Christianity and Autonomous Reason: Drawing an Important Distinction
The secular philosophy textbook I use for Introduction to Philosophy classes proclaims that philosophy exercises one’s rational autonomy. Nascent philosophers are told to think critically by thinking for themselves. Some think that this embrace of philosophical autonomy conflicts with Christianity. Christians believe that we are created by and fully dependent upon God, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus, and we now belong to him. We are not our own; we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Is Christian faith not then the very antithesis of autonomous reason? If philosophy is, in essence, an exercise in autonomous reason, but the Christian worldview proclaims that we are not autonomous, then how could Christians, in good conscience, be philosophers?
When reading Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics literature, it is common to see warnings against or critiques of autonomous reason. Some of the most well-known minds in recent years caution against such independent cognition. For example, in his relatively new and brilliant The Doctrine of God, John Frame argues:
And in fact nothing at all can be validated from autonomous reason…such reasoning leads to a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic, which destroys all knowledge. For that pottage, much of the church has forsaken its birthright, God’s personal word (20).***
Although he draws a radically different conclusion than Frame, James K.A. Smith also warns against the idolatry of autonomous reason (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 65).
In these sorts of warnings, autonomous reason is usually understood to mean that the reasoner is operating without depending on or acknowledging God. Rationally autonomous individuals believe that human reason is capable of functioning just fine without appealing to God or to his Word. According to many Christians, this sort of thinker places human reason above, or metaphysically prior, to God. In other words, the rationally autonomous individual assumes that he or she is more important, or central, than God. We are alleged to make this mistake each time we place confidence in our ability to reason to the conclusion of or truths about God.
To help clarify this concept of metaphysical priority, we can think of the relationship between a ship and a ship-builder. If a ship is to have any success at sea, the ship-builder needs to have carefully built it to be buoyant and watertight. Furthermore, the ship owes not just its seafaring success, but its very existence to the ship-builder. Therefore, the ship-builder is metaphysically prior to the ship. The ship-builder must exist before the ship can exist. Since God is our creator, he is metaphysically prior and more centrally important than we are. When God is ignored, human reason is revered as the ultimate authority. In opposition to this brazen, secular approach, the comparatively pious alternative is thought to be a reason that consciously recognizes and explicitly submits to divine revelation.
But something is quite wrong when we claim that human reason necessarily equals the impious autonomous reason. Are we really being impious or idolatrous any time we reason without directly thinking about God? What about when we do math equations or think through possible outcomes of a new business strategy? Critical thinking is rational and autonomous, but it seems strange to equate this exercise with impiety. Surely these intellectual activities cannot all amount to idolatry!
Epistemology (how we know what we know) and metaphysics (the nature of reality itself) are simply being confused. Our cognitive activity can function to a certain extent quite apart from our recognition of our origins. To use the previous ship example, the captain of the ship does not have to know or even think about the ship’s builder to sail the ship. However, if the captain is a close and personal friend of the ship’s builder, then the captain might acknowledge and fondly recall the builder while sailing. But the captain’s thoughts about the builder does not necessarily affect the practical task of sailing. They are both sailing “autonomously” in the sense that it is they who are doing the sailing.
An important distinction needs to be made here. A thinker can be autonomous in two important senses. The first sense is metaphysical. An individual who was created by God can nevertheless deny this truth and live as though his or her reason reigns supreme in the universe. So, this person holds that he or she has ultimate autonomy. If we were not actually created by God, then this holds true. The second sense is epistemological; it relates to how humans come to know. It is a claim to functional, or local autonomy. To understand the difference, consider two individuals, both created by God: Person A, who acknowledges this truth, and Person B, who denies this truth. Person A and Person B can each draw the same conclusion about a given math problem, using the same reasoning processes independently. Person A did not have to invoke or even think about God to do so, and person B did not go off the cognitive rails due to failure to acknowledge his metaphysical dependency on God. It seems that both Persons A and B engaged in what could be termed functionally autonomous reasoning. I call this epistemic autonomy. In other words, both individuals simply thought for themselves, without the aid of any other human or without appealing to God. At no point did either person need to contemplate her own origin, or determine to whom she owes her ability to solve math problems. The autonomy in this case is not necessarily autonomy from God, but is certainly autonomy from other people. It is simply independent thinking. An exercise in epistemic autonomy does not equal or entail an exercise in or belief about metaphysical autonomy.
So, complaints about “rational autonomy” or “autonomous reason” tend to conflate two vitally distinct issues, metaphysical and epistemic autonomy. Metaphysical autonomy is simply untrue, given the case for God’s existence. We do owe our existence and ability to function to our Creator. Not even the most Enlightenment-friendly theist would adhere to metaphysical autonomy, because it makes no sense to say both “God reigns supreme” and “My reason reigns supreme” in the same sense of supremacy. The theist by definition believes in the former, so the latter cannot be true. Metaphysical autonomy is simply a non-issue among Christians. There is no debate here.
Now we turn to epistemic autonomy. Rather than stating that “My reason reigns supreme,” the Christian engaging in epistemic autonomy could say instead, “I am exercising my God-given critical faculties in order to gain knowledge.” Autonomous reason in this sense addresses reasoning processes (epistemology), not the origin of that reason (metaphysics). In order to think well to the glory of God, the Christian philosopher should have no problem with functionally autonomous reasoning, or epistemic autonomy. After all, this is how we test Christianity’s truthfulness, as well as any other worldview or proposition. Given my distinction, then, one can be convinced of his metaphysical dependence on God, while harmoniously engaged in the task of epistemic autonomy. The metaphysical claims of Christianity are thus perfectly compatible with the rational nature of philosophy.
Furthermore, there should be no discomfort present when a Christian professor encourages her students to pursue epistemic autonomy in their studies. All this means is that the students are to be encouraged to think well, critically, and to attain their own justification for their beliefs. There are simply some things, like logic or our own mental states, we can come to know “on our own” in the local rather than the ultimate sense. If rational autonomy necessarily entails the denial that God gave us our rational abilities, then Christians sin each time we balance our checkbooks, teach a child the difference between a square and a triangle, or report to a family member about how we feel at the moment. But this is thankfully untrue. All humans are rational beings, made in the image of a rational God (Isaiah 1:18). Let us use that rationality to buttress our faith with justification for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). Praise be to God for the ability to think for ourselves.
***I highly recommend John Frame’s thinking and work in general, even though I do not agree with him on everything.