Rational Fideism

by Domenic Marbaniang [1]

There are three chief epistemological approaches to the study of God, namely, the rational approach, the empirical approach, and the revelational or Sabdic approach. Neither the rational approach nor the empirical approach is theologically effective; it is only through a subjective urge of faith and a rational fideistic appropriation of revelation that one can ever come to know God.

The rationalist tradition only leads to a monistic view of divine reality. This is so because with the expulsion of empirical categories, reason is left with nothing other than its own features of unity, transcendence, immutability, universality, and necessity. Thus, one sees in Zeno’s paradoxes that there is a seeming contradiction between the results of rational analysis and that of experience. Zeno showed that plurality and mobility of experience is rationally impossible. In the India peninsula, Gaudapada of the Advaita tradition (8th century AD), showed through analysis of consciousness and causal relations that reality is fundamentally non-dual. Advaitism goes a step further than Greek philosophy in trying to provide an explanation for the diversity of phenomena. According to it, it is by the power of Maya that the non-dual absolute appears to itself as the universe. Obviously, the demand of experience for a cosmological explanation from reason leads to a point of irrationality. Maya is neither existent nor non-existent; for if it is existent, then non-duality is false; however, if it does not exist, then it can have no power of delusion.

The same frustration between reason and experience is visible during the Enlightenment in the development of German Idealism. Immanuel Kant attempted to harmonize them in his theory of phenomenalism; however, his theory only tended towards skepticism. Kant attempted to answer the conflict by attributing to the mind the interpretation of nature in the appearances that we know it as. However, this only increased skepticism in the field of knowledge in the attempt to preserve both reason and experience. Fichte decided to solve this by positing an absolute ego whose counterpart, the finite ego, attempts to master nature to conform it to the ideals of reason. Yet, the dualist problem wasn’t solved and various attempts can be seen in pantheistic naturalism, absolute idealism, and panentheism to bridge the chasm between the two sources of knowledge, i.e., between reason and experience (between mind and nature). The revulsion against rationalizing nature became sore, however, with the emergence of logical positivism that regarded all metaphysics as nonsensical; but, this couldn’t prevent counter-reactions in New Age, in postmodernism, and in energy and consciousness cults. Reason always attempts some kind of a unity and quintessentiality of all reality. The failure to harmonize reason and experience leads to even greater metaphysical problems. Thus, the problem of the rational approach has been shown. The problem is that reason fails to adequately relate itself to experience and consequently, its inference regarding reality is devoid of empirical or practical value.

The empirical approach, on the other hand, failed to go beyond experience in its search for divine reality. The empirical epistemics of divine reality does not go beyond the limits of experience and regard divinity to be empirically conceivable. Animism and polytheism multiply and diversify the deities. Pantheism, not to be confused with monism, regards all nature as divine. Pantheism does retain the notion of plurality though attributing divinity to everything. It has also been shown that these theologies only reflect the results of empirical observations and are consistent in maintaining the phenomenal reality of the universe as plural, contingent, changing, and finite. However, this is done at the expense of reason. Consequently, absolutes and abstract values are in danger. Good and evil are the result of imperfect creation either synonymous with or continuous with divinity which itself is imperfect, finite, and changing. As such, the world does not have a necessary, unified, eternal, and immutable ground of existence. The skeptical side has been taken by skepticism (as reflected in David Hume), the logical positivists, pragmatism, and mysticism. One argument of Hume was that all that one can gather from one’s experience is that some finite god or gods may have created the world. This imperfect world could never be a creation of a perfect God. He also showed that the concept of causal relation may be farfetched. The positivists rejected all metaphysics as empirically worthless. Pragmatism relativized truth and thus destroyed the basis for absolutes. Mysticism, however, though related to theologies, is not theological in itself but relies highly on experience much of which can be reproduced by usage of certain drugs. Thus, when empirically searching for God one gets back to nothing but nature itself. In that sense, one has not discovered God but only nature.

Those in the fideistic school have basically argued that knowledge of God is impossible without God revealing Himself to man. Kierkegaard pointed out that the subjective is crucial to the epistemic event. Barth and Brunner showed that apart from revelation man could in no way come to know God. Ross has shown that there are inner convictors that propel one’s will-to-believe. Further, Plantinga and Swinburne, by an exposition of basic beliefs, have shown that belief in God can also be basic and so is in need of no evidence. Overall, however, it must be added, that this cannot mean that faith becomes rationally irresponsible. Rationality of faith in revelation is significant. Revelation must be verbal in the first place. The verbal nature of revelation presupposes rationality of faith. Faith is indispensable to any epistemics. Faith is the foundation of all knowledge and knowability. Reason has no reason to justify itself apart from reasoning itself. This means that unless reason believes in itself it cannot proceed at all. Likewise, unless experience is credible, one cannot proceed with certainty. Thus, faith is the foundation of knowledge and knowability. Since reason and experience are incapable of crossing their finite horizons in order to know ultimate reality, revelation is necessary. The particularity of Biblical Revelation is that it affirms the distinctiveness of divine reality from this-worldly-reality. There can be no rational or even empirical transition from the ultimate of this-worldly-reality to divine reality itself. This is only given in Revelation.

The quest for ultimate reality, however, must not be dissected from the existentiality of the seeker. Existential passions give birth to the philosophical quest for the absolute. The existential passions are governed by the inability to find a harmony in the noetic mechanism of experience and reason. This constitutes the subjectivity of man which Kierkegaard describes as infinite passion. One can ignore this existential conflict by forgetting the transcendent through rigorous absorption in the immanent; however, for the intellectual soul, this only tends towards further vexation. Faith that is rationally consistent and subjectively satisfying provides meaning to life. Thus, rational fideism as the rational adventure of faith to harmonize the inner metaphysical conflict is argued as the best epistemic of divine reality.

[1] Originally presented as abstract of dissertation on “Epistemics of Divine Reality” to the Asian Institute of Theology, Bangalore, 2007. Modified, February 2011.

Later Entries

May 22, 2015: Rational Fideism Definitions
  • The approach that sees "reason as capable of providing the intellectual foundation of faith, not a priori but a posteriori, much as philosophy provides an intellectual foundation to theology.(Patrick J. Clarke, Examining Philosophy and Ethics, Nelson Thomes, 2002. p.28)
  • "The view that the knowledge of God can be certified through faith alone that is based on a revelation that is rationally verified."(Domenic Marbaniang, Epistemics of Divine Reality, Lulu, 2011, p.162)
  • The opposite of "pure, blind, fideism", (Popkin as described by Ira O.Wade, Intellectual Origins of the French Enlightenment, Princeton University Press, 1971, p.552)
  • Involves the possibility of reason becoming self-critical. "Seeing it as the kind of responsible fideism, he states, "If human reason has limitations and also has some ability to recognise those limitations, then the possibility of responsible fideism emerges."(C. Stephn Evans, Faith Beyond Reason, Edinburgh University Press, 1998, p.55)
  • The view that "Faith, and faith alone, is the basis for our belief in our reason. We believe in our reason because we believe in God's veracity. We do not try to prove that God is truthful; we believe this. Thus, faith in God gives us faith in reason, which in turn "justifies" our belief that God is no deceiver." (Glanvill, according to Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.213)

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