Reconciling faith and reason

Reason is not necessarily antithetical to faith. In fact, it can aid it though faith must go beyond reason. We can deal successfully with doubt.

Richard Rice, PhD., is a professor of theology at Loma Linda University, Riverside, California.

Can a thinking person be religious? Can a believer be intellectually honest? Is there evidence for religious beliefs? Does it matter? Can we go ahead and believe, whether or not it makes sense?

Questions like these raise one of the most persistent issues in religion—the relation of faith and reason. Over the years no topic has attracted more theological attention or generated more diverse scholarly opinions. But the issue is more than merely academic. It is a matter of great personal concern. And it is unavoidable. Sooner or later every Christian questions whether his or her beliefs make sense.

According to the Bible, faith is the most important element in religion. It is impossible to please God without faith (Heb. 11:6). And faith is the indispensable condition of human salvation; it is the sole means by which we receive the saving grace of God (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 3:1-9). But the Bible also suggests that faith doesn't come easily. While Jesus said that even an infinitesimal amount of faith could move mountains (Matt. 17:20), He openly wondered whether He would find any faith at all when He returned to earth (Luke 18:8).

These biblical descriptions illuminate the problem that concerns us here. On the one hand, faith is extremely important; on the other, it is anything but easy. And if it has never been easy to believe, the challenges of our time make it more difficult than ever. In the well-known lines of "Dover Beach," British poet Matthew Arnold surveys the "sea of faith" and poignantly records its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."1 The nineteenth century brought sweeping changes in the way people viewed the world, and Arnold feared their impact on religion.

What Arnold saw taking place on a broad scale in Victorian society repeats itself on an individual level in the experience of many Christians today. Bit by bit, like the ebbing of the tide, personal faith seeps away. Finally, what was once a surging religious commitment gives way to the barren sands of doubt and disbelief.

Education taxes faith

Because educated people frequently experience this, some believe that advanced education inevitably erodes faith. They conclude that a person has to choose between serious intellectual inquiry and a genuine commitment to God.

This view is extreme, of course. But it is true that higher education can exert considerable pressure on religious commitment. Several factors account for this. One is the conflict between conventional scientific views and certain religious beliefs. What most scholars in natural sciences such as biology, zoology, and geology believe about the age of the earth and the origins of life contradicts what Christians have traditionally understood biblical passages like Genesis 1-3 to teach. And many scholars of the human sciences accept naturalistic accounts of religion. They hold that religious beliefs arise from various psychological and sociological influences and not from an actual supernatural or divine reality.

Indeed, it is probably accurate to say that God does not function as an explanatory factor in any scientific enterprise today. If the typical scientist were asked about the place of God in his investigations, he would no doubt offer a version of Laplace's famous statement: "I have no need of that hypothesis." 2

Another factor that puts pressure on faith is the "ethic of belief' that prevails in the modern world. We see this ethic in statements like these from the writings of David Hume and W. K. Clifford: "A wise man... proportions his belief to the evidence" 3 ; "It is wrong always, every where, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." 4 According to this rational ideal, an intellectually responsible person always insists on adequate evidence for his beliefs, and he suspends judgment unless or until he gets it.

This ethic's effects on faith are not hard to see. Evidence for religious beliefs is notoriously scarce. Unlike scientific proposals, which are intended to rest on carefully developed empirical evidence open to public examination, religious convictions are highly personal and often resistant to public inquiry. For this reason, many people question their validity.

Some take religious claims seriously but insist that there is not enough evidence to support them. Bertrand Russell, the great agnostic, held this view. Once someone asked him to suppose that when he died he found out that God existed after all. If God asked him why he never believed in Him, what would he say? Russell answered, "Not enough evidence! Not enough evidence!" 5

Others take the position that religious beliefs do not deserve serious consideration at all. At best, they are matters of private preference or personal opinion. But they do not belong among the settled beliefs of thinking people.

Faulty responses to pressure

People who grow up in the shelter of a religious environment and then meet this sort of pressure in the course of their graduate or professional education or in pursuing their careers often react in one of three ways. Some capitulate to it, some defy it, and others just try to ignore it. The first response is rationalism. Rationalists accept the ethic of belief we just described. They insist on the highest standards of evidence for all truth claims. Because in their estimation religious beliefs do not meet these standards, they dismiss them as untenable, and religion loses its personal significance for them.

Diametrically opposed to the rationalist's response to intellectual pressure on faith is fideism. 6 Fideists react to the challenge of modem thinking by with drawing their religious beliefs from intellectual scrutiny. They often minimize the significance of the challenge, some times ridiculing it. But they never try to formulate an answer to it. The fideist position is roughly God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

A third response to rational pressures on faith is more social than intellectual. Many Christians have serious reservations about the religious beliefs they grew up with, but they maintain strong ties to the church anyway. For many reasons they are unwilling to sever their connections to the religious community of their early years. We might call such people "communal Christians."

Communal Christians participate in church activities and support the church financially. Often they even serve as leaders of the church. Most typically, they educate their children in denominational schools. But their religious experience contains a strong element of nostalgia. A vibrant personal faith is something they recall from the past, but it is not a present possession. Having nagging doubts about the church's teachings, they respond by trying to ignore them.

Each of these positions attracts certain people, and each has its peculiar difficulties. But all three views rest on the assumption that religious beliefs cannot be reconciled with serious intellectual activity. This is why those who hold to them believe that they have to give up either faith or reason, or else that the most they can hope for is to keep the conflict between them from disrupting their lives.

Serious Christians cannot accept the options we have described. If faith is to survive in the modern world as a vital force in human lives, there must be a way of relating it to reason that does not compel us to choose between the two. The purpose of this discussion is to describe such an alternative. We can't do this adequately within the limits of a brief article, of course. But we may be able to learn enough to help us avoid some of the more catastrophic mistakes that are often made in this area.

We can approach the topic of faith and reason in either of two ways. We can start with reason and ask about faith, or we can start with faith and ask about reason. The first tack is typical of philosophy. Philosophers assume the validity of reason; for them the status of faith is the problem. For Christians, however, the second approach is more urgent. Assuming the validity of faith, how should we think of its relation to reason?

In a discussion of this nature, the meaning of the terms is crucial. An exploration of the various meanings of faith and reason could easily fill a book. In the following remarks I use these expressions rather broadly. Faith refers generally to religious experience, or Christian experience, and includes both the elements of belief and trust in God. Reason refers to intellectual activity in general and, more specifically, to the process of methodical, self-conscious investigation.

Holding faith and reason together

To achieve an adequate understanding of faith and reason, we must reject at the outset any attempt to keep the two apart. On the practical level, it is impossible to avoid thinking seriously about religious beliefs if we care about them at all. On a more substantive level, the attempt to divorce faith and reason does violence to both.

Intellectual integrity involves a willingness to submit all our beliefs to rational investigation. A person who will examine some of his beliefs but not others is like someone who breaks only a few laws. He is basically irresponsible. So we cannot be intellectually responsible if we isolate our religious beliefs from serious consideration.

Even more important, if we try to exempt faith from careful reflection, we misrepresent its nature. Several factors indicate that reason has an important role to play in religious experience. For one thing, genuine religious commitment involves the whole person, including the cognitive or intellectual faculties. For Jesus, the central precept of the law is the command "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37, RSV). According to Ellen G. White, this lays upon Christians "the obligation of developing the intellect to its fullest capacity, that with all the mind we may know and love our Creator." 7 So what is sometimes called the intellectual love of God is an integral part of genuine religious commitment.

In the second place, while people often say that real Christianity is a practical matter and that what you do is more important than what you believe, Christian practice presupposes certain beliefs. We cannot ignore those beliefs without collapsing the basic structure of religious experience.

It is also significant that from its beginnings Christianity's supporters have argued for it and not merely asserted that it is true. They not only called on people to believe its teachings, but they maintained that these teachings deserved to be believed. They insisted that Christianity was demonstrably superior to alternative views. With the Jews throughout the Roman world Paul argued that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:5), and with the Gentiles, that He was the true revelation of God to man (Acts 17:30, 31). And Peter urged Christians to be ready at any time to give reasons for what they believed (1 Peter 3:15).

These considerations make it clear that we must not separate reason from faith. Understanding, or intelligent belief, has a central role to play in religion.

Reason aids religious experience

In what ways, then, can reason contribute to religious experience? First, it can help to prepare the way for faith. And second, once faith is present, reason can help it to grow.

Often people do not make a religious commitment because it is unpopular within their circle of friends, or because it involves personal inconvenience. Others are put off by unfortunate encounters they have had with religious institutions and supposedly religious people. But besides such factors, intellectual obstacles keep many people from religious commitment. For instance, it has always been difficult to reconcile the reality of God with the massive presence of evil in the world. And as we have noted, certain biblical statements appear problematic in light of contemporary science. Even more recently, people have come to view religious beliefs as simply the product of social conditioning, or the expression of psychological needs. All of these difficulties call into question the beliefs, or cognitive claims, involved in Christian commitment. If someone has serious questions along these lines, they must be dealt with before faith can become a real possibility.

By helping a person respond to challenges like these, reason can prepare the way for faith. It renders faith reasonable, and therefore responsible, by establishing the credibility of its intellectual contents.

Reason also plays a role within an established religious experience. Just as loving someone makes us want to learn more about that person, love for God elicits a desire to increase our knowledge of Him, to keep discovering new facets of truth. The Bible often stresses the importance of intellectual growth in the Christian life. The book of Hebrews, for example, bemoans its readers' failure to advance beyond a rudimentary grasp of God's word and urges them to go on to maturity (Heb. 5:11-6:1). And in his letter to the Colossians Paul expresses the desire that they "come to the full wealth of conviction which under standing brings" (Col. 2:2, NEB).

Besides adding to our knowledge, reason contributes to the life of faith by helping Christians to resolve the doubts and problems that sometimes arise. Ellen G. White mentions this function of reason in Steps to Christ, her careful discussion of Christian experience. She observes that many are troubled with the suggestions of skepticism that unsettle their faith in the Scriptures. She asserts that "God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evidence upon which to base our faith. His existence, His character, the truthfulness of His word, are all established by testimony that appeals to our reason; and this testimony is abundant." 8 Reason, then, can give a growing religious experience greater durability.

So reason makes important contributions to religion. It can prepare the way for faith, and it can enhance our religious experience once we believe. But even though reason is closely related to faith, we need to beware of exaggerating its accomplishments. There are important limitations to what it can do.

Beyond the limits of reason

So far we have focused on the cognitive dimension of faith. We have emphasized that religious commitment involves believing or knowing certain things. This is why intellectual activity is important to religion and why any attempt to separate reason from faith ends in spiritual disaster. But we must not conclude that faith is purely rational, or that religion is nothing more than belief. Faith has other qualities, too, and they complicate the picture. In particular, they require us to recognize the limitations of reason.

For one thing, faith must continually subjugate doubt. The evidence for faith is never overwhelming. Not believing will always be an option; it will always have a degree of support. To quote Ellen G. White again, "God has never removed the possibility of doubt. . . . Those who wish to doubt will have opportunity; while those who really desire to know the truth will find plenty of evidence on which to rest their faith." 9 For this reason, faith always has a certain "in spite of" quality; it holds on to its beliefs in spite of factors that make belief difficult.

A related characteristic of faith is the totality of trust it displays. From the available evidence, several philosophers have concluded that God's existence is "probable." 10 But faith does much more than affirm that God probably exists. Faith is the complete confidence, the absolute certainty, that God is real. Those who have faith do not limit their trust in God to the level for which there is evidence; they go beyond that limit to trust God completely, without reserva tion.

In some of the classic cases of faith, this contrast between evidence and trust is striking. We think of Job as an outstanding example of faith because he kept on trusting God in spite of all his sufferings. Similarly, Abraham maintained his confidence in God even when commanded to sacrifice Isaac. People with faith trust God even when the evidence seems to show that God is indifferent to their problems.

We must not exaggerate this aspect of faith. It would be a mistake to conclude that faith automatically gets stronger when the evidence for it grows weaker. This would lead to the absurd conclusion that the highest form of faith is to believe something ridiculous. Nevertheless, there is a tension within faith. It always has a basis in evidence, but it always goes beyond the evidence, too.

The explanation for this tension lies in the fact that faith is a personal decision. It is an expression of freedom that involves the will as well as the mind. No matter how much evidence we have, in the last analysis whether or not we will trust in God is always up to us.

And since in part it depends on the will, faith cannot be forced or produced. In their eagerness to show that religion is reasonable, people sometimes speak of faith as if it were the product of rational inquiry, the matter-of-fact result of an investigation, an automatic response to certain stimuli, or the only logical conclusion to an argument. But this is a mistake. While it can contribute to faith in significant ways, reason alone can never lead someone directly into faith.

Several factors limit the contribution that reason can make to faith. One is the fact just mentioned: faith involves freedom. If faith were the only possibility, if reason left us with no other choice, then our faith could not represent a personal response to God's love. It would simply be admitting the obvious.

Second, if faith were the product of human reason, it could not be a response to divine grace. Instead, it would be a human achievement, a form of intellectual work-righteousness. And if faith were the product of reason, the caliber of a person's intellectual abilities would determine the quality of his or her faith. Then those who are young or uneducated would necessarily have a low quality of faith. Yet often these are the people whose faith is strongest. 11

Finally, we must recognize that few people find faith through a deliberate process of investigation. The famous proofs that God exists, for example, are notoriously ineffective in producing religious conversions. Rather, people find faith through nonrational means— the subtle influence of other people, the emotions that accompany certain experiences, or even vague impressions they are not fully aware of. As Jesus said, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8, RSV).

These considerations prevent us from claiming too much for reason. While reason can contribute to faith in several important ways, the origins of faith are inscrutable. Faith is never the last step in a logical exercise.

To summarize our observations, by nature religious experience is rich and complicated. Consequently, we must expect of reason neither too little nor too much. There is rational evidence for our religious beliefs, but the scope of such evidence is limited. Faith always believes more than reason can fully establish.

Similarly, reason can remove obstacles to personal trust in God, and when faith is already present, reason can help it to grow. But it cannot lead someone all the way from unbelief to religious commitment. In short, our discussion sup ports the conclusion that faith is reasonable, but it is not necessarily reasoned. Faith includes reason, but it is not limited to reason.

Dealing with doubt

This view of faith and reason has some important practical implications. Let us conclude by looking at how it can help us deal with the perplexing problem of doubt.

When serious thinking seems to leave us with more questions than answers about religion, we would do well to keep several things in mind. As we have noticed, because it always goes beyond the available evidence, religion always poses a degree of uncertainty or risk. But every significant venture holds an element of risk. Moreover, there is an element of mystery in every important relationship, not just our relationship with God. So it should not surprise us to discover a measure of doubt in even the strongest religious experience.

This suggests a second point. If people like job and Abraham—outstanding examples of faith—wrestled with doubt within their relationship to God, then it must be possible for us to work through our religious questions within the frame work of a religious life. We don't have to put our faith on hold or isolate ourselves from other Christians until we have all our questions answered. Examining what we believe can be part of our religious experience; it doesn't mean our religious life is coming to an end.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to remember that satisfying answers to religious questions often come from action rather than reflection. The ultimate test of Christian faith is not intellectual but practical. More important than whether or not we can explain our beliefs is whether or not we can live them.

Some would-be Christians once asked Blaise Pascal how to obtain faith. He told them to associate with believers, to worship and pray with them—in short, to act as if they already had faith. Pascal believed that the experience of faith would follow the words and actions of commitment.

William James makes a similar point in his essay "Is Life Worth Living?" He concludes with this admonition: "Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact." 12

As we have argued in this discussion, there is a place for serious thinking in the Christian life. But reflection can accomplish only so much. The time comes when we must act. Careful investigation can demonstrate that faith is a reasonable choice, but it cannot prove that it is the right choice. Only the exercise of faith, the act of commitment itself, shows us that.

1 Helen Gardner, ed., The New Oxford Book of
English Verse (New York: Oxford University Press,
1972), p. 703.

2 Quoted in Hans Kung, Does God Exist? An
Answer for Today, trans. Edward Quinn (New
York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 92.

3 An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
Section X, part 1 in Edwin A. Burtt, ed., The
English Philosophers From Bacon to Mill (New York:
The Modern Library, 1939), p. 653.

4 William Kingdon Clifford, "The Ethics of
Belief," in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock,
eds., Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan and
Co., 1879), vol. 2, p. 186.

5 Wesley Salmon, "Religion and Science: A
New Look at Hume's Dialogues," Philosophical
Studies 33 (1978): 176, quoted in Alvin Plantinga
and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality:
Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame, Ind.:
Notre Dame University Press, 1983), p. 18.

6 From the Latin word fides, for "faith."

7 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1941), p. 333.

8 ————, Steps to Christ (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 105.

9 Ibid.

10 For example, see Richard Swinburne, The
Existence of God (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1979).

11 Jesus cited children as examples of those who
will enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14), and
He marveled at the faith of a Canaanite woman
(Matt. 15:21-28).

12 The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular
Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,
1956), p. 62.

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Richard Rice, PhD., is a professor of theology at Loma Linda University, Riverside, California.

March 1987

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