Book Review: Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – By C. Stephen Evans

 

faithbeyondreasonAll throughout history, and especially since the Enlightenment, the question of how we know what we know has been a big question. Within Christianity this has played out in the debate of how faith and reason interact – is one to have precedence over the other, and if so, how does this work itself out practically.

In his book – Faith Beyond Reason, A Kierkegaardian Account – C. Stephen Evans provides his contribution to this discussion. Tracing the history of his thought through Aquinas to Kant to Kierkegaard (with special focus no the latter), Evans formulates an account of what he calls ‘responsible fideism’, that is “fideism that can be rationally defended.”

The primary theme of Evans is the outworking of this responsible fideism, discussing the ways in which faith is both above reason and the ways in which it is against reason. The first aspect is framed in a discussion of whether there are limits to reason and whether we can come to know these limits – Evans concludes that there are and that we can, and in lie with Aquinas and Kant asserts that there are many aspects of faith which are beyond the scope of reason.  The second aspect is primarily built upon Evans’ reading of Kierkegaard, and is set in the context of the Christian doctrine of the fall (and thus the noetic effects of sin). In this latter discussion Evans distinguishes between reason as it works in its ideal state and reason as it works in its concrete state (that is, in its actual workings in the fallen human); it is only reason in it’s concrete state, it’s state of fallenness, that faith may be said to be properly against reason.

Evans conclusion is that “perhaps it is best to describe such a faith as faith beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this. The metaphor of ‘beyond’ aptly conveys the thrust of the historic Augustinian view of faith seeking understanding. What is sought is in some sense beyond, or one would not need to seek it… to understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known. From the fideistic perspective, faith that seeks this understanding is also the faith that heals reason so as to make it possible to move towards understanding. Faith both seeks and enables understanding. Faith enables human beings to move beyond the limitations of finite, fallen human reason.”(p153)

All in all Evans book is a very good read. Despite taking on a topic that is usually bogged down with dense philosophical language and obfuscation, Evans is very readable and his thought very accessible. While his book might not make for a great introduction to the discussion of epistemology and the relationship between faith and reason, it will make for a great resource in grasping this issue once the basic terms are understood. All in all it’s a good, refreshing light read given the subject matter covered.

Memorable Quotes:

-“There is a kind of circularity present when I ask myself how I know what I know. I cannot certify that this knowledge is genuine without assuming some knowledge of the same general sort. I could not, for example, test my sensory faculties to see if they are reliable without employing those very sense faculties and thus assuming they are reliable. There is no internal guarantee that I am not mistaken, and my belief that I have knowledge reveals my already-present commitments.”(p46)

-“Furthermore, it is hard to see how a logical contradiction could serve as the ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’ of reason as the incarnation is supposed to do. To recognize a ‘square circle’ as a formal contradiction one must have a fairly clear grasp of the concepts of ‘square’ and ‘circle’. In one sense at least, therefore, such a concept falls within the competence of reason. The point of the incarnation, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a concept that reason cannot understand. This is so not because reason has a perfectly clear grasp of what it means to be God and what it means to be human and properly judges that the two concepts are logically contradictory. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Human reason is baffled both by human nature and by God. It is further baffled by the conjunction of the two concepts, but not because reason has a real understanding of either what it means to be human or what it means to be God. The incarnation may appear or seem to human reason to be a logical contradiction, but it is not known to be such, and the believer does not think that it is a formal contradiction.”(p83)

-“We accept as reasonable what we are taught as reasonable, and those who control society also control what is transmitted through teaching.”(p94)

-“Objective evidence may be neither necessary nor sufficient for faith. However, it doe not follow from this that objective evidence is simply irrelevant for faith, or that the believer will have no concern for evidence.”(p110)

-“… hence religious truths are not only above but go against human reason as it concretely functions, even though such truths may not be against reason as it ideally functions. On this view faith requires the transformation of the person so that the damage done to reason can be repaired or at least alleviated.”(p152)

Specific Criticisms

While on the whole I did enjoy my reading of this book, it is far from being perfect. Perhaps the first and most annoying thing that I came across in the book is Evans’ misrepresentation of some of the thinkers in the book (such as Cornelius Van Til). While Evans does preface his discussion of the various thinkers with the statement that he may not be discussing the final thought of these individuals, it’s still annoying when he then proceeds to misrepresent them. I do not think that this is by any means intentional on his part, I still found it bothersome.

The second, and perhaps more important, criticism is that of his argument against irrationality. In his second chapter ‘Fideism as Irrationalism’ Evans states that “I shall argue that these particular claims are irrational and indefensible…”(p17) and then at various points through the rest of the book mentions how he has proven in Chapter 2 that this sort of fideism is irrational. The problem here is that this sort of fideism is asserting itself as irrational – it is hardly an argument against an irrationalist system to say that it is irrational.

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