Mondays with MacDonald (on the role of reason in faith)

Our vision is so circumscribed, our theories are so small—the garment of them not large enough to wrap us in; our faith so continually fashions itself to the fit of our dwarf intellect, that there is endless room for rebellion against ourselves: we must not let our poor knowledge limit our not so poor intellect, our intellect limit our faith, our faith limit our divine hope; reason must humbly watch over all—reason, the candle of the Lord.

George MacDonald
from Unspoken Sermons, vol. 2, “Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer”

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  • Scott Gray

    Steve–

    Why does this resonate with you?

    Scott

    • A few reasons. For one, I love the imagery: “the garment of them not large enough to wrap us in”. That captures his and my shared feelings on the shortcomings of systematic theologies. The quote helpfully distinguishes categories such as knowledge, reason, faith, and hope, and subtly subordinates the particulars of our always limited and often faulty knowledge to faith and divine hope, which themselves are rightfully recognized as subject to our reason. If our reason is really so fallen as many theologians would make it out to be, we would be helpless and dependent on divine revelation of factoids, of which we actually have precious little. Instead, it shows MacDonald’s confidence that God will function in our lives not in spite of our intellect, but through and within it.

  • Scott Gray

    Steve—

    I found this quote really interesting, because I’m not good with ‘faith without evidence or reason’ myself, and evidently MacDonald wrestles with it, too (I get the impression this quote is the conclusion to a longer argument). I ran it up the flagpole at scripture study this last weekend. Now this crowd is inclined to think about scripture study as learning; I’m inclined to think of it as wrestling.

    The ‘rebellion against one’s self’ as wrestling and learning resonated with quite a few (it sure does with me). But then, this is a group of people who come together enthusiastically once a week to engage each other and scripture, so one might expect resonance with learning, and wrestling, and rebellion.

    The stories that came out of this were, interestingly enough, not about their own rebellious experiences, but rather about the lack of rebellion among their family and friends in their faith community. Many of them spoke of someone who prided themselves in faith held without evidence or reason (knowledge). The issue came up, ‘when one begins in faith without knowledge, what responsibility do we have to look for knowledge as one ‘rebels’?’ What are our responsibilities to improve the understanding of whatever it is we have faith in, so that one’s faith becomes more rooted in some form of knowledge? Faith maturity for these folks is rooted in increased knowledge, and in not being afraid of changing one’s belief, one’s faith, as knowledge improves.

    One of the texts we looked at this week was 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, where Paul tells his readers that they are ‘stewards of the mysteries of God.’ We pulled threads about stewardship, and about the ‘mysteries of God’ (the nature of God as Trinity came up; doesn’t it always?) and about responding to mysteries with ‘that’s just what I believe’ (how is that stewardship?) or with a push for more knowledge.

    For MacDonald, a lack of knowledge mustn’t limit our faith; yet contentment in one’s faith while holding poor knowledge is good enough for some, but is not enough for this crowd.

    Once again, thanks for great stimulus for our learning, and wrestling, and rebelling.

    Scott

    • Thanks as always, Scott, for letting me in on your study group! My online presence is the only outlet I have for such useful interaction.

      Indeed, for MacDonald, Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” was something to be valued: seeking explanations and answers was an exercise that distinguished mature from weak faith. Importantly, though, another aspect of mature faith was trusting God despite not understanding. This quote strikes a fine balance, I think.