Faith and Reason: Friends or Foes?

Scot McKnight has an important post and pointer on the topic of faith and reason. Check it out. In the spirit of his post, I’m reposting my essay on this topic.


Introduction
What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does faith require that we have reasons to believe or is faith merely a blind leap in the dark? Is faith a product of rational inquiry where our minds investigate first before we commit to a belief? Or do we commit to a belief and then look for evidence to support it? Are our beliefs contrary to evidence or does evidence support the beliefs we hold? Does doubt play any part in my beliefs? Can I have some doubt in a belief but still hold the belief to be true?

Some claims are subjective, private, and personal. Other claims are objective, public, and factual. If I claim that the capital of Hungary is Budapest, and someone responds “That’s true,” then what others believe is irrelevant to the objective fact of the matter. Objective facts are either true or they’re not. On the other hand, if I claim that Budapest is the most beautiful city in the world and someone responds, “That’s true,” then what others believe is relevant with regard to matters of taste, preference of architecture, etc., since this is a subjective claim.

Likewise, there are some aspects of Christianity that are subjective and others that are objective. Since Christianity makes claims about all of reality and these claims are public and not merely private, then these claims are either objectively true or not and there must be evidence to support them. If there is evidence to support objective Christian claims, then that means we can know them to be true. Some things may still be true but not supported by reason alone, for example the Christian idea of Trinity. Reason cannot comprehend this mystery and prove it, but reason can demonstrate that it’s not irrational to believe. Not all beliefs are false because we lack full comprehension.

When Christians claim that Christianity is true, we are not simply claiming that it fulfills some function in our lives like providing peace of mind, purpose in life, etc. While it does provide these things, Christianity provides these things because they’re rooted in a larger claim about all of reality (e.g., “God exists and we need him.”). True religion must be grounded in reality and not merely in the psyche. If the claims of Christianity are true, then there is evidence to support them. Otherwise, there’s no reason to hold the claims.

What about Doubt?
Is commitment to a belief compatible with criticism of that belief? Put differently, is there any value in doubting my beliefs? How much doubt can I have about my beliefs and still hold them to be true? Consider:

  • I can be justified in holding the belief that my wife loves me while still being aware of the logical possibility that she may not love me. To say that I can recognize what it would look like if my wife did not love me is not to say that she in fact does not love me.
  • To say that my belief could be false is not to say that I’m unjustified in holding to my belief. It may be in fact false that God exists, but that possibility does not mean that I’m irrational for holding the belief that God does exist.
  • Moreover, I can hold a belief with certainty and still have some doubt. A belief only requires 51 percent certainty or better.

Sometimes we hold a belief on the basis of someone’s authority and then seek reasons to support our belief. We accept the testimony of a doctor when we’re told we have cancer, but then we also look for the evidence or reasons to believe him. Many of you may not have seen New York City but you have reasons to believe it exists on the basis of reliable authorities (friends, newspapers, magazines, internet, media, etc.). Should you have an opportunity to visit New York City, then your belief in New York City would become a belief with understanding. Sometimes we know our beliefs are true without understanding all the reasons why they’re true.

The Nature of Truth Claims
Some claims are subjective, private, and personal. Other claims are objective, public, and factual. If I claim that the capital of Georgia is Atlanta, and someone responds “That’s true,” then what others believe is irrelevant to the objective fact of the matter. Objective facts are either true or they’re not. On the other hand, if I claim that Atlanta is the most beautiful city in the world and someone responds, “That’s true,” then what others believe is relevant with regard to matters of taste, preference of architecture, etc., since this is a subjective claim.

Likewise, there are some aspects of Christianity that are subjective and others that are objective. Since Christianity makes claims about all objective reality and these claims are public and not merely private, then these claims are either true or not and there must be evidence to support them. If there is evidence to support objective Christian claims, then that means we can know them to be true. Some things may still be true but not supported by reason alone, for example the Christian idea of Trinity. Reason cannot comprehend this mystery and prove it, but reason can demonstrate that it’s not irrational to believe. Not all beliefs are false because we lack full comprehension.

When Christians claim that Christianity is true, we are not simply claiming that it fulfills some function in our lives like providing peace of mind, purpose in life, etc. While it does provide these things, Christianity provides these things because they’re rooted in a larger claim about all of reality (e.g., “God exists and we need him.”). True religion must be grounded in reality and not merely in the psyche. If the claims of Christianity are true, then there is evidence to support them. Otherwise, there’s no reason to hold the claims.

The Myth of Neutrality
Can we really be neutral about our beliefs and not commit? The short answer is “No.” To sit on the fence is still to take a position, namely, “not to take a position.” Neutrality simply does not exist. While some may be more open than others and honestly explore options before committing, few end up suspending beliefs on matters re: God, life after death, purpose, meaning, values and morality. Everyone eventually decides what they believe on these matters. For those who claim they have not thought about these things, they have at least decided it’s not worth thinking about, which tells us a great deal about what they believe and certainly what they value! To claim there is no truth in religious matters is itself a truth claim about religion.

Everyone has a philosophy of life and has exclusive claims to truth. For example, what happens after death (resurrection, reincarnation, annihilation) is a question everyone asks and, while we may wish we’re exempt from drawing a conclusion on this matter, no one is exempt from doing so. Moreover, choosing not to be neutral and instead hold exclusive truth claims does not mean we cannot be open-minded about opposing beliefs. If that were true, I’d never change my mind about anything. An open-minded person

  • identifies the assumptions and opinions that uphold their beliefs
  • draws conclusions but is willing to subject their assumptions and beliefs to critical inquiry
  • recognizes that if there is a truth about a position, then opposing positions cannot be true (law of non-contradiction)
  • is willing to listen to good arguments from opposing beliefs that may help shape beliefs and get at the truth-value of them
  • is willing to alter or abandon their beliefs if they have little or no reasons to hold them
  • invites others to change your mind knowing that if what you believe is true then it will withstand the closest scrutiny. Conversely, if what you believe is false, then your opponent has done you a favor by pointing you to the truth.

 
Summary and Conclusion
To sum up, this series has shown that faith and reason are friends and not foes. They work together in support of one another. We’ve looked at the nature of faith, the nature of truth claims, the value of doubt, and the myth of neutrality showing that faith with reason is the optimal formula for belief. Like a composer and conductor, faith and reason work together to create a beautiful symphony that performs on the human heart and inspires conviction, hope, and reasonable certainty.


I’m indebted to Gregory E. Ganssle’s Thinking About God for most of this material.

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