Reason and Faith

A Chapel Talk

Robert Harris
Version Date: Oct. 23, 1984

I would like to talk about reason and faith, and by extension, about intellect and faith, in order to reestablish the rightful position of the mind in Christian belief and the rightful position of Christian belief in the life of the mind. There is, I believe, an essential interrelatedness between the reasoning mind and the faithful heart.

Over the past three or four hundred years it has become increasingly popular to contrast faith and reason, to put them at opposite poles and imply or even state that an individual must make a choice between the two. I read an article the other day that claimed reason as one of the mainstays of the so-called secular humanists. So often has this faith/reason dichotomy been pronounced and with such insistence that even many Christians have acquiesced to it.

So I want to show not only that the conflict between faith and reason is an illusion and an invention, but that neither faith without reason nor reason without faith can provide an acceptable intellectual foundation for human existence.

Traditional accounts of the enlightenment and the subsequent years down to our own day usually highlight the antagonism between the newly emphasized empiricism (or scientific experimentation) and traditional religion. This is only a partial truth. Many writers and thinkers, who by the way receive little note in the usual accounts, welcomed the new emphasis on experiment, inductive logic, investigation, and mental training, believing that reason was strengthened by it, and that a stronger reason was better able to see and understand the workings of God in his creation.

Samuel Clarke in his Discourse Upon Natural Religion wrote that strict reason by itself, apart from revelation, dictated the worship of God, echoing, in part, Paul's own assertion that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen . . . through what has been made" (Romans 1:20).

Isaac Watts, the same Isaac Watts who wrote all those wonderful hymns, like "I Sing the Mighty Power of God," "Joy to the World," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove," that Isaac Watts wrote a logic book, subtitled, The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry after Truth, where he argued that honest reason leads to the gospel. Next time you sing those hymns, then, you might remeber that they were written by a logician.

William Law, in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life asserted that reason was God's gift to man to show us the truth, and that "the religion of the Gospel is only the refinement and exaltation of our best faculties, as it only requires a life of the highest reason."

Richard Baxter, in his book The Saints' Everlasting Rest, appealed to men's minds for a decision about the gospel: "Will you," he asked, "renounce your part in God and glory, rather than renounce your sins? . . . God hath made you men; do not renounce your reason where you should chiefly use it" (p. 218).

In Samuel Johnson's "The Vision of Theodore," the traveler Theodore, wandering through life, meets a beautiful woman, who informs him, "I am Reason, of all subordinate beings the noblest and the greatest; who, if thou wilt receive my laws, will reward thee like the rest of my votaries, by conducting thee to Religion." Elsewhere Johnson says that "Religion is the highest exercise of Reason."

Now none of these men worshipped reason as perfect or as an unlimited source of all truth or believed that it was without weaknesses. What they did believe, though, was that there were reasons for faith, and that those who rejected faith were doing so irrationally or through the abuse of reason. Reason could reveal the astonishing strength, the unshakable foundation, of that rock of faith on which we stand.

My point is that things have not changed. Or rather that they have changed, in that modern Christians are no longer saying these things. Perhaps the greatest scandal in Christendom is that we have ignored or even denied the intellectual depth and solidity of the gospel. The Bible has no reasonable, intellectual competition to its explanation of reality, human nature, value, truth, and the design and purpose of life and the universe because that book alone provides a coherent view of reality beyond the visible world together with the implications for meaning within the visible world.

But who among us is taking this message to secular man today? Why have we ignored the intellectual strength of the gospel, and allowed the world to embrace by default a set of irrational, subjective dogmas, designed more to tickle the imagination and inflate the ego rather than to satisfy the mind? When Ernst Mayr tells us that time and chance working without purpose or direction have produced the eye in all its complexity and delicacy, not once, but eight different times, why do we sit by and nod our heads when he adds that he is a man of reason and we are people of blind faith? Why have we ever permitted a fundamentally irrational world view to ascribe reason to itself while we are content to sit back and say, "Well, at least we have faith"?

Right now I want to look at these two world views--the God and the non-God views--in order to show you briefly why a belief in God is necessary to make sense of the world and the universe and why the prevailing world view does not and cannot sustain rational scrutiny.

All philosophy, all belief, all reason, all faith, all logic, must begin with a fundamental assumption about the nature of reality. That is, every human being operates his mind using a certain set of beliefs about what is real, as opposed to what is not real or only imaginary. For example, is the seat you are sitting on real--does it really exist, or are you only thinking that it does? Some philosophers have believed that the external world really does not exist and that all of your perceptions are imaginary. One problem with such a doctrine of course is that our perceptions are not always controllable by us. Why for example would we imagine running into a door or crashing into the back of another car?

So we will agree, I think, that the perceived world is indeed real and not just our imagination. The point is, however, that we cannot prove in any absolute way that the external world is real, that other people really, truly exist, or that I'm even really talking to you now. You may be dreaming.

Today we have two main competing views of reality: that of the Christians, or if we want to broaden the base, the theists--those who believe in a creating God--and the others--those who believe that there is no creating God.

Before we go further, we must identify these other people. One problem with that is that they are not one cohesive group, largely because, having given up the unifying, structuring explanation of the universe provided by a creating God, they are wandering around in different directions. Anyway, some of them might be described as philosophical materialists, some as logical empiricists, some a existentialists, some popularly as secular humanists--though I just read an article saying that there is no such thing, again because they are not organized. The American Humanist Association is pretty small, 10,000 or so in the U.S. For our purposes we will call these people collectively the untheists. "Atheist" has pretty strong negative connotations, and besides some are agnostics.

We Christians and the untheists both believe that the observable, physical world is real and that we can do experiments like testing a tire for treadwear and expect the results to be moderately consistent. That is, we believe in a consistent, physically real universe.

But then we part company. The untheists say that what we can sense or test or discover physically is all that really exists. Thus, they say that God does not exist because we cannot touch him physically. Some of the untheists even say that universals or abstract concepts are not real and do not exist, because the concepts are not physical. We will see some of the implications of this in a moment.

We believe that God does exist. We believe in a reality beyond the experimentally verifiable, physical world, so that our view includes more than the view of the untheists. The physically perceptible world is a shared part of our beliefs, but we go farther to assert that reality includes more than merely physical things. This is faith, as the writer of Hebrews describes it--the conviction of things not seen--the certain belief in realities beyond the visible world.

Our view of reality is superior to that of the untheists because the existence of a higher, invisible reality--God--is absolutely necessary for understanding visible reality. The view of value, of man, and of the universe necessitated by the untheist's belief about reality is both false and pernicious. Let me show you why.

First, let's look at the idea of value. By eliminating God from the universe, the materialist world view cannot provide support or structure to any axiological truth, except in a very limited and subjective way. Moral and spiritual truth do not exist as absolutes because they are not grounded in matter and are not verifiable by experiment. Friedrich Nietzsche, the well-known German philosopher, says, "There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths."

In such a non-God cosmos there can be no basis for morals or law. There is no right or wrong, good or bad.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, wrote, "The existentialist . . . thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to." --Existentialism, 1947

The secular humanists attempt to provide a human basis for value and ethics, but this fails because every human can have different values, and different ones at different times, depending upon his feelings or the situation. With no standard for meaning or thinking about values, good and bad become a matter of passing, personal feeling--whatever you feel like at the moment. Situation ethics is only the mildest consequence of this subjective and hence irrational view which has strong tendencies toward solipsism. If man is the measure of all things, why not this man--me--as the measure of all things? As a consequence, society is filled with mindless greed and selfishness, hypocrisy and caprice, impulsive and compulsive behavior.

The logical empiricists further proclaim that all judgments of value are meaningless, saying that no judgment relating to the end or significance of actions makes sense. They say, with Prince Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." As our society tries to throw off the supposed irrationality of fixed value and live according to this view, it has become troubled and confused. We still cling to some vague notion of morality, but our actions and laws become contradictory because they no longer have an established reference point. Our ideas of good and bad get mixed up and do not make sense.

For example, if a fourteen-year-old girl wants to have her ears pierced, she must have her parents' written permission, but if she wants to have an abortion, she need not even tell her parents. We hear everywhere the value of self-actualization and individual freedom, while at the same time we are rushing to the bedsides of the elderly to pull the plugs on their respirators because old people are no longer productive members of society. We have become the most love-obsessed society in the whole history of mankind, with popular songs telling us that "love is the answer" and that "all you need is love," while we beat our wives and abuse our children and watch our divorce rate move beyond fifty percent. And of those remaining married, seventy percent say they would not marry the same person again. We think that some things should perhaps be true and others false, and that sin is certainly a bad thing. But then we learn that True is only a brand of cigarettes and Sin is only a brand of perfume.

And it is not only in morals that the untheist view of value has had an irrational and subjective result. In philosophy and literature the phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Jacques Derrida have proclaimed that the description of personally perceived experience is all that's valuable or even all that's possible, because without universals there is no way to tell what a phenomenon means, no way to reason or generalize about it. Again, such a doctrine soon results in solipsism--the view that all reality proceeds from the self--and the reliance not on reason but on intuition. The effect of this reliance is clear in the writings of historian Johan Huizinga, who reconstructs history not by recounting facts but by intuition, by feeling what an age must have been like and then by recounting those feelings.

Do you see, then, what this means? It is the materialist, the non-God view of value that is subjective and anti-reason. Without standards of value, the universe is meaningless, and even that meaninglessness is incomprehensible because logic, ethics, and aesthetics are all normative fields which rely on standards of value for distinguishing reason from fallacy, good from evil, and the true from the false. Without God there can be no universals; without universals there can be no generalizations; and without generalizations there can be no understanding.

It is the Christian faith, on the other hand, that proclaims the objectivity of value, the real existence of good, beauty, love, and spiritual aspiration, that sees a rational order and morality in the creation, that asserts that universals do exist and can be used to guide thought and action. The faith provides the affirming declaration that truth and morality are fixed and predictible, and available to reason and judgment for the coherent regulation of life.

The second area where the untheist philosophy reveals its falseness and unacceptability concerns man himself and how he is perceived.

In a universe without ultimate value or standards, neither man nor his actions have any worth or purpose. Man, according to the untheist view of him, is only a scoop of reorganized slime or mutated mud--or as Stephen Jay Gould calls him, a "glorious accident." One thinker even has gone so far as to say that we are not really alive at all. We are just as dead and meaningless as a rock; the only difference is that we can reproduce, and make the sons and daughters of slime and mud.

Yet man continues to strive as if life had meaning: he struggles with difficulties, sets goals, rejoices in successes, and grieves in failure. He perceives good and evil where there is no good or evil. Faced with this obvious absurdity of existence, French philosopher and existentialist Albert Camus wrote that in view of the purposeless struggle of life, and in view of the fact that there seem to be more meaningless pains than meaningless pleasures, the only philosophical problem worth considering is whether or not to kill yourself.

Sigmund Freud wrote that "the goal of all life is death." Elsewhere he said, "In my experience most [human beings] are trash no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all." Friedrich Nietzsche said, "The world is beautiful, but has a disease called Man."

These views are the consequence of attempting to find an ultimate value for man in the material world, together with the conclusion that man and his behavior and propensities are normal. The "problem of evil," if it exists at all, has no explanation and cannot be resolved.

In 1896 at the coronation celebration of Czar Nicholas II in Moscow, it was announced that there would be free beer for everyone. In the ensuing stampede, 5000 people were trampled to death.

Such an event, the untheists would say, is indeed tragic and sad. But it is normal; that's the way man is.

Man, notes Charles Darwin, "has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence" and that "if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle for life than the less gifted."

It seems little wonder that Camus in the past and the self determination movement today suggest suicide as a means of resolving the despair of life in a meaningless universe. The best the untheist view of man can offer is either a stoic acceptance or the proclamation that through art or science we might, as Andre Malraux says, "deny our nothingness" and try to make ourselves "something other than the most favored inhabitant of a universe founded on absurdity."

Christianity, in contrast, provides a strikingly different picture of man. First, there is a purpose to man's existence. He was created to serve God and to extend his love to his fellow man, to have dominion over the rest of the creation, and to live a useful, selfless, directed, ordered life. He is not alone in the universe, but is instead an important part of it, with his own intended place in it. A caring creator watches over him, and desires to help him in this, his preparation for another life.

Next, the faith reveals that there is a reasonable explanation to the problem of evil and to the conflicting impulses in man's heart. We learn from the Bible that man is not normal--that human nature is fallen nature, ripped apart from God and stumbling through the wilderness. The hungers and desires of the heart need control and guidance in order to seek God and to find a new nature.

And lastly, we find in Christianity alone the plan to redeem man's nature and to reunite him with his creator. Man is not trash, but a precious creature, however fallen and darkened he may be. He will not find help in suicide or in How-to-Cope books or in the lame reconditioning that the world offers. God does not recondition people; he makes them new, and that is what man needs.

The third area where the non-God view of reality can be seen to be inadequate lies in the belief about the universe. And here, perhaps more than elsewhere, we can see that any view of the universe without God is not only an inadequate one, but one that is totally unacceptable. The untheist cosmogony or view of the universe and its origin includes the following elements:

First, chaos, of itself, somehow gave rise to order and structure without intention or directing intelligence. Randomness and dissipation somehow transformed themselves into non-randomness, coherence, and systematic arrangement--into atomic structure, crystallization, pattern, and symmetry.

Second, there is universal design without a designer. The perceived design of the universe, from planetary rotation to snowflakes, quartz crystals, flowers, DNA helixes, and chambered nautilus shells--the miracle of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly or even the wonder of the development of a new human being inside another human being--the perception of design in these is an illusion because it is the product of haphazard, undirected chance without forethought or goal.

Third, not merely life, but thought and perception, personality and choice, faith and hope, the love of beauty and goodness, laughter and compassion--and hatred and greed--Rembrandt, Mozart, Beethoven, Milton, Shakespeare and all their works, the full trappings of culture and society--all have arisen from the accidental, unintentional agglomeration of atoms and molecules.

Fourth, purposefulness beyond survival and reproduction is an illusion, as is the sense of meaning and value in life and effort, and the desire for worship. The natural world in its diversity and beauty has no meaning or goal; it represents merely the arbitrary product of an aimless process.

The problem with this view of ourselves and our world is that it is, as Samuel Johnson would say, "overthrown by the experience of every hour." Every perception we have, every experiment we do, every thought and feeling and glimmer of understanding--all these reveal the order, intention, purpose, and design of the universe. Even the untheists are troubled by the obvious contradiction reality presents to their world view. One of them, unable to accommodate his perceptions to his personal philosophy, wrote, "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it makes me sick."

In their daily lives the untheists live as if life had meaning, though they believe it does not; they live as though good and evil were more than personal judgments, though they believe they are not; they live this way because they cannot live by a philosophy that contradicts experience and perception, or that ascribes no value to the desires of the heart or the goals of the mind. We even see them cheating on their philosophy by attempting to infuse meaning into the world: "Nature decreed this," they say, or "This was designed by nature in her wisdom," or "Now Joe can rest in peace as Nature intended." And most of them assent to societal values, which upon investigation, turn out to be not simply the values of community man, but the values of a previous social order--a social order based upon the belief in a God-created and God-ruled universe.

I hope you can see from this sketchy overview that the current non-God world view that is slowly torturing our civilization to death is a subjective, ungrounded, and irrational view, contrary to all the evidence of life and experience as well as contrary to the word of God. Reason is not on the side of the untheists, and we have only ourselves to blame if we let the world continue to think that it is.

Many of the lost are honestly seeking. They do want to know the truth. Many of them recognize Christianity as a faith, but it seems to them to be only one faith of many, to be stuck on like a Christian bumper sticker. Our job is to proclaim to the world that the Christian system provides the only fully rational, objective, external basis for knowledge, action, and belief--that it is the only religion, the only representation of any kind, that explains the world and man in a coherent, workable, full, and significant way.

Our faith--our knowledge of God and his word--provides an essential organizing and clarifying framework which helps us to see the interrelationship and meaning of all truth, leads us to humility, humanity, worship, and compassion, and, working as a touchstone, enables us to expose and shatter those pervasive but false opinions about life and reality which the untheists are constantly pressing upon us.

I do not believe that Christianity is an addendum to life, handy for people who happen to be interested in religion. It is not just a product of our culture like Jordache jeans, and it is not just okay because mom and dad said it is okay. Rather I think that the faith is the true organizing principle of existence, revealing to man from outside and above man, his origin, his nature, and his destiny. No other system can explain the great questions--good and evil, first causes, the purpose of life, self-identity--or the little questions--the why of desire and disappointment, beauty, laughter, imagination. The Christian faith is a whole (and the only whole) that touches and informs every activity of existence.

And reason is a principal tool God has given us to apprehend, understand, and transmit our faith. "Come let us reason together," he says. Jesus tells us in the greatest commandment to love the Lord with all our minds (Matthew 22:37); Peter tells us to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13); and Paul says, "I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind." (1 Corinthians 14:15). Therefore we should not say that we don't need reason or knowledge or intellect because we have faith. Rather we should say that we need reason and knowledge and intellect because we have faith.

Those who desire to argue God out of the universe are succeeding, but only because we have not concerned ourselves with refuting them. God wants your brains; I would urge you to think and pray about serving him with all your mind.

Let's pray.

Dear Lord, send us your Holy Spirit not only to lift our hearts in love and worship but also to illuminate our minds, that we might go forth and reclaim the world with the gospel in all its truth and greatness. Raise us up in spiritually intellectual power, that we might serve you with the whole substance of our being. Strengthen the commitment of our minds to your service and glory; and may the love of reason and truth and Jesus Christ be in our hearts forever. Amen. 

VirtualSalt Home
Copyright 1984 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
w w w . v i r t u a l s a l t . c o m
About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com