heuristics approach launches into an apologia of the interior spark of the divine claiming that gut feelings or intuitions (revelation) are in the right except in artificial, contrived situations.

I’m confident this dialectic plays out in more places. The religion vs science wars seems to be the extreme polarisation of the positions of incompatibilism, each taking a different side. The non-overlapping magisteria idea by Gould is a modern dualistic, incompatibilist idea aiming at peaceful coexistence. (As reason progresses it destroys more and more of what faith holds and thus compatibilism becomes increasingly impossible.)

(Aquinas eventually won out, at least in Christian theology)


It should be clear from this analysis that modern beliefs about rationality are very much historically situated. (I think the demonstration is not needed in the case of Descartes given that his first step in his philosophy, after extreme skepticism, was to prove the existence of God.) I limited myself to the history of theology, not undertaking a history of the concept of rationality proper.
Clearly, the history of theology approach taken to history of ideas was elucidating. In hindsight, this is not surprising: philosophy was theology for 1000 years, we’ve only had them separated for some 300 years. I talked about the importance of philosophy for situating world views here.
Other interesting connections spring to mind once we take this history of theology approach:
  • The relationship between the City of God and the City of Man, is seen in Descartes as mind vs body (mind is nonmaterial substance and does not follow the laws of nature). In contemporary philosophy of mind you have qualia to fill the soul-shaped hole.
  • Free will. Originally how to explain that ‘divine foreknowledge’ – God’s knowledge of what will happen in the future – is compatible with free will. Now how to connect a mechanistic deterministic universe with human freedom.
It is interesting that we see the same or similar dialectic playing out through the ages. This is a fact in need of explanation. In the next essay I look at some possible explanations.

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