In the 17th century a giant intellect arose in France by the name of René Descartes. He is considered by many as the father of modern philosophy. His thinking certainly served as a harbinger for the period known as the Enlightenment that would follow in the next century.
Descartes was a son of the church. He did not set out to reject faith or deny church dogma. What he did purpose to do was explore with his mind the limits of human knowledge. His pursuit of knowledge is said to have begun with a series of three visions, which he believed were divine visitations. Following these heavenly encounters, he began to explore what could be known through reason alone. There is an apocryphal legend that he enclosed himself in a barrel for these ruminations. Although this is a fanciful tale, he did seclude himself in order to explore the power of his own reason.
His thinking went along these lines. He would choose to get rid of all external authority. He would doubt everything, only keeping what his own reason indicated. Having jettisoned all authority, he was left with nothing but doubt. However, since he doubted, he reasoned that this indicated that he had thoughts, therefore he was a thinking creature. And if he could think, then he had existence—only something that is real, in existence, can think. This is the origin of his famous phrase—cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.”
Based on the fact of his own existence as a thinking being, Descartes then began to mentally explore the limits of knowledge. You might imagine that doubting all externals and being confined within one’s own mind, that there would not be much you could know. But according to Descartes, this is not the case. Using only his ability to think, he began to reason out the basic principles of mathematics, fundamental ideas of truth and morality, and even a proof for the existence of God. (This is a variation of the ontological proof for God’s existence.) Later he recorded the results of his thinking. He went on to produce multiple works on mathematics, philosophy and theology.
As noted earlier, Descartes did not purpose to oppose the church. He considered himself a devout believer. He even wrote one work, Meditations on First Philosophy, as an apologetic for the church. However, his system of rejecting external and previous authorities in favor of pure reason had a profound impact on the philosophy and theology that followed after him. Christianity does not stand in contradiction to reason. However, our faith is based on authority external to ourselves. We believe in a God who has revealed Himself to us in various ways, most notably in His Son and in the Scriptures. Descartes’ approach opened the door to rationalism—to the idea that only what can be known through reason should be accepted. As a result, thinking individuals began to call into the question the authority of the Scriptures themselves. Questioning then became denial and rejection. The Age of Reason was the result. Rationalism became the dominant philosophy of the Modern Age, and affected the disciplines of science, history, philosophy and religion. For many, Descartes “barrel experience” sounded the death knell of biblical Christianity, and religion in general.
Ever wonder why many secular scientists, atheists and agnostics, and skeptical academicians are so vehemently opposed to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular? Why would men like Richard Dawkins proclaim that God is a delusion? Or Christopher Hitchens assert that God is not good? Directly or indirectly it can be traced back to Descartes.
Poor Descartes. I think he would be shocked and dismayed by what his mental exercises have brought about in the world. He never intended to upend faith and attack religion as being “unreasonable.”
This is why I refer to reason as a double-edged sword. Reason and Christianity are not opposed to one another, and they are not mutually exclusive. Many of the greatest thinkers in human history, Descartes himself included, were men of faith. Indeed, I firmly believe that reason and Christianity go hand in hand. I also believe that the Christian faith is the most reasonable belief system in the world—despite the contrary claims of atheism, naturalism, scientism, or any other ism. But reason by itself, apart from divine, may lead men away from God rather than to Him. Reason may cut both ways. It may lead us to a better understanding of the divine, or in the exact opposite direction, an outright rejection of God.
One other point needs to be made. While reason is a wonderful thing in itself, it is not the only thing. Descartes’ mental journey sought to explore the limits of reason alone. However, reason alone cannot explain everything. Consider the limits of reasonable systems of knowledge. The ancient Ptolemaic system of cosmology is often ridiculed today. But it was based on observation, sophisticated calculations, and the available knowledge of the day. It was a reasonable system. But it was wrong. Newton’s theories brought about a revolution in knowledge. They are soundly reasonable. Yet, many of his ideas were contradicted by Einstein’s theories. So it goes. There may come a day when new discoveries overturn the ideas of Einstein. It is possible, maybe probable. Reason alone is not sufficient. Increased knowledge, and reasoning based on this knowledge does give us a better understanding of the universe—but this can only go so far. There is another legitimate source of knowledge that gives us absolute certainty in what we know. This is found in the revelations given us by God, in His word and in His Son. This knowledge is certain, accurate and assured.
The bottom line is this: We thank God for our wonderful human mind. Our reason is an invaluable gift from our Creator. We should use it wisely, in His service. We are also thankful for our faith, which is truly a reasonable faith. Thus we are grateful for both reason and faith.