Belief and Doubt

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.


Read more by browsing to my essay Faith and Reason: Friends or Foes?

4 thoughts on “Belief and Doubt”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Here are some initial thoughts…

    (1) I guess first and foremost is the understanding that salvation is an act of supernatural grace alone – and it doesn’t end there. Grace continues to teach us to grow in faith.

    (2) Faith does not ask the believer to abandon reason or logic. On the contrary, spiritual progress requires growth in knowledge and discernment. The verse that comes to mind is Phillipians 1:9 when Paul told the church in Phllipi, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

    (3) In the areas that are subjective (“gray” areas or matters of dispute) I think there are some overall biblical guidelines that can lead our decision making or ground our beliefs. For example, “Will it point someone towards Christ?”, “Will it build someone up?”, “Will it glorify God?”

    In summary, though there is a supernatural factor involved in faith – there are biblical disciplines and tools which we are to employ in the process.

  2. Hey Christina:
    I could not agree more with your first point. Sola gratia! God’s kingdom is only accessible by his gracious call and the special inner working of God’s Spirit. The finest of minds cannot enter without God’s permission.

    re: point 2: I wholeheartedly agree. Far too many naming Christ have championed some silly notion that it’s virtuous to think with our hearts and feel with our heads. This has brought shame on the name of Christ. We’re called to nurture the life of our minds and to love God with the same rational faculty that performs analytical skills (Mt. 22:37). And, as you say, Paul prays that the Philippians’ love for one another is a discerning love that is informed, not merely felt; discriminating, not merely spontaneous emotion.

    On #3: Absolutely! We should not think that because some areas are genuinely “gray,” any choice we make is morally best or practically optimal. I would argue that the passage/prayer in Philippians 1 you bring up speaks to this very thing. The kind of “discernment” Paul prays for includes not merely making clear decisions between right and wrong, but the ability to see how choices differ and choosing the best option between two seemingly viable choices. And, of course knowledge and insight includes not only examination and evaluation, but also determination to do what is optimal for Kingdom living. Only this type of careful thinking and living can bring God glory…the final destination of all things!

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