Are Reason & Faith in God Contradictory Terms?


Looking for a Sunset


I began taking notes on a series of hard questions posed to Tim Keller by some heavy hitting interviewers that is posted to the Veritas Forum. I thought I would take my notes and create a series of quick answers to these hard questions, but I got sidetracked by the first question: Aren’t faith and reason contradictory terms?

The question took me back to college when I first began to wrestle with this question.

Implied in that question is an assumption that the only rational conclusion of reason is disbelief in God. Reason is defined by Merriam Webster as “the power of the mind to think and understand in a logical way.” Faith is defined as the “strong belief or trust in someone or something.” Note that faith is not defined in relation to evidence or reason, but the common definition of faith is not antithetical to evidence of reason either.

Reason (logic) depends on a premise, and premises are often tautological. Many premises are susceptible of proof, but many are not. The premise that the natural world is the totality of all reality is a premise many believe to be true, but it is not susceptible of proof (at least not scientific proof, unless one believes that science, which is limited to the study of the natural world is capable of proving that nothing other than the natural world exists by limiting the study to the natural world).

Soren Kierkegaard famously reasoned by logic that there is no God; then he turned around by the same use of logic to prove that God exists. The difference in the two conclusions, both logical in process, is the premise with which he started. The problem with reason and faith is not that they are mutually exclusive; the problem is the limitation of humanness – our finite, limited point of reference.

If we had the right premises, we could always reason to the right conclusions. Ah, but there is the rub!

Kierkegaard says, “Reason is forever bound to repeatedly collide with the Unknown.” (Faith, Not Logic, Is the Basis of Belief) We can test a premise by logic, but the fact that the logic holds together from a particular premise does not necessarily mean that the conclusion is true. One or more of the premises may be faulty.

What I realized in college, and what I believe is still true today, is that reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but reason can only takes us so far. At some point, we must necessarily take a leap of faith because we don’t know what we don’t know.

A popular thought on the subject is that science is the only reliable thought process, and science excludes (or gives no merit to) faith. Science is defined by Merriam Webster as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.” If reason were limited to what science can cover, the question would still be a bad one. Science can only tell us of the natural world because science is limited by definition to the study of the natural world.

A better question would be a personal one: are you willing to jump from reason to faith when reason bumps into the Unknown? Are you willing to hold on to the Unknown (like the agnostic)? Are you willing to commit yourself to the proposition that there is no God (like the Atheist)? Or are you willing to commit yourself to the proposition that God exists (like the theist)?

These are the basic choices. All three positions take account of the available evidence and offer an alternative to the individual. Which one makes the most sense? Which one is most coherent? Which best explains all the available evidence, intuition, life experience and provides a coherent view of the world by which people may live their lives. Which on has the most explanatory scope?

These are the questions we should be asking.

In truth, people may believe in God on the basis of faith alone. But this is true of atheism as well. People may not believe in God on the basis of faith. Faith is simply having strong belief, trust or confidence in something. For the atheist, that faith is in the proposition that no God exists.

No scientific process or evidence is sufficient to prove or to disprove the existence of God because God, if He exists, is beyond nature, and science is limited to the study of nature. People must choose a position on the existence of God, after exhausting science and reason, based on faith. Reason can be used to analyze, support and undermine belief in God, just as well as it can be used to affirm belief in God, but it can provide no ultimate proof for or against God.

There are many things that cannot be scientifically proven as fact, but we accept them as true based other ways of knowing things, like the existence of love, emotion and even the ability to reason in the first place. We believe there is such a thing as love and emotion and the ability to reason because it seems more plausible than not that they exist based on our experience, which is also a way of knowing. The same is true of God.

Belief in God is a mixture of reason and faith. But, elements of reason and faith exist in both positions because we cannot rationally, scientifically prove either one. An unwillingness to grab onto faith when one reaches the end of reason and science is, itself, a kind of faith: it is a faith in what reason and science alone can explain and prove; it is a faith in the known in favor of the unknown; it is ultimately faith in humanity, rather than something Other

But even that is not perfectly true. There is more than sufficient evidence of the Unknown. The rationalist, materialist, Hegelian rather chooses to make no conclusions about the Unknown (agnosticism); or chooses to conclude that there is no God (atheism). It seems to me that the more honest, rational and scientific position would be agnosticism. After all, we do not know what we do not know.

Again, I go back to Kierkegaard, who acknowledged that he reasons from belief in the existence of God (not towards it). This is not a rational or irrational position. It is no less rational than reasoning from the position of belief in the non-existence of God. Depending on where we start our reasoning, we will find much rational and scientific evidence supporting our belief. In fact, I have found no scientific or rational fact or thought that undermines my faith in God; and I suspect of the atheist that he could say the same thing about his belief in the non-existence of God.

Where we begin our reasoning makes all the difference in where we end up.

My experience of the existence of God adds to my conviction in profound ways, but I suspect that an atheist’s experience of the absence of God also adds to his conviction in the non-existence of God. This point also further confirms my conviction. God answers the door of the one who knocks. The door of the one who is not knocking is left unanswered.

In the end, I can fully and honestly say that reason supports my faith in God in every way, and my experience of God has been fulfilling in every way. Faith and reason are not contradictory; reason and scientific evidence ultimately have confirmed my faith; but my faith in God is not dependent on reason or scientific evidence because my capacity to reason and to know and understand is limited. I am always bumping up against the Unknown.

Postscript:

While there is more to be said about faith and reason, I am swayed to leave the discourse above and to go off on a tangent. It occurs to me that there is a haughtiness about the atheistic world that is also matched in the world of faith. The fact that there a similar haughtiness (call it self-righteousness) in the faith community is something that atheists see better than believers. It is the old splinter and plank adage, and it bears some discussion.

I see in atheism the exaltation of man over God. This is the root of sin known as pride. That the same pride and exaltation of man can be seen in the church should not be surprising, though we in the church are not as apt to see it. My point here is this: just as atheists can be extremely judgmental of believers on what they see as irrational, unscientific faith; believers are judgmental of atheists on their refusal to have faith. Both views are rooted in pride and are sin.

Both are equally wrong. The one fails to see that human reason alone is finite and incapable of knowing what is not known. The other fails to see that faith is a leap or that reason and science, alone, do not bridge the gap. I am more concerned with believers in this strain of thinking. Faith is nothing we have done, nothing that we have earned and nothing that should fill us with pride.

That is not to say that I (we) should not be certain of our faith. But, we might be wrong. We might have made the leap to find no God to catch me (us). Though I feel “caught” and find that reason now supports my faith after I have believed, I may still be wrong. In fact, the issue is not whether I am right or wrong, ultimately, but how I respond to the God who catches me when I leap.

The “proof is in the pudding”, as the saying goes. Am I a better person? Has God changed me? Am I changing? Am I exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Am I becoming more loving, less prideful, less selfish, less greedy, more giving, more understanding – more like the God who has caught me? If there is no fruit, no reality to this faith I have grabbed on to, my faith position is of no more value to me than a position of unbelief.

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