The Harmony of Faith and Reason: Today Faith Is Often Seen as Inferior to Reason, but in the Wisdom of the Middle Ages, Faith Was Bolstered by Reason as They Worked in Concert to Lead the Believer to God. (Religion)

Article excerpt

The island of Iona lies just off the Scottish coast. It is "a small, fertile crofting island, currently inhabited by around 130 people," says The National Trust for Scotland. While largely unremarkable today, Iona has a storied history. In 563 A.D., St. Columba and 12 monks landed on its southern shore after having been granted the island by Conall, King of the Irish Dairiada. Columba was already famous in his homeland, having founded monasteries at Derry, Durrow, and Kells. His trip to Iona, legend has it, was motivated by "a desire to carry the Gospel to a pagan nation and to win souls to God."

Soon after landing on the island, the missionaries began constructing a monastery. From here, Columba carried the message of Christ to the pagan Picts of Scotland. Columba died in 597, but the work of the monks was continued. The island monastery came to include a scriptorium or library that grew to be one of the most famed in medieval Europe. It was here, art historians believe, sometime in the years before 800 A.D., that monks at the monastery completed the most astonishing work of art produced by medieval Ireland. The Book of Kells, containing the four Gospels, is a marvel of ecclesiastical art. Not even the beautiful Northumbrian Lindisfarne Gospels can compare with the majesty of the Book of Kells. "Fine craftsmanship is all about you...," wrote Gerald of Wales, a 12th-century priest, concerning the book. "Look more keenly at it, and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fre sh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man."

The monk-artists of Iona were no mere aesthetes creating beauty for its own sake. Driven by their faith, they undertook their work to glorify God. But theirs was not faith in the modern sense of the word. In our age the very concept of faith has been debased. Now the prevailing definition of the term is that of a belief resting neither on logic nor evidence. Such a hollow conception of faith could never produce such a masterpiece as the Book of Kells. No, that work stands as testimony to a faith that was richer and more sublime, a faith that was as certain as the sunrise, a faith in harmony with reason.

A Time of Reasonable Faith

During the period of late antiquity, and then throughout the Middle Ages -- and, for that matter, deep into the Renaissance -- it was taken for granted by most of the population of the Occident that God was real and that belief in Him was the reasonable position. From the lofty reaches of the 21st century we may look upon these who have gone before us as quaint and ill-informed, but such an opinion would only point to our own ignorance. In fact, the period was marked, not by blind and uninformed belief, but by great intellectual effort dedicated to proving conclusively both the reality of the Judeo-Christian God and the reasonableness of faith in Him.

Among the early writers who made contributions in this arena can be found Philo Judaeus. Little is known of Philo's life. Born about 20 B.C., he lived almost exclusively in the city of Alexandria, dying about 50 A.D. His reputation as a man of learning was unexcelled. He was, therefore, selected to be among the delegation sent to the emperor Caligula to solicit the recall of the imperial command ordering the erection of the likeness of the Roman despot in the temple at Jerusalem. The delegation failed to achieve its mission, but Caligula died before the intended defilement could be realized.

In his writings, Philo emphasized the importance of reason and wisdom in regards to man's relation with God. According to C.D. Yonge, who translated Philo's works into English, the learned Alexandrian held that knowledge of Jehovah "is to be looked upon as the ultimate object of all human efforts." Moreover, says Yonge, Philo "teaches that visible phaenomena are to lead men over to the invisible world, and that the contemplation of the world so wonderfully and beautifully made proves a wise and intelligent Cause and creator of it. …