Are faith and reason compatible?
Jon Meacham is the Editor of Newsweek magazine. Since starting there as a writer in 1995, he has also served as the national affairs editor and managing editor. He now supervises and occasionally contributes to Newsweek’s coverage of politics, international affairs, and breaking news. Meacham is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006), and Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003), which won the 2005 Emery Reves Award and the William H. Colby Military Writers Symposium’s Book of the Year Award. His latest book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, was published by Random House on November 11, 2008.
Meacham has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World. He is also a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly. In 2001, he edited Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement (Random House), a collection of distinguished nonfiction about the mid-century struggle against Jim Crow. Born in Chattanooga in 1969, Meacham graduated from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, with a degree summa cum laude in English Literature. He is also a member of the Board of Regents of The University of the South, the Vestry of Trinity Church Wall Street, the Leadership Council of the Harvard Divinity School and the Council on Foreign Relations. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in 2005 and also holds three honorary doctorates. He and his wife live in New York City with their two children.
Jon Meacham: I don’t see faith and reason as being incompatible. John Paul the II once said, “They’re the two wings on which we rise on the contemplation of truth.” Very grand image. But the final leap of faith in monotheistic terms – to limit the conversation somewhat – is in fact irrational. As Henry. . . as Coleridge said, “It’s the willing suspension of disbelief.” So yeah, at the end of the day I make a leap into the irrational. But all the way up to that point, I think that my own particular religious faith is as well grounded in history and argument as anybody else’s, and sometimes perhaps more so than in other traditions. I like to think that the coherent element, if there is one – the common dominator – is a kind of hopefulness that whether one is intensely secular or intensely religious, one hopes for . . . presumably hopes for something better tomorrow than one has today. And how we get there is often what the fight is about. I have no interest in evangelizing. I have no interest in converting anyone to anything except one hopes a kind of matasonian appreciation of the fact that there are many conflicting forces all of which should be heard. And then we work out what we need to work out; but we have to do it with some sense that we’re doing it not simply for our appetites of the moment, but to make the world a better place in the sense that we will be more secure. We would be happier. We’re doing so for our children. And so I think hope is the linking . . . the linking factor because reason is not a particularly useful faculty if it’s not leading to something. And faith is not a particularly useful faculty if it doesn’t shape one’s behavior in ways that make one less likely to . . . As Thomas Jefferson once said, makes ones less likely to “pick someone’s pocket or break their arm.”
Recorded on: 7/3/07
Faith and reason, Meacham says, are not incompatible.
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