Reason. And how faith interacts with it.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September

Faith and reason are only contradictions when you’re doing faith wrong.

Faith is complete trust and confidence in something or someone. When Christians talk about faith, we usually mean our complete trust and confidence in Jesus. (That or we’re using “my faith” to mean “my religion”; that or we’re using the word wrong. Which happens.) We put our faith in Jesus; we believe what he tells us about God; we trust his teachings, obey his instructions, and otherwise follow him.

Of course when I talk about faith with pagans, I don’t always remember to clear up their misunderstandings about what faith is. Darned near all of them think faith is the magical ability to believe nonsense. As Mark Twain put it, faith is “believing what you know ain’t so.” If I have faith, as they define faith, I have the power to believe in Santa Claus—even as an adult, who should know better! If I have faith, I have the ability to believe completely unreasonable things. Indeed they should expect I believe completely unreasonable things.

This is why loads of articles, essays, and books have been written about faith versus reason. Because pagans firmly believe the ideas contradict one another. And y’know, a fair number of Christians agree the ideas contradict one another. “I know you think I should believe as you do,” I once heard one of us tell a pagan, “but y’see, I have faith.” Thus adding fuel to the pagans’ belief that faith isn’t reasonable.

I can say the very same thing as that other Christian: There are things I would believe if I were a pagan, but I don’t, ’cause I have faith. I do not mean by this that I have differing views because I have the magic ability to believe other things. Nor because I’m wishing otherwise so hard, I think I can make my wishes come true. The reason I believe otherwise is I trust Jesus. I trust him more’n I trust you. Way more than I trust your favorite authors, teachers, experts, politicians, and authority figures. If he said it, I take it to the bank. (Or try to; I’m still growing my faith. That’s a lifelong process, y’see.)

Trusting Jesus is the reason I believe otherwise. I don’t believe otherwise for no reason at all. If faith did mean the power to believe as I wish, it’d definitely mean I believe things for no reason at all; with no solid basis whatsoever. But that’s not the definition of faith I’m going with. I’m going with the one from Hebrews:

Hebrews 11.1 KWL
Faith is the solid basis of hope, the proof of actions we’ve not seen.

You may not believe faith is a solid idea, ’cause you don’t believe Jesus is a solid guy. But you believe your favorite authorities are solid guys, and trust them. Well it’s the same deal with me. We simply trust different people. We put faith in different people. Because in the end we’re all practicing faith—and it’s the reason we all believe as we do.

Well, unless you are trying to wish things into being. Don’t do that.

Christianity’s hard-to-believe stuff.

A paradox is a pair of facts which contradict one another. Like “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Or “The harder I work, the less I get accomplished.” Some of ’em aren’t really paradoxes: They appear to contradict one another, but there’s a “missing middle,” which is what logicians call the in-between idea that shows how one actually leads to the other. Or they’re oxymorons—a mishmash of words like “jumbo shrimp” which sound like nonsense, and sometimes are.

In Christianity we have actual paradoxes. We live in a kingdom that’s not yet here. We follow the Son of God who’s actually God himself—and at the same time is entirely human. And he’s one of three persons who are one God. Western Christians, because our culture thinks paradoxes are a problem, insist none of these things are really paradoxes; they just have missing middles. (Then we try to supply the middles.) Eastern Christians tend to be okay with just leaving them as paradoxes: They enjoy the sense of wonder.

But as I said, since westerners think paradoxes are a problem, a lot of pagans look at Christianity’s paradoxes, mock western Christians’ explanations as inadequate, and insist Christianity is unreasonable.

And don’t forget all the other stuff they find hard to believe, like miracles, the supernatural, resurrection, and revelation. They don’t believe it, they can’t believe any rational person would believe it, so they imagine we Christians must be switching off the rational parts of our brains in order to accept it. Like a willful lobotomy.

I’d really like to be able to say they’re misrepresenting us Christians. I really would. Problem is, I know Christians who are doing exactly that. “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” is how they usually put it. (Even when God frequently said no such thing; that’s their biases and politics talking.) There are such people as willfully stupid Christians. But I point out there are also plenty of willfully stupid pagans: They believe as they believe and nobody can tell them otherwise. That’s why they keep buying unscientific “wellness” products.

First let me point out paradoxes aren’t just to be found in religion. Paradoxes are found everywhere. Not just because humans are illogical: Even math and science have ’em. Fr’instance, what’s the square root of negative one? Logically it has to exist, because everything has a square root. But is it a positive number, or a negative number? Neither—and not in the same way zero is neither. How? Well, we’ve no idea. It exists, but we can’t define how. So mathematicians call it an “imaginary” number. Yet Albert Einstein used a whole lot of these “imaginary” numbers in his description of how general relativity works.

Fact is, logic is a human invention. It’s darned useful; I use it all the time. So does science. But applying it to God is problematic. God never promised to follow our rules; never promised to not embarrass us in front of our logic-trusting friends. If he throws us a paradox, or an impossible-to-believe scenario, and expects us to trust him in spite of it… well either we do trust him, or we don’t really. Either we step out of the boat and walk on water with him, even though we know molecular density doesn’t work like that… or we just won’t.

Ordinarily we’d accept we can’t walk on water. Ordinarily we’d recognize axeheads don’t float. Ordinarily we’d insist virgins don’t get pregnant. Ordinarily the earth doesn’t stop rotating and the sun never stands still, nor do sundials move backward. But when God states, “I’ve made an exception here,” because we trust God, because we trust he can make such exceptions, we believe he did ’em back then, and can do them again if he so chooses. We believe “impossible” things because we believe nothing’s impossible for God. Lk 1.37, Mt 19.26

Recognizing this, doesn’t mean faith is contrary to reason. Faith is the reason. I believe in miracles because I trust God.

And y’know, if we follow God long enough, we get to see miracles, which means more and more we trust God can do miracles because we’ve seen him do ’em before. Our testimony becomes the reason for our faith; our faith becomes the reason for our hard-to-believe doctrines. Reason is all over our religion. It’s only the irreligious, those who’ve never seen any miracles, or those who just wanna be contrary, who insist Christianity is unreasonable.

Christianity’s hard-to-believe people.

Whenever nontheists object to Christianity, frequently the subject of Christian hypocrites comes up. Which is fair; if we’re gonna claim to be Christian, we should act it. When we don’t even try, we’re fair game. A number of these nontheists grew up Christian, grew tired of the hypocrisy, and quit because the hypocrites seriously misrepresented Christianity. I can’t really blame ’em for unbelief when they were given nothing solid to believe. (I only blame them when they’re intellectually dishonest with a Christian who’s trying to explain to them what we do believe.)

One of their common complaints—one I wholly agree with—is when churches and Christian leaders instruct us to shut off our brains and just swallow everything we’re told. You know, like cults do. It’s a whole lot easier to control congregations when “Shut up and obey” is your mantra, but it’s not at all beneficial nor biblical. God doesn’t want brain-dead followers, and doesn’t see a Christian full of questions as a challenge to his almighty sovereignty. It’s only humans who think that way, ’cause any “sovereignty” we might have is far from almighty.

When we turn into tyrants we misrepresent God, and should be overthrown before we lead people further astray. This is the sort of environment which breeds Christians who never ask questions, never investigate things too deeply… who don’t know anything, and don’t care to. “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” is not a demonstration of how greatly they trust God; it’s a demonstration of how they don’t think. They don’t know how or why God works; they just accept what they’re told. They have doubts, but stifle them. They don’t even believe in God, many times; but they suppress that information, go with the flow, and defend their Christianist way of life anyway.

This sort of know-nothing Christianity needs to be opposed every time we find it. Jesus wants us to love God with all our mind, Mk 12.30 not turn it off because it gets in the way.

Christians should find Christianity reasonable. When it’s not, we need to find out why not: Do we understand it properly? (Usually no.) Have we been taught something false? (Usually yes; lots of things.) Are we bumping into ideas and teachings which are simply beyond our understanding? (Often.) Or are they fully within our understanding, but we don’t trust God enough to actually step out and live them? (Also yes.)

If you truly tackle Christianity, and you ultimately don’t find a lot of reason in it, I’m pretty sure you’re not working with authentic Christianity. But I’m biased: Let’s say you nonetheless don’t find it reasonable. Well then you should leave, and go try another religion, or none.

But let’s not forget: Christianity isn’t just a religion, but a lifestyle. We’re not meant to just believe things about God, but know God—and these experiences are meant to take the place of logical deductions and reason.

The steps beyond reason.

When we first became Christian and started following Jesus, yeah we had to fall back on faith a lot. “I trust Jesus, so I’m gonna do as he says.” Or “I trust Jesus, so I’m gonna believe what he says.” Trusting Jesus was the reason we took those first baby steps into Christianity. Faith helped give us a starting point.

Hopefully we’ve moved beyond this starting point… into God-experiences.

Like the first time you ever heard from God. Remember that? For most of us we were stunned: God talked to me! When we saw our first miracle—someone got healed right in front of us, or we were healed ourselves—our minds were blown. When we read about a concept in the scriptures, decided to try it out for ourselves, and discovered this Jesus stuff works—even better than we expected!—we lived off the euphoria for a month.

You did have these experiences by now, didn’t you? If not, it’s time you thought about moving beyond the baby steps.

You know those Christian apologists who spend way too much time discussing the logical proofs of God’s existence? Why are they still doing this after they’ve heard God for themselves? Simple: They haven’t heard God for themselves. (If they told us they have, but they’re still falling back on logical proofs for they’re beliefs, odds are they’re lying about their God-experiences.) Or they have serious doubts they really did hear God for themselves, and are using logic as a crutch, instead of Jesus.

We’re meant to move past such things. We’re supposed to know for ourselves God exists, not kinda think we know based on reasonable logical deductions. We know because we heard him, saw him do stuff, and had it confirmed it was really him. We trust the scriptures because they confirm our experiences about God, not because we believe really hard they’re true. We’re not forced to resort to guesswork, speculation, omens, superstitions, and connect-the-dots reasoning. Shouldn’t be, anyway. We’re supposed to grow beyond that!

No, I’m not saying we outgrow reason. Reason’s still there: The reason we believe is because we’ve seen. That’s what we share with others. “I saw him” tends to work a whole lot better in evangelism than “I’ve logically deduced him.” Our experiences vastly outweigh any “logical” attempts to rationalize God away.

True, not every Christian has had God-experiences. I grew up in churches which believed these experiences were rare, special occasions which happened to very, very few. I find that depressing, ’cause there’s so much those Christians are denying themselves. They’ve embraced a lot of good, solid beliefs about God… but they’ve done it at the expense of God’s presence. And when the beliefs give way to doubt or suffering, God’s presence isn’t there as their safety net.

Our ability to reason has its limits. We could have a really bad day—a Job-level bad day—and in our emotional despair, toss out everything we believe, hope, think, embrace… and if that’s all God is to us, there’s no God left. He has to become more than a concept we Christians have grasped: God has to be a real, living, active person in our lives. He can’t remain abstract; he has to become Father. We should know he’s in our lives, not just because we’ve mentally grasped the idea, but because we seen him at work for ourselves.

When John wrote about Jesus, he didn’t give intellectual arguments for his faith. He said bluntly,

1 John 1.1-4 KWL
1 He was in the beginning. We heard him, our eyes saw him, we examined and our hands touched—
It’s about the living word, 2 and the life was revealed.
We saw, witness, and proclaim to you the life of the next age,
who’s from the Father and revealed to us.
3 We’d seen and heard; we proclaim this to you so you could also have a relationship with us.
Our relationship is with the Father and with his son, Christ Jesus.
4 We write you this so our joy would be fulfilled.

John’s faith was reasonable. But it wasn’t based, nor dependent, upon reason. It was reasonable because he personally encountered Jesus, and because all his subsequent reasoning was grounded in that encounter. We need that very same grounding.