Faith Versus Reason: How Can We Know if We're on the Right Track?

11/20/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

By Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. and Gordon Dveirin, Ed.D.

Okay, I know that blogging about religion/faith/guidance is incendiary territory, and I welcome your responses. It's our collective inquiry, after all, that will help us find our way through the current chaos, and perhaps lead to a more realistic vision of how we can negotiate the future personally, as a nation, and as a world.

As we're all so aware, it's an election year, which begs the question of how we plan for an uncertain future in troubled and rapidly changing times. There are those who argue that our way forward must be guided by faith. Others insist that reason is a better guide. But based on the currently accepted definitions of faith and reason, neither is fully trustworthy or adequate.

The fact is that there are no reliable maps into the still formless future when we're effectively at sea. But perhaps there is an inner compass that can help us navigate the unknown. That is why my husband Gordon Dveirin and I wrote Your Soul's Compass: What Is Spiritual Guidance? based on interviews with 27 "Sages" from the world's great wisdom traditions, including leading Christians, Jews, Sufis, Hindus, Buddhists, Quakers, and Shamans.

We asked 12 questions of the Sages. They were invited to define guidance, give personal examples, distinguish guidance from personal desire and opinion, comment on the role of doubt, describe what they think humanity is evolving toward, and discuss what they would tell world leaders about creating a life-enhancing future.

The Sages were united on the importance of maintaining an open mind toward all situations, knowing that we often don't know what the best course is, but being open to guidance. In the words of Father Thomas Keating, one of the originators of the Centering Prayer movement and a contemplative monk, "Remember, this is a trip into the unknown. We don't know where we're going, or if we do, we're on the wrong road."

Faith, when it is defined as the belief that we can know God's will, can lead us down terrifyingly wrong roads. Hitler, for example, believed that the genocide of six million Jews was a sacred mission. In Mein Kampf he wrote: "Today, I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

In a more contemporary case, two Fundamentalist Mormon brothers described in Jon Krakauer's chilling book, Under the Banner of Heaven, were convinced that God wanted them to murder their sister-in-law and her 18 month-old daughter... which they did. In 1978, 918 men, women, and children from The People's Temple died in the jungle of Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-aid on the insistence of cult-leader Jim Jones. Whole nations have been led into unjust wars based on the certainty of "anointed" leaders concerning God's will. The fundamentalist Islamicist's notion of jihad as a faith that licenses "believers" to destroy "unbelievers" is a scourge of our contemporary world.

Yet reason alone, when it is defined merely as a logical/mathematical process of deduction, is useless in providing a sense of meaning and purpose to orient our lives. It is also often inadequate as a means of discerning the right direction to move in. True, we can locate particular trends and project them into the future, but trend--as futurist John Naisbitt has said--is not destiny. There are two forces at work, as complexity science demonstrates: habit and creativity. Nature has laws that perpetuate existing patterns and forms (habits), but nature also evolves, bringing forth ever new and unexpected possibilities through a non-linear process called creative emergence. This is why geneticist Dr. Francis Collins (former director of the National Human Genome Project) told his debate opponent, the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, "Faith is not contrary to reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation."

Faith, as Dr. Collins is describing it, is not a mentally held concept or belief. Rather it is our ability to reside in uncertainty with trust and openness to revelation - the truth of the moment and the appropriate creative response called for. Reason, as Plato understood it, is our ability to recognize and will the good, so that the revelation made possible by faith will not be wasted on us. It is significant in this regard that George Washington, in his farewell address to a newly freed people able to determine their own destiny, confidently left them to "the benign light of revelation". Faith and reason thus defined go hand in hand.

The Quakers we interviewed in Your Soul's Compass cited an "inner light" present in all people. But, they added, there's a lot of other stuff as well...our opinions, beliefs, prejudices, desires, fears, and unhealed wounds. In short, our capacity for self-deception and rationalization of our choices is boundless. The corrective that is the age old process of discernment, a careful inquiry based on both reason and intuition-guided always by compassion-that allows us to effectively learn our way into the best possible future.