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What is the role of reason in my spiritual life?

‘Tuesdays at the Table’ is a series of discussions hosted by the Connectional Table that will help us better understand our faith, our church, ourselves. Learn more.

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We sometimes hear faith and reason presented as opposites, as if we have to choose one over the other. But life is far more integrated than that. God has given us the gift of reason as a tool for our lives of discipleship. How should we use it?

Let’s chat with Dr. Filipe Maia about how United Methodists are called to use our God-given ability for reason to help us grow in our faith.

Discussion Guide

Filipe Maia is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston University School of Theology where he teaches in the fields of liberation theologies and philosophical theology. Photo courtesy Filipe Maia.

Guest: Dr. Filipe Maia

Filipe Maia is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston University School of Theology where he teaches in the fields of liberation theologies and philosophical theology. He was raised in a Methodist household in Brazil and has been living in the United States with his wife Juliana since 2009.

Host: Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj

Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference who has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences. Photo courtesy Connectional Table.Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. He has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences.

Dharmaraj has lived in various cultural settings, has been involved in interfaith relations and is actively engaged in global mission. He has written over a dozen books and numerous articles in the areas of Christian mission and interfaith relations. He writes regularly commentary in The Vision, New York Annual Conference’s monthly news magazine. Dharmaraj has served the church-at-large in various capacities including teaching, lecturing, conducting workshops and has served as a consultant both in academic and church settings. He has traveled extensively and worked with both United Methodist Church and ecumenical partners from around the world. He is passionate about world Christianity at work through mutuality in mission engagement.

Dharmaraj holds a Ph.D. in Theology of Mission, an M.A. in Political Science and Public Administration. He has also earned an M.Div, S.T.M and Th.M. degrees in Biblical Languages and Mission Theology.


Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj: Welcome to Tuesdays at the Table conversation. My name is Jacob Dharmaraj. I am a member of the Connectional Table. The topic for today's discussion is; what is the role of reason in my spiritual life? We are delighted to have Dr. Filipe Maia, Professor of Theology at Boston University, as our guest. As we begin this conversation, I'm going to ask Dr. Maia to say a few words about himself. Dr. Maia, please tell us a little bit about your background, the context in which you do ministry, and what brings you to this conversation.

Dr. Felipe Maia: Greetings to all of you who are listening to this and much peace to all of you. I think the best way to address that question is that I was born and raised in a Methodist household at the Methodist church in Brazil, where I'm from. I grew up in the world of Methodism. My parents had ties to Methodist education, so my upbringing was Sunday school and church on Sundays, and then my entire education life from kindergarten to college, really, in Methodist institutions of learning. So, I come to this conversation as someone who is deeply impacted and appreciative of our Methodist roots and traditions, and someone who understands that the task of schooling, of learning, is one of our holiest tasks. The task of learning and teaching is, I think, part of the DNA of Methodism. That's how I was raised in Methodism. Always understanding that there's something about Methodism that connects us to the love of learning.

How would you define reason?

Dharmaraj: Thank you, that is extremely helpful. And as the United Methodists, we understand the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, vilified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. As a theologian, how would you define reason?

Maia: That's a good question. My tendency would be to define reason as an ability to produce knowledge, to construct meaning, but more than an ability. I think of reason as a task, a kind of something that we need to actualize, and therefore that we need to learn and deepen and improve on daily. So, the task of reasoning is one that we have. It's an ongoing task of deepening our capacity to engage reality, produce knowledge, and produce meaning in a critical way. And by critical here, I don't mean criticism as in, 'I'm right, you're wrong.' I mean, the ability to discern. I'm reminded here of a biblical passage in John 1:4, I believe, that says; "Beloved, don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits..." I think that reason is somehow connected to this capacity, this ability to test the spirits, discern where truth is, and what is life-giving. So, reason has this critical aspect and dimension to it, of discerning things and reaching a truth claim that is life-giving.

Dharmaraj: Well, thank you. That is extremely helpful. We live in a world of fake facts. We require sound reason to resolve contradictory accounts of almost everything. Can you say a little more about what is meant by 'confirmed by reason?'

Maia: Yeah, I want to echo my concerns with this context we're in of fake facts, alternative facts and fake news. I think this is a real issue that we're dealing with as followers of Jesus Christ. I have concerns about that. So, "confirmed by reason," the reference here to our theological task and the discipline; By that, I don't think that we mean that reason confirms our own biases, our own beliefs. So it's not that reason confirms what we already believe in, the confirmation of reason, I believe, is tied to that critical task that I was referring to before that goes through, also, a public and social process where our ideas, our knowledges, our traditions are put to task. They are critically examined by the community, not just by the single individual who says "I know this," or "I believe this," but by others in the community who, together, discern the truth, discern what is God's will for us today, and what the task of reason demands of us collectively. So again, it's not confirmation as in confirming our own biases, but it's confirmation as this public task of coming together to discern something together, collectively.

Faith and Reason

Dharmaraj: Though faith and reason may seem at odds, they need each other. Without reason, we cannot understand the essential truths of scripture. And as you have said, God created us as intelligent human beings. The use of reason is a gift of God, but since reason is not a human invention, it needs assistance from the Holy Spirit. Faith and reason are meant to work together, as you have clearly said. My question is, what role does reason play in our lives as Christians, especially as a United Methodist?

Maia: Correct. I want to affirm the way that you framed the question, of the need of a collaboration between faith and reason, and to suggest that I don't believe that faith somehow interrupts the work of reasoning, in the same way that the work of reasoning together does not eliminate the role of faith. I think that that dichotomy in faith and reason, even though it's very popular and very common in our mindsets, it's a problematic dichotomy, right? Because, it normally affirms that faith is just a personal matter that is related to a belief in things that are somehow abstract, or not tangible, or not sensible. Whereas reason is about something more or less collective, and it's about fact, and it's about things that we can see, and touch, and smell. Now, there are differences between faith and reason, but differences don't mean separation and dichotomies and tensions, right?

So, in my work, and in the way that I try to teach our students in my context, is always to keep those two in tension. And I believe that's part of the Christian life, really, is to engage in that tension between faith and reason, and other elements of our lives that are filled with tension. The life of faith as a United Methodist, for me, is not a matter of finding resolutions all the time, and I don't think that's the role of reason, either, to provide solutions to everything. Whereas, I think of reason as that ability to wrestle with the big questions, and the same thing for faith. There's something about faith that demands that we keep wrestling with the questions, not in pursuit of clear answers, but in fidelity and loyalty to the importance of those questions; should the holy dimension in those questions that I think demand that we always keep faith and reason in collaboration, and not as opposites in different poles and opposite poles of the spectrum.

Faith seeking understanding

Dharmaraj: Thank you. As a theologian, you are well aware that theology is not a mere intellectual exercise, but a logical presentation of one's faith that is commonsensical, and invitational. Our own United Methodist theological task talks about how God and our experience of God's grace is beyond human reason and language. And yet, reason is a God given gift, that is necessary for theological consideration and the life of faith. How do we reconcile these two truths?

Maia: It might be that the life of faith is not to reconcile, as in eliminating that tension, but living in that tension. I fully appreciate the language in our tradition and the United Methodist tradition of the need to confirm things through reason, but at the same time, not elevating reason above everything else, as you just mentioned, that there's something about our experience of God's grace that is somehow ineffable, right? It's beyond words, and it's beyond our reasoning, and our capacity to explain things. At the same time, nevertheless, we still use language all the time. We still need to communicate something. And I think that tension is a creative tension. That is part of the life of the faith, right? It's the tension between a robust experience of God's grace, and of the life of the community of faith that is inexplicable. It's a mystery, right? It's beyond words, and certainly beyond reason.

Nevertheless, it doesn't interrupt the work of reason. We still need language to address it, to communicate it, to share it with others, and even to enter into that space of mystery. So, one example that comes to mind is the ceremony of holy communion, which, as we profess during communion, is a holy mystery, that we nevertheless introduce through language that is coded rationally by the community of faith. So it's through those rational codes that we are, as a community, introduced into the mystery of communion. That's an example, I believe where that's a creative tension between a mystery that is ineffable and the need to still provide language in order to introduce ourselves to that ineffable mystery.

Different conclusions

Dharmaraj: But what happens when reason leads individuals to two different conclusions on a matter of faith?

Maia: That happens a lot, right? So we should recognize that we don't think alike all the time, and then our activity in producing of knowledge is marked by tensions and differences and disagreements. I think in good Methodist fashion, in Wesleyan fashion, would say, when that happens, we confer with each other, we do conferences. In the Wesleyan movement, the conference was the moment where ministers would come together to confer, and also to wrestle with doctrinal theological issues, and some tensions in the life of the community. So, when those differences and disagreements emerge, we have wisdom in our tradition to come together and wrestle through those differences. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to do so, I want to acknowledge that, in our United Methodist context, but also in this society at large.

Its public engagements have become more rare, where places where people come together, not to impose views, but you really wrestle together around ideas in a civil and rational manner. I still believe that that's an open task for the church, to be a motto where those difficult conversations can happen. And I think we need to do some transformation and some learning here in order to get good at coming together and doing conference in order to deal with our differences and disagreements. But I think part of the task of reason demands that we continue to try and come together.

The role of mystery

Dharmaraj: Thank you. You made reference to the mystery. You talked about the Holy Communion, and how we practice in the United Methodist Church, and the most fundamental distinction of Methodist teaching is that people must use logic and reasoning all matters. And my question is, how can we make our sacred signs and hallow symbols make sense to the current generation? Most importantly, how can the church and all that it represents make sense to each generation?

Maia: I think it's an open question, it's a very good one. I don't have a definitive answer to it, because in part, the task of each generation, I believe, is to wrestle with the symbols of the tradition in a new way. Each generation inherits something from past tradition, but that inheritance comes with changes, with transformations, with things that are adapted to fit our own context. So, I believe that new generations will need to learn how to inherit what we have as these signs and hollowed symbols of our faith. And as they do so, these symbols and these traditions will be modified. They will go in a different way. I mentioned before how I was raised in a Methodist family in Brazil, and Methodism was introduced in my context by the missionaries. And so that is our inheritance, but what became of Brazilian Methodism is not necessarily what the missionaries brought with them.

There were changes. And as Brazilian Methodist communities embraced Methodism, the tradition, the symbols of the tradition including were modified in this new context. So, I think each generation is doing that already. It's, I think, an open task for those who have responsibility as ministers, as teachers of the United Methodist tradition, to learn how to present our tradition, our symbols, in a way that is fluid and malleable for incoming generations to accept them, but also transform them and take them into different directions. I think that's how traditions get kept. They are preserved in this way. They're never preserved uniform manner, they are always preserved and changed at the same time. And so, that is an open task, I think, for a United Methodists. And for the younger generation who might be listening to this, I want to say that this is a brilliant and beautiful task of negotiating what we have inherited, and taking it in different directions.

Future of The United Methodist Church

Dharmaraj: And my final question is this. And as a theologian, as a scholar, and as a professor, the student would ask you this question. With all the challenges that we face as a denomination, how would we engage context in moving forward as a connectional system, as a denomination?

Maia: It is the question, right? It is the question. I've engaged students who have deep concerns about the future of United Methodism. Some of them who are deeply harmed by the tradition, and yet feel a call to renew the tradition, so I'm deeply inspired by that. For many of my students and for myself included, there are moments in the life of faith communities where some form of separation might be necessary, and I think the United Methodist Church is dealing with that question, right? So being very honest about it here, there are gracious ways of doing that. And for our students, I believe my recommendation is always to be mindful of; How do we engage with one another, and what does God justice required of us? What is the right and righteous and just decision to be made as we discern our path together into the future?

So, there's not a real easy answer to that question, other than it is a difficult question, and we need to find ways of wrestling with difficult questions together, even if that means that there might be a parting of ways. I think there are ways in which that can be done in a life-giving manner, and I think part of the task of reasoning is the task of, as I said before, of coming together and discerning in truth, in honesty, and for the sake of justice. The task and the work of justice is, for me, also a task that goes through this critical dimension of discernment that I identified as crucial to the work of reasoning.

Dharmaraj: Thank you, Dr. Maia, for taking time to come and share your thoughts with us. Any comment you would like to share with us before we go back to our respective responsibilities?

Maia: My final thought, and in gratitude to the Connectional Table for the invitation, and desire and prayer for blessings to all who are listening to this; remember that the life of faith demands dealing with and wrestling with difficult questions of life, and that is also a critical task of reason. So, I hope all of you who just heard this will continue to wrestle with a big questions of life.

Dharmaraj: Thank you very much.

Maia: Thank you.