How Faith and Reason Relate

Submitted by Hannah D. on Sat, 02/17/2018 - 02:43

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

Author's age when written


I particularly liked how in the midst of this you bring in the commandment to love God; it's not just fun detached philosophy but the earnest duty right now of every individual who reads this.

Here's how I read this essay:

When faith and reason are compared with the greater than less than symbol, I ask -- greater for what?

Would you say at the beginning of the essay you are basically defining them as faculties by which we come to think of things as being true or not? Is their worth basically measured in terms of their use in finding truth?

The devotee of reason is presented as a strict materialist empiricist who cannot believe in any thing in the invisible metaphysical realm. His faculty can't take him there.

The "Faith>Reason" man is first presented as someone who has the ability to think a thing is the case even when his sense and reason tell against (or at least don't support it.) This would seem to give him the advantage in believing in invisible things. (But the question arises: is it even possible to believe something counter your reason and perception?)

But of course as you develop the essay we see that a lot more than “Unless I can see it, feel it, observe it with my senses, I don’t accept it as true” falls into the category of reason. Believing witness for example -- the Bible particularly.

So you say you admire group two but then say:
"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"

And the other examples of believing in the not yet seen (Romans 8:28) (I Corinthians 9:24-25) are examples of exercising reason if believing that the Bible is true is reasonable. I'm not sure if I'm characterizing your position quite correctly here, but if you are saying that using reason we can believe that the Bible is true, then I think I think reason has totally taken the field. If the two armies are joined we could comprehend them under one banner: "Reason."

Not that we would not believe in "Upper Story" things. We would just have a reasonable ladder to get up there and look around. If you can reason that the Bible is true, then believing in intangible things easily falls under reason.

When you get into the Escape From Reason section, I don't think you're using faith to mean a faculty, but more just the realm of the metaphysical. So when you write "We need to bring back faith from its place of irrelevancy in our minds" you're talking about the relevance of what we believe to be true in the metaphysical realm to our lives, not a "faculty" by which one can feel something to be true against his own observation.

I think we could still just have the one word 'reason' for the faculty that finds truth in the seen and unseen.

But the whole essay you're fighting two fronts -- on the one hand the modern materialist, on the other the Christian existentialist, and when you turn your guns to the materialist at the end, it seems you are again talking about faith as a faculty by which one can accept something as true apart from reason. Faith is needed to even believe in reason. This seems like it might be bringing a trojan horse into the city, or a nuclear bomb. If we have to step to reason (dare I say leap!) by faith why couldn't leap to other things? One answer is we could, but to keep reason in the equation things would have to look reasonable from whatever mountain-top we leapt to.

Also, Jesus only spoke with one person who died in the old testament on the mount of transfiguration.

I like that this essay (yours, not my long comment) is not just impersonal but has opinions.

And he was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn't be polished up a bit...
~P.G. Wodehouse

Hi Caleb, thank you so much for your comment!

So, I should clarify some things, based on your comments and questions. If faced with a conflict between what is reasonable and what is spiritual, Group 2 would stick to faith, whereas Group 3 would stick to reason. Eg, a Christian is given an argument against their faith ("You really believe Jesus was born of a virgin?" "But the Bible is full of contradictions!") and doesn't know how to answer. Even though he personally lacks an answer, he holds faith as more important here and decides to continue in his religious beliefs. The materialist, however, assumes that reason wins over faith in such a dilemma and rejects the religion in question. So yes, they could be considered ways to find truth, but they're not exclusively used. One's just seen as a higher authority over the other. So I don't mean that the "faith>reason" man never uses reason or that the "reason>faith" man never has faith (eg, "reason>faith" group may still use concepts like 'the power of positive thinking' in a secular fashion).

On the issue of "believing the not yet seen"/Mark 9 quote, I would say that I meant to demonstrate that what we have in Christianity is a reasonable faith. We are not called to a blind faith. You needn't check your brain at the door when thinking through your religious beliefs. Also, I would not say that I can use reason to say the Bible is true; I would say the Bible/Christian God allows me to say reason is true. I presume the Bible first and reason second (put another way, the fact that reason is possible is proof that the Bible is true). So I didn't intend to mean that "reason has totally taken the field." I intended to mean that reason is compatible with our faith. They complement each other, so to speak.

When you say "you're talking about the relevance of what we believe to be true in the metaphysical realm to our lives, not a 'faculty' by which one can feel something to be true against his own observation" - yes, that's sounds like what I was trying to say. I did, in the essay, use the word "faith" rather loosely as referring to belief in one's religion as well as belief in immaterial things (ie, logic, whether our senses are reliable, or spiritual truths). In hindsight that appears to have detracted from the clarity of the essay.

In the case of the "Trojan Horse" situation, I mean to demonstrate here that the materialist may favor reason (or see it as the higher authority), but must, by necessity, also possess faith. And yes, I would say it is, in a sense, a 'nuclear bomb' of sorts - perhaps you've heard a lecture from a certain Jason Lisle entitled Nuclear Strength Apologetics? Or was your word choice mere serendipity there? :)

So bottom line, I intended to show that everyone has faith, and everyone uses reason (perhaps this is an obvious, even to the point of being trivial, fact of life. Nevertheless, there's my main topic). :P The materialist has an unreasonable faith. The "faith>reason" group needlessly downplays reason's powerful role within his religion. Whether your faith is reasonable or not depends on whether you have a good foundation for both faith and reason. And as I hopefully showed above, I believe that 'good foundation' to be Scripture.

Hopefully that clarifies. I really appreciate your taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment! You bring up some interesting points. And yes, Elijah didn't die, did he? I should fix that. ;)

As a side note, I'd really appreciate you defining what you mean by "Christian Existentialist." I've heard the term before but have trouble defining/explaining it; you seem here to be using it to describe the Christian who holds to "faith>reason"? Or to Christians who relegate faith to Upper Story?

How I meant Christian Existentialist is basically one who thinks God is beyond the scope of human reason, but that (apart from rationality to some degree) He can be known or believed in experientially.

I picked up Escape from Reason from off the shelf, and read it, and I thought you would be thinking of existentialism similarly to how Schaeffer wrote about it there — what he called "the 'leap in the dark' mentality.”

And he wasn’t just concerned about famous philosophers having this mentality, “The evangelical Christian” he wrote "needs to be careful because some evangelicals have recently been asserting that what matters is not setting out to prove or disprove propositions; what matters is an encounter with Jesus.” I think what he's talking about could be along the lines of someone who aside from any consideration or acceptance of the apologetic arguments for the truth of the resurrection merely says “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!”

And this seems like a possible answer for the question “How is it even possible for someone to believe against his own reason?” It almost seems that by definition what is reasonable to you is one and the same with what you think is true, and that you perforce don't believe what seems irrational to you. So how could group group #2 stick to faith if rationality seemed to be pointing the other way? Here is an answer: Through a perceived encounter with, or experience, of Jesus. (That becomes the “reason,” it’s a just reason beyond standard testing or falsifying.)

But Schaeffer is wary of this kind of thing and points out that we have “propositional Scripture” that can be tested. “If what is placed upstairs is separated from rationality, if the Scriptures are not discussed as open to verification where they touch the cosmos and history, why should anyone then accept the evangelical upstairs any more than the upstairs of the modern radical theology? On what basis is the choice to be made? Why should it not just as well be an encounter under the name of Vishnu?”

This is a good point. If there’s not a rational path that takes you there, why not leap anywhere? And if Jesus is undefined, why not call the one you encounter any name?

But reaching Christ by a non-rational leap and divorcing Him from who He is as shown in the Bible are not the same thing. Perhaps some have come to take the Bible as true along with Jesus just because Jesus, whom they encountered, called it God’s word.( John 10:35, Matt. 19:4-5, yes, that’s the passage I meant.)

So never mind for the moment existentialists who have leapt to some hazy, anti-biblical ideas of God, and imagine one who without rational proofs for the existence of God, or the truth of the Bible, just writes/acts/talks as if it all were true. Wouldn't this be very much akin to one who cannot use reason to say the Bible is true but that it must be presumed first?


Tonight in church the sermon was on Paul before King Agrippa and I found it interesting how Paul both talked about what would have to be one of the great examples of finding faith through an encounter with Jesus, (meeting a blinding light, falling to the ground, hearing Jesus speak) and also reasoned with them to believe -- "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" "This thing was not done in a corner" these are the things that Moses and the prophets said should come. (Acts 26)

I mention this real example of faith and reason partly because sometimes in looking for philosophical purity, I can drift away from how things really work.

It seems to me though that if the Bible cannot be reasoned to, but must be presumed, then Faith>Reason in your essay because it underlies the foundation from which we reason. I do not think "the fact that reason is possible is proof that the Bible is true" is just another way to put it. I think that is a proof based on reason. But even then, reason, as you pointed out, still needs to be presumed by faith first.

Still you shouldn't just presuppose your way to just any thing because some things are wrong:)

And he was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn't be polished up a bit...
~P.G. Wodehouse

Hi Caleb, so this essay is basically a summary of my impressions after reading Van Til’s Christian Apologetics, in which he argues for a presuppositional (aka transcendental) approach to apologetics. The Schaeffer quotes you mention bring up some good points; yes, the Bible is relevant concerning the cosmos and history. Yes, it is very easy to go wrong with the “encounter with Jesus" mentality - people also have spiritual encounters within Islam, Hinduism, etc. I would consider one's faith in these instances to be subject to Scripture, in a “test the spirits” sense (1 John 4:1). In Paul’s case, he knew that this Jesus he met was spoken of by Moses and the Prophets.

But let’s go back to the Schaeffer quote again. I like Schaeffer – I really do! – but there are some things in his writings I am cautious about. For example, the quote “if the Scriptures are not discussed as open to verification where they touch the cosmos and history”. This bothers me, because it places God in the dock – God is on trial, with the sinner in the judge's seat. Absolutely, Scriptures are verified in the cosmos and history. But the “natural man,” as Van Til speaks of the unsaved, likely won’t see it that way. That’s because he views cosmos and history through a worldview – a set of presuppositions of his own.

So, when I talk about presuming the Bible is true, I am not saying that gives me permission to “presuppose your way to just any thing". Ultimate beliefs, however - religions, worldviews, - they must be held by presuppositions. Consider trying to prove that logic exists. You couldn’t do that without using logic, right? You have to presume it works before you prove it works. The same goes for your sensory perception of the world; we presume that our senses give us accurate information about the world. These things are difficult – if not impossible – to “prove;” they must be presumed.

So then, which religion/worldview provides the best foundation for such common-sense beliefs? I think we can agree that Vishnu and the precepts of other Eastern religions allow logic to fly out the window; they don’t make for worldviews that provide a framework for logic to work. They don’t encourage you to trust your sensory perception, either ("all" is really "one," in most of these worldviews). And naturalism cannot explain logic or the reliability of senses (random processes and natural selection produced minds capable of true, rational thought and obtaining true information about the world?) If you start with the Bible, however, these things make sense. We were made by a reasonable and consistent God (Is. 1:18, Hb. 13:8). Reason is possible. We can trust our senses. If this sounds circular, it is because it is an 'ultimate belief' issue - like using logic to prove logic. You cannot have an unending list of reasons to believe something; the reasons have to end somewhere. Where they end, there will be a circle. Does that circle hold, or does it 'blow itself up?' Christianity does not reduce to a reductio ad absurdum, but other worldviews will.

This, then, is why you can’t leap just anywhere. A worldview other than Christianity cannot account for an orderly world with things like logic and science. For Van Til’s “natural man,” however, you cannot "prove" the Bible to him with facts (Romans 1:19-21 says he already knows about God in some sense, after all; he "suppresses the truth"). He already has a worldview of his own, which causes him to interpret the facts entirely differently from the way the Christian interprets the facts. This is why two people can look at the universe, one seeing evidence for an incomprehensibly good and wise Designer, and the other seeing a hopeless struggle for survival that excludes the possibility of a loving God. The facts are the same; the worldviews, the means of interpretation, are different.

Perhaps you see presuming the Bible first as putting faith as a higher authority over reason, but I still think seeing them on an equal playing field, both under the authority of Scripture, is the clearest way of putting it. The Bible is both a reasonable faith and gives a foundation for reason to work in the first place; the Bible defines our faith and tells us exactly who Jesus is, to guard us from forming gods of our own preference.

Thanks so much for your comment! I really appreciate the time and depth you put into them, they've been really helpful. And thank you for clarifying Christian existentialism, lol. I've certainly read about it before but for whatever reason it's hard for that definition to stick. :P

*Also, feel free to email me a response, if you’d like. I’m not sure if this discussion counts as a debate or not, but I don’t want to get in trouble for debating on a non-debate forum. :P I’d send an email to you but it looks like you haven’t added that feature to your profile. :)