Do Faith and the Intellectual Life Conflict?

On Wednesday, January 27th, I was a panelist at a forum put on by Auburn University’s Philosophy and Religion Workshop. The topic of the forum was “Faith and the Intellectual Life”. I am sharing an edited and slightly expanded version of my comments.

Source: coffeecatau
Source: coffeecatau

Defining the Question

Do faith and the intellectual life cohere or conflict? Does one keep you from full engagement in the other? This, as I understand it, is what this forum is about.

But before I can address that, I need to clarify what I mean by faith. I don’t use it in Mark Twain’s sense of believing “what you know ain’t so.” And I don’t use it in the sense of some vague hope or private belief that is unmoored from any evidence or reason, but only in what you wish or desire.

But I don’t even mean it in the more common sense of mere belief in the teachings of a religion. So I’m not talking about faith as simply the belief that, for example, there is one God who is triune in nature and that Jesus of Nazareth was incarnate Son of God. That’s a perfectly legitimate sense of faith. It’s faith as simply believing the core tenets of a religion.

So why am I not wanting to address that type of faith? Because it seems to me that that definition clearly doesn’t produce a conflict. Plenty of people with such beliefs have been among the leading intellectuals of their times. They were able to lead fulfilling intellectual lives and hold to those religious beliefs. So it seems to me that this sense of faith isn’t all that interesting. (Note, by the way, that an intellectual’s religious beliefs can be false, and he still live a fulfilling intellectual life.)

Instead, I want to speak more about the intersection of a life of faith and the intellectual life. By a “life of faith”, I don’t just mean the belief (or “faith”) in core tenets of one’s religion –– in my case, Christianity. But I mean a life that is centered on that faith: a life in which the very way one views the world is affected by one’s faith, a life involved in a religious community, a life involved in activities like prayer and reading the holy writings, and and a life shaped around the commitments of that religion.

The Intellectual Life and the Life of Faith

I’m interested in whether there is something about that life that conflicts with the intellectual life (a life of thinking, studying, reading, challenging one’s own beliefs, and so on). Is someone immersed in a devout religious life less likely to pursue the intellectual life or flourish intellectually?

For some, this still might not seem like an interesting problem. Why can’t the life of faith and the intellectual life go hand-in-hand? Haven’t there been many examples throughout history of devout believers who also flourish in the intellectual life? Did someone forget to tell Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, C. S. Lewis, Elizabeth Anscombe, and many others that they can’t be devout believers and live the intellectual life?

But there are several reasons that you might be tempted to think that the intellectual life and a life of faith don’t thrive together. I have a seven-minute time limit, so I’ll address one of them; then I’d like to give one reason I think the intellectual life and the life of faith do cohere.

Aren’t Believers Reluctant to Challenge Their Beliefs?

Let me start with the objection: you might think they don’t thrive together because a person engaged in a life of faith will be reluctant to examine, much less change, his or her central religious beliefs. I have often heard people accuse believers of that. But there are at least four reasons I think that the reluctance believers might have to examine their religious beliefs doesn’t conflict with their having a thriving intellectual life.

  1. Emotional reluctance to challenge our most cherished beliefs doesn’t disqualify people with cherished beliefs in other areas from living the intellectual life. We usually don’t think that a political theorist who has a cherished belief that, for example, the government should redistribute wealth from the extremely wealthy to the impoverished cannot live an intellectual life. The real question is whether the person will get over that reluctance and think through the belief. And a devout religious devotee is capable of overcoming that reluctance.
  2. Pursuing the intellectual life doesn’t mean you have no worldview or framework of beliefs. So it doesn’t mean that some beliefs aren’t more central to one’s way of thinking and living. For one pursuing the intellectual life in the midst of a life of faith, these core beliefs will include core religious beliefs. I think we should expect some friction when we begin challenging and considering changing core beliefs, since they are more deeply embedded in our worldview. But this is true of the core beliefs of a non-religious person. I think religious intellectuals are no more reluctant to challenge their core beliefs than a non-religious intellectual; the only difference is that the religious intellectual’s core beliefs include his or her religious beliefs. So I see no reason to think that this makes religious believers so reluctant to challenge and change their religious beliefs that they can’t lead an intellectual life.
  3. Another way the reluctance might show itself is that these core religious beliefs are changed more slowly than, say, my beliefs about whether recycling is actually environmentally beneficial. But I would expect this of atheists, too. If a leading atheist philosopher converted to evangelical Christianity, I don’t think we would expect that to be a quick change. Furthermore, I am unaware of any requirement about how quickly one changes his or her beliefs to live a flourishing intellectual life. It seems to me the main requirement is that one examine and be willing to change one’s beliefs.
  4. You might think that religious people are too reluctant to change their religious beliefs when they are presented with a compelling argument. But many people forget that a compelling argument doesn’t always make an intellectually honest person accept the conclusion; the person might decide that he is more justified in rejecting one of the premises than accepting the conclusion. So it is certainly possible, and often likely, that a person of faith who is earnestly seeking to live the intellectual life, when presented with compelling arguments that conclude with the denial of some core religious beliefs, would not accept the conclusion because he finds it more plausible to reject a premise he’d previously found reasonable. This, by the way, is an appropriate response to a compelling argument as long as you have warrant for rejecting a premise rather than accepting the conclusion. Many intellectuals respond to compelling arguments this way; it’s not simply the escape hatch for the religious intellectuals.

For those four reasons, I don’t find it compelling that religious belief makes one so reluctant to challenge your religious beliefs that you are disqualified from the intellectual life.

A Short Reason Both Cohere

So why do I believe the intellectual life and the life of faith actually reinforce one another? I don’t have time to give a long answer to this, but let me give you a short one. Most of my thinking and reading in my life have been driven by my faith. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to think about why I believe there is a God. I can’t imagine believing the Christian faith and not thinking about the nature of faith, hope, and love. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to try to live out Christ’s command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” without thinking and studying about the refugee crisis and the obligations of private citizens and nations to refugees.

And, honestly, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of understanding do not seem all that different in practice. Both requires honesty. The same honesty that makes me admit when my sexual desires turn to lust is the same honestly that makes me admit when the evidence is against a belief I hold. The same humility that makes me admit moral failings leads me to admit mistakes in reasoning. Both lead me to look to the giants of the past –– spiritual or intellectual –– and try to learn from them.

And seeking to understand God doesn’t feel all that different from seeking to understand the world He created or humanity, the apex of His creation.

So I don’t find a conflict between the intellectual life and the life of faith. I find that they support and encourage one another.

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