On Faith and Reason
By Swami Tripurari
When reason serves revelation it finds its proper place as an aspect of faith. As an aspect of faith reason is most useful and beautiful. It becomes a tool of the soul rather than its betrayer.
In what sense is reason an aspect of faith? Is not faith that which those lacking reason resort to? Such questions betray a superficial understanding of the nature of faith. Faith fully understood amounts to conformity to truth, whereas rational thought is but an imperfect means of apprehending truth. Conforming to truth involves apprehending or understanding it theoretically, but theoretically understanding truth does not necessarily involve conforming to it.
As Karen Armstrong points out, the Latin word credo derives from cordare: to give one’s heart, to commit oneself. Such commitment fosters understanding of something that intellectual fence-sitting cannot. It is with a similar understanding of faith (sraddha) that Thakura Bhaktivinoda equates it with surrender (saranagati), as does Sri Krishna in the Gita, when having awakened Arjuna’s faith in bhakti‘s efficacy he tells him that the practical application of his faith is surrender.
The world above and within, which includes within its circle the world below and without, represents itself before us symbolically. Its symbols, its myths are no more facts that one must blindly believe in than they are tales that need to be empirically proved before one proceeds to embrace them. Mythos is not logos but neither is it irrational to embrace the mythic and symbolic in the pursuit of knowing that which logos can never reveal. Nor is it logical to dispense with mythos altogether in the name of logos.
The fact that faith in its embrace of the symbolic is transrational—that it involves experience beyond that which is possible through rational thought alone—does not imply that it itself is irrational. Faith for good reason arises out of the mystery that underlies the very structure and nature of reality, a mystery that in its entirety will never be entirely demystified despite what those who have placed reason on their altar might like us to believe. The mystery of life that gives rise to faith as a supra-rational means of unlocking life’s mystery—one that reason does not hold the key to—suggests that faith is fundamentally rational in that it is a logical response to the mysterious. When faced with the great unknown we must find reason to trust.
But are we sure that reason does not have the potential to demystify life, rendering it static, meaningless, and boring? If faith has an influence in our lives, should we not be able to measure it? But can we even measure a simple line any more than in a pragmatic working sense, which has value only in terms of accomplishing a task? Can we measure what a line is?
Timothy Scott argues that if we try to understand a line as the sum of its points, we must start at one of its point and begin our measurement from there. From the starting point of our measurement a second point is considered in relation to the first point. However, as soon as the measurer moves to the second point on the line, the relationship between the original point and the second point point changes in that it now lacks the element of measurer’s direct experience of it. The two points can be understood in relation to one another, but their relationship differs when observed from either point. At the same time, as Meister Eckhart has pointed out, a point itself does not have a quality of magnitude and thus does not lengthen the line of which it is the principle. Thus by mathematical measurement we can only arrive at a subjective approximation of the nature of the line we are measuring, and after all, the Sanskrit word “maya,” often translated as “illusion,” also means “to measure.”
Need we measure faith in order to believe in its revelatory potential? Better to question our faith in reasoning and empiricism in terms of their capacity to arrive at comprehensive knowing. This is especially so when, left to themselves, the knowing they could provide, if it were comprehensive, would take the mystery out of life. Faith on the other hand affirms life’s mysterious nature. If faith is the giving of one’s heart, it has much to do with love, in the absence of which reason alone does not qualify as a substitute.
This article originally appeared in Ananda, 1, 2009