Separating faith from reason limiting, unachievable

Photo: file
Photo: file
By Bill Lee

For many, faith and reason are like water and oil, useless if mixed and best kept separate if you want to avoid confusion and conflict.

As society becomes more avowedly secular in practice, and increasingly diverse in faith, this dichotomy between faith and reason is challenging.

This is especially as we seek to acknowledge Māori cultural values in our communal life and education.

In part, I believe this tension is because faith and reason, in all of us, are not opposites, but key mutually supporting pieces of what it means to be human, and both can be important components of respectful, open discussion and even debate.

As a conservation ecologist, I use field and experimental research to predict how plant communities are assembled, how they might respond to weeds and disturbances, and how to manage them to ensure they persist.

I am interested in how plants develop different features associated with leaves, for example, and how we could use these to better understand and conserve species today when environments are changing rapidly. Throughout, reason is critically important, for designing experiments, analysing data and looking for patterns to explain and to understand processes.

All phases of these investigations involved logic, lots of measurements, quantitative analysis and painstaking peer reviews when multiple people critique our prose, arguments, analyses and conclusions to ensure our story is consistent and credible.

These activities are all governed by reason, but there are also many subjective judgements involved, when my preferences reflect aspects of my childhood, personality and beliefs. Working with others, growing plants in experiments and focusing on grasslands and shrublands likely came from my rural upbringing in the western Waikato with four brothers, a mother who was a keen gardener and youthful experience of exploring and enjoying broad open landscapes.

However, the questions I ask, where the experiments are located and even where I present the results, are influenced by factors other than reason.

In other words, the larger context, the specific questions I see as important and why, the validity of logic in science and my passion for conservation and natural environments much more reflect my faith, what I believe about the world and our purpose in it.

For me faith provides a context, home and compass for reason. It shapes my curiosity and questions and is foundational for living in a family and community and for understanding myself and the world.

The Christian faith became real and personal for me during my teenage years, and the forgiveness, love and call of Jesus Christ has never left me, enriching and guiding me through the complexities of an ordinary life. Following Jesus has stretched me in different ways, decreasing my self-interest and I think expanding my concern for others.

In science, my Christian faith has given me confidence to explore the world, knowing that creation is sustained and purposed by a loving God. The world is infused with beauty, patterns and interactions at astronomical and molecular scales, and seems extraordinarily well fitted to supporting humans and other life in all its dimensions.

I find my faith encapsulates my reason, providing a basis for logic, patterns and predictability, but also for giving me a holding place for reason and defining its limits. I greatly enjoy science and research because of my Christian faith.

Jesus once told the disciples, "If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Jesus implies that Christian faith in the love and purposes of God liberates the heart and mind, freeing us from the restrictions of tradition or our own limitations. It is a freedom to explore and understand, to succeed and to fail, to sing and be silent, to cry and laugh, always acknowledging the grace and forgiveness Jesus gives.

In my experience, divorcing faith from reason limits both and is unachievable. It appears near impossible for me to separate what I believe about God and the universe from the purpose and practice of my vocation.

As we search for common values in education, justice, economics etc, reason alone is limited and faith becomes far more important. We may want to confine faith and reason to separate aspects of life, but Jesus indicates this is not the way forward if we want to experience God’s freedom in who we are and what we do.

 - Bill Lee is a conservation ecologist in Dunedin and a member of Leith Valley Presbyterian Church.