Faith and Reason: Is Christianity Irrational?
It’s common for especially evangelical Christians and secularists to criticize “reasonable faith” as an oxymoron. In this case we see strange bedfellows—agreeing from entirely different premises and worldviews. Some evangelical Christians (and, of course, other kinds of Christians) run from any suggestion that Christianity ought to be reasonable—in the sense of holding beliefs that are intellectually intelligible. They appeal to “faith” as if that means blind faith, unexamined belief, in truths delivered by authority. It is more spiritual, they say, to believe against logic and evidence than to believe with them.
Many, perhaps most, secularists agree that “reasonable faith” is an oxymoron but for a different reason. For them, any kind of faith is automatically unreasonable. It is a sign of mental weakness, if not personality flaw, to believe in anything against or even without reason—logic and evidence. Unless it is held as private opinion and not promoted as public truth. Then, perhaps, it’s acceptable. Even then, however, it’s a sign of some deficiency of concern for truth and reality.
Should Christians believe what is unreasonable? That’s the question here. I’m more concerned for the moment with Christians who consider the best faith blind faith in what is irrational. My question to secularists is from Pascal: “Do you love by reason?” And I would say to them what he said: “The heart has reasons the reason knows not of.”
However, I don’t think Pascal thought Christians ought to sacrifice their intellects and embrace ideas, as true, that are against all evidence and logic. I don’t think they should.
Immediately the question must be answered: What is meant by “evidence” and “logic?”
By “evidence” I mean material facts of experience and documentary research. Everyone believes some things that cannot be proven by such evidence, but one ought never to believe something that flies in the face of all such evidence.
By “logic” I mean the laws of thought and persuasion such as the law of non-contradiction. If two propositions absolutely contradict each other they cannot both be believed rightly. Such a contradiction is always a sign of error, even in religion (including Christianity).
Now, none of this becomes an issue so long as a person believes against all evidence and logic (henceforth “reason”) privately. The problem, the issue, arises when a person pronounces such a belief and expects other people to believe with him or her (or expects other people to endorse such beliefs as valid).
Imagine discovering that a person is a solipsist—one who believes everyone else is a figment of his or her imagination. So long as the person keeps this belief to himself or herself there’s no real problem—unless it begins to affect his or her actions toward others. But suppose the solipsist begins to expect others to agree that they are only figments of his imagination. That’s when trouble occurs.
Imagine a Christian who says she received a new revelation from God that includes “truths” never before revealed. Normally that’s not a problem, even if the “truths” are against all reason, so long as the person keeps it private. Trouble occurs when the person pronounces these “truths” and expects others to believe them.
First, a reasonable person will ask such a person to offer rational credentials for the “truths” in question. By “rational credentials” I mean, of course, evidence and logic. Why should others believe the new “truths?”
Second, an unreasonable person may rush to embrace the new “truths” if they are emotionally fulfilling even if they are totally unsupported by any inter-subjective reasons and even if they go against all evidence and logic.
Unfortunately, far too many Christians (and others, of course) fall into that “unreasonable persons” category and 1) cannot give a reasonable account of their Christian faith and even revel in an irrational set of beliefs labeled “Christian,” and 2) often criticize those who do attempt to make Christian beliefs intelligible and work out any irrationality in Christianity.
What I’m getting at is, of course, the prevalence of what I call folk religion among Christians. (For a fuller account of it see my book Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith [Zondervan].) Folk religion, including folk Christianity, bases beliefs on feelings rather than reasons and resists all critical thinking about what is believed.
Now, someone will say that all reasoning is context-dependent, value-laden, culturally conditioned. I accept some limited truth to this, but, of course, if there are no universal laws of logic and if evidence is totally dependent on culture and context, then there is little hope for convincing anyone of anything or of criticizing beliefs and practices.
Some years ago I heard a cultural relativist argue that “Westerners” (Euro-Americans), including Christian missionaries, have no right to try to stop men in tribal cultures from beating their wives when their reason for beating their wives is that they (the men) failed to kill any animals for food because the women made too much noise in the village, awakening the spirits of the animals they had eaten, causing them to go out and warn other animals about the hunting men. He claimed that our “Western values” do not apply in tribal cultures in, say, Africa, and we have no business attempting to correct such practices because their reasoning is “true for them” even if it’s not “true for us.”
Of course, such cultural relativism completely undermines all attempts to stop human trafficking, too, insofar as it’s consistent with a culture’s values. And why couldn’t a gang of human traffickers claim they are a culture?
Some years ago Christian ethicist Max Stackhouse published an article in Christian Century arguing, very cogently, that such reasoning (viz., that all reasoning is culturally relative) undermines universal ethics and can be used to support torture and deflect criticism of it.
I have to believe there are universal laws of evidence and logic. That doesn’t mean some specific philosophy is universal. For example, it doesn’t mean that Plato’s philosophy or Hegel’s philosophy is universal and ought to be imposed everywhere. Of course not. What it means is that anywhere in the world, when a person makes a public truth claim his claim can and should be subjected to critical examination. Insofar as it contradicts the material facts of evidence (e.g., the earth is round and revolves around the sun) and/or the laws of logic (e.g., two propositions that contradict each other cannot both be true in the same way at the same time).
Some years ago I was lecturing to a group of adult students (in a degree completion program) about philosophical ethics. In order to illustrate the difference between objective and subject I said that the degree of tragedy involved in a death depends at least partly on the circumstances. All deaths are sad, of course, especially to the friends and family of the person(s) who died. However, we are justified in thinking that the death of a child in a car accident is more tragic than the death of a person who lived a long life and died of a disease they knowingly brought on themselves (such as lung cancer caused by smoking packs of cigarettes every day for many years). Like “truth, beauty, and goodness,” “tragedy” is not just a subjective feeling but also, in a different sense, an objective reality rooted in circumstances.
After the lecture and discussion a student accosted me and, very angrily, accused me of diminishing the death of her mother from lung cancer by declaring it not tragic. I tried once again to explain the difference between subjective and objective and how her mother’s death was tragic to her and others who loved her but not as tragic objectively as a little child’s death in a car accident because she contributed to it knowingly. That explanation not only did not satisfy her, it made her more angry! Deeper and fuller discussion later in the course revealed that this student had no category of “objective” in her mind; to her everything is subjective. She denied the very reality of objective, universal truth. To her, “truth” is what is true for her even if it is not at all true for anyone else. I suspect this is a very common contemporary attitude toward truth.
But Christianity has historically claimed to include truth for all—truth that is universal, public and objective (that is, not just “true for some”). Christianity does not make the claim that people are capable of being objective on their own; it makes the claim that truth itself is not affected by the fact that people are subjective in their judgments about truth.
And it makes the claim that God has crossed over the “gap” between our subjectivity and the objectivity of his truth to help us know and understand his truth. He does that in the incarnation and with the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many Christians interpret this as meaning that before and apart from knowing and believing in Jesus Christ and having the inner witness of the Holy Spirit people are rational and receiving Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit brings them out of rationality into irrationality. That reverses what really happens. What really happens is that the coming of Jesus and the Holy Spirit cures our irrationality and brings us into rationality. We are “now,” for the first time, able to see reality as it really is and stop blinding ourselves to the truth.
This does not mean, however, that now, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we have a different logic or different evidence than was in and around us before. It means our ability to use logic and evidence is freed from the subjective, binding power of sin and brought into the light of truth. Like Plato’s men in the cave we are brought out into the light to see what we could not see before. But it’s not as if arising out of the cave gave us “new logic” or created “new evidence” that wasn’t there before. We were, under the power of sin, blind to what was real. But nothing we now “see” in the light of God’s revelation and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is illogical (absurd) or contrary to material facts of evidence. Much of it transcends what we could know on our own “in the cave,” but none of it is self-contradictory or contrary to what our senses, working correctly, reveal. In fact, we should regard the people still in the cave, so to speak, as reveling in irrationality and rejecting evidence. (Not with a feeling of superiority over them but with a feeling of hope that they, too, can see reality in the “light of day” as we do in and through Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.)
Under the distortions of folk religion and faith interpreted as subjectivism, many contemporary Christians actually seem to believe that knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and having the Holy Spirit within requires them to sacrifice their intellects, all critical thinking, and believe things because they are absurd to non-Christians. (Tertullian has triumphed!)
I speak on topics of theology to lay Christians often in numerous kinds of churches. One thing I run into is that many very spiritually-minded Christians resist any attempt to explain how Christian doctrines are not irrational. For example, the Trinity. I demonstrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is not irrational, illogical. Nor does it go against evidence. It is certainly not absurd. Many Christians express the feeling that there’s something wrong with my saying that. To them it’s true because it’s absurd. They have adopted an esoteric view of Christianity in which Christian belief is a higher wisdom and knowledge that goes against “the world’s ideas of logic.” This is more similar to Gnosticism than historical, classical Christianity.
My claim is not that every Christian belief can be proven by evidence or logic. My claim is that none contradict evidence and logic and that evidence and logic can actually be used to demonstrate to open-minded inquirers why and how Christianity, as a world view, is overall more consistent with evidence and logic than any other world view. I do not claim that apologetics can prove the truth of Christianity or bring someone to salvation apart from an inner witness of the Holy Spirit. But the inner working of the Holy Spirit that produces faith is not necessary because of any defect in evidence or logic but because of the defect in us under the rule of sin—that causes us to turn a blind eye to evidence and logic in matters spiritual.
Why do I feel so strongly about this matter? Simply because I see Christianity being reduced to an esoteric belief system, a folk religion, all around me. And that is one reason, I am convinced, for the lack of respect for Christianity as a belief system among thoughtful people who think critically—”inquiring minds.” To them, too often, Christianity appears as superstition—on the same level as astrology. We Christians have done that. To many of us it is on the same level as astrology: true insofar as it brings comfort and personal guidance and fulfillment but not “true for everyone.” Subjectively true but not objectively true. Private truth, not public truth.