The leap into despair

March 9, 2007 at 9:25 pm Leave a comment

A Whirlwind History of Modern Thought, Part II

(Read Part I: How Nature Ate Up Grace)

helpme.jpgOnce Thomas Aquinas made reason independent from revelation, and once the disciplines of philosophy, natural science, and theology became autonomous from each other, a problem developed: Philosophy was no longer able to come up with a unified field of knowledge.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment had set out to find a system of truth that would unify all knowledge and all human experience, but they couldn’t do it. There was no way to establish through reason alone a philosophical “answer” that would encompass all of thought and life.

The result? Philosophers began to focus on small, limited fields of knowledge, rather than the quest for “total truth.”

brickwall.jpgAnd meanwhile, intellectuals were left with a firm, impenetrable wall between rationality and faith.

On one side of this wall, the realm of rationality could tell us about the raw facts of life—it could give us mathematics and mechanics and natural science. But it couldn’t give any meaning or purpose or significance to those facts. On the basis of rationality and logic alone, human life had no meaning; humans were simply machines.

On the other side of the wall, the realm of faith was the place of meaning and significance. But this realm was divorced from logic or rationality, for it is not possible through reason alone to establish meaning or purpose in brute facts.

To find meaning, then, one must make an irrational leap of faith.

Evidence of the dichotomy

Schaeffer’s analysis of the dichotomy between faith and rationality strikes me as very true, because I hear this dichotomy expressed constantly. It’s especially evident when people talk about the supposed split between science and religion.

Science, I often hear people say, tells us the facts about how the world is, but it can’t give us meaning or morality or purpose. That’s the realm of religion (or faith).

And again, science can say nothing to prove or disprove, say, God’s existence, because science deals only with physical facts, and God is outside that realm in the realm of faith.

Statements like these are evidence of the hard and fast split between rationality and faith.

Caught under the line of despair

helpme.jpgUnfortunately, as Schaeffer points out, the human mind doesn’t like this dichotomy between faith and rationality all too well. Everyone needs meaning and purpose, but no one wants an irrational faith, a hope that we know reasonably doesn’t exist.

The idea that life has meaning might be a great idea, but if it’s not rational, it’s not satisfying. The idea that God exists and has a purpose for this world might also be a great idea, but again, if it’s not rational—if it’s a blind leap beyond the facts that we actually know—who wants to go there?

The split between rationality and faith, then, leads quickly to despondency. We don’t like the idea that man is just a machine, but the idea of faith as an irrational leap is not appealing either. Hence, modern thought, according to Schaeffer, is caught below a “line of despair.”

In search of recovery

What to do to recover from this leap into despair?

Perhaps Thomas Aquinas’s original assumption–the one that got us to this point–ought to be reconsidered: Perhaps the intellect is not unfallen; perhaps it doesn’t work to allow reason to operate independently of faith and revelation.

Worth thinking about, anyway. Go read Schaeffer’s book and think through his ideas for yourself.


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How nature ate up grace All things are ours? Share your thoughts

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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