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.

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