The Magazine

Faith and Reason

Father Ernest Fortin, 1923-2002.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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In the book's most tantalizing chapter, on "Dante and Christianity," Fortin leads one to raise the fascinating question of Dante's faith. Dante's boldness has always been acknowledged, but, as Harvey Mansfield has observed in a different context, "A man who seems bold can be bolder than he seems."

Fortin's speculation is so daring that it includes the far-out "hypothetical case of a pagan who would have thought of writing a Christian epic." He does not say that Dante was that man, and he gives full weight to the argument that "the poet of the beatific vision could be nothing but a Christian." Could it be that just as Dante has reached a peak where the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry ceases to have any relevance, he has also reached a peak where the distinction between faith and reason ceases to apply? I do not know.

One lays down Fortin's fine book on Dante (my paltry attempt at a summary scarcely does justice to its riches and omits, for instance, any mention of the brilliant discussion of Dante's use of allegory), and one is left to wonder not only about Dante's faith but about Fortin's.

Fortin was a Straussian--which means, among other things, that he took "Jerusalem and Athens" as one of the themes of his work, and that no possibility of a synthesis exists. Well, then, which side was he on? Fortin thought of the argument between faith and reason as a standoff, and of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens as being a fruitful source of Western civilization's extraordinary vitality. Affirming the tension, and embodying it, he would seem to be on both sides. Alas, that tempting answer to the question raises further questions. If one internalizes the tension between faith and reason, then what happens to the Christian ideal of peace of soul? I am not sure, but I surmise that on the deepest level, in the last analysis, Ernest Fortin was a practicing and believing Christian, a man of faith. The man of reason doubts what he can and believes what he must. The man of faith believes what he can and doubts what he must. The gap between them is as deep as it is narrow.

In our time, however, when faith is likely to be much less than St. Paul's "substance of things hoped for and the evidence for things not seen," and when reason is likely to be much less than Socrates' quest for wisdom, the genuine man of faith and the genuine man of reason are strong allies. When the barbarians and the philistines are together at the gate, all men of good will can view the life of Father Ernest Fortin among us as a blessing and a cause for celebration.

Werner J. Dannhauser is a visiting professor in political theory at Michigan State University.