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Michael Polanyi on Christianity and Reason

The Christian message exploded into this scene as an outrage to rationalism. It restored the I-Thou relation to the very center of everything. It proclaimed that a man put to death a few years before in a remote provincial capital was the Son of Almighty God ruling the universe, and he, this man, had atoned by his death for the sins of mankind. It taught that it was the Christian’s duty to believe in this epochal event and to be totally absorbed by its implications. Faith, faith that mocks reason, faith that scornfully declares itself to be mere foolishness in the face of Greek rationalism — this is what Paul enjoined on his audiences. ¶ The picture is well known. But you may ask where I see any trace here of a new Christian, medieval rationalism striving to reconcile faith with reason. It emerged later as the Christian message spread among an intelligentsia steeped in Greek philosophy. It was formulated by Augustine in terms that became statutory for a thousand years after. Reason was declared by him ancillary to faith, supporting it up to the point where revelation took over, after which in its turn faith opened up new paths to reason… the entire movement of scholastic philosophy from Boethius to William of Ockham was but a variation on this theme. ¶ Ockham brought scholasticism to a close by declaring that faith and reason were incompatible and should be kept strictly separate. Thus he ushered in the period of modern rationalism, which, too, accepts this separation, but with the new proviso that reason alone can establish true knowledge. Henceforth, as John Locke was soon to put it, faith was no longer to be respected as a source of higher light, revealing knowledge that lies beyond the range of observation and reason, but was to be regarded merely as a personal acceptance which falls short of rational demonstrability. The mutual position of the two Augustinian levels of truth was inverted.


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