Can Faith Trust Reason?

One Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were out to lunch at a local restaurant. We brought with us several books (among which was a bible) and a man (we’ll call him Bob) stopped us to ask what we were reading. Within minutes we were in a full scale theology conversation.

Something in the conversation struck me. It happened after I mentioned that “we can use our reason to make sense of our faith.”

“Reason? That’s how the world thinks,” Bob countered. “We Christians believe in God through faith, not reason.”

Shortly thereafter, the conversation ended and we went our separate ways. I was stunned by Bob’s comment. He rejected the idea that Christians could grow in their faith with the use of logic (i.e. human reason). What I find more shocking, however, is that I’ve heard undertones of this belief while talking with many other Christians. It’s as if people are afraid to apply what they know of the natural world to what they know of the supernatural.

I don’t entirely blame people for believing this. How many scientific “discoveries” are we told disproves the existence of God? How many people have pitted the theory of evolution against the story of Adam and Eve? “We don’t need faith,” some argue, “we have science!”

Even some Bible verses appear to be backing this belief. St. Paul himself said that “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19), and that he lives “by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).

So what does this mean for Christians? Do we reject reason, holding fast to faith? Can reason pervert faith? Is faith compatible with our natural reason?

If you find yourself asking any of these questions, know that you’re not alone. Many  people (like Bob) struggle to see how faith and reason work together.

People often feel as though they must keep faith and reason separated. But God created man with the ability to use faith and reason, and he found it to be “very good” (Gen 1:31). So how should Christians respond to the dilemma between faith and reason? Let’s take a look.


Two Sides of the Same Coin

What is reason? Taken straight from the dictionary, reason is “the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences” [1]. If we were to boil this definition down, we might say that reason is a way of knowing something. Reason helps us to make sense of the world around us by inferring information, making sound judgements, and forming conclusions.

Does this sound like the scientific method to anyone? It should. The scientific method uses reason to learn about the world in which we live. To be clear, the scientific method is only a subcategory of human reasoning. It doesn’t embody all of human reasoning. But that’s a subject for a different time.

So reason is concerned with knowing things using our minds.

Then what is faith? Faith is a little trickier to define, as it can have a wide range of meanings. The dictionary defines faith as “belief that is not based on proof” [2]. The Bible offers a great explanation for faith as well, as the author of Hebrews says that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).

So pulling these definitions together, faith is belief in something, though it isn’t necessarily proven by reason. So, as we saw with reason, faith is just another way of knowing something.

To drive this home, let’s see some of the ways we use faith and reason:

Reason (this is an easy one): Two plus two is four. You know that is true because your human reason tells you so. Like I said, this is an easy one.

Faith: It is your birthday, and a friend gives you a $20 gift card to your favorite restaurant. Do you know that it actually has $20 on it? It could be a fake. Or it might only have $10 on it. But (if we are being realistic) this isn’t how we think. Your friend didn’t prove that it has $20 on it, but you can trust your friend and accept it by faith.

So faith and reason are just two ways that we come to know things. Reason allows us to know things through our intellect; faith allows us to know things through trust.

Fun fact: You might find it hard to believe, but we even know many scientific “facts” by faith, even though reason was used to discover them. For example, have you ever personally measured the weight of a neutron? Neither have I. Yet scientists tell us what they weigh (1.6750 x 10-24 g, for those who are wondering). This is information we know by faith because we rely on others’ research and honesty.


Reality Doesn’t Contradict Itself

It’s time for another quick definition: Reality. What is reality? Simply put, reality consists of things that are real. So if I were to say “all of reality”, I am referring to all real things; all things that are true; all things that simply are. We use our faith and reason to know things that are real. That is, we learn reality through faith and reason.

It’s time that I introduce to you a friend of mine. His name is Aristotle, and he has opinions about the nature of reality. Aristotle taught us something known as the Principle of Noncontradiction. It can be stated as follows:

“It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect [3].”

(Note that I didn’t say he was easy to understand). The Principle of Noncontradiction says (simply put): something cannot be true and false at the same time. Let’s use a quick example:

Let’s say I put a box on a table in front of you. I then tell you that I may or may not have put an apple in the box earlier. Is there an apple in the box? The principle of noncontradiction says that there either is an apple in the box or there isn’t. It can’t be both. What is true cannot, at the same time, also be false.

So the takeaway here is: knowledge from faith and reason can’t contradict. They are all truths that contribute to reality. If they do contradict one another, either our faith or our reason is wrong.


Jesus: The Eternal Word

Reality doesn’t contradict itself because it all comes from the same source. And that source is God. Because everything came from God, reality is naturally unified. One of Jesus’ titles tells us as much.

We have all heard of Jesus being referred to as the “Word” of God (John 1:1). But what many don’t know is that in Greek, the word for “word” (logos) has multiple meanings. Logos means both “word” and “reason”.

Jesus is referred to as the Logos frequently through St. John’s Gospel. From the very beginning of the Gospel we see the reference three times:

In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:1-3).

The idea that Jesus is God’s Logos (God’s Word; God’s Reason) is packed with implications. For starters, we can see that Jesus isn’t merely God’s spoken word, but also God’s interior logic; the Divine Reason that gives meaning and order to creation. Jesus is the very Reason that shapes all of reality!


Faith and Reason in Harmony

At the end of the day, nobody wants to believe a lie. Nobody wakes up saying “gee, I hope someone will deceive me today.” We have a natural tendency to desire truth. And we sometimes favor things that we can prove, things known by reason. I believe that’s why so many people distrust faith. But we simply don’t live by reason alone. It’s not how humans are programmed (just imagine going on a date with someone who insists that you “prove” every detail about yourself on the spot).

But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is freeing to be able to believe something by faith, by mere trust. But reason tells us who and what we can trust. Conversely, faith helps guide our reasoning, by illuminating the truth (like seeing the answer at the back of a textbook). Faith and reason build on each other and temper each other.

So Christians need not fear reason. Properly applied reason will never disprove a truth known by faith. God created all truths to be in harmony with one another, whether they are accepted by faith or reason. In fact, Jesus revealed himself to be The Truth (John 14:6), from which everything was created (John 1:3). By discovering truth, we slowly discover the One Truth, who calls us to know him.

 

 

Sources

[1] “Reason.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2017.

[2] “Faith.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.

[3] Metaph IV 3 1005b19–20

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7 thoughts on “Can Faith Trust Reason?

  1. Thanks for the comment! Agreed. I think faith and reason balance each other out. We can’t prove everything we believe – I would go crazy if I tried. Our faith allows us to believe things without proof, so long as we trust the source (and that trust is partially based on reason). On the flip side, we can then use our reason to explore and verify things held by faith. Faith and reason don’t make sense without the other.

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  2. When I was a fundamentalist Christian I had endless discussions of faith versus works, Paul on one side and James on the other. Carefully selected and carefully ignored Bible texts were used as the ultimate authority while “reason” was the silent tool used to interpret texts, always with the assumption that there couldn’t possibly be a contradiction in the infallible Bible. As long as reason focused on the interpretation of Bible texts it was fine.

    “Faith without works is dead,” James said. Paul seemed to agreed in most places, but could be understood to disagreed in one favored text where “salvation is a gift of God, not of works…”

    I think James’ text could be applied to faith and reason: Faith without reason is dead. Actually, faith without reason can’t exist. Human thought is required for faith. Reason is required for human thought.

    I say this because reason seems to constantly fly under the radar, unnoticed while it’s enabling the use of language, especially in reading. To comprehend written language requires a type of reasoning that happens so quickly, automatically and effortlessly that we tend to be unaware of it.

    But try reading the Bible to a person with brain damage and it becomes clear that reason is as central and natural to the human mind as breathing is to the lungs and brainstem.

    Interesting article! Thanks. 🙂

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    1. Agreed, friend. Using Jeff’s language in the earlier comment “faith must first be forged in reason”. We could put out faith in any truth, but that doesn’t mean it was rightly placed. Our reason helps us to determine what is trustworthy.

      For instance, I have faith in what the Bible says. But why do I have faith in the Bible? Why not the Book of Mormon? Why not the Quran? By my ability to use my reason, I know the Bible to be God’s word. By my ability to use my reason, I do not believe the Book of Mormon or the Quran to be God’s word.

      Once reason tells me what I can trust, then faith comes in. My faith allows me to believe what the Bible tells me, even though my reason cannot always prove it. Faith shines a light from far beyond my reason, and that light serves to guide my reasoning. Faith and reason cannot exist without one another, as you mentioned, much like faith and works (conveniently enough, that will be the subject of my next blog posts).

      Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Unfortunately for most of us, we “decide” on our source of supernatural information based largely on where we were born, what planet and what country. Human children tend to believe the worldview that certain adults in their lives have given them. “Raise a child up in the way that he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” This applies to all cultures, not just the one with the “most rationally acceptable” source of transcendent worldview info.

    In America, a lot of us inherit “faith” in the Bible long before we’re old enough to rationally consider the alternatives. I think humility is the key to strong, unbreakable faith. Most fundamentalists think that brittle emotional statements of their convictions about having “the truth” in hand will protect them from future revelations that might be to the contrary. I think humility and a willingness to wake up and realize you’re been incorrect about many things all your life is a more Biblical stance, and the key to maintaining faith in God from one generation to the next, come what may. Consider the radical worldview changes brought to the Jews when Jesus came to Earth.

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