Monday, July 06, 2009

Faith Against Reason?

I heard a particularly helpful--and brief--analysis of a common problem we face in Christianity having to do with how we discuss faith and reason.

It's all too common for Christians to shrink from employing reason when discussing their beliefs, their "faith". And part of the problem there is a misunderstanding of what "faith" is and what role "reason" has in that faith.

It's common to hear the view expressed that reason has no place in matters of "faith". Many people understand "faith" and "reason" to be two distinct categories, where reason cannot be employed in matters of faith and faith cannot be employed in matters of reason. In these folks' minds, faith and reason are opposites and "faith" is something you employ only when reason is not available.

Well it turns out this is a critical mistake. Faith and reason are not opposites at all. And it doesn't take a whole lot of reflection to see why:

Reason is not the opposite of faith. Rather, "unbelief" is the opposite of "faith". "Faith" means to trust that something is true, and so the opposite of "faith" would be to not trust that something is true. Similarly, reason has an opposite, but it's not "faith". The opposite of "reason" is "irrationality" or, that which is unreasonable.

Given this understanding, it's possible to have faith that is entirely consistent with reason, and it is possible to have faith which is irrational or unreasonable.

That's simple enough, isn't it?


  1. Many people do equate religious faith with irrationality. They think that "to not trust that certain things are true" (say, evolution) is irrational. They say, "Look at the wealth of evidence!" They can't conceive of the possibility that a rational person could disagree with them. They can't conceive that a person could be mistaken in their conclusions and still be rational, because if they did, they would have to admit that that possibility holds true for themselves as well.

    Many of these people see faith as less than reason because to see them as equal would mean seeing God as a reasonable proposition.

    You state that reason and faith are consistent with each other, but many will read that and say "Says who?" Can you provide a source for your definitions? Better yet, can you provide an example or analogy of how they fit together?

  2. Kris:

    Thank you for the comment. Your first sentence is interesting because you add a qualifier to "faith". You say that people do equate 'religious' faith with irrationality, as though there's something peculiar about religious faith as opposed to any other kind of faith. I didn't use a qualifier because, well, faith is faith. One of my closest friends just jumped out of a plane for the first time on Friday. He had faith in his jump instructor, the man he was strapped to when they exited the plane at 13,500 feet. He trusted this man literally with his life. The only difference between his faith and, say, faith in Christ is the OBJECT of the faith. In one case it's a skydiving expert, and in another case it's the Son of God. In either case it's faith.

    Clearly, the same people who equate "religious faith" with irrationality have no problem exercising faith generally. They do it, in fact, every time they push the brake pedal in their car. They trust that the brakes will work. Or maybe, like Matt, they put their trust in a skydiving instructor. What they don't realize is that "religious" faith, particular Christianity, is no different.

    Matt had good reasons to trust his skydiving instructor. For one thing, the guy turned out to be his neighbor. But more than that, the guy had jumped hundreds of times, many of those tandem jumps. This would have assured Matt that the guy knew what he was doing. Similarly, Matt had good reasons to believe that the 'chute was capable of delivering them safely to the ground.

    In the same way, I have good reasons to believe that Christianity is The Truth. Reasoning is involved in each instance.

    Now I expect that Matt's skydiving instructor is not offended in the least to think that someone like Matt might want some indication, some good reasons, to trust him. He probably has certificates and other evidence of his "credentials" posted in his office for this very reason. And neither is Christ offended when we seek good reasons to believe in His promises. It's not as though we're docked points for having good reasons. Faith that has no good reason is no more valuable than faith with good reason, in other words.

    So I would say the extent to which people equate religious faith with irrationality is the extent to which they misunderstand what faith is, missing entirely the point that they employ faith every day and, if you understand properly what faith is, it's very difficult to imagine living without it. This is one of many reasons why I reject the Calvinist doctrine that "faith" is given only to the elect. Unbelievers have all kinds of faith… they just put their faith in the wrong objects.

    I like your point about people confusing rationality with being correct. It's true that rationality doesn't always get you to the truth of the matter. But, I think here's the catch: This isn't because the Truth isn't rational or logical. Rather, it's because we're using logic to process a limited amount of knowledge. The logic worked fine on what knowledge we had, but we don't have all knowledge. That's the difference. Without all knowledge, you can arrive at the wrong answer in spite of logic and rationality.

    As for a source, the main point of my post came from Greg Koukl of Stand To Reason, and he said he picked that particular explanation from David Noble of Summit Ministries.

    Hope that helps, Kris. Thanks again.