I asked a friend of mine who is a Christian to answer the question “Is the Christian faith a reasonable story to believe?” What follows is his answer to that question. I invite you to interact with what he wrote, giving your responses in the comments below. Tomorrow we will revisit this piece and I will explain why I’m sharing it with you today.
I’d like to share with you the fruit of some long struggles of mine over the last few years about the reasonable-ness of the Christian faith. I feel I’ve earned the right to offer something on the subject since I have spent more time and lost more sleep because of this than anyone else I know. I have long held a suspicion that most folks rarely allow themselves to squarely face the really tough questions, contenting themselves with overly simplistic answers offered by people with whom they already agreed in the first place. But I have never been able to do that. I cannot happily hold a conclusion so easily wrought. I must hold as suspect any conclusion which merely reinforces what I already thought from the beginning, and I will not be satisfied merely listening to the opinions of those already “on my side.”
Consequently, mine has always been a somewhat tension-filled mind; and frankly, I have never felt that those who never question their own beliefs actually help those who are honestly asking the tough questions. I must attempt to see the world through another thinker’s “eyes” before I can comfortably conclude whether they are right or wrong. Which brings me to the question at hand: Is the Christian faith, the Christian story, a reasonable story to believe? Similarly, is belief in God rational at all? I believe that the correct answer to both questions is Yes . . . and No. I’ll start by explaining in what way I mean that the Christian story (including the larger context of a general belief in God and the supernatural) is a reasonable story to believe.
I have spent a good bit of time fighting the idea that the faith that I hold cannot withstand the scrutiny of modern thought. Hasn’t the direction of every branch of our intellectual pursuits rendered belief in anything supernatural obsolete? Until recently, the consensus of the intellectual community was that men invented belief in God to explain the things of nature that we could neither understand nor control. If theism was conceived as an intellectual cop-out to begin with, then it certainly should be shelved along with all other superstitions arising from a pre-scientific age. If the idea of God originated from an attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, then once the knowledge has been “filled in” there is no longer any need for God. Zarathustra said we killed God; if we gave him life in the first place, it only makes sense for us to put him out of his misery.
Whence Comes the Universe?
Perhaps the greatest challenge along these lines arises from our understanding (or lack thereof) of how the universe came to be. Was it created or is it simply “self-existent” and eternal? If you posit that everything was created by a Divine Being you are reaching far beyond the solid ground of empirical data. You are getting your idea from somewhere other than science, and such irrational beliefs have no place in the modern world. How can we any longer believe in a Being who “just was” from the very beginning, without questioning where He came from? But wait a minute! The alternative is that the cosmos is uncreated, self-existent, and eternal? Isn’t that also taking us far beyond the reaches of empirical data? Can we construct an experiment which will verify that hypothesis? No way. The moment we ask the question of the origins of the universe we have left science and entered the territory of metaphysics. How much difference is there between a self-existent, eternal Divine Being and a self-existent, eternal cosmos? Doesn’t a belief in either require faith of one sort or another?
In fact, much of the data coming from our study of the universe seems to indicate that it did have a beginning. Judging by the current expansion of the universe and the structure and maturity of observable galaxies, most estimates date our universe to be around 14 billion years old. That is an almost unimaginably long time, but it still raises the question: How and why did it come to be?
Eminent physicists of our day have put together an explanation for a naturalistic genesis of the universe: It simply “came to be” through an accidental but favorable combination of matter and antimatter. With all due respect for these brilliant scientists, I fail to see how this puts us on firmer ground. Exactly what is antimatter anyway, and where did it come from? Is this stuff also self-existent? Can we produce an experiment that will demonstrate the characteristics of antimatter?
Perhaps I sound like I am unfairly criticizing solutions that are purely theoretical in nature, as if theoretical postulates should be subjected to the same empirical verification as chemistry or biology. But this is precisely the point I am trying to make. As a layman am I supposed to rest assured that the physicists are working out the kinks in their understanding of the universe? When I hear them tossing around terms like “antimatter” and “string theory” should I not let the fact that what they are saying sounds like nonsense to the rest of the world diminish my trust in their cosmological assumptions?
The Limitations of Reason
Of course, back here on Earth (where we laymen live), we admit that we cannot empirically prove every belief to which we cling. We realize that if all our intellectual pursuits were limited by the rigorous constraints of the laboratory we would never discover anything new because discovery requires some measure of imagination. And imagine what it would be like if we limited our daily activities to those things which we completely understand, or which we can control in a lab. We could hardly function in our interactions with one another, and we would act strangely indeed.
All of this illustrates the fact that mystery and limitations of reason are unavoidable elements of human existence. Some questions necessarily transcend scientific thinking. But too many intellectuals fail to acknowledge how many places in their own lives they hold dearly to beliefs they cannot prove. The more obvious areas like relationships, leisure, or personal finances provide plentiful evidence of irrationality in the lives of the most brilliant intellectuals. But I am convinced that their illogicality extends also to those areas in which so many pride themselves for their own objectivity.
What makes matters worse is that the same people then turn around and ridicule theists for lacking the intellectual fortitude to acquire more verifiable explanations for the world around them. But if the cultured despisers of theistic faith were to find some motivation to truly examine their own assumptions and presuppositions, they would find that their confidence overlooks numerous gaps and leaps of logic in their own explanations for the world around them. This condition naturally arises from the limited capacity of reason and science.
We are seeing a resurgence of thinkers of every stripe who are reluctantly acknowledging the insufficiency of the reigning interpretations of the cosmos. At times it almost seems that they are relieved by this. Too many things never quite made sense. If everything exists in its current form as a result of a few billion years of random change and development, why has everything moved so persistently towards human consciousness? How could everything accidentally evolve to its present level of complexity and precision, especially considering that entropy dictates that the universe moves from order to disorder? An impressive array of physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and philosophers are coming full circle to rejecting the “random chance” explanation of our lives in favor of a view they are calling “Intelligent Design.”
Too many things don’t fit the predictions of what we were supposed to find as we examined the fossil evidence left over the last few million years. Differences in most species seem to have occurred suddenly rather than gradually over long periods of time. Fossil evidence gets skimpiest at the points of transition—precisely the places where they should be the most abundant. Too many mutations occur without reasonable cause. What natural forces enabled the complex structure of bone tissue to form so that endoskeletons could develop? What multiple, random mutations happened simultaneously to allow for blood clotting to occur? Or the eye? Or sexual reproduction? What natural forces persuaded a mammal to re-enter the ocean and live on as a whale? The truth is that there are far more questions than there are answers.
And how has the scientific community responded to these problems? Religious skeptics insist that we cannot let the limitations of our understanding prevent us from believing that naturalistic solutions will win in the end. They maintain that my inability to imagine that the world as we see it happened by chance does not prove that it didn’t. But my point is that they are encouraging me to take a leap of faith into an explanation that has at least as many holes in it as does theism. After spending well over a hundred years gathering fossils and observing the scarcity of helpful indicators for how these substantial changes in living things (and in the whole cosmos for that matter) occurred, what have naturalistic scientists concluded? They have insisted that the evidence must be out there. It simply must. Ah, now we see it. This is no objective empiricism, no disinterested science. There’s a presupposition at work here. Prior to the evidence, an assumption is made. Somehow it will all work out. Somehow they will be able to maintain their belief system in the end.
The Role of the Mind
It seems obvious to me that the human mind is here doing its job: helping us to understand what we already believe. We fancy that our minds tell us what to believe, perhaps through a responsible use of science and logic. But at every turn I see the mind merely providing justification and rationalization for things already believed. Our reasoning powers lose their iron grip whenever we reach the really big questions because they are not capable of answering them. It was a real breakthrough for me when I realized that science cannot disprove the existence of God. Even if science were to supply us with an explanation for all physical processes, it still would not disprove the existence of an intelligent Designer underneath it all. A conclusion about God’s existence or non-existence would be the inescapable result of your prior beliefs about the same.
The whole reasoning process requires beginning with assumptions, but how can you examine the rationality of those assumptions? When we get to the most important questions (what philosophers call “first principles”) we find that everything rests on certain presupposed beliefs. Do you believe that the cosmos was created by an intelligent Divine Being? Then everything you see will provide justification for that belief. Do you believe that the universe just is what it is by chance, and that there is nothing beyond the material world? Then no amount of research or study will convince you otherwise.
Now we have come back to our starting point: Is the Christian faith, or at least theism in general, reasonable to believe? I said the answer is “Yes and No.” The answer is “yes” because it is at least as reasonable to see a transcendent, intelligent Being directing the movements of the universe as it is to see none at all. Perhaps stated more conservatively, it is not unreasonable to believe in a transcendent, intelligent Creator, given the abundance of evidence that life seems saturated with purpose and design. I agree with Paul of Tarsus when he says that the power of a Creator is evident in a simple glance through the universe (Romans 1:19-21). Atheism is the result of indoctrination. It takes years of “education” to convince human beings that God does not exist.
Having said that, a mere belief in God is a far cry from a whole hearted acceptance of the Christian gospel. Once I have satisfied myself that, contrary to what I previously feared, it is not unreasonable to believe in a Divine Creator, I still have a large leap to make in order to accept that a man was raised from the dead long before I was even born. Is that reasonable to believe? Not really. Do I believe it anyway? Yes, I do.
What is the reason that I believe? The honest truth is that I believe because I believe. I realize that sounds tragically circular, but show me which of your beliefs about the big issues isn’t. I am simply admitting what you may not be willing to see or admit for yourself: You can’t get away from faith. I think we fool ourselves when we argue that we believe what we believe ultimately because of rational certainties. I may be able to list for you why I think the critics of the Christian faith are dismissing it for insufficient reasons, but that only proves that the Gospel is possible, not necessarily that it actually happened. But that discussion merits its own article.
If you’d like to read about that, click here (link removed). In the meantime, meditate on this statistical fact: God is not dead anywhere except in the hallowed halls of academia and in those minds thoroughly saturated by their system of belief. This group may be disproportionately represented among our leading writers, performers, movie makers, and teachers. But in the end, what they believe with so much determination is just that: a system of belief.
Editor’s note: Please follow this link to read tomorrow’s response to today’s post.
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