IN THE WESTERN tradition, faith and reason stand at opposing poles. My social-scientific training was deeply framed by this polarity. A recent experience, however, caused me to question both it and my own scientific outlook. This was a public engagement with a theologian, about which I’ll say more shortly. Through this I’ve come to a more nuanced view on the faith-reason binary, and am increasingly aware that it is shared by many of the firmly committed modernists who influence my work. The critic Terry Eagleton, for example, draws freely from both worlds to address fundamental human concerns, such as power, language, ideology, hope – and the Irish. Eagleton’s recent book, Hope Without Optimism (Yale University Press, 2015), consults religious and secular oracles – Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Aquinas and Augustine, to name a few – as well as many contemporary thinkers from both traditions. Eagleton (as ever) plays a clever game – the book never quite reveals his own position on faith, but it demonstrates with great force the power of theology to illuminate if not resolve human dilemmas. His status as a notable (and for some, notorious) Marxist analyst makes this all the more intriguing and, for me, striking.
There’s also perhaps a pragmatic reason for Eagleton’s approach. Given the potentially catastrophic mess our species has gotten itself into, it seems foolish to discount any potential source of human wisdom. Yes, from ISIS to abusive clergy, religious causes and institutions too often seem at the core of what has gone wrong and what now gravely threaten us – a fractious, despoiled planet. But I now see more clearly how this recognition sometimes obscures the power of religious reasoning to contribute light in darkening times. Reductive secularism also neglects the long and complex history of encounter between faith and reason. In the early stages of the European Enlightenment, the two were deeply connected, indeed mutually constitutive. Much of what we hold to be secular truths emerged from this long philosophical conversation. None of this is news to anyone steeped in the history and philosophy of science, but it didn’t figure highly in my professional formation.
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