Faith and Reason United by Ludwig Seitz. Via Wikimedia Commons

Faith and Reason: Beyond the Black Legend

An interview with sociologist Rodney Stark on the struggle between faith and reason. “From the very beginning, the Church stressed that if something is truly Christian, it will be reasonable.”
Letizia Bardazzi

In 2005, when The Victory of Reason appeared in bookstores, the reaction of the American cultural world was split between cries of indignation and warm enthusiasm–sentiments that accompany works destined to leave a mark. A good number of the critics belonged to the world of the dominant mentality that Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, was undermining, those who see Western history as the struggle of secular and “illuminated” culture to free itself from the obscurantist yoke of Catholicism. For them, it is a secular dogma to hold that Europe only began to emerge and truly breathe with the Renaissance and Reformation, when it was intellectually “liberated” from ecclesiastical authority and thus capable of giving life to capitalism and scientific progress.

Arguing on the basis of rigorous research and an adequate use of reason, Stark, who teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, countered that the idea doesn’t stand up to the facts. The Middle Ages established the foundations for all the later innovations. Catholicism, far from holding back scientific ideas or economic development, was instead their true promoter.
Among those struck by Stark’s work, Maria Teresa Landi, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, and some others invited Stark to the presentation of Fr. Giussani’s book, Is It Possible to Live This Way?. Stark willingly accepted the invitation to discuss “faith as the flower that blooms at the apex of reason,” not only participating in the presentation, but also spending several hours in Washington, DC, conversing with the Italian scientist and her friends (“It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’ve had in a while,” he said). We offer here some notes from that conversation.

Your sociological-historical research shows the Church as a protagonist of history and human progress. Why is this? What aspect of the Christian outlook has most favored this protagonism?
Let’s start out from a fact. Once upon a time, there were a couple hundred Christians, scattered around. Pretty soon, just three centuries later, there were a few million of them, and eventually they became the Roman Empire–who else could be a protagonist of history other than this enormous cultural force? Then, as the Empire declined and fell apart, the Church basically was the only unifying force of Europe. In important ways, the real vehicles for carrying Western civilization were the monks in the monasteries. They not only kept classical learning alive; in some ways, that was the least of it. The monks invented many things and inaugurated all kinds of learning, technology, and innovation that, for one reason or another, the Enlightenment philosophy told us didn’t happen. This philosophy would have us believe that Rome fell, and somehow at the appearance of the Enlightenment, culture and technology surfaced again. But the question is, how did culture and technology get from there to here? In fact, a lot of how culture and technology got from there to here happened in the monastic estates. The truth is that the Church supported a kind of culture that was very open to change. For example, in terms of cultural change, Christianity was the first civilization ever in human history to get rid of slavery (slavery disappeared by the end of the 9th and the early 10th century). For centuries, the Church and Western civilization really can’t be separated–the two are the same.

What is it in the Christian outlook that helped foster this role?
Well, I think it’s Christianity’s really fundamental commitment to reason. Look at the various pagan temple faiths. They weren’t about reason. They were about stories. They were about sacrifices. The gods were not admirable; they didn’t care about us. You just had to know what you needed to do to bribe them; there was no theology involved. The Jews had theology; nobody else did. Christianity started as the Jewish faith and, from day one, the Christians were caught up in this argument or dialogue with the Jews about whether Christianity fulfills the prophecies or not. This issue can only be dealt with intellectually. …And, from the very beginning, the Church stressed… that if something is truly Christian, it will be reasonable, that God gave us the power of reason, etc. These are very important things. If you really do celebrate reason and reasoning, everything changes.

What was the relationship between reason and faith for the first Christians?
From the very beginning, the justification of the faith could not be based only on faith. You couldn’t go around telling people, “Believe in Jesus, believe in Jesus.” You had to say, “Believe in Jesus because of this reason and that reason.”…Only now is there a beginning of recognition of the fact that early Christianity was not the religion of the slaves and the poor and the miserable, but was a religion that recruited greatly the upper class, the intellectuals. This is very significant. You see, we often make a terrible mistake about Jesus…

What mistake?
We’re afraid of His humanity. There’s a whole series of heresies in which you don’t really believe that Jesus was real–that He made footprints. But if we really accept His full humanity, as Scripture tells us to, then we’ve got to realize that He had to learn to walk, He had to learn to read. Who knows when He first discovered who He really was and what His mission was? It’s entirely possible that it happened at His baptism. I don’t know. But the point is, it’s silly not to think that the man was educated.

What you are saying really echoes what we heard often from Fr. Giussani: the insistence on the humanity of Jesus, the insistence on reason, the connection between what is reasonable and your heart.
It’s the humanity. There’s a real tendency for good Christians to kind of secretly think, “Well, of course He can do everything and He can speak all languages–why do we worry about whether He preached in Hebrew or Aramaic? He could have spoken in Romanian.” That’s wrong. You know the line that upsets an awful lot of very smart Christians is when He’s on the Cross and He says, “Father, why have You forsaken Me?” It’s because He’s fully human. A lot of Christians have real trouble with that passage. It seems too human. Too un-Christ-like. He knows He is supposed to be dying on the Cross; what’s the big deal? The big deal is that He’s got nails in His hands. The big deal is He’s fully human. He hasn’t died and been resurrected yet. It hasn’t happened; this is a human being. But because, somehow, the churches have not stressed the humanity, a lot of Christians get very uneasy with this, and they shouldn’t.

The emphasis on Christ’s humanity connects to the emphasis on the reasonableness of religion: if the channel for our salvation is something that’s really human, it’s therefore necessarily reasonable. What do you think of the fact that in the world one perceives the conflict more than the harmony between religion and progress, religion and reason?
Well, a lot of it is propaganda. Remember that Marxism was a big factor in the 20th century and they spent billions of dollars promoting atheism.

For what purpose? What was their motivation?
Well, partly because they thought that Christianity held people down and whatnot. And partly because they saw Christianity as the enemy, as competition. They wanted the hearts and souls for the State. And they never got there.

Fr. Giussani speaks of the religious sense as a structural need for truth–a structure inherent to the human heart–and of faith as the discovery, within the encounter with Christ and those who follow Him, of what corresponds to the need for truth of each person’s heart.
Basically, faith and reason are not synonyms. Reason can take you to a certain point, but then there has to be an act of faith, because there’s no way we can prove that the Resurrection happened.

So, what is your conception of faith and reason?
Well, I think there comes a point where you either make the faith commitment or you don’t.

On the basis of what?
I’m not sure. Reason brings you to the point where you see the choice. For a lot of people, it’s based on the way they’ve been raised. I’ve heard a lot of people say that, in the end, it also seemed like the most sensible choice. For me, and I was an agnostic for 50 years probably, intelligent design is simply undeniable. It is by far the most economic and limpid of the possible explanations. And once you reason your way there, then the door of faith is wide open. It says, well, now here you are. Here’s another part of reality that has to be known in a different way.

Fr. Giussani speaks about faith as the flower of grace that is reached through the path of reason–first, you need reason.
It is all reasonable. But while the details of the Christ story can be reasoned about, you can’t reason to accepting them as true. It seems to me there are a lot of people who’ve had salvation experiences. I haven’t, but a lot of people have. These experiences get awfully close to a kind of extension of reason. What truly counts in religion is experience. We know about it from the literature and from all these famous people, but it’s such an enormous part of daily life.

What is your view of the official historiography, which tends to obliterate the role of Church? In fact, it considers the Church as something downright negative…
The history taught in America derived directly from British history, Protestant history. I’ll give you an example. I’m writing a whole chapter on the Inquisition. The Spanish Church authorities gave a group of historians full access to the complete archives of the Spanish Inquisition. There were 41,000 cases, and many of these cases were written up in 200 and 300 pages. These historians documented that the institution was mostly a force for moderation, sanity, and decency, and that its functionaries didn’t burn witches. They were the greatest force against the witchcraft trials in the whole of Europe. A few people did die over witchcraft–do you know who they were? The Inquisition had some guys hanged for burning witches. They sent some emissaries off to where some witches had been burned. They came back after 18 months and said they couldn’t find a single witch in the whole place. They didn’t say there weren’t any, but that they couldn’t find them.... There were some guys who said they found some, and they were hung. Some they sentenced to 20 years of prison. They did burn some books, but they weren’t science books. A few of them were Lutheran theology, but most of them were pornography. What we fail to realize is that very quickly after they had the imprimatur for religious book sales, the earliest printers discovered that dirty books sold well, so they started printing them. And the Inquisition said, “These books are indecent; burn them!”…There was an enormous anti-Catholicism built into the English rivalry with Spain, and they started telling these dreadful tales about the Catholic Church. All this stuff was picked up uncritically by English historians–and American historians–and most of it, in fact, was falsehood. It just didn’t happen. The whole notion that the Church was so wildly opposed to science and so repressive just isn’t true. The Church was pretty easy-going; most of the time they didn’t give a hoot. The whole thing with Galileo… was a completely misunderstood story.

Can I ask a personal question? What are your religious beliefs, your convictions?
There are a lot of things I’m not sure about. I’ve always been strongly a cultural Christian; that is to say, there is no question in my mind that Christianity was an intrinsic and leading part of what I call Christendom, or Western Civilization. Anybody who thinks otherwise is just silly. For centuries, the Church was the only intellectual court we had. All the universities were Catholic. I met some great scholars at them. When I decided that I was a believer, it started with God. And I think that, legitimately, I fully qualify as a Christian… The details of what I actually believe are often murky because I just don’t know a lot, but the basic outline holds true for me.