Category: Faith and Reason

Passion & Wisdom in the Modern Age: Musings on Proverbs 29:11 (LXX)

As Christians, we are called to think rightly; we are called to wisdom. But what are the characteristics of wisdom? What does it look like to think rightly, especially in our modern age? The Bible goes about answering these questions in various ways, but one particular passage I have been thinking about lately is Proverbs 29:11. My love for the Greek New Testament has ignited a love for the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). So, wanting to deepen my reflections on this verse, I ran over to the LXX to read it: holon ton thymon autou ekpherei aphrōn, sophos de tamieuetai kata meros. I have loosely translated this as, “The foolish person lets out all of his passion, but the wise person does so reservedly, in a measured way.”

A simple first glance reveals that the “foolish person” (aphrōn) is set in direct contrast to the “wise” (sophos). Here, “foolish” (aphrōn) denotes wrong thinking. It is the opposite mindset of God and his people (cf. phronimos in Matt 7:24 and phroneō in Phil 2:5). There is, therefore, a way of thinking that is characteristic of God and his people—namely, a mindset based upon wisdom, insight, and prudence. Simply, aphrōn (“foolish”) in Prov 29:11 means “not wise” or “unwise.” Biblically, to call someone a “fool” is not to digress into name-calling, but rather to point out that someone is behaving, practically speaking, in a way that betrays their very human calling to a life of wisdom.

The “wise person,” sophos, behaves differently than the aphrōn. In what way? It all has to do with what each one does with thymos (passion, anger). The foolish person does not hold anything back; they have no filter. To be foolish, at least here, is to show no restraint in what one does with his or her passion. The wise person, by contrast, is not necessarily without anger (as the text of the LXX implies); rather, they are simply more reserved and careful with it. That is, they let it come out “in measure.” One gets the sense that the sophos lives a much more quiet life than the foolish person (cf. 1 Thess 4:11ff). The wise person, it seems, is less rambunctious and less imprudent with emotion than his or her counterpart.

What can we, people of the 21st century, learn from this verse? Ours, after all, is an age of passion, of hype and hysteria—a time when access to social media affords us a quick outlet for every little thought and every whim of passion that enters our mind and heart. People are—and always have been—passionate, whether over their religion, their non-religion, their entertainment, or their politics (I have written briefly about that last one here). In this way, the 21st century is no different than other times. But having been thrown into our modern, technological age, our passion has the unique ability to go public in an instant, sometimes to our detriment (not to mention others’). There is nothing wrong with going public with our passion. Sometimes it is necessary. But indiscreet passion is unbecoming for anyone, and unreasonable passion is dangerous to everyone. While anger and passion are never wrong in and of themselves (both have a place, as I say), each person is obligated to show measure and restraint. This is the essence of wisdom. Passion, of any sort, is never beneficial if it is allowed full reign without sound reason and self-control restraining it. I do not make an idol out of human reason (I do not buy into rationalism), but I do think wisdom and understanding, sophia kai phronēsis, are indispensable to the life that God requires. It is the wise person, after all, who shows constraint with emotion. How come? Because he or she, as a prudent thinker, understands the consequences that an overly-rash life tends to bring. 

As Christians, we are said to embody Christ in the world (1 Cor 12:27); if that is so, then may our fervent passion be the pursuit of wisdom and right thinking. May every passionate thing we say (or do not say) be founded upon sound reason. May we be a passionate people who think rightly, carefully, and wisely. 

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 3

With the series that I have called “Logisch Denken,” I’ve tried to show that faith in God is reasonable. (Stated negatively, I’ve tried to show that faith in God is not unreasonable.) The common assumption among skeptics, and even among a certain number of evangelicals, is that “faith” and “reason” are not in any way compatible. Thus, what I have tried to show (and will conclude with this post) is that this is not the case—faith is not unreasonable, both reason and faith are compatible. 

I talked about causation in the last post. Here I want to examine one more aspect of how the universe came to exist. We determined previously that the universe—i.e., the the space-time universe—must have had a cause. We recall that to say otherwise would commit oneself to an infinite regress of sorts, and all things considered, this is not logically satisfying (at least in light of the alternative). We concluded that the theist’s idea that the universe was created by God is not, at least up until our last post, shown to be in the slightest bit irrational, for theist’s believe there was a cause for the universe to come into existence; they simply call this cause “God.” Since it is not unreasonable to believe in causation, the belief in God as the Cause, then, is compatible with reason.

Of course, just because the universe had a cause does not necessarily lead one to conclude theism, at least not initially. It could, after all, have been the case that the universe caused itself to come into existence. How does this idea stand in the face of logical scrutiny? There are, perhaps, several things that could be said here, but let’s look at just one area of critique below regarding the idea of self-causation.

If the universe was caused, it was either caused by itself or caused by an outside agent/force. If it was caused by itself, then the universe would be both its own effect and its own cause. But this means, it seems, that the universe would had to have existed before it existed in order to have caused itself to come into existence. But this is absurd, for how could something exist before it existed?[1] That violates a fundamental law of logic, namely, the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, the universe’s cause for its existence, by definition, must have come from something outside of the space-time universe. Logic lends to this idea. So does theism, which also states that the universe’s cause remains outside the space-time universe, namely a cause described as “God.” Theism is therefore seen to be both reasonable and unscathed.

Technically, I’m not trying to prove God’s existence with this argument. What I am trying to do here is somewhat less ambitious. My point is to simply show how belief in God, theism, is not unreasonable. After all, belief in causation is not absurd. Moreover, the attributes of God, as depicted in the tenets of classical theism, seem to be compatible with what logic demands of the universe’s cause—namely, a cause that is non-material, all-powerful, and timeless (not to mention all-knowing). This, again, is what theists call “God.”

Therefore, belief in God, while it may be a matter of faith, is still seen to be a matter of reason, for I have shown through a set of propositions that theism can be construed logically. In the end, however, I realize that the arguments that have been presented in these posts may not convince the atheist/agnostic that theism is true, and that’s quite okay. But out of all the things the atheist/agnostic will say by way of response, one of those things cannot be that belief in God is illogical or unreasonable. It turns out that theism is quite reasonable.

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[1] William Lane Craig brings this point up often.

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 2

Continuing from my last post, I’m exploring the question, “Is it reasonable to believe in God?” Of course, behind this question is another: “Is faith and reason reconcilable?” I maintain that the answer to both questions is, quite simply, yes. My main goal with these posts is to show that it is not unreasonable to believe in God and that reason and faith can cohere.

I have shown in the last post that the universe had a beginning (or, at the very least, that it is reasonable to think it did). And if the universe did indeed have a beginning, then what caused the beginning? What caused the universe to jump into being? It is reasonable to suggest that events, such as beginnings, do indeed have causes (as philosophers like W. Craig say). In fact, I’m not sure that it is satisfying to say otherwise. After all, the claim that “The universe began to exist—i.e., came into being—from nothingness all without a cause” is really a leap of faith in its own right. Is it not, after all, the case that effects have causes?

It is true that the noted skeptic David Hume taught us that our beliefs about cause and effect are not as as air-tight as we might think. Thus, the proposition, “The universe had a cause,” is not inherent to the proposition,“The universe had a beginning,” such that if you have the latter, you must a priori affirm the former. It’s not like taking the proposition, “Sam is a bachelor” and then concluding a second proposition, namely, “Sam is unmarried.” That second proposition is true based upon the first proposition, for to be a “bachelor” is to be “unmarried.” In other words, the truth of the second proposition is inherent to the first. 

But that’s not how propositions about causation work, at least according to Hume. I’m no Hume scholar, but he essentially taught that a person believes in cause and effect based upon past experiences of how objects (such as billiard balls) interact when they come into contact with one another. That is, a person knows that when a ball rolls into another ball of less or equal weight, there will be an effect—namely, the effect that the second ball will be pushed forward. But this belief about cause and effect is not itself based upon a priori reason; it is, rather, based upon past experiences of how a person has seen objects interact. Thus, one might say that even the idea of cause and effect, too, is a leap of faith. 

But which “leap of faith” is more reasonable? Hume, despite his own skepticism, admitted that it would be “absurd” to do away with causal propositions. The question, therefore, still remains: Is it more reasonable to claim that an event, say, the beginning of the universe, had a cause for its beginning or to claim that it sprang from nothing without cause? Heeding Hume’s remark about absurdity, I think the answer would have to be in favor of causation. To me, it seems that the burden of proof is not upon those of us who claim the universe, as an event, must have had a cause, but rather upon those who would deny it. After all, it seems more reasonable to affirm the idea of causation.

But nevermind which is more reasonable. As a committed theist, I am saying something a bit less robust. In fact, all I want to do (keeping in the spirit of these posts) is to say, quite simply, that it is not unreasonable to believe the beginning of the universe did, indeed, have a cause. That is, there is absolutely nothing logically contradictory about that proposition at all. In fact, it seems quite reasonable to say such a thing, not least when we take in past experiences about cause and effect. That is, to say the universe had a cause is an instance of logical thinking (taking “logical” in the broad sense: that it is not unreasonable to trust my senses).

Is belief in God, therefore, irrational or otherwise unreasonable? No, not in the least. Theists (at least those within the traditional camps, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all believe the universe had a beginning, and this beginning was caused. Therefore, up to this point, I have shown how, by thinking logically about the universe, traditional beliefs inherent to theism are quite reasonable. Faith and reason, at least up until this point, are not at odds.

But there still remains one more hurdle to my entire argument. Could it be the case that the universe never needed a Divine cause for its existence? Could it be that the universe caused itself to come into existence? 

We will tackle that in the next post.

 

 

Logisch Denken: The Cosmos, Beginnings, Faith & Reason — Part 1

I’m doing a series of posts under the title Logisch Denken (German, “think logically”). In a few paragraphs, I’m attempting to show that Reason and Faith are not, contrary to popular opinion, mutually exclusive. That is, I don’t think a person must choose between one or the other. In fact, what I hope to accomplish is to show, quite simply, that there are instances where reason can cohere with a faith commitment (i.e., that these two are not at odds). My last post kicked things off by attempting to do this very thing. There I tried to point out that the universe, having merely a contingent existence, required (by definition) some sort of necessary existence/being for it’s own being and existence. I ended the post by saying that a person (an atheist, say) should not be afraid to follow the argument even if it resulted in religious implications. To do otherwise is unwarranted dogmatism. In this post, I want to continue showing how logic and religious faith cohere, that they are not necessary enemies.

First, let’s examine once more the cosmos—that is, the whole of space-time. One must ask the following question: Did the universe have a beginning or is it beginningless? Either the universe had a beginning or it always existed (in some fashion). Which of these is most reasonable? Theists (believers) would say that the universe most definitely had a beginning, for it was created by God. It is important to point out, moreover, that this is similar to the position of most scientists, even non-theistic ones—namely, the idea that the universe had some sort of (however mysterious) “beginning.” This idea is called “Big Bang Cosmology.” The prevailing idea among scientists (both theistic and atheistic) is that the universe “sprung” from some point of singularity. Scientific data does seem to lend support for this hypothesis, e.g., Edwin Hubble’s discovery of how the universe seems to be expanding as shown in spectrum shifting, etc. The theist’s idea that the universe had a beginning lends to the prevailing scientific consensus that the universe began with, well, a “bang.” I’m not a physicist, but I do know a bit about some of the philosophical issues that pertain to this. And I think philosophy could help illuminate the question of beginnings further.

On this, let’s suppose the other position, namely, that the universe—the whole of space/matter and time—was infinite. Is this a reasonable idea? I don’t think so. I follow philosopher W. Craig on this one. That is, the idea of an eternal/infinite universe is not a reasonable position precisely because it results in odd mathematical paradoxes. Craig, if I remember right, once gave an example of the paradox. For instance, suppose a person, Sam, had an infinite amount of marbles. Moreover, Sam took the time to number all of them. Let’s further suppose that Sam gave all of the odd numbered marbles away to a friend named Katy while keeping the even ones for himself. In response to this, we ask an initial question, How many marbles does Sam have after he gave away the odd numbered ones? Well, he would have an infinite amount of (even numbered) marbles. Furthermore, how many marbles would Katy have? She, too, would have an infinite amount of (odd numbered) marbles. So the paradoxical question is this: How can half of an initial set of marbles be, at the same time, equal to the number of the original set? The idea seems self-contradictory, for how could half of a whole be, at the same time, equal to the whole? This is logically contradictory. But even more so (I’m unsure if Craig himself points out this following question), How could Sam even have taken the time to number the original set to begin with? He would never have finished the numbering process before he could have given away the odd numbered ones, for it would have taken him an infinite amount of time to count them. The point, it seems, is this: actual infinity does not exist in a space-time universe. The concept and idea does, yes. But actually, no. Thus, the universe—the set of space-time “stuff”—is not eternal or infinite. Or, at the very least, it’s not logical or in any case reasonable to believe it is.

There’s more to say about all this—e.g., what caused the Big Bang? Does the Big Bang need a “cause”? We will tackle those questions and similar ones in the next post. But suffice it to say presently: The theistic idea that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning is not an unreasonable idea. In fact, this idea itself is the general consensus of the scientific community and it is also philosophically much more satisfying, at least in the face of the alternative.

Is theism unreasonable? So far, absolutely not. It is, at least up to this point, entirely consistent with what most believe about cosmology, as we have said. But I’m prepared to go further than this. I will go so far as to say with other theists (Craig, Moreland, et al) that theism, as opposed to non-theism, is not only not unreasonable, but a worldview to be preferred since it is most reasonable. I will say more about this in the next post.

(The third installment in this series can be found here.)

Logisch Denken: On the Universe, Existence, & Religious Implications

Let’s think logically about the space-time universe and its existence, its being. The universe is contingent—that is, the universe doesn’t exist by necessity, and it could have been the case that the universe never existed. There’s nothing, in other words, necessary about the fact that the universe exists. Therefore, the universe has a contingent existence. One must wonder, then, what its existence is contingent upon? (One, by the way, cannot appeal to some other contingent being or thing as the reason for the universe’s existence, for even that other being or thing is itself contingent and as such requires its own reason for existing.) It seems one would need to eventually arrive at some necessary existence in order to explain the universe’s contingent existence. There simply doesn’t appear to be a way around this fact, as it seems to be the most reasonable thing to conclude.

To be sure, a Necessary Being would indeed provide an adequate answer, and it seems belief in a Necessary Being is where our reasoning would lead us. But why are some so hesitant to go there? Is it because this would be a “religious answer” and, if adopted, would only send us back to the dark ages, an old time when dogma, not reason, was the rule of the day? But is it not first, and most properly, a logical answer? 

Just because logical answers may lend to religious implications does not mean they should be avoided. To insist otherwise appears unreasonable and is nothing short of dogmatism (an odd position for non-religious skeptics to find themselves). At any rate, it is here where the believer is actually shown to be less dogmatic than the ardent skeptic; perhaps it’s simply more logical to be religious than dogmatic? All the same, to believe in a Necessary Being is not, most assuredly, contrary to reason. It actually seems to be quite reasonable—an instance of logical thinking.

(The second installment in this series can be found here.)

Gadamer on Being Prejudiced

hans-georg-gadamerHere’s a great article touching on the work of 20th century German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer. I’m currently finishing up my PhD on Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and it continues to be a wonderful experience. If you have any interest in the subject of hermeneutics (and even textual exegesis), you need to check out Gadamer, a premier philosopher if there ever was one. His magnum opus, Warheit und Methode, is game-changing. (You can get the English translation, Truth and Method, at our bookstore).

As the article suggests, the thrust behind Gadamer’s work was that he sought to do the unthinkable: undermine the Enlightenment’s most basic idea, namely, that a person can, by adopting a (scientific) methodological approach to knowledge, free themselves from all the restraints and chains of prejudice. (This word, prejudice, is a translation of the German Vorurteil, and it simply means to “pre-judge.” Originally, this word never connoted anything negative; today, however, the word has taken on new meaning, denoting a social vice of some sort—e.g., when a person speaks of one’s “sexist prejudices.” Originally, the word implied nothing of the sort; it simply meant to make a preliminary judgment, whether good or bad.)

All that to say, scientific methodology continues to be all the rage these days. It’s not uncommon to even hear philosophers (of all people, they should know better) talk about the benefit of becoming a critical thinker who can now “free his/herself from things like assumptions (particularly religious ones).” As a critical thinker, they say, one “doesn’t have to be held down by such things any longer.”

Like the article mentions, these sentiments come from the likes of Richard Dawkins, who isn’t a philosopher by trade, though who does remain a rather hawkish atheist who regularly speaks critically of religion but praises science and reason. Dawkins (and others) often talk about how science is the key to progress, whereas religion—being held down by prejudices and tradition—remains nothing more than a nagging vestigial organ of the bronze age.

But as Gadamer painstakingly shows in his Truth and Method, such ideas don’t hold much weight. We all have prejudices—whether religious or skeptical prejudice. And the scientist is no exception. It’s simply foolish to think otherwise.

Read more here.

Is there something more?

Here’s a fun video of Prof. John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician, discussing the question, “Is there evidence of something beyond nature?” Lennox talks about a conversation he had with an atheist who also happened to be a biochemist by trade.

The basic question being addressed in this video is whether or not it’s true that everything–things like meaning, semiotics, language–can be reduced down to mere physics and chemistry. Does not the idea of “intelligence” also at some point come to bear upon this question? If so, might one go further and say, perhaps in light of the complexity of the DNA code, that there are all around us hints of another world—another world that makes possible ours?

On God, Proof, and Knowledge

by Matthew Halsted

When it comes to debating the “existence of God,” one of the preliminary questions that needs to be addressed is, What does proof look like in a debate like this? In other words, How can one display evidence or “prove” that God does (or does not) exist? Below are a few of my musings on this question.

I think we need to define what we mean by “proof.” When that word is used, there is often the implied idea that it entails a type of certainty. For instance, most people tend to think that in order to “prove” something is the case, one needs to have hard, indisputable evidence for it—maybe like empirical evidence, something a person could see or touch, maybe even video evidence or something like that. We might call this “scientific evidence”–evidence that can be tested, verified, falsified. Of course, empirical evidence like this would indeed constitute “proof” in certain situations. If, for example, I am inquiring into whether or not a man named Jones committed a crime, and there was DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime that can be linked back to Jones, then I would have some “proof”—some would say I could even be fairly certain—that he is in fact guilty of the crime in question. The problem, however, is that I don’t think the question of God’s existence needs to be narrowed down to the mere category of “scientific proof” like this. We need a broader category to work with. That is, I think we need to talk about knowledge in general.

When we say a person “knows” this or that thing, is hard evidence always entailed? Is this sort of proof always a necessary requirement? I don’t think so. Here’s why: There are many things that people claim to know (and can claim with confidence, I might add) without ever having “scientific proof” or even certainty. For example, suppose a guy named Sam was born on March 1, 1980, and suppose further that he knows this is his birthday. But how does he “know” he was born on that date? Can Sam be absolutely certain about knowing this? Well, no. After all, what if his parents were lying to him? What if his parents were part of a grand scheme to deceive him, making him think he is, in fact, two years older than he really is? At any rate, how could Sam ever discover with certainty—using scientific evidence—that he was truly born on March 1, 1980? Perhaps, he could find the doctor who delivered him, and maybe the doctor could confirm the date of his birth. But how is this “scientific proof” in the sense of certainty? Could it not be possible that the doctor, too, was part of the conspiracy? Does showing him the birth certificate help? Hardly. It could have been forged, after all. How can Sam, then, ground his knowing the date of his birthday? How can he ever claim to “know” when his birthday is? Better yet, how can you know when your birthday is? The truth is that everyone bases many of their fundamental knowledge claims not merely upon scientific-empirical evidence or even certainty, but rather upon reliability. So, you can claim to “know” that your birthday is the date it is because you presume from the outset the reliability of your parents’ testimony and of the birth certificate as an historical document. Of course, this is far from “certainty” in the proper sense of the word. (As said above, it could be the case that your parents are lying for some nefarious reason. You cannot simply appeal to a birth certificate as “empirical proof” since that document could have been fabricated.) But even though you cannot prove when you were born, this does not mean it is irrational to say you “know” when you were born. Proof, in this sense, isn’t a requirement for knowledge.

The point is that it’s quite okay to make some truth claims (e.g., “I was born on March 1, 1980”) without having to appeal to certainty or to scientific methodology as a necessary criterion. The knowing of your birth date simply resides beyond the scope of scientific considerations. Your parents’ presumed reliable testimony, your assumption that most birth certificates are accurate, your participating in the yearly celebrations, etc., are all sufficient for your knowing your birthday. More can be said here, but space does not permit.

Furthermore, people hold to other more substantial beliefs that are also not provable (in the above sense). For example, a 30-year old person can’t prove that the past three decades were not implanted into his/her consciousness a mere five minutes ago, with built in memories, feelings, etc., to create the false belief that he or she really existed the whole timeCan you “prove” that your life—or all of reality—is not the product of a mad scientist’s experiment? This is a silly question, but the point is actually fairly significant: How can you empirically and scientifically prove that this is not, in fact, the case?

But it just seems absurd to believe that all of reality is the product of a mad scientist’s experiment. Most rational people believe it isn’t, right? And too, rational people do not have to give reasons for why they are not an experiment of a malevolent scientist; it is perfectly rational to reject such beliefs—and without proof and argument. To say that a person requires “hard” proof that he or she is, in fact, not a “brain in a vat” seems absurd. We don’t have to prove our beliefs that the world, or that people in the world, are real. In fact, these beliefs are something we always assume rather than prove. These are what philosophers call “properly basic beliefs.” They are called “basic” because they are beliefs which are not argued for, but upon which all other beliefs rest. I don’t need to prove that the sum of 2 and 1 is 3. Rather, 2 and 1 being 3 is a basic belief upon which I am able to build all my other beliefs (e.g., more complex mathematical beliefs).

When I participated in a debate on the existence of God, one of the questions that got brought up was, “Can a person know that God exists?” My sparring partners (the atheists) seemed to have assumed that all knowledge must come through the scientific method. That is, in order to “know” anything at all, one must be able to test and verify it. I’ve noticed many atheists make this mistake. For them, in order to “know some thing,” the belief about the thing itself needs to be repeatable and empirically confirmed. And since God, and claims about him, cannot be physically touched, seen, or tested, belief in God cannot be anything other than just that–mere belief. One cannot say, then, that they “know” God truly exists. It seems that, for many atheists at least, unless one can scientifically test or repeat a truth claim (or belief), then one simply cannot say that the said belief is “true” or “false.” But this is clearly absurd, for we rationally and justifiably claim to know things all the time without testing them or repeating them (e.g., historical claims like our birthdays; see above). The truth, too, is that some beliefs are properly basic. The truth is that some truths can be known immediately, self-evidently, and without proof or argument. Moreover, the idea that “a thing can’t be known until it is scientifically tested” is itself not a scientific idea, for it is neither falsifiable nor empirically verifiable. The atheist’s ideas, therefore, can’t pass their own scientific test. 

Here’s the main point: Not all knowledge, then, needs to be grounded upon proof—especially scientific, empirical proof.

So, I think prior to entering discussions about “God’s existence,” one needs to discuss these issues further. A person must remember that, while science (and the scientific method) is a means to knowledge (we’ve learned a lot about the cosmos with it, after all), it is not the only means to knowledge. Sometimes we know things without “proof” or “argument” at all, as we have seen above. Perhaps knowing God is like this as well. Some philosophers (like Alvin Plantinga from the University of Notre Dame) have taught that belief in God is justified without any argument since it is a “properly basic belief.” And I think I would personally agree with that, though I would like to study more on the subject. Granted this, though, can arguments for God’s existence be helpful to show that God truly exists? Can crafting logical arguments help us see evidence for God’s existence? Can logical reasoning, from premise to conclusion, lead us to belief in God? I most definitely think it can. But that’s a subject for another time. 

Two things that prevent Christians from thinking well

Part of the reason I started Trinityhaus was because I wanted to encourage Christians to think deeply, clearly, and carefully. It’s been my conviction that modern Christianity–particularly within the evangelical tradition, of which I am part–has failed at this God-given task. I don’t call this a “God-given task” flippantly. Jesus himself says, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The word for “mind” is dianoia. It connotes the idea of using one’s intellect rightly, that is, reasoning well and the ability to reach truth by means of critical, logical, thinking.

My hope in life–as both a pastor and director at Trinityhaus–is to help Christians glorify God with their minds, spurning their relationship with God to go beyond just flutters of the heart. My calling is to provide believers with the resources they need in order to learn Scripture and engage other thinkers (whether Christian or non-Christian) in a critical way. By doing all this, my hope is that each learner will get closer to truth and therefore closer to God himself. (Truth, after all, always leads to God.) In short, I want Christians to learn how to think carefully, to reason well.

But what are some things that keep us from being careful thinkers? I’ve identified two items below: The first is a false belief, the second is a misguided attitude.

(1) We believe ignorance is a virtue and thinking is unbiblical. A Pastor once told me that the Bible never tells us to use our head; the point of the Bible, he urged, was to simply love and trust God. This is the classic problem with what is wrong with much of modern Christianity. Has God not called us to think, to use our minds at all? The truth is that he has. Even the slightest glance at our own religious writings tells us so much. Take the wisdom literature, Proverbs, for example. Here, an entire section of Scripture is devoted to urging God-followers to think wisely. The book of Job, too, is an invitation to encounter God while pondering the blessed reality of the good and the harsh reality of evil and suffering. In the New Testament, Paul likewise encourages his readers to engage his meticulous arguments in his letter to Rome, a task not for the faint of heart. The truth is that the Bible not only calls us to think, but it actually requires us to think if we are to engage it in a meaningful way (again, think of how Paul depends on the logic of his arguments. Jesus, by the way, is no exception; he can argue quite well, too). Therefore, ignorance is not a virtue; it’s actually a vice (Prov 18:2; 19:2). And thinking is not unbiblical; having knowledge and knowing how to use it is thoroughly biblical, a Christian virtue in fact (2 Peter 1:5).

Moreover, thinking is also essential to our being human. Central to the Judeo-Christian worldview is that God has endowed us with his image and likeness. This entails the gift of volition, of free agency. That is, we have the ability to make meaningful choices. And God expects us to make good choices, wise choices, choices that result in blessings and not curses. But such choices, by definition, assume deliberation. Every wise person will, before making a hard decision, engage in reasoned and diligent deliberation (Prov 14:15; 21:5). A person is to ponder their decisions well, carefully weighing in their mind the potential consequences of future choices. It’s a myth, therefore, that God has not called us to think. It’s clear that he has not only called us to think but to think well.

(2) We refuse to read widely. Another way Christians will fail to fulfill their call to think well is to refuse to consider the opinions of differing people. In evangelical circles, I’ve noticed something. Often, we evangelicals get “cliquish” in our beliefs and convictions. For example, we often find ourselves reading and listening only to those authors–pastors, theologians, philosophers–with whom we happen to always agree. It’s not at all bad to have favorite authors. Neither is it wrong to primarily associate yourself with a group of thinkers that you can easily and comfortably identify with. There’s no problem with being proud of, and comfortable within, your own respective ecclesiastic distinctives (most reformed believers find themselves in a reformed church, charismatics in a charismatic church, etc). The problem, though, is that all too often evangelical Christians never get outside their comfort zone. Rather, they remain content never to read, for example, another author that might challenge their own tertiary beliefs, even when these new ideas spring from the pen of a fellow believer in Christ. I think this is dangerous for a couple of reasons.

First, if you never read outside your tribe’s own wise men, then you may not fully appreciate your own tribe’s convictions. One of the reasons I enjoy reading other thinkers with whom I most definitely disagree is because it actually serves to strengthen and solidify my own convictions. By reading other authors, I come to realize that their counter viewpoint is fairly weak and how mine is actually to be preferred. I’m sure a fish appreciates the water most when it finds itself flopping on a dock.

Second, you may actually be wrong about your beliefs. It may be the case that your conviction or belief is actually the result of, say, a bad interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps you’ve always believed you were right about “________” but, in reality, you have been wrong the whole time because you didn’t have all the right facts. Or maybe you simply mis-arranged the facts such that the truth became distorted and you have been, despite your firm confidence to the contrary, wrong the entire time. To be sure, this describes all of us at some point in time. In fact, I’d venture to say that both you and I believe some falsehood right this very second. Unless we have come to believe we are infallible creatures (a claim I’m not willing to make), perhaps we have some more learning to do in the future?

But here is the deal: You will never come to find out you are wrong if you never read opposing opinions. What’s interesting is how many evangelicals (again, I include myself on this charge) are so quick to point out how “the opposing side is wrong,” yet actually never take the time to listen to the other side at all. This isn’t smart (Prov 18:13). Do we read other works from other sectors of the Christian world in order to be challenged and learn truth? We should: Semper Reformandathey say. Do we stop to listen to other viewpoints, even those that don’t come explicitly from Christians? We need to. Even the Church Fathers saw glimmers of truth in the Greek philosophers. So did St. Paul, who found an opportunity to quote a pagan philosopher and poet (Acts 17:28). I’m glad the Apostle read widely, outside his tribe. If we–modern Christians, not least those in the evangelical tradition–fail to do so ourselves, we will portray ourselves as poor thinkers. We will also continue to exist in ignorance in the presence of an unbelieving world, displaying an arrogant folly too self-infatuated to be cured. The truth is that our Faith urges its adherents to do the opposite: to think deeply, clearly, and carefully.

 

From personal experience, that’s why I’ve enjoyed being a research student. It’s been sanctifying. As a grad student, I’m actually required to engage with, and leave ample room for, other thinkers who would disagree with me. Uncomfortably, I’m constantly being challenged by opposing views. It has even been the case that, after spending time in study, I’ve had to change my own beliefs. I’ve had to admit that I was wrong. There is a certain level of humility involved when you are forced to confess that. Maybe even embarrassment. But at the end of the day, humility and confession have always been part of the Christian way. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). It’s good to be examined. We should admit more often that there really does exist areas of the ocean that we, like our proverbial fish above, have yet to explore. You don’t have to be doing a PhD to come to that realization. This is common sense stuff–truth that any sound, well-reasoned mind will reach on its own.

So, let’s not be mistaken: ignorance has never been a virtue, especially in traditional and apostolic Christianity. Let’s commit ourselves, then, to loving wisdom, seeking understanding, and reading widely. By doing so, we will become better and more careful thinkers, the very thing God has called us to be.

Is it reasonable to have faith? Some preliminary thoughts…

There is a lot to be said about this question, much more than can be said in a simple blog post. And I’m sure that this post will provoke more questions than the one just posed. But however complicated the subject is, I want to take a moment to share a few observations about the relationship (or lack of one) between “faith” and “reason.”

There’s a common assumption going around that faith and reason are, by definition, mutually exclusive. That is, these two things are—by virtue of their “inherent meaning”—so irreconcilable that a person must, at the end of the day, choose if they will be an adherent to religious faith or a devotee to science and reason. I once saw an atheist wear a t-shirt that said, “You (the believer) can do the praying, and I (the atheist) will do the thinking.” So the mantra goes.

The first thing I should point out is that words do not have “inherent meaning.” It’s not the case that words—that is, the black and white group of letters on a piece of paper—possess their own meaning. Rather, words get their meaning from the way they are used in the process of communication. This is a complicated issue, but by way of example, the word “cool” can refer to a couple of different things, namely, either the temperature in a room or a person’s popularity. There’s no set definition to which the group of letters “c-o-o-l” must always conform. What decides the meaning of this word? The context in which it is being used decides the meaning. Simple stuff.

But what about the words “faith” and “reason”? As already said, these words do not come pre-packaged with inherent meanings of their own. From this, we should point out therefore that no one should claim that there is an inherent opposition between these two words. After all, if there are no inherent definitions for these two words, then how can there be any inherent opposition between them? At any rate, what do these two words mean? Well, it depends. On what does it depend? The context.

And what is the context? In our modern, post-Enlightenment context, “reason” is often taken as a synonym for “scientific methodology” (or something like that). At least this seems to be the case at the most basic level. The discipline of “science,” we remember, is to investigate (in an unbiased sort of way) the facts of nature. Through a system of observing, forming hypotheses, testing, repeating, theories about natural phenomenon can be formed. The successful result of this process is what is commonly referred to as “knowledge.” Another aspect related to this particular concept of “reason” is the idea that it should be autonomous. That is, a lot of people (though by no means all) think that any appeal to outside “authority” should be strictly prohibited. Instead, for example, of finding answers from your bishop, you should simply forget the church as an authority and utilize your own individual reason to discover the answer for yourself. There’s more to be said here, but I think these comments will do for now.

What about “faith”? In some modern Christian contexts (particularly evangelical contexts) “faith” has become a synonym for “believing in something for which there is no evidence.” That is to say, for many Christians “faith” doesn’t require empirical evidence, since the only thing that matters is “trusting in God’s authority, as a blind man trusts his guide.”  Thus, “reason” plays no, or very little, part. Perhaps this is why, erroneously, the church calls people to “ask Jesus into their hearts” in order to be “saved.” (That’s a fine analogy, but notice how the church seldom asks Jesus to come live in their minds.)

So “reason” stands in one corner of the ring while “faith” takes its place in the opposite. The match is set, with dueling enemies ready to spar. But how come? Why must they stand where they do? The reason, I suspect, is because ever since the Enlightenment, both sides—the religious side and the non-religious side—have simply assumed the same radical thing, namely, that “authority” and “reason” are at odds. “Faith” and “reason,” therefore, are at odds because they’ve been set up that way, given the context of modernity’s use of the terms. The words “faith” and “reason” have, by their own respective users, been endowed with meanings which will never allow them to be reconciled. “Faith,” after all, has to do with spiritual authority and religious claims, while “reason” has to do with the examination of evidence and facts.

But here’s the funny thing: Even though secularists and believers are on opposite sides of the conceptual ring, they actually have much more in common than they realize. The common thread weaved between the two is the assumption that “belief in divine authority” and “human reason” are completely different things altogether. Both sides seem to believe this. Christians often appeal to such passages as Isaiah 55:8, where it says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” lending to the idea that human reasoning is always futile and should therefore be checked at the church door (never mind this verse is taken out of context). The secularist, likewise, says things like, “I think religion is fine for some people—it helps them behave, act good, respect society. But religion has nothing to do with ‘reason’ and should never be fused with it.” (I’ve often heard secularists say these sorts of things.) That’s why I regularly joke that the modern secularist and the common believer should grab dinner and get together more often—they have a lot in common!

The problem is real, though. Both operate from the wrong assumption—namely, once more, the basic Enlightenment assumption that authority and reason are forever opposed. This assumption, which both sides share, sets up an unnecessary fight. But must this always be the case? Should we continue to endow the words “faith” and “reason” with the modern definitions? I don’t think so for a few of reasons given below.

First, as Hans Gadamer argued, sometimes it is reasonable to appeal to authority, since there are times when another person can be said to be more in the know about some question or subject than you are.[1] This scenario isn’t hard to imagine. Therefore, there are at least some instances when authority and reason can be married. And because of this, it would be wrong to make the blanket statement that “faith” and “reason” are always at odds (despite modern usage).

Second, the Christian Faith is not merely spiritualistic. Here’s what I mean. The earliest Christians made historical claims. Paul cites an early creed in 1 Cor 15:3ff, saying, “Christ died…was buried…was raised…” and that he even “appeared” to people days later. Now of course, these are only claims, and making a claim is not the same as it being true. But that’s not my point. My point is that early Christian Faith (at least the Faith of the apostles and their followers) was a faith that based itself on events that were claimed to have occurred within space and time, within history. That is, the events believed upon by the early Christians (i.e., the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) were said to have happened in the real world. According to this early Christian writing (and creed), “faith” was not seen as a type of “believing in something for which there is no evidence.” Rather, for them “faith” was understood to be “believing in something for which there was evidence.” After all, their claims were historical and physical claims. This is in stark contrast to modern Christianity which has relegated “faith claims” to the purely mythical world that exists in an untouchable heaven above. For early believers, the Christian Faith was nothing other than the claim that the mythical world of heaven came to kiss the earthly world below—in real time and space and history. The modern believer would do well to cast off some of their own Enlightenment assumptions and take seriously the “real-world claims” of their early brothers and sisters and start making their “testimony” not just about “what God has done in my heart,” but about “what God has done in history.”

Third, the secularist must realize that truth claims about reality can be legitimately made outside of the use of the scientific method. It’s hard to see how the opposite could be true. After all, can the claim “all knowledge about reality must come through the scientific method” itself be verified by the scientific method? Hardly so. There seems, if one were to think deeply about it, something far more mysterious (perhaps spiritual and mythic?) about the way we humans know anything at all. I’ve heard often from the secular corner that, “We can never know there is a God or gods because those claims are neither testable nor verifiable through the scientific method.” Therefore, they say, it might be “nice” or “helpful” or “beneficial” to have religion, but whatever it is, it is not based on reason. But again, to hold to the view that “reason” (in the sense of scientific methodology) is the only means to knowing reality is to forget that truth and knowledge can come from other sources—yes, even from places like authority and tradition.[2]

So, is faith and reason forever opposed? No, not at all. To rephrase Mark Twain, perhaps we can say “reports of the war between faith and reason have been greatly exaggerated.” In fact, there is a sense in which the two—faith and reason—need each other in order to work. Chesterton once quipped that, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” Maybe he was on to something here. Likewise, the Christian Faith is a historical faith, with real-world claims. Claims that, if true in history, should promptly elicit faith in Christ. And if they are not true in history, Paul says quite emphatically that the Christian “faith is futile” (1 Cor 15:17).

When it comes to the Christian faith in particular, there is nothing inherently impossible about reconciling it with reason. Once this has been established, we are now in a better position to examine a further question: Is it reasonable to have faith?

I have personally committed my entire life to show how the answer to this question is an emphatic yes. The truth is, there are actually very good reasons to believe.

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[1] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed. (New York: Continuum, 2004), 280–281.

[2] I think Gadamer in his Truth and Method really hits home on these points.