The Harmony of Philosophy and Religion

I really like Leo Strauss and the Straussians. I even appreciate much of what he has to say about religion, insofar as he recognizes that philosophy does not have (and cannot have) the capacity ever fully to disprove the possibility of revelation, which means that the philosopher must always keep open the possibility of the truth of revealed religion.

birth of Jesus Christ with three kings and angel painting
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However, I have never been entirely impressed with his thesis that a person must ultimately (as I understand it) make a choice between the philosophical way of life, which questions and challenges established orthodoxies, and the religious way of life which is characterized by such orthodoxies. No one can really be both, according to the Straussian view (or maybe I could say instead, according to Straussian orthodoxy?).

I realize that to many today, including many religious people, and to many intelligent people on both sides, it will seem like a reasonable line to draw, and more than that, it will feel intuitively true.

However, in my experience so far, the dissonance which is felt is something that belongs to those who have not progressed far along either path. (I don’t mean to say that Strauss himself had not progressed far, only that this fact makes me wonder why he spoke of the matter as he did.)

Of course, we must all start in immaturity. And it is a very real dissonance we encounter in those early stages! I don’t want to discount that in any way. It can be a serious, unsettling, dreadful dissonance to endure. I’ve felt that, lived it, passed through it.

Thus, speaking in social terms, there truly can be an uncomfortable tension between those with more of a tendency to embrace religion and those with more of a tendency to embrace the questioning stance of philosophy. Strauss recognizes this, and points out traces of it through the history of philosophy, and he’s not wrong to do so.

However, if we think the challenge is insuperable, I suspect it is only because we have not thought about it sufficiently.

In philosophy, we start out exhilarated and awed by the weight of all the questions we can ask, all the doubts we can summon. Did you know that people haven’t always and everywhere thought parliamentary democracy was the best political system? Hey, were you aware that natural science was long ago already proven to be built on a foundation of fallacies, fallacious all the way down? Say, how would we really know if God actually spoke to us sometime in history, and then how could we even be able to understand what the revelation itself meant?

All good questions, and worth investigating. But just as we don’t have to end up rejecting politics or science because of all the questions we have about them, we likewise don’t need to end up at odds with religion — although we will surely start out at odds with all of them, if those are the kinds of questions we find ourselves inclined to ask.

The philosopher cannot help but begin with questions and doubt, and some never progress past that stage. But many others will apply themselves to finding what answers there may be, about how the world is and how it should be and who I should be within the world. As part of that quest, it is entirely possible that a person will end up reconciled to revealed religious faith in one of many possible ways.

In religion, something similar happens. Earlier on in a life of faith, there is a temptation to see hard lines drawn everywhere, where the believer must be right and so everyone else who isn’t on the same side must be wrong. Even if in principle the zealous believer can admit that others might possess some portion of the truth, in practice everyone else looks like a blood-stained idolater in need of repentance, and to find any agreement with them would almost feel like making a pact with the devil.

With maturity, though, what can happen (and in my view it can be beneficial that this not happen too soon in a religious person’s development) is that the religious person comes to see the truth and beauty contained in other ways of seeing the world, and can begin to discern a friendly desire to learn together and grow further with others from outside one’s own particular tradition.

In this way, just as the rebellious philosopher can develop an openness to the dogmaticism of a religion, the faithful religionist can develop an openness to the philosopher’s search for truth and wisdom wherever it may be found and in whatever form it presents itself.

Now, let me anticipate one more set of objections, one from each side. The philosophers may think that a religious philosopher has ceased truly to be a philosopher, and the religious might say that a truly philosophical believer has ceased to have proper faith.

Even if it is possible for a philosopher to accept religious faith, on this view, in doing so one must choose to renounce the life of philosophy. Likewise, the believer who becomes so catholic and ecumenical that every possible source of truth will seem worth learning from, has transcended religion and ceases to owe allegiance to any one revelation, we might be assured.

Neither objection needs to be true. Faith and philosophy can coexist. They can be treated as different and complimentary ways of knowing which need never come into conflict if we have understood them properly.

It is nonsensical to say that a philosopher ceases philosophizing by coming to a considered conclusion about religion, just as it would be nonsensical to say the same about a philosopher who came to considered conclusions about politics or science. And it is the same from the side of religion.

But let’s just say that the philosopher did cease to philosophize, and that the believer ceased to have faith, when either one approaches the other, so that we keep being sent back and forth between them and end up somewhere in between or outside, occupying a position not really comprehensible from either of these other partial and partisan viewpoints. Who is to say that where we will have ended up is somewhere inferior or undesirable? If nothing else, we should expect to find it a place inhabited only by the few and the brave.

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