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Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A Reasonable Faith

In his current post on choosing between brains and belief, John Stackhouse emphasizes that faith is a gift from God – it is not something that can be accessed by reason alone. So Dawkins and other “new atheists” are correct in stating Christianity is not reasonable if “reasonable” includes only data inferred from “empirical data or self-evident propositions”.

There simply are no chains of inference that can get you from the idea of God-in-general to God-as-Trinity. There are no demonstrative proofs for the contention that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate and that his life, death, and resurrection are the basis for global salvation. There is no way to lead someone step by step from consideration of the Bible’s various qualities (archaeological vindication, literary power, moral persuasiveness, etc.) to the conviction that it is the very Word of God.

The earliest and most fundamental Christian confession was this: “Jesus is Lord.” And one of the Apostle Paul’s earliest and most influential letters makes the following bold epistemological claim: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
But this doesn’t imply that Christianity is “unreasonable” simply because it cannot be logically deduced from 1st principles or demonstrated in a science lab. On the contrary, I believe the Christian faith is a coherent framework for the historical, scientific, and philosophical data when viewed through the lenses of God's revelation through his written Word and the Word made flesh. Faith in Christ is not the house of cards that Dawkins seems to think, and cannot be compared to faith in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or leprechauns, or fairies. It is not, as he claims in The Selfish Gene (page 212), “Blind trust in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. Faith in the Living God starts with adequate evidence and is completed with consent of the will. As Stackhouse states:
Faith is always the exercise of trust beyond what we think we know, beyond what we think we’re sure of. Does that mean we have to choose between our brains and our beliefs? No, but it means we must not let our brains circumscribe our beliefs. We don’t understand electricity, but we use it. We don’t understand light (wave? particle? both? how does that work?), but we are glad for it. We don’t know everything about our business partners or surgeons or spouses, but we trust them with our livelihoods and lives.


elbogz said...

Hebrews 11:1 1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

So I ask, how do you see, what you do not see? We can study electricity in the laboratory. We can study and see light. But we can’t put the Holy Spirit under the microscope and poke it with a probe.

Jesus said, you must come to me as a small child. He didn’t say, go learn about the earth, go become an expert in the scripture. NO, he said come to me as a small child would and then you will learn what it is I try to teach.

Faith is only found, with the letters written in red in the bible.

Cliff Martin said...

I've been thinking about the subject of today's post for some time. It seems that Paul appealed to reason on Mars Hlll (Acts 17), but later, when writing to the Corinthians he seems to set reason aside as of no use when preaching the gospel (1 Corinthians 1 & 2).

His appeals to reason at Mars Hill have to do with building a case for rational theism, specifically monotheism; whereas the appeal of the specifics of Christian faith (e.g. the cross) in 1 Corinthians is foolishness, and must be spiritually discerned.

So, is it possible that our defense of theism can be based upon reason, logic, rational observations, evidence, etc., but our defense of specific Christian claims must be the foolishness of preaching the cross? Perhaps our reasoning is of use only in bringing someone to belief in God, while convincing someone of the claims of Jesus must always be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Steve Martin said...
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Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
I agree that the distinction between generic theism and a specifically Christian Theism is important. That is a very good point. I made a post to the ASA listserv that is relevant to this discussion. see: http://www.calvin.edu/archive/asa/200801/0335.html (mostly quoting an observation from George Murphy from awhile back)

So, first on the gospel of Christ: I would equate Paul’s “foolishness” here more with “completely against our expectations of God” rather than with “illogical”. Ie. It is not irrational, but it is beyond logic and rationality. You are right. No matter what arguments are provided, no one can be led to a relationship with Christ except by the Holy Spirit.

Re: “our defense of theism can be based upon reason, logic, rational observations, evidence”

I’m not sure I’d go that far. (And I really mean, “I’m not sure” and not “I completely disagree with you”). In Paul’s discussion with the Athenians in Acts 17, he seems to presuppose theism, not provide a rational argument for it. I believe both the theist and atheist reductionist arguments are incomplete – and will always remain so. I obviously believe the arguments for a God are better than those for no God, BUT I’m not sure the philosophical argument for Theism is better than for Deism (a God who doesn’t care nor act in creation). The ID community has been trumpeting the conversion of Anthony Flew (former atheist philosopher) to a form of Deism. But is a belief in a God who doesn’t care any better than disbelief? I don’t think so.

Vance said...

I have often quipped "you can't logic your way to God" and I think this is true, as the quotes in the OP point out. At some point along the way, there is a leap of Faith, prompted by the Holy Spirit, after which comes the conviction of that Faith's truth *in spite of* of the lack of objective, material evidence.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Great discussion all!

Theism is a self-referential belief system. In other words, you can't get to it by deductive logic. There is no "true" premise that you can start with to draw a non-trivial conclusion (God is real) that is also true. THEISM IS THE ONLY TRUE PREMISE BY WHICH WE CAN KNOW ANYTHING IS TRUE.

Think of it like this: if there were any other non-trivial premise that could logically lead us to theism, then that assumption would have more authority than the conclusion. We might as well worship the premise rather than the conclusion. This is my problem with scientific apologetics. If our defense of God, Jesus, and Scripture is based on science, then why not just worship science -- the ultimate arbiter of truth?

Chirsitianity, which is based on the authority of God's revealed Word, is also a self-referential belief system. There is nothing outside that Bible that can be appealed to confirm the truth of Scripture. "Thy Word IS truth". You will run into the same epistemological problem if the authority of Scripture appeals to any highter authority.

I think what makes thesim, and Christianity in particular, rational is not that it is necessarily logical (in a non-trivial, non-begging the question sense), but by the impossbility of the contrary.

Here is what I mean by that: Atheism is also a self-referential belief system. It appeals to logic because it is "logical" -- to reason because it is "reasonable" -- and to science because they assume that nature is uniform and coherent (e.g. they assume science is true). They appeal to logic and reason as if they exist somewhere on the on the periodic table (or can be made with a combination thereof). But their authority also also begs the question. It is also trivial in a logial sense -- appealing only to itself.

If we start with God, who created and sustains a rational universe -- then reason, logic, and science have an epistemological basis on which to operate. But we also get some benifits that are lacking if we jump over God and assume reason/logic/science are the ultimate arbiters of truth. We get immaterial absolutes, which are kind of important if concepts like justice, love, right, wrong, good and evil are to transcend organic chemistry in a real and meaninful sense. If matter and energy are the extent of reality, then these things are whatever anybody wants them to be -- or they are enforced by whoever carries the biggest stick.

The bottom line, both systems are self-referential, but only one makes sense of the immaterial as well as the material. My atheist friends are ok with that -- since, in their opinion, religious baggage only "muddies the waters" when searching for meaning. The best apologetic, IMHO, is the one that tries to get them to be "not ok with that" -- rather than try and convince them of theism. What are the consequences of a godless universe and are they any worse than our religious baggage?


Cliff Martin said...

Woah! I never meant to imply that theism can be proven by "reason, logic, rational observations, evidence, etc." I only said it can be defended by these things. All I meant by that is this: we can build a case for theism ... though that case would never rise to the level of proof. Paul goes so far as to say that God can be seen "clearly" through creation (Romans 1:19-20).

And my point is that these kinds of defenses can be offered for theism, but not nearly so well for the
claims of Christianity.

Excellent comments, Gordon.

Steve Martin said...

Gordon: Great points. A reductionist rationalism is arguably, um, irrational.

On your point:
I think what makes Thesim, and Christianity in particular, rational is not that it is necessarily logical (in a non-trivial, non-begging the question sense), but by the impossibility of the contrary.

I’m not sure I’d say it this way: Impossible in what sense? I agree with Stackhouse when he says:

I fundamentally believe, as Blaise Pascal did, that there are plenty of good reasons to believe in the Christian faith–plenty, and sufficient. I also believe with Pascal, however, that there are reasons adequate also to disbelieve.

In other words, Theism (& the Christian faith) is a consistent framework, and it also coheres nicely with what we have gleaned from science. However, I don’t think that it is the ONLY coherent framework.

My main point is that Christianity is reasonable (I’d say the most reasonable) but this isn’t adequate reason for one to put their faith in Christ – there are other “reasonable” frameworks as well.

So Cliff: Yes I agree that theism (and Christianity) can be defended with the evidence etc. as you state. It is particularly useful in debunking the “Christianity is bunk, evil” mantras from Hitchens / Dawkins etc. However, as you point out, it only gets you so far. My concern is that some see apologetics not as a defense of the faith against these attacks, but as a mechanism to batter unbelievers into intellectual submission.

On your point:
And my point is that these kinds of defenses can be offered for theism, but not nearly so well for the claims of Christianity.

From a scientific point of view, yes I agree. From a historical point of view, I think apologetics can work quite well for Christianity (with the qualification, that the goal is to establish a reasonable, even the MOST reasonable, framework that makes sense of all the historical data).

the.glovers said...

"impossibility" is probably too strong of a word for this application. But there isn't really a phrase in logic to describe a "soft" argument from the impossbility-of-the-contrary.

Siamang said...

"This is my problem with scientific apologetics. If our defense of God, Jesus, and Scripture is based on science, then why not just worship science -- the ultimate arbiter of truth?"

I'm not sure this follows logically.

After all, aren't our brains the only way we can even know any of this? Do we worship our brains?

Science, or logic or indeed prayer or anything we think or feel ultimately boil down to a mental process. But are mental processes REALLY worthy of worship? Just because something is basic to our understanding of further things, it's not clear that those basics require worship on our part... they're merely building blocks... small pebbles we stack up to build our understanding. Just as we are made of cells, we do not worship the cell. We are made of atoms, but we do not worship the atom. We do not take atoms to be the highest truth of the chemical world, but rather the BASE of truth of the chemical world.

Basic things do not notice, nor do they require worship... It makes no sense to pray to the law of gravity.

Cannot science and reason be our "atoms" with which we build our understanding of the world? It doesn't mean that we put these things as HIGHER than the Ultimate Truth.... only that as that Truth constructed us, we have no choice but to interact with the universe the way the Truth built us. (Be that Truth a god, a naturalistic process or both/none of the above.) Why can't science, logic, mathematics and reason be the starting point that the Truth provided (for they seem to work exceedingly well in this universe authored by this Truth), rather than assume, or presume that by accepting the utility of these atoms we are placing them above the very Truth that we seek?

In other words, I think Truth is worthy of being sought, and if it requires it, worshipped.... isn't Truth what we should worship? Is it not a false dichotomy to say that if we use a method to find this Truth, then the method itself is being put higher than the very Truth we seek?

If you use Prayer to seek God, does it mean you worship prayer and not God? I think not!

Gordon J. Glover said...


I would tend to agree with that -- how do we know life isn't really like the Matrix and we're all just plugged in sharing a similar experience? If everything has to filter through our brians in order to be processed, how can we trust our own senses?

But both worldviews, both atheistic and theistic, share this problem. So the assumption is that we both take this for granted and move on to the next step, which is -- "From what reference point do we use or human faculties to reason from A to B?" Once we get to that point, it makes no sense to start with science, reason, or logic -- and then try to get to God in a non-circular way. But this doesn't mean that we can't use these tools to DEMONSTRATE the rationality of our faith as contrasted against the rationality of other belif systems.

Siamang said...

I'll leave that demonstration to you, as I don't share the faith.

But interesting points, Gordon.

To go back to the Matrix question... the simple answer is parsimony.

We do not know if we are or are not in a Matrix. However, assuming a perfectly undetectable matrix, it is not necessary to act in any way different from a "real" universe.

And a matrix universe might be a matrix within a real universe within another matrix within another matrix.... Even so... if the Matrix we interact with is undetectable as such, inescapable and its laws inviolable, it is merely the relabling of the word "universe" with the word "matrix".

Parsimony leads us to discard the infinite regress of possible matrices as unnecessary, superfluous, and ultimately nothing but empty conjecture with no information content. One can always posit another matrix or a God behind the one supposed. For instance, how do you know your God isn't in a matrix? You don't. Even your God wouldn't know. This way lies madness!

Parsimony is our rescuer.

“Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse”

Steve Martin said...

Hi Siamang: “This way lies madness” indeed … unfortunately, many Christians would much rather choose a matrix-like solution (ie. God made it all look real old) rather than re-examine their biblical hermeneutics. But they don't follow their ideas to its logical conclusion.

My understanding of Gordon’s quote above was that by basing the defense of our faith on science, by making it foundational to our faith, we are in essence putting “our trust” in science. But science can not be “fully trusted” since it is simply our human approximation of the truth – sure, it is getting better all the time but looking back, in a hundred years or so, our grandchildren will wonder how we ever believed such simplistic and wrong ideas. I forget who said it, but I like this quote: “He who marries his theology to the science of his age will soon become a widower”.

Siamang said...

To paraphrase a phrase that is a favorite of Dawkins: I contend we are both a-matrixists. I merely believe in one fewer matrix than you do!

"But science can not be “fully trusted” since it is simply our human approximation of the truth – sure, it is getting better all the time but looking back, in a hundred years or so, our grandchildren will wonder how we ever believed such simplistic and wrong ideas."

This is really your discussion. I don't think that religion is exempt from this same trap... but perhaps that's exactly your point... neither is science.

But does it do us well to argue at the absolutes? Must something be measureable against an absolute in order to be worthwhile? Since we agree (I think) that neither can be absolute, since both rely on fallible human understanding... are we nevertheless prematurely declaring them to be equivelant because both fall short of the absolute?

I don't want to get too deep into assuming the frame of the science v. faith (false?) dichotomy, so I'll leave it there.