People often ask me how being a philosopher fits with being a Mormon. That is a bit of a funny question for me because in my mind the two are really inseparable. Philosophy is the search to know and understand the most important truths, and to seek out and live by these truths is also the core of religious faith. The existence and nature of God and the best way to live have always been central topics in philosophy, and so for me, faith and philosophy are two aspects of the same process. There are reasons why people wonder how well they fit, though.
For most of the history of philosophy, faith and philosophy have been natural companions. Plato moved freely between logic and human experience on the one hand and myth, oracles, and inspiration on the other, as sources and support for his ideas. Al-Ghazali (a Muslim), Maimonides (a Jew), and Thomas Aquinas (a Christian) all relied on both human reasoning and religious authority in their work to understand, clarify, and support the most important truths. This was possible and natural for them because they found the messages of reason and revelation to be consistent with one another. Part of their task, as they understood it, was to show that where there appeared to be conflict, this was a result of either flawed reasoning or a misunderstanding of revelation, and to correct these errors.
Faith and philosophy have had something of a falling out, though, since the Enlightenment, or since the Reformation, which we might also see as two sides of the same centuries-long process. Both movements saw serious problems in Christian institutions, which caused them to rethink their relationship with human and divine authority.
Reformation leaders such as Luther and Calvin felt that false teachings had entered the Christian tradition, partly through reliance on human reasoning, including Greek philosophy. They also saw serious sin and corruption among even the leaders of the church. In response, they emphasized human weakness, both intellectual and moral, in contrast with the purity and authority of God. They worked to minimize the need for mediating priests and any tradition of human teaching beyond the scriptures.
Enlightenment thinkers increasingly came to see the claims of religious authorities as unreasonable, and the authorities themselves as untrustworthy. The Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on Ptolemaic astronomy was one of the more spectacular points of disagreement, but Enlightenment thinkers also found it difficult to accept traditional explanations for the existence of so much evil generally in the creation of a perfectly good and powerful God, and the collusion of many ecclesiastical authorities in particular with corrupt, tyrannical rulers. Rejecting the established authorities, philosophers increasingly looked for new conceptions of God (such as deism), or new conceptions of the world that did not rely on God. Philosophers such as Kant and Mill maintained that it was degrading to accept any form of authority, and insisted that individual autonomy in both belief and action was essential to human dignity.
Both sides came to see faith as antithetical to reason, both because they could not intellectually reconcile their conclusions, and also because each came to represent a different moral ideal. Proponents of reason emphasized the greatness of human potential and the dignity of autonomous thought and decision, which was incompatible with relying on any authority. Proponents of faith emphasized human weakness and sin, and the need to submit unquestioningly to the authority of God, setting aside even one’s reason. Essentially these same positions remain the most influential perspectives today.
However, as a Mormon, I have a different perspective on this story. Unable to reconcile faith and reason, Reformation and Enlightenment thinkers concluded that in principle they cannot be reconciled. From a Mormon standpoint, though, the problems in the Christian establishment at the time of Luther and Galileo were just that, problems in the Christian establishment. The solution is not to divorce reason from faith, or faith from reason, but to restore true authority and teaching, as Joseph Smith did, and to engage reason with a correct faith.
Intellectually, a correct understanding of revelation can be reconciled with human reason. Where revelation and reason seem to diverge, we should look for errors on one side or both. Too often what pass for the claims of “reason” are actually claims accepted from intellectual authorities without sufficient reflection. Similarly, too often we misunderstand revelation, or mix human errors with divine truths. Jesus didn’t reject the misguided questions of the scribes and pharisees; he answered them with stronger reasons because he knew the truth, and this is in part what made his authority clear. We too need a robust rational engagement with faith, to maintain our understanding of religious truths (not merely inert possession) and to keep our rational inquiries from becoming embedded in the errors that may arise from neglecting religious truths. As I understand them, LDS scriptures call us to use reason and faith together (e.g. D&C 50:10-12, Luke 24: 15).
In this enterprise, the specific differences between LDS and traditional Christian teachings are crucial. It is my view that some traditional Christian claims do not add up from a rational standpoint, but that many of these are themselves the results of flawed human reasoning which were then adopted by ecclesiastical authorities. LDS teachings differ substantially on the account of creation, the nature of God, the basis and results of divine judgment, and the role of sin and evil in God’s plan, and differ in ways that render them rationally defensible and appealing. Certainly traditional Christianity has produced and continues to support a dynamic intellectual tradition despite and at times because of the rational difficulties with its doctrines, but LDS beliefs provide a basis for intellectual life that is at least as fertile and stimulating, and may prove more sustainable.
Morally, subjection to tyrants and false priests is degrading, but submission to loving guidance and just laws is ennobling. Our knowledge and understanding at each stage of our lives is limited, and we need the guidance of authorities, including parents, teachers, laws, and ecclesiastical leaders, to reach our full potential both intellectually and morally. On the other hand, mere passive acceptance is not the end goal of faith. We should confirm the claims of human authorities on matters of religion by going to God in prayer (Moroni 10:4), and actively engage our faculties to understand the truth (D&C 9:7-8, 50, 17-22). Even God’s authority should have the ring of truth to it, when we listen sincerely. As Paul says, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16). We are also called to exercise our reason to expand and go beyond the knowledge that comes from revelation. God does not want us to wait for him to tell us what to think, when we are in a position to work it out for ourselves (D&C 58:26-8), and the inquiries of philosophers, scholars, and scientists across history, religious and non-religious, have yielded many precious insights.
Faith is trust, but we must judge well and responsibly where to place our trust, and use our reason in order to carry out that trust intelligently. Similarly, living by our own reason and judgment carries a certain dignity where we are competent to judge, but to insist on one’s own judgment, against the advice of another who knows better, is merely willful and rash. Thus the proper exercise of faith requires reason, and sound reasoning calls us to exercise faith where appropriate.
Faith and philosophy haven’t always been an easy mix for me. In my teen years I felt quite keenly the tension between essentially the moral ideals of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Thinking this was what faith required, I wondered how it could be responsible not to exercise my own judgment. After years of prayer and struggle, I was about to conclude that faith in God was a mistake, when I read D&C 67:6-7 and realized that in this passage, God was challenging me to assess his teachings according to my own judgment. Clearly there was more to faith than I had realized.
Recognizing that faith and reason are compatible in principle, however, is not the same as actually finding their claims harmonious. Accepting the challenge, I began to study LDS scriptures with a new perspective and energy. I was persuaded that God was worth listening to, and open to the idea that he might be right. This is a beginning for faith (compare Alma 32:26-7). I recognized early that it was hard not to admire the moral example of Christ. It took longer for me to conclude that I believed the Book of Mormon, though not some things others had said about it. To solidify trust in the LDS Church as an institution took two years as a hopeful but questioning missionary, and a lot of reassurance from God along the way. For the forseeable future there will remain aspects of the LDS tradition I am not sure how to understand, but I have come to trust it, and that trust is continually rewarded. Integrating faith and reason is a lot of work, but I have found that the tension between the two is a creative one, with each side shaping the other and making it much richer than it could be on its own.
Christ teaches that we will not receive the full truth unless we assimilate it actively and ask for more: “seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7); “unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have” (2 Nephi 28:30). As a part of this progression, we should expect that our initial, childlike understandings of some gospel truths will prove to be inadequate, but that a more subtle and complete understanding is waiting for us as we become ready to receive it (Articles of Faith 9, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12). As I understand it, to use my reason in an active process of discerning and discovering the truth is required by my faith, and the message of the LDS scriptures proves to be more impressive and convincing the more I examine and question them.
Benjamin I. Huff is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He was born in Virginia, then lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for seven years before attending high school in California, at The Cate School. He was a missionary in Japan (Tokyo South Mission) from 1992-94 and completed a B.A./B.S. with Honors in philosophy and mathematics at Brigham Young University in 1996. He completed an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in 2006, with a dissertation in virtue ethics. He was among the founders of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology and currently serves as its Secretary/Treasurer. His research and teaching interests include ethics, philosophy of religion, and ancient Greek and Confucian philosophy.
Posted July 2010