"I must now mention two attempts that have been made - both of which convey the impression of desperate efforts to evade the problem…The first is the Credo quia adsurdum of the early Father of the Church (“I believe because it is absurd”, which is attributed to Tertullian). It maintains that religious doctrines are outside the jurisdiction of reason - are above reason. Their truth must be felt inwardly, and they need not be comprehended. But this Credo is only of interest as a self-confession. As an authoritative statement it has no binding force. Am I to be obliged to believe every absurdity? And if not, why this one in particular? There is no appeal to a court above that of reason. If the truth of religious doctrines is dependent on an inner experience which bears witness to that truth, what is one to do about the many people who do not have this rare experience? One may require every man to use the gift of reason which he possesses. but one cannot erect, on the basis of a motive that exists only for a very few, an obligation that shall apply to everyone. If one man has gained an unshakable conviction of the true reality of religious doctrines from a state of ecstasy which has deeply move him, of what significance is that to others?”
—Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (35-36).
Freud here brings up a crucial point that has dogged Orthodox Christianity for over two millennia: namely, what is a proper relationship between faith and reason?
First, a word on Tertullian (c160-225). He was a lawyer by training: he was a dogmatic, forceful individual who was also extremely rhetorical. What Tertullian disagreed with most was the dialogue between Christian faith and philosophy. He’s quite pessimistic about this synthesis, a la his famous dictum, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian’s (rhetorical) answer? Nothing. The Gospel goes against the grain of the contemporary world. It was a classic example of the rule of faith resisting human reason. His was an uncompromising antithesis in a time of persecution – sporadic and local, but also statewide.
(And as an aside, only a handful of scholars believe that Tertullian said “I believe because it’s absurd”; regardless, it’s not a far reach considering his sense for irony, discontinuity, and paradox. And not that Tertullian completely resisted the art of reasoning and logic altogether. In fact, he often used the tools of Hellenism to argue against it. Consider the following quip against Aristotle:
“Unhappy Aristotle, who invented the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions – embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything and really treating of nothing.” Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics 7)
What, then, is the relationship between faith and reason? Between Freud’s subjective, religious experience (which was aimed directly toward Christian religious experience) and what ought to make authoritative, binding claims on all human beings?
First, reason can (and should) be exercised in the service of faith. Any belief that rests upon an uncritical foundation should be suspect because religious faith cannot be exercised without reasoning. Orthodox Christianity attests to a God who addresses our minds via the linguistic structures we each find ourselves inhabiting. Reason must apprehend and apply this word; it must strive for understanding and rest upon at least some foundation of logical coherence.
Second – and this is crucial in responding appropriately to Freud - faith must show itself reasonable in order to commend Christianity as a fit option for thinking people (as opposed to its being a neurosis, wishful thinking, hallucination, or some other irrational phenomenon). As Freud notes, the statement “I believe because it is absurd” makes the point that God’s revelation is above reason and overstates it, suggesting that God’s revelation is irrational. This does not suffice as authoritative for non-believers because of its irrational character, nor should it be adequate for Christian believers, for it discredits the linguistic frameworks of reality in which we live, breathe, and have our being.
However, Freud’s enthroning of reason as the court above which there is no appeal must and can equally be challenged (for instance, Freud’s statement is a fine example of a religious doctrine based in one’s subject, inner experience, though he wouldn’t likely see it that way). The real issue is not the clean dichotomy one’s inner religious experience (which Freud labels an absurdity) and the authoritative, binding force of human reason…the real issue is plausibility structures altogether and the ways human beings make sense of our world. Is it reasonable, for example, to assert a closed universe in which human reason reigns as a tyrannical king? If so, why? What is the narrative history surrounding this high court of reason, and how have cracks appeared in the foundation of this story? Orthodox Christian believers might do well to study their history and find ways in which to discuss these plausibility structures in light of their own convictions for faith (which are, in fact, based in one’s subjective experience). They might find ways to dialogue with Freud and to assert that, contrary to his statement, one can erect an obligation that (might) apply to everyone based on a motive that exists only for a very few.