What is the relationship between faith and understanding? Yes I know Anselm’s dictum of “faith seeking understanding” (Augustine said the same before him), but how does this actually flesh itself out? And if faith is equated with ever-increasing understanding, then what might lack of understanding say about our faith and about the nature of the Christian life?
These are questions not answered but nonetheless helpfully raised by Randal Rauser’s Faith Lacking Understanding: Theology through a glass darkly (with our move to Huntington behind me and my books on the office shelves, I have a bit more time to work down this stack of reviews for TF. Thank you Paternoster).
Rauser’s premise is simple: for the secular world and for many long-time Christians, the grand mysteries of the Christian confession are lost either in incredulity for the former or over-familiarity in the case of the later. So Rauser works through each doctrine of the Apostles Creed – Trinity, creation, incarnation, ascension, and final judgment – pointing out logical, moral, or plausibility issues related to each, calling them instances of faith lacking understanding:
[The doctrines of the Apostles Creed] violate the basic dictates of logic, or our moral sense, or minimal plausibility in light of our scientific understanding of the world … our attempts to understand each of these core doctrines of faith is blocked by a seemingly insurmountable cliff of mystery be it illogicality, immorality, or implausibility (p. 5).
Having raised issues for each doctrine he lays out various (broadly evangelical) options for addressing them. These are helpful and Rauser is clearly in touch with contemporary and classical scholarship, but he doesn’t do what I most anticipated: wrestle with the basic relationship between faith and understanding.
He touches on this briefly in the introduction (p. 10f), and by not giving the reader one explanation or option for each issue he makes an implicit point about multiple options for understanding, but he fails to explicitly press it. It is not that I am allergic to accounts of the Christian life that include “faith seeking understanding”, but I worry that one’s pursuit of understanding is often overplayed. Related to this, if we frame the Christian life entirely in the cognitive register then we have little resource to talk about the spiritual lives of those with limited (or no) intellectual capacity, such as those with serious brain injuries or others born with serious mental disabilities.
I understand that these were not part of Rauser’s intent writing this book. It reads like a brief introduction to Christian belief set to the music of the modern skeptic. And as such the book would be a valuable resource for Sunday school classes tired of the same old materials or could even be used as a supplementary text in an undergraduate introduction to theology course (perhaps something to generate group discussion).
But Rauser still leaves me wondering about the fundamental relationship between faith and understanding. What has been the experience in your Christian community? How are faith and understanding related to one another, and how do you find that relationship helpful or harmful?