We loved sitting down with Grant Kaplan to discuss his newest book, Faith and Reason through Christian History: A Theological Essay (CUA Press, 2022). Kaplan is professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.
Q: One of the greatest strengths of Faith and Reason through Christian History is that it analyzes the arguments of a great variety of Christian thinkers. What patterns emerged as you studied the oldest to the newest figures and their ways of thinking?
A: One pattern that emerged concerned the difference between pre-modern and modern thinkers. For the former, reason is more likely to be understood as a human capacity, but one that participated in the life of God and thus does not preclude grace. For moderns, on the other hand, reason comes to constitute an autonomous, self-contained realm, which ends up making the project of relating faith to reason a much heavier lift. One can see, however, through Pascal, who was in many ways responding to Descartes, not so much a return to the pre-modern framework but rather a way of puncturing reason’s autonomy. This note gets picked up by such later figures as Newman and Blondel.
Another theme was the inability to find a true-blue fideist. Tertullian’s famous anecdote about Athens and Jerusalem needs to be put in context. Yes, Luther disparages reason, but he also praises it. One also finds later thinkers like Kierkegaard and Barth, when read carefully, open to possibilities of synthesizing faith and reason. So even reactive thinkers, when allowed to simmer, are less dismissive of reason than often presupposed.
Q: Which of the lesser-known thinkers you studied struck a chord with you the most?
A: I quite liked Hugh of St. Victor and his Didascalion, which I’d never read before. I could have opted for more medievals who were more easy to plot, but Hugh ended up very helpfully pushing the narrative along. Another, if not “lesser-known” at least “lesser-read” figure, was Erich Przywara, the German Jesuit from the last century. In some ways the book could have ended with him, not because the story ends there, but because of the elegance and brilliance he brings to the discussion of faith and reason.
Q: Some of the people you analyze have sizable bodies of work related to faith and reason. How did you prioritize certain texts while still doing their overall arguments justice?
A: This was in some ways the hardest part of writing the book. I tried to sit with certain texts and sections within texts. This practice was necessary for me to understand these authors. In order to contain the length of the project, I needed to avoid trying to tell their story by way of showing their development. As much as I could, I wanted to find passages that got to the heart of how they think about this relationship.
A thinker with a large corpus, like Augustine, weighs in on how faith relates to reason at a variety of times and places in a life interrupted by conversion, controversy, and the sack of Rome. I tried to balance two needs—the first to locate those texts that represent the best of his thought; and second, to choose texts that would help push along the narrative and make it possible to write the book as in many ways an ongoing conversation. By being forced to control the amount of words written, I was compelled, sometimes painfully, to steer clear of certain rabbit holes and to pass over theologians and texts, many of whom are favorites, in order to bring the ship to port.
Q: What is a realization about the relationship between faith and reason, or the Church’s relationship with the topic, that you gained from writing this book?
A: The conversation about how to connect Athens and Jerusalem, as it were, already appears in revealed texts, i.e., the metaphor for Jerusalem. Although these sites of reflection—John 1; 1 Corinthians 1; 1 Peter 3:15—certainly provide inspiration for the tradition, they also generate as many questions as answers. In other words, they capture and carry forward a conversation. This conversation achieved a certain synthesis in the High Middle Ages, but even the brilliance of Aquinas did not solve the problem. In the same vein, the First Vatican Council did not solve the problem, nor did Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio. The conversation has not stopped, and it will continue. Here I do not mean to suggest any futility; these interventions helped many avoid error and come to see how faith can be intelligible. New discoveries will continue to create new urgencies to think anew about this relationship. Exploring the history of how this relationship has been navigated should, I hope, give interested readers hope and courage that faith has nothing to fear from secular discourse.