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 and things I first began to wrestle with, and answers I first found to be satisfactory, in college.

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.” Reason (logic) depends on a premise, and premises are not necessarily subject to proof or disproof.

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.

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 a premise holds together does not necessarily mean that the premise is true. Reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but reason can only takes us so far; then we must necessarily take a leap of faith.

Though not present in that question per se, 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. A better question would be a personal one: are you willing to jump from reason to faith when reason bumps into the Unknown? Or are you unwilling only to hold on to the Known?

In truth, only faith is necessary to believe in God, but reason and belief in God are compatible like a vehicle that can take you to across the United States and a boat that can take you across the ocean to reach Europe. Reason can only take you to the edge of your finite humanness; faith must take you the rest of the way.

Reason itself does not disprove God, but it cannot bridge the gap across the unknown. If a person is unwilling to take the boat (faith), the destination (connection with God) cannot be reached.

No scientific process has been offered to prove or to disprove the existence of God. People must choose a position on the existence of God, after exhausting reason, based on faith. Reason can be used to analyze, support and undermine belief in God as well as unbelief in God, but there is no ultimate proof for or against God.

There are many things that cannot be scientifically proven as fact, but we accept based on what we know, like the existence of love, what emotion is generally 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 all the things we know. 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, which seems much more popular, 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.

There is a risk both in the position of the pure rationalist and of the person or faith that the person holding them is wrong. It boils down for each individual to a determination of which one is most plausible.

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 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 has 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 scientific evidence 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 leave the discourse above and to go off on a tangent. It occurs to me that there is an 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 the 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 does 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 have been 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 issues is not whether I am right or wrong, ultimately, but how I respond to the God who has caught me when I leapt.

Again, the test is in the proof. 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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