Religion/faith as knowing by practice

When we say we are speaking about the difference between faith and reason it’s easy to fall into two traps. If the word “faith” means more than “Christian dogma” then all it means is “whatever religion is”, but this is to compare the definite structure of reason and argument to a cipher, since such broadly construed religion has included everything from fideism to gnostic rationalism. If the word “faith” means just Christianity, then “reason” can mean “Islam” – and Islam has in fact been described in just this way (i.e as having all the sanity of piety and devotion with none of the complex rules or offenses to reason like man-gods or three-and-one gods.) In fact, the whole history of the Church confronts an uninterrupted “rational” alternative to its “faith”: gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Arianism, Islam, Deism, Freemasonry, Neo-Buddhist spiritualities, etc.

Any comparison between faith and reason requires specifying something common.  If we are trying to compare faith to natural theology, for example, it’s clear that both try to apprehend God.  It’s more likely we’re trying to compare religion to a at-least-possibly-secular mode of reasoning, and then what is common not that they are both seeking God but that they both try to apprehend ultimate realities. Even under this vague account of common aims, there is still a telling and underdeveloped account of religion/ faith as what seeks to apprehend the ultimate by practice as opposed to what tries to apprehend the ultimate by discourse. Said another way, the basic claim of all religions is that ultimate reality is something one knows by doing. One has to develop a taste for what is ultimate whereas logical discourse always remains extrinsic to reality apprehended in this way. One knows either by discourse and abstraction or by concrete practice.

All that enters into personal identity (or at least all that is positive) has this bivalent mode of knowing. National identity is knowable in one way by abstract predicates and historical accounts and in another way by lifetime citizenship. Sexual orientation, gender identity, any virtue, married or religious life, and a raft of other predicates are also all knowable by either “faith or reason” meaning “either by practice or by discourse”.

None of this is either an apologia or critique of faith or reason. There are presumably as many kinds of bad practice as bad reasoning (can ultimate things be known by the practice of, say, using psychedelics? Child sacrifice?) and it’s possible to form a critique that ultimate reality is not the sort of thing one can know by practice or co-naturality. But it clarifies things to see that this is what religion is really up to, no matter what one sees as its relation to reason.

There might be a temptation to see the co-natural or practice-based mode of knowing as primary. Doesn’t any description of it take the behavior for granted? But this overlooks that all things of this type also have normative descriptions that determine what will count as a fact or an experience of some mode of life. If Ireland is Catholic, then everyone on the island before Patrick was proto-Irish and the Orangemen don’t enter into description of Irish identity. Ditto for any account of who is an African, who is married, wise, just, etc.



  1. September 14, 2017 at 3:58 am

    St Thomas, and following him J.H. Newman, took the approach that faith is accepting on authority, while reason is accepting on evidence.

    With regards to the Christian religion, it seems that what is to be accepted on authority is specifically the claim of the resurrection and consequently the divine vindication of Christ as messiah and the truth of the Christian revelation. This claim of the resurrection is made first by the college of the apostles (the testimony seems to have been institutionalised quite early, as evidenced by the election of Matthias as replacement for Judas) and by their successors.

    In this sense, Muslims, Pagans and Buddhists have faith only insofar as they can be said to accept some revelation as authoritative.

    On this account, knowing “by practice” is perhaps not too different from accepting “by discourse”, both being cases of accepting on evidence, though the nature of that evidence differs.

    It may well be objected, that perhaps we cannot believe anything without evidence of some kind, be it abstract, experiential, mystical…, and indeed our reasons for accepting as true an authority in some question depends on some such evidence for their competence to judge.

    • September 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      In the OP I’m only talking about “faith” so far as it is used as a synonym for “religion”, which is a largely inaccurate description of religion by synecdoche. The point was not to give an account of faith but of one extension of the term. One difficulty in defining religion has been just this fact that it is formally practice and not belief, even if many religions have beliefs concomitant with the practice. Religion as such, however, requires no faith/belief, at least not in any firm creedal sense.

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