Love beyond reason

On assigning reason a role that nature denies

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of Liberty.

After drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, as well as establishing the University of Virginia (not to mention serving two terms as president of the United States), Thomas Jefferson did what he deemed a simple task: he separated the "gold from the dross" in the Gospels. Saying that "your own reason is the only oracle given you from heaven,"1 he expunged from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John whatever he believed contradicted reason, common sense, and rational thought.

The result was the Jefferson Bible, a highly abridged version of the Gospels in which the Annunciation, the virgin birth, the miraculous healings, the raising of the dead, Christ's claims to divinity, the Resurrection, and the Ascension were all among other portions edited out. Excised too was the heart of New Testament theology: the atonement of Jesus Christ as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

All of this infers at least one conclusion: authentic Christian faith, though sound rationally, must transcend logic, reason, and analytical thought, because if we submit what we believe merely to logic, reason, and rational thought, we will never be authentic Christians by New Testament definition. And nothing proves this point better than Jesus Himself.

Whether feeding 5,000 with food for one (Matt. 14:15-21) or declaring that "before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), or telling Peter, "Go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shall find a piece of money: and that take, and give unto them for me" (Matt. 17:27), Jesus showed that aspects of reality transcend what our minds processing knowledge and experience through logic and reason alone can ever grasp. From His birth to His ascension, Christ's entire ministry functioned on a plane that crossed the boundary of logic and reason and those who refuse even to look (much less to step) across that boundary will, like Jefferson, remain landlocked in theological ignorance, unenlightened by the ultimate realities of universal and eternal truth.

Limits of logical thought

Jesus, of course, wasn't the only one who showed the limits of logical thought. From Plato (who warned about the contingencies of reason), to Kant (who exposed its confines, particularly in the area of religion) up through the prophets of postmodernism (who deny its utility), humanity, in its quest for natural and spiritual truth, has always sensed that the "natural light of reason" is not that natural or that full of light.

"The deepest reason," wrote Huston Smith, "for the current crisis in philosophy is its realization that autonomous reason reason without infusions that both power and vector it is helpless. Reason can deliver nothing apodictic. Working (as it necessarily must) with variables variables are all that it can come up with."2

Centuries ago Epimenides illustrated the limits of logic when he said, "This statement is false." Is the statement true or false? If true, then the statement declares itself false; if false, the statement must be true. But doesn't logic teach that something can't be both true and false at the same time? In this context, obviously, logic by itself doesn't work.

Also, how reasonable is Einstein's special theory of relativity, in which he proved that the faster one moves, the slower time does, until, at the speed of light, time itself stops? Quantum physics, meanwhile, teaches that under certain conditions, if two subatomic particles are created in a collision, the mere act of observing the spin of one member of the pair will immediately cause the spin of the other member to move in the opposite direction even if they are separated by a million light-years!

"The structure of nature," said Harvard physicist P. W. Bridgman, "may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all."3

Relationship between faith and reason

Of course, reason and rational thought, whatever their limitations, are gifts from God, which is why neither should be ignored. To reject or even to suspect reason itself outright is to risk the mindless mysticism that can degenerate into everything from Waco to snake-handling. On the other hand, to make reason one's sole epistemological judge risks reducing faith to nothing but a generic morality reflective of the messages left to earthlings by "UFOs." By far, in a contemporary Western society reared on scientific rationalism, the danger comes from the latter, which is why evangelical scholar Donald Bloesch warned that the relationship between faith and reason is "probably the single most important issue in the theological prolegomena."4

The key, then, is balance, and Jesus helps establish that balance. When John, in prison, asked if Christ was the Messiah, Jesus answered by saying: "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached" (Luke 7:22). In other words, Jesus said to John, Use your reason and logical thought: How could I be doing these things if I weren't the Messiah?

To look at Christ's life, which defied reason and logic, and to conclude that truth exists transcendently beyond reason and logic is to draw a logical and reasonable conclusion. Although Jesus was always logically sound and rationally cogent, He proved that it is logical to believe in things that aren't necessarily logical or reasonable. In Christ we find that perfect balance.

Prophecy, reason, and logic

In fact, prophecy itself (often based on something as "irrational" as dreams and visions) is really premised on reason and logic. "Now I tell you before it comes," Jesus said, "that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he" (John 13:19). With these words Jesus was appealing to the rationality that He Himself had implanted in humanity. Jesus would predict things before they happened, so that when they did, people would have reasons for believing in Him. To conclude that Jesus was the Messiah especially after hearing what He said about Himself and then seeing it come to pass was to perform a rational act. Prophecy can't impact humans to any significant extent until processed with rational thought.

Daniel 2 illustrates this point. Daniel first recounts and then interprets a dream that the king himself can't even remember. The whole concept is unreasonable. Yet in many ways Daniel 2 is one of the most rational parts of the Bible. Six centuries before Christ the chapter lays out the bold strokes of the history of the world up through and beyond modern Europe, which (as the former Yugoslavia shows) might "mingle themselves with the seed of men" but shall not "cleave one to another." The entire chapter is such an appeal to logic and reason that it's hard to see how anyone studying Daniel 2 could conclude anything except that it was inspired by God.

Rational and transrational

In Christ's life, as in Daniel 2, Scripture presents a mixture of the rational and the transrational, which is the essential Christian metaphysic. God presents the mind with reasonable and logical grounds for believing in things that are illogical and unreasonable. In fact, the central event of all Scripture, the cross, was not only illogical and unreasonable, but foolish, as the Bible refers to it. "For the preaching of the cross," wrote Paul, "is to them that perish foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:18). The cross takes this mixture of the rational and transrational to its apogee.

In The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas wrote about the unreasonableness of the Gospel: "In an era so unprecedently illuminated by science and reason, the 'good news' of Christianity became less and less convincing a metaphysical structure, less secure a foundation upon which to build one's life, and less psychologically necessary. The sheer improbability of the whole nexus of events was becoming painfully obvious that an infinite eternal God would have suddenly become a particular human being in a specific historical time and place only to be ignominiously executed. That a single brief life taking place two millennia earlier in an obscure primitive nation, on a planet now known to be a relatively insignificant piece of matter revolving about one star among billions in an inconceivably vast and impersonal universe that such an undistinguished event should have any overwhelming cosmic or eternal meaning could no longer be a compelling belief for reasonable men."5

Reason and love

Of course, to pure reason alone the gospel would be irreducibly untenable, because pure reason alone can't grasp that type of love. If human love which at its purest barely reflects God's love often causes humans to act unreasonably and irrationally, how much more would God's love impel Him to act in ways that transcend human concepts of rationality and reasonableness? This is exactly what happened at the cross: God's love impelled Him to act in a manner that totally defied reason. To believe that the Creator stepped out of eternity and was incarnated into humanity, only to be crucified as a propitiation for our sins and that He did it out of self-sacrificing, self-denying love is to accept a concept existing in a realm where reason itself simply cannot reach.

The sacrificial atonement of Christ, who suffered the second death in our stead, is not the kind of truth that one can find from pure reason alone. Logic in and of itself can take you far in the quest for truth but never to Golgotha. No equation proves "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1). Systematic logic itself might point to the existence of a God, but never to the truth that Jesus, "being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:6-8). No wonder Paul wrote, "As God in his wisdom ordained, the world failed to find him by its wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:21, NEB).

At the same time, however, Scripture provides rational evidence for some thing as transrational as the gospel. From the entire Hebrew cultus, which prefigured the cross centuries before it happened, up through the Messianic prophecies of Psalms, Isaiah, and Daniel to the forceful testimony of the New Testament, God has left the world with powerful, logical, and rational reasons to believe in the "foolishness" of Christ's substitutionary atonement. In fact, with all the light given through the prophetic Word, for someone to accept something as transrational as the gospel is, one could argue, the only rational thing to do.

Of course, logical and reasonable evidence for the cross doesn't deny the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation; instead, it simply shows that the Holy Spirit can use logic and reason in helping people accept what isn't especially logical or reasonable.

Jefferson, unfortunately, took the unreasonable position that only that which is rational is real. Jesus, in contrast, by His life and teachings, has shown that the real transcends the rational. Jefferson's abridged Bible, in which the core of Christianity is lost, proves not only just how limited the rational really is, but that Pascal was right when he wrote, "The heart has its reasons which reason cannot know."

1 Quoted in Edwin Gaustad. Sworn on the
Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas
Jefferson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans,
1996), p. 16. (Italics supplied.)

2 Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern
Mind (Wheaton, 111.: Theosophical Publishing
House, 1992), p. 137.

3 Quoted in Smith, p. 80.

4 Donald Bloesch, Theology of Word and
Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology

(Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992),
p. 35.

5 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western
Mind
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p.
305. Emphasis supplied.


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Clifford Goldstein is the editor of Liberty.

February 1997

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