Approaching the Unthinkable Thought of God: Faith as Super-rational

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Faith and Reason. Read other perspectives here.

Roughly 400 years ago, modern Enlightenment thinkers such as René Descartes and John Locke asserted a radical proposition: that the mind boasted the independent capacity to rethink the world from the ground up, apart from the many untested assumptions of ages past. This power, Reason, would unveil the truest truths of the world. However, for Reason properly to do its work, it needed some important operational tools. These were thinking technologies — such as empirical demonstrability and the logical precepts of identity and noncontradiction — that determined whether an idea was "rational," and hence trustworthy, or "irrational," and hence untrustworthy. Any idea not passing the rationality test might be confidently cast off as error or superstition, or it could be resisted as oppressive tradition.

As a result, whether intended or not, Rationality thus defined across the maturation of the Enlightenment served to discredit the knowledge structures of the Catholic Church. For when tested against the strictures of rationality, medieval religion was revealed to accept far too much by "mere faith."

So then how might we understand faith's relationship to rationality now? I don't think it would be accurate to consider faith by definition "rational" because, as my mini-history above suggests, the two are separate domains of knowing. Certainly there are aspects of faith that can pass the rationality test (like the societal benefit of the Golden Rule), but there are simply far too many that don't (like the Trinity and the Resurrection). But the term "arational," understood simply as "not rational," seems to miss much of the antagonism at the heart of the modern project, whose goal was as much legitimation as delegitimation. But neither would I use "irrational" to describe faith because this label, in the sense in which we've inherited it from the Enlightenment, remains an insult; when we tell people they are "irrational," we're saying they can't think clearly.

And oh how Christian writers have anguished under this insult, desperate to prove that their faith is indeed rational — Look guys, our faith passes the test! You see? It's really not all that hokey!

But such efforts to earn the approval of the rationalist "cool crowd" finally amputate the world in which faith lives. For when you think about it, strict rationalism poses a painfully narrow gateway for all experience, all reality, to have to pass through, doesn't it? What about the immensities of reality far larger than could fit through any such gateway, stubbornly refusing to be squeezed through? Things that fail the rationality test but that remain so relentlessly real? What happens when we confront the unthinkable thought of God, arrayed as much across the sublimity of creation as in the small still voice in the heart? The God who beckons "Come reason with me" one moment and then confounds all reason the next from a shattering wind? These are the realities that in my experience have registered as most real, most true, about the world. And I could only access them through faith.

Viewed this way, the strict Rationalist appears too much like the frog: certain that its perceptions — flitting greyscale outlines, a mosquito here, blade of grass there — give it a true view of the world. The angels look down and sigh, If only he knew.…

So if faith is by definition neither "rational" nor "irrational" nor "arational," this sends us off in search for another term. This term might on the one hand acknowledge modern rationality for its many gifts, such as medicine and bridges and machines (although we should acknowledge that in saying this we ignore the millions of elephants in the room — colonialism, concentration camps, global warming, etc.). And, too, let's not forget that I'm casting my thoughts here as rationally as I can, for after all I don't want to be written off as a quack. But, on the other hand, while this new sought-after term acknowledges rationality as a tool for certain useful ends, it should also express the immensities upon immensity lying beyond its reach. "Super-rational?" "Post-rational?" "Transrational?" I've heard all of these terms thrown around.

Either way, my sense is that we're at a point where Christian intellectuals, impatient with Enlightenment dogma of legitimation, are emboldened in new ways to rewrite the terms by which we play the knowledge game. And these thinkers are returning to the understandings of faith and reason of non-modern/non-Western Christianities, from the Orthodox mystics of the East, who practice knowledge as participation ("The one who prays is a theologian"), to St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, who viewed faith and reason as elegantly continuous. One can hear this yearning in such recent book titles as Paradox Lost: Rediscovering the Mystery of God; The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs; and Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. How, these efforts ask, can we finally pry faith from rationality's hold, turning in new ways to the joyous, terrifying realities beyond? For as Pascal insisted, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."