Faith vs. Reason Revisited: A Case for “Natural” Ethics in Modern Discourse and Higher Education

by Jason J. Burtt

Kierkegaard believed that at its apogee, Christian faith is beyond the reach of societal norms and universal ethics and entails what he calls a “teleological suspension” or surrender of the ethical. True faith goes beyond human reason and ethical justifications—it is absurd. The single individual submits to God by faith, yet receives temporal joy and eternal life in return. While human reason is important for human flourishing, it is nevertheless ill-equipped to understand the full mystery of faith. For Kierkegaard, faith is a subjective leap that entails risk because it is grounded in holy revelation. It cannot be explained in rationalistic, or otherwise ethico-religious terms. By way of example, Kierkegaard describes how Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac out of love and obedience to God, yet “by virtue of the absurd,” God granted Abraham eternal righteousness, and of course, Isaac. This act was beyond human reason and defied ethical categories.

Some Christians feel the need to use science and philosophy to show the reasonableness of their faith and to prove they deserve a seat at the intellectual table in higher education. They claim it is not unreasonable to be a person of faith any more than it is unreasonable to be a faithful person. However, faith in Christ itself is something beyond the reach of scientific reasoning, otherwise its radical absurdity is lost. Kierkegaard was willing to embrace the paradox of subjective faith, but he recognized the real problem of trying to communicate it in scientific or ethical terms. I appreciate his honesty, and I wonder if there is something in Kierkegaard’s approach that might clarify how people of faith can meaningfully engage in secular institutions of higher education.

According to Kierkegaard’s treatment of faith, we see that at the climax of religiosity, where subjective truth and utter dependence on the divine meet, faith and science are necessarily irreconcilable. Admittedly, this flies in the face of many historical souls (such as Kant, Locke, et. al) who have earnestly wrought out the reasonableness of Christianity; nevertheless, the felt need to provide indefeasible evidence for faith is an unnecessary capitulation to modern science, and it had a major consequence for higher education. Modern secular institutions were not convinced faith could be grounded in reason—the evidence just wasn’t there—and religiously-based ethics were mostly jettisoned from curricula.

Kierkegaard’s willingness to assert faith’s otherworldliness orients my expectations for the future of ethical discourse in higher education by rooting faith in the mysterious, and allowing discourse in ethics to be carried out in the realm of objective universality. Human judgments about the nature of objective reality are shaped by social constructs, but individuals also rely on subjectivity and personal agency to make sense of the world. A proponent of personalism is the Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, who believed we are endowed with primary intuitions. The subjectivity of Kierkegaard is different than the personalism of Maritain, but there remain a few intriguing points of contact that I want to pursue. The first point of contact is mystery. Maritain writes, “…integral humanism…is of service to man and to human interests just because it will tolerate no attenuation of divine truth and because it disposes the whole man to the Folly of the Cross and to the mystery of the redeeming Blood” (45). Maritain has a distinctively Christian view of what he describes as integral humanism, and it works well for those who embrace a holistic, integral worldview of the divine in human life. Yet again, when it comes to dialoguing within a pluralistic or secularist world, my religious faith will, by definition, remain mysterious. One of my tasks as an educator is to point to the objective reality of practices claiming to be based on certain ethical principles. The practices and the principles must be amenable to universal human reason for any meaningful discussion within a pluralistic context. A Christian educator must recognize that claims of faith in the power of “the blood” will be mysteriously impenetrable for the unconverted. We are aware that religious people often reference a metaphysical or mystical backdrop when making claims about what ought to be taught as ethical. If the expectation is wide secular acceptance, then whatever reasons the religiously-minded give for a new policy, bill, or curriculum must be universally reasonable and beneficial, but also empirically verifiable. People of religious faiths have something of an obligation to use colloquial language and serve humanity in spheres that clearly have this-worldly grounding—not denying they personally espouse mysterious beliefs—but not trying to convince others their mysterious faith is not “absurd” in the Kierkegaardian sense.

The next point of contact is within the realm of the ethical, reason-based world many philosophers and theologians have called “natural law.” Natural law cannot give us saving revelation for Kierkegaard and Maritain, but it speaks to the universality of ethical categories and the freedom to act in the world as subjects. Maritain says, “the whole order of human life is not ready-made in nature and in things; it is an order of freedom; it has not just to be discovered and accepted: it has also to be made” (43). Human agency and freedom are crucial for change, and change depends on human engagement and creativity (70). Meaningful dialogue about shared ethics, inroads in liberal arts education, and renewed interest in the humanities can occur when we engage the world on common ground. That common ground is, at a basic level, the freedom we have been given to choose our behaviors and willingness to think critically.

According to Maritain we have a theocentric integral humanism, not an anthropocentric humanism. A theocentric humanism comes laden with truth claims about an otherworldly being, miracles, and other faith assertions, yet, the natural manifestations of a theocentric humanism are quite universally accepted by anthropocentric humanists. Whether or not one believes in natural law as a cosmic given, there exist universal, basic needs that make life possible for homo sapiens such as water, food, clothing, shelter, health, friendship, imagination, and education.  I suggest that if the two humanisms formed a Venn diagram, the overlap is where religious and non-religious educators can dialogue about the nature of human flourishing. The aforementioned “overlap” between theocentric and anthropocentric humanism is within the realm of ethics, democratically and sociologically understood. In other words, through cultural evolution the ethical human behaviors that survive are ones that pass the global test of long-term fitness for human flourishing.

We live in a pluralistic society where ethical teaching has been privatized; however, there are many prima facie values that many would consider publicly universal. This may come across as naïve and grossly oversimplified, but is it? Most people agree that punching a traveler in the face for cutting in line is a punishable offense; indeed, any behavior that creates chaos and perpetuates inequality is nearly universally sanctioned. The great majority of human relations exist within a dovish modus vivendi. It is not by accident that a person can travel through hundreds of global ports of entry per year (airports, train stations, bus stations, etc.) without being attacked or shamed. Our Apollonian side cares deeply about safe spaces, and less about cosmic spiritual battles. We ought not feign disagreement about the universality of basic human ethical norms—norms that are clearly missing from core curricula of secular institutions—when we benefit from them every day. While Christians might call the relative peace and goodwill we experience common grace, this theological claim is quite mysterious for someone who plainly sees “peace and goodwill” as a matter of course for our species going forward.

References from: Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence, by Jacques Maritain.


[author] [author_info] Jason Burtt is a graduate student in the sociology of religion track at Baylor University. After completing a BA in religion and philosophy at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, he earned an M.A. in theological studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, focusing on nineteenth century Protestant thought and the intersection of Christianity with culture and science.[/author_info] [/author]