How do you relate faith and reason?
Modern Americans often presume that faith and reason belong in completely separate worlds – one public, one private. Even religious people can divide their lives into boxes – faith on Sundays, reason the rest of the week.
Others scoff at faith, insisting, “Unless I can see it, feel it, observe it with my senses, I don’t accept it as true.” (But seriously, who talks like that anymore? We see something on Twitter and discuss it like we’re witnesses to the act.)
Some, other religious, folks see faith as above reason. Sometimes, they admit, religion doesn’t make sense. Life doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, maybe, even God doesn’t make sense. In such moments of doubt, we just need to have faith. That God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). That despite any discouragement we may face, there is a crown given to those who finish the race (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
Here are our groups:
1. Faith and reason are totally separate ideas.
2. Faith > Reason
3. Reason > Faith
I suggest a fourth option (one that has been suggested before me). What if faith and reason were on an equal playing field? In fact, they just might be connected to each other by virtue of both being subject to the same one thing.
Let me first make it clear that I certainly admire the faith of those in group 2, even though I see it as misguided. After all, in the case of the father I quoted in Mark 9, he had good reason to believe Jesus could heal his son – surely he had heard the reports of Jesus making the lame walk, the blind see, even the dead rise again. The first evangelistic sermon appealed to peoples’ reason of observation. Peter could do this, since so many of them had been eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:32).
But even here is an appeal to a higher authority. Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of Christ (and a conversation between Him and two prominent figures of the Old Testament). Even so, Peter claims that despite this remarkable experience, despite this perfectly rational reason he had to accept the deity of Jesus, others who had not witnessed the Transfiguration had an even greater reason for accepting Him as Savior and Lord: The Scriptures. (2 Peter 1:16-21. Seriously. This is gold. If you look up no other verse that I quote here, look up this one.) (This also means that even though we are not eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, we can be just as confident as the early Christians were in their faith!)
Consider the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures diligently when preached the Gospel to test if what the apostles said was true (Acts 17:11). Consider Paul’s repeated provings of the Gospel from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2-3).
Faith is subject to Scripture too. In the ‘Faith Hall of Fame’ (Hebrews 11), we are exhorted towards faith by the appeal to, again, a higher standard – the stories of the lives of people, found recorded in the Word of God.
So here, we see Scripture as being this higher standard, if you will, which provides a foundation for both faith and reason. Our faith and reason are subject to the Word of God, guided by it, taught and corrected by it. We don’t just have ‘blind faith’ – we trust the Bible. We have a reasonable faith – it is backed by the testimony of the Scriptures, of the lives, experiences, histories, and prophecies recorded in them. Our innate sense of rationality is rooted in the fact that the Bible teaches God made us in His Image; since He is a rational God, we can trust our reasoning skills (Genesis 1:27, Isaiah 1:18). Both our faith and our reason must be submitted to Scripture, however. It is vain babbling to reason against the Bible – without God, where would reason come from (Proverbs 21:30, 1 Corinthians 1:18-20, 27-29)? And it is foolishness to put our faith in just any doctrine or religious belief (Ephesians 4:14, Colossians 2:8, Proverbs 14:12). In both areas, the Bible is our standard, our teacher, our resource for training both our rationality and our spirituality (Galatians 3:24, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Francis Schaeffer spoke of the separation between faith and reason – and further, between public and private, or rather, relevant and irrelevant – as ‘Upper Story’ and ‘Lower Story.’ Schaeffer had a keen sense of the world-view nature of religion (that is, how one’s religion relates to every single thing in one’s life), as well as how secular people try to relegate religion (and faith) to a dusty, unused corner of their minds. And by secular, he didn’t just mean atheists. He included even Christians who, in his view, had relegated faith to ‘Upper Story.’
The Lower Story deals with what you use every day. Your senses. Your reasoning skills. Whatever knowledge you learned as a kid and in college and elsewhere that helps you function every day in your family, community, and workplace.
What is sent to Upper Story? The stuff you don’t need to bother with. Empty philosophical blather. The stuff you learned as a kid that college later ‘corrected.’ And often, religion and faith. Even Christians can forget about Jesus in the day-to-day, giving Him lip service on Sundays and living as though He doesn’t exist elsewhere. How many of us acknowledge that the greatest commandment is to love our God, but live without ever considering what that looks like in a practical sense?
We need to bring faith back from its place of irrelevance in our minds. We have to recognize the core roll it plays in our lives – and stop pretending that peoples’ faiths are not a core part of who they are, to be stifled from expression in the real world. And in case you’re thinking, “That’s great, but not for me. Faith is for religious people only, and I’m not particularly religious” – think again. I don’t care if you’re a die-hard atheist, you still have faith. You believe in your ability to think soundly, that your senses giving you accurate information about the world, and that your past experiences provide wisdom you can use in the present. You avoid placing your hand on a hot stove. You look both ways before crossing the street. You believe in a world that is rational, orderly, and (to some extent) predictable. You know – from experience or via reason – that touching a hot stove will result in a burn. These skills sound reasonable, but are they really? How do you know? It is clear that “Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (Chesterton).
Perhaps you consider your faith in your powers of observation, deduction, and induction to be more reasonable than religious faith. In such a case, consider the musings of evolutionary biologist – and atheist – J. B. S. Haldane: “[I]f my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
You can’t function without reason. You can’t function without faith. These two are equals – complementary, to be sure. To ensure maximum benefits and proper workings of each tool, submit them to the same one authority – the Word of God.
Christian Apologetics by Cornelius Van Til
Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer
Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton
Possible Worlds and Other Essays by J. B. S. Haldane