The Dichotomy of Faith and Reason – or is there 1 in the first place?
One of the first book I read as a young believer is Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. As I read that book and other books, I was amazed at the people who came to know Christ because they seek reason in their walk of faith. These people came to know Christ because some book and someone out there reasoned out their faith. However, in the course of my ministry, some people have told me that people cannot know Christ because there is a dichotomy between faith and reason.
I sometimes meet so many people whose spiritual journey is mauled with intellectual questions and they seek genuine intellectual answers. They do not care if you tell them that you simply need to have faith. They want to know why the universe is formed and that alone is the question that will help them shape their belief. And yet I know of people who are unwilling to reason with them on that.
The dichotomy of faith and reason?
Can faith and reason be the same side of the coin?
Think about Noah for a second. When the whole world has not seen rain, God asked him to build an ark in the middle of dry land because God was going to send down the rain. It took him some years to build it and imagine what his neighbours had said.
Think about Abraham. God asked him to sacrifice his son, Issac, to Him. He has waited years for this son, his and Sarah’s offspring, and this son is the promised one from God. Yet as he moved up the mountain with Issac, and as Issac asked him about the question of the sacrifice, what reigned, faith or reason?
Jump a few centuries ahead and look at Moses. He seen the burning bush and God told him to go to the pharoah and ask him to let His people go. After the exodus, Moses has to allow God to lead the people down the desert for 40 years, wondering in a place where it would take about 11 days to cross. Faith or reason?
I have seen Christians coming to me and tell me that faith and reason cannot coexist. They often quote me the verse, that without faith, it is impossible to please God. They quote me, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Yet I question the line of reasoning. Does that mean faith and reason can never coexist together?
And how about Christians like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell, C.S Lewis or William Lane Craig who came to know the Lord through intellectual reasoning?
The limits of reason
On the issue of faith and reason, there is a limit by which intellectual arguments and reason can go in building our faith in Christ. The downfall of this is that once we completely base our faith on reasons and intellectual arguments, we fall hard when people come in and attempt to knock away that basis by which we build our faith. This is true, and this is the danger. Helping out brothers and sisters in dealing with the intellectual stuff of the faith, I come to realise the limit. It is not to say that someone will come out with something intelligent to knock the intellectual in me down. But this is to realise the limit of human reasoning and investigation to build our own faith.
I am not saying that our intellectual pursuit is futile in our faith, but it has to go beyond that. We still need to learn to reason out our faith and be able to make intellectual and intelligent defense for our faith when times call for it. Yet, faith in God has to go beyond that. As JP Moreland told Lee Strobel at the end of an interview, there is one evidence, after considering all the intellectual evidences, that one must look into in order to affirm the validity and reliability of the gospel: the experiential experience. It is only by experiencing Jesus that we know that God is real.
Why am I saying all these? I know beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists, and Jesus lived and died and resurrected. This I know and can reason intellectually. But what if one day someone really shoot me in the foot with something that is unexpected that I am even unable to refute? Does that mean that my experience with God has been fake all these while? At the end of the day, it is knowledge that God is real and the tangible experience that I have with Him that will sustain my faith, not intellectual arguments.
Yet, I am still not agreeing with Soren Kierkegaard or any other existentialist Christians. My basis for this comes from reflecting on the lives of the early Christians. These people had faith because of their direct experience with the resurrection, not with intellectual arguments about the resurrection.
Revisiting the issue again on faith and reason
As I look into this issue, authors have approached this issue in multiple ways. And let’s go back to the most basic and examine what faith really is. As always, people will quote me Hebrew 11:1 to tell me what faith is:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
I sometimes wonder if it is as simple as what it means here. We need to note that the passage talks about faith believing in something that is real. This has real implications. If something is real, even if I don’t see it, it will leave something of a trail or some ways that we can detect its reality. The bible says this:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Rom 1:20 (NLT)
The heaven and earth declares the glory of God. This means we can detect the trail of God in these creations, and they are left there for us to realise His glory. Hence, it appears to me that the Hebrew verse is not really talking about a fidelistic type of faith.
The existence and character of God
Before I move on from this, what I understood from the verse Hebrew 11:1 and its immediate context is that when we talk about faith here, it’s actually faith in THE CHARACTER of God, not in the existence of God. There is an important distinction here which I want to address. Essentially speaking, what the characters mentioned in Hebrews struggled in was really trusting and believing in the promises of God, that God is trustworthy in His character, instead of the existence of God. The Bible takes the existence of God as a given in the lives of the biblical characters, whether they were really obeying Him or not. So we need to be clear what they were exactly struggling in, and this has real implications to the philosophers who argued that it is pointless to prove the existence of God.
I concede we cannot totally prove the existence of God, but the trail makes it clear that it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. By proving, what I mean is really the formulation of an argument for a conclusion, based on the premises and evidences, that is more plausible than its negations, and these premises logically imply the conclusion. This therefore presents a possibility for rational premises for the existence of God and therefore an intellectual warrant for a reasonable faith.
The real deal about faith and reason
So what really is faith? It is not just a will to believe, but according to Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig and the likes of Norman Giesler, faith is a confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power so that when this power does not make sense towards my ends, my confidence is in who He is.
This necesarily means faith and reason needs not be antithetical to one another. Because the confidence in the person of Jesus Christ can be established through my observations and empircal studies into scientific, philosophical, historical evidences.
And it is useful to make use of William Lane Craig’s model to understand the relationship between faith and reason. Basically, he distinguished the difference between knowing that Christianity is true and showing that Christianity is true, and the role of reasons and Holy Spirit. The main crux of the argument is this: it is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that convicts and assures us, as believers, of the truth of Christianity.
The subsidiary role of reason in knowing whether Christianity is true
Therefore, reasons and arguments should never become the foundation and basis of our faith. Likewise for the non-believers, it is the Spirit who plays the role of convicting him of his sins, of God’s righteousness and of his condemnation before God. Therefore, it is never due to the lack of evidence. It’s the intent, which is prior to the content, that counts. Aldous Huxley once said, “We objected to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom….” Bertrand Russell once commented that if he sees God when he died, he will rebuke God and say that God has not given him enough evidence to believe him.
This will mean that reasons and arguments play a subsidiary role when it comes to us knowing whether Christianity is true. It becomes a ministerial tool for us to better understand our faith, reinforce and confirm the Spirit’s witness, and provides a dual warrant for our faith, and an independent warrant for non-believers to come to faith.
The crucial role of reason in showing Christianity to be true
When it comes to showing Christianity being true, the role of reasons play a more crucial role. Given the intellectual climate of the educational arena, it can be used to show that Christianity has a better epistemic position for discerning truths about matters such as sense perception, rational self-evidence etc. It creates an objective difference between individual epistemic positions and veridical experience. This, of course, has to bear in mind that we cannot argue people into conversion. Effectively, it is still the job of the Holy Spirit to do so, though we should not be afraid to show that Christianity is reasonable.
The necessity venture of reason
That sort of sums up Craig’s position and I found this a useful one. This means that going into apologetics and philosophy is essentially a necessary venture. There are a few reasons for suggesting so.
Inadequate Proposition of Fideism
Firstly, Soren Kierkegaard’s proposition that belief in God is a leap of faith is an inadequate one. This is an argument marked by serious flaw. His example of Genesis 22 is an interesting treatment and commentary of Abraham’s faith, but it is very much misused. Abraham, in that particular episode, was able to follow through on the instruction because he knew God will bring him out of the predicament that He had brought him into. This was betrayed by his comment to Issac that God will provide the sacrificial lamb.
Moreover, the fideism that he was identified with and the contempt for reason were an unwarranted and a contradictory one. This is because he had to ‘reason’ his way out to ‘prove’ that God cannot be proven by reason. Somemore, to make things worse, and a last comment, he has failed to provide a ‘truth test’ for his proposition. This means that we need more than a leap of faith in this spiritual journey.
Truth claims of a worldview
Second, when we are talking about Christianity, we are actually looking at a worldview. We can define worldview as the frame that we use to view the world. Every worldview has to deal with the problem of suffering and evil. This is assumed in every answer is the purpose of life assigned to that worldview. There is a need to establish the truth claims of a worldview, because this is essential for us to live a coherent life. There are three ingredients for establishing if a worldview is coherent. We need to look into the logical consistency, its relevance to our experience and its empirical adequacy.
Logical consistency means that the claims of the worldview have to adhere to the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, this means that if two different worldviews claim different things, both cannot be right at the same time. It also means that the worldview has to be internally consistent as well. Similarly, the worldview has to be able to explain our existential questions and experiences. It has to correspond to our reality in order for it to be relevant to us. Also, if a worldview is true, there’ll be proof in the world to authenticate its claims scientifically, philosophically, historically and empirically, which we have talked about earlier.
Essentially, the worldview’s truth claims will also need to
- Have a strong foundation in correspondence;
- Possess a high degree of coherence and internal consistency;
- Have explanatory power;
- Be neither too simple nor complex;
- Have cumulative evidence converging from multiple sources of data;
- Be able to refute contrary worldviews.
The issue of a worldview means that venturing into a world of reason and navigating through evidences becomes a necessity. We should then desire reason in our pursuit for faith. If a worldview is so important to our life purpose, then shouldn’t we establish its truth claim? It comes back to our original point, this is part and parcel of knowing and showing that Christianity is true.
Expression of loving God
Thirdly, we need to bear in mind that apologetics is an expression of loving God with all our minds to show non-believers the truth of our faith, to confirm the faith to believers and to reveal the connections between Christian doctrines and other truths. William Lane Craig has called it discipling of the mind.
The role of reason in shaping culture
Fourthly, apologetics and philosophy have the role of shaping culture. We need to bear in mind that the Enlightenment had led to non-Christian conclusions with its non-theistic assumptions. This resulted in the gospel being in the backdrop of cultures. Think about it, if culture is the conduit on which we receive the gospel and preach the gospel, it is therefore important for the culture to be favorably inclined towards the gospel. Apologetics will hence be in a position to do the shaping of a culture, presenting the gospel as an intellectually viable option for people. I know this first hand that university professors are not really teaching students the right things objectively from my university study.
The role of reason in strengthening believers
Fifthly, apologetics and philosophy can play a role in strengthening believers. It provides an intellectual warrant for believers. And I have read multiple testimonies on how this helped Christians to remain in the faith. Therefore, this shows there is a role for reasons in the Kingdom of God.
The role of reason in evangelism
Sixthly, in terms of evangelising to non-believers, history has shown that believers who came to know Christ through reasons, apologetics and philosophy eventually become people with great influence over Christian scholarship. These people include C.S Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, etc. You can further read this interesting case of A.N Wilson. It’s another classic case.
I’m presenting all these to show that there is essentially no conflict between faith and reason. Reason is a complement of faith, but we need to maintain that it should never become our faith. If we have not experience the Holy Spirit, we would not be able to withstand the assault on our faith.
Faith is not the presence of a complete set of evidence. Norman Giesler wrote that our commitment to God is not proportional to the amount of evidence available. God leaves enough into the world to make faith in him a most reasonable thing. And he has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason or observation alone. Philip Yancey has also said a person who lives in faith must proceed on incomplete evidence. Trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse. All these authors have not excluded evidences or reasons. But they have not made them the basis, suggesting something more than just evidence.
I believe that that ‘something more’ is the commitment to the truth that we know. Here’s a story to illustrate the point: there was a high wire expert who walked over Niagara Falls. To the amazement of all, he walked a wheelbarrowed-filled with 150 pounds of potatoes over the rope to the other side. His 120 pound assistant removed the bags of potatoes and placed his foot in the wheelbarrow and asked, “how many of you believe that I can place a human in the wheelbarrow and walk that person safely to the other side?” Everyone yelled, “We believe!” Then he said, “who will volunter to get in the wheelbarrow?”
Faith is a commitment of the confidence in Christ.
What do you think? Share with me your thoughts in the comments below.