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Volker Gerhardt {*}

The Rationality of Faith

On the Atheism Debate


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 50/2007, P. 417f
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The question whether in Germany we have currently to do with a return of the religious, you have to leave to historiography. If, what I doubt, it actually was about a real process, sociology and psychology are first and foremost entitled to judge it. Of course then also theology and religious studies were challenged. Philosophy, however, has only to clarify what the term 'God' means and what God means to us. Then we can even let the question rest whether the understanding of God was subjected to change in the course of the centuries.

Supposed someone could give reasons for the fact that it was in ancient times or in the Middle Ages considerably easier to believe in God: What would be proved by it for today's significance of God? That it was problematic, pointless or even absurd to believe in God? That God did no longer exist in the modern age?

To deduce such views from history it must be possible to prove that already the term 'God' was subjected to a change and has perhaps even become meaningless. If 'God' had become a senseless syllable, the history of ideas had indeed led to a decisive change for the God problem.

But this is obviously not the case. Advocates and opponents of God seem excellently to get on with each other by referring in their dispute clearly to the same thing. Even with the reading of texts that have been written more than two thousand years ago the modern reader can instantly recognize about what is talked when he somewhere reads "God" (or a synonymous expression). When Job says, "I know that my Redeemer lives" (19, 25), this is at once to be understood as an expression of a certainty that is directed towards God.


Liberation to Faith

The last thing I want to do is to underestimate history. But in answering the question what the term 'God' means one can do without historical considerations. It may well be that the findings of the sciences make faith more difficult for the naive mind. Physics definitely excludes the possibility that God dwells above the clouds or somewhere else in the universe. Chemistry and biology prohibit regarding the emergence of life as a deliberate creation of an intentionally acting being. Logic and semantics do not allow imagining God as an object that exists in time and space. A proof of God that first drags God down on the level of a fact in order to deduce then its cosmological-historical factuality has always been inadequate; today we had reasons to call such evidence blasphemous, because it subjects God to a procedure that is directed against him.

But that can only be beneficial for faith. For with a God that is reduced to pure factualness every possible faith in him would be lost. God, so philosophy and theology have been teaching for thousands of years, can only be thought as something that carries the world as a whole. Consequently, God is not at all touched by sciences that are only directed in a generally comparative way to parts of the world. The expansion of knowledge concerns the idea of God only so far as it makes everybody clear that God is a being that is above factuality.

Who makes God's reality conditional upon miracles may see in that a difficulty. But we do not begrudge those the troubles of an explanation who gain advantages by making the beautiful children's faith obligatory also for adults. Faith requires a mature mind, as it is also expected of scientists. But the scientist must be able to judge the limits of knowledge, if he wants to avoid drawing conclusions from the knowledge of some part of nature for the whole of the world. With his knowledge he arrives at the end only at the point to be amazed about the unity of the whole. The fact that man, who determines himself, nevertheless fits with his own will into the world, is just for the knowing the greatest miracle. That's why the strongest reasons for faith come from knowledge that expands up to its limits.

This has implications for faith, especially for the Christian, which in the discipleship of Jesus was from the outset founded on the insight and the will of the individual. For in the course of advancing knowledge faith, which arose out of the self-awareness of the individual, is freed to itself. For now science too shows that God is no fact among occurring events. And nevertheless, from the consciousness of himself the believer can draw the certainty that God is present in the whole of existence.

In this awareness the believer becomes capable of a mature judgment. He can profess his faith without being at risk by knowledge. And if he respects knowledge, he deserves the respect of the knowing.


No Knowledge Without Trust

But what does it mean to believe under the conditions of knowledge? Is knowledge diametrically opposed to faith? Do they mutually restrict each other? Do they complement each other? Or is the one the condition of the other?

I do not know anyone who seriously doubts that it is sensible to know something. Admittedly, there is the warning that too much of knowledge could hinder the resolute action, and so far be harmful. The young Nietzsche suspected the human race would be destroyed by its quest for knowledge. But also this speculation was only based on alleged knowledge; nobody, not even Nietzsche himself was detained by it from striving on for knowledge.

Hence it can apply as virtually uncontested view that knowledge is indispensable. No other human performance enjoys such a large advance of trust. Even in comparison with our easily deceived sensations and emotions the superiority of knowledge is beyond doubt. And on what is this merit founded? We do not know. Only one thing can be said with certainty: The confidence in knowledge cannot vice versa be based on knowledge again.

We have had good and bad experiences with knowledge, which do not allow us a definite option for it. But in view of man's constitution we can say that intelligence is his greatest potential. His reason forbids it to call him a 'deficient being', though we have to admit that reason developed only by the use of technical means. They are the midwives of human knowledge, to which we owe the life in the self-created cultural 'house'. Consequently, at least our standard of living would be at risk, if we would go ahead in doing without the acquired knowledge.

As far as about that one would come, if one wanted to substantiate the indispensability of knowledge by knowledge. But such attempts are futile for this reason alone that we can be sure, nobody was able to give up knowledge voluntarily and to let himself in future only be guided by his feelings. Man habitually trusts in his intellectual forces. He places his confidence in the average superiority of recognition. And if he asks where that comes from, he must admit that he believes in his knowledge.


Devotion to the Conscious Existence

To believe in knowledge means first only to be convinced that knowledge is useful. Maybe you just enjoy the revaluation that is normally connected with it. Who knows something, enjoys a higher reputation. But with regard to man's constitution this conviction, hence the belief in knowledge means more: Even a man who is totally involved in practical matters must admit that he, so as he understands himself, consists substantially in his knowledge about himself. The way in which he perceives and experiences himself is only present to him in his consciousness. If he does not want to give up himself, he must trust his insight. His feeling too is a consciousness in which something opens so to him that he experiences a reality in it. Emotions are a medium of knowledge.



These hints are to show that man trusts under all conditions his intellectual faculties. This happens with an energy that has nothing of a correctable conviction, a changeable faith in this or that. The identification with one's own consciousness is fundamental. It is at the same time this consciousness which opens man for other things in the presence of other people. Because he identifies himself with a faculty in which he is by no means only with himself.

You need only to know that awareness does not consist in mere self-relation. On the contrary, it is the 'authority' for messages in which a being - on the way of facts - becomes access to itself and to others. The contents of consciousness have the status of information that can also be of importance for others. Already the mere disposing/getting of such information (and not only its deliberate expression) takes place in the confidence in the unity of one's own self and the world. We will soon come back to that. But first let us summarize:

The existence that means something to us is our conscious existence. It does not consist in the survival of our body but in the experience of our presence, which is never limited only to us. The maintenance of our intellectual presence takes place in the horizon of the world. We want to be consciously present as long as possible. The hope of immortality is an expression of this devotion, which integrates feeling and sensation into our self-awareness that unites us in the medium of reason with the whole.

This hope too is not founded on knowledge. But it comes from the impulse that makes us curious and lets us trust in knowledge. It is this impulse that connects our existence with our self-awareness. Nevertheless, it loses nothing of its dignity when it is reckoned to man's instinct structure. Even if it was only an expression of the individual/man's self-preservation, it extents beyond man and his present moment, because it is directed at something different from him, which nevertheless corresponds to him in his mental character. The individual/man who is roaming in his own consciousness looks for a hold in something else, which comes to meet him in his conscious existence."


The Whole of the World

First the things of this world, which are sensually present to us, are the 'others' of the self. Among them particularly the living beings stand out, above all those that/who are close and similar to us, and who succeed in forming us to people like them. Father and mother are the first. Later are added those who we love out of our own demand. Hence, the individual finds its (counter-) hold above all on things and people. It has self-awareness only in relation to them; what is more: Awareness is the explicit link to them.

But no matter how liberating and satisfying the elementary relationship to things and people in the world may be: The impulse to find something in life that corresponds to the self-aware individual goes beyond everything that exists in this world. For the given things are fleeting. They cannot give the perseverance that man experiences in himself and that he tries to secure in all his actions. What is more, the self, which is looking for reliability in knowledge and for durability in its own self-awareness, can only calm down in something that corresponds to its own unity and uniqueness. It must be a whole and, like the individual, a unity in diversity.

The only vis-à-vis corresponding to the unity of the self is the whole of the world. It is in its unity no less mysterious than the unity of the individual. But it (unity of the whole) is no less real in it (unity of the individual). For if the self-aware self of a single human being exists, also the unity of all things must exists, which makes possible the self, and to which man's conscious existence necessarily relates. But as soon as an individual/man becomes aware of that cause of his conscious existence, he will address it as his vis-à-vis.

Nobody can be indifferent toward the whole of existence, unless he is indifferent to his existence. Since he identifies with it, he necessarily takes a stand on what carries him as conscious, i.e. also as suffering and hoping being. He behaves to the world, on which he is dependent, not only as to an object, but as to an origin from which he comes. Only in this relation to the world, in the conscious attitude to the whole as his own origin, the whole of man comes to the full awareness of itself. Man always asks in relation to the whole where he does come from and where he goes, and is looking then at both the whole of the world and the whole of his person.

So absurd as it seems: In the questions of his existence man directly faces his world, so as if it was equal to him, as if it corresponded to him in his nature. It is the nearest, if it is for him about his existence as a whole, his "salvation" or his "soul". "God," so Plato has understood this existential intertwining of self and world, is "what is closest to the soul" ( "Nomoi", 726a).


Reality in the Sense of Our Actions

God as a reason for the unique relationship between man and the world is easier to grasp than we think. His presence, which carries us individually and effectively, appears in all those situations in which a human being consciously works in the world. Then he wants to become active in order to give the events a favourable course that corresponds to his intentions. But the future to which his purposes are directed is unknown to him. He can even not dispose with certainty of the next consequences of his actions. The larger part of the consequences of his actions will never be discoved by him. Yes, the boundaries of knowledge are so narrowly drawn that he had to abstain from any action, if he could not trust both himself and the circumstances. Only this confidence allows him to act seriously despite the narrow limits of his knowledge.

This trust is the belief that our actions are not in vain. We are convinced of the sense of our performance, and we expect that the success of our efforts is possible. Without this sense each action of a conscious being reaching beyond the moment would become an act of despair.

And on what is the confidence in the practical use of knowledge founded? Philosophically seen it is based on the outlined correlation between man and world, on a whatsoever kind of coincidence of knowledge and action, which is to become apparent in the course of history as a correspondence of good intentions and desired effects. We hope for it when we educate children, promote science or advertise for peace. Sense and purpose of our actions have their real reason in this correspondence! Only provided that we have it and can build on it we can talk of "successes", "objectives" and "our future". It is the sense of our talking and our doings by which we gain in the world an own standing. It is based on a foundation that carries the world as a whole in conjunction with our own insight.  I t is the reality of human action.

We can uncover this reason by realizing that we not only as physical beings are dependent on physical things, but also as rational beings (individuals) on a corresponding comprehensible whole. Thus it is also clear that we ourselves cannot obtain this foundation existing in the whole. And we do not simply find it like the ground beneath our feet. It lies in the realization of our own personal existence and is in it no less real than our own existence. Provided that we exist, and provided that we connect existence with a sense then also that reality exists that guarantees not only this sense but also our existence. If there is at all something that appears reasonable to us, there is also the whole in which it takes effect. The sense is based on a foundation in which the unity of the self is connected with the whole of the world. If we call this foundation 'God', then he exists with the same security as the unity of my person exists in the whole of existence. Therefore God is the guarantor of the sense in which our life takes place.

Who does want it may regard this proof of a ground out of which we live and act as "proof of God". In it the existence of God is not reduced to a fact in the world. On the contrary, only in the course of this reasoning the comprehensive meaning of the concept 'God' becomes apparent: As foundation of our existence, which is rationally related to the world, God carries not only our human existence but with it also everything that opens to man. And this is simply everything about which man can say that it belongs to the whole of the world recognized and developed by him.


The Rationality of Faith

Only those who believe not in themselves can doubt God's reality. It is likely that this statement incenses people who are very sure of themselves without believing in God. Therefore, I add the explanation that the belief in oneself includes confidence in one's own forces, to which the intellectual capabilities and the acquired knowledge belong and the hope that we achieve our own goals. This confidence arises in a sense horizon that connects the self-awareness of an individual with the intelligibility of the world. God is, what comes to meet us as the comprehensive insight into the unity of the world.

Seen in this way, God becomes accessible only on the path to the inside, into the self-awareness of a human being that in spite of all the uncertainty and worry, even fear and desperation has nevertheless not yet completely thrown in the towel. The strength to go beyond oneself must still be present, so that we in our doing experience God's reality. Faith is the expression of that strength. If it is given, even the weakest can still be helped. This is the essence of the Christian message.

Faith is the strength that we have experienced in us, and that enables us to keep to the sense in the whole - for this sense is necessary for our doing. The coincidence of the sense of one's doing with the sense of the whole world appears like a miracle - and it is nevertheless the expression of necessity in the connection of the whole. Both miracles and necessity show the divine of an order that assigns a place to things and opens for people their lebensraum. This belief is not categorically separated from the biographical [lebensweltlichen] convictions of deliberately acting people. It makes them rather obvious. It reveals what expectations are involved, if we regard us as successful and hope for a good end of our actions. Then we presuppose a world in which we recognize us, a world that is not alien to us but open for us as acting individuals. It is a world that is of the same kind as man, so he can rationally want to feel safe and secure in it even in hopeless situations.

This insight can be put into the thesis that the reason of religion is also the reason of science. Both are founded on the virtually indispensable expectation that our own weak reason can trust in its foundation on the reason of the world.

It belongs to the wisdom of religious tradition to call this reason of the world, which is assumed both in knowledge and faith, only in scientific commentaries spirit, nous, ratio or logos but in the context of life simply to talk of "God". This is a being that is infinitely superior to our human reason and nevertheless includes it so in itself that it meets it - in the way of a human being - intelligently. Thus in God we can understand us better than without him.

A religion that proceeds from that experience (which appears actually like a "revelation") needn't fear the scientific insight. On the contrary, it must look for it in order to reach today's people on the utmost level of new knowledge with a message that belongs to the oldest insights of mankind.


    {*} Volker Gerhardt, Dr. phil., born in 1944, professor of philosophy at der Humboldt-Universität of Berlin. Vice-president of the Berlin-Brandenburg Akademy of Sciences, chairman of the Scientific Commission of the Union of the Academies. Numerous publications and books, among others: "Immanuel Kant. Vernunft und Leben" (Stuttgart 2002), "Die angeborene Würde des Menschen" (Berlin 2004), "Partizipation. Das Prinzip der Politik" (München 2007).


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