I was in church last Sunday when the pastor said something in his sermon which I agreed with at the time, but now I do not…
Part of his message that day included some discussion about Rene Descartes – the 17th century French genius, probably best known for his great philosophical statement ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ which translated into English means: ‘I think, therefore I am’. With this insight, Descartes heavily influenced the modern world towards taking a rational approach to the way in which knowledge could – or should – be obtained (or ‘known’), and his insights have greatly influenced how people in today’s world determine or accept the “reliability of knowledge” about anything. People today place great credibility in the scientific method as the primary, or sometimes the only, way of determining what is true about anything, and Descartes’ insights and writings have had a great deal to do with this. I agreed with my pastor concerning this point.
However, following his discussion about Descartes he then went on to quote a familiar text from John’s gospel where it is recorded: ‘Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31,32). This is a very familiar text for Christians, and it is even quite well known by those who are not Christians. ‘The truth shall set you free’ can be heard as a line spoken by an actor in many movies (e.g. ‘Liar Liar’, starring Jim Carrey), and is quite a common adage bandied around today.
From this text, my pastor went on to make the point that Jesus Christ – instead of beginning with reason as the starting point as Descartes leads us to believe – rather asks people to begin first with faith to believe in Him and His words, and that it is the action of faith – rather than trying to reason out spiritual truth using the ‘Cartesian’ method (named after Descartes) – which ultimately leads people to know the truth and to Jesus Christ who is ‘the truth’. It was this particular section of my pastor’s message that I initially agreed with when I heard him say it, but now I do not…
Before I proceed I should say that I very much like my pastor and that I am good friends with him. He is a gifted and intelligent man, and it is quite possible that I might have misinterpreted or misunderstood the point he was trying to make concerning faith and reason in his sermon, so this blog is not intended to be a general criticism of him or his teaching – which I find to be very insightful and inspirational (at least most of the time!) (See the ‘Postscript’ at the end of this blog for some clarification from my pastor concerning his sermon content)
However, if I have understood or interpreted his point on Sunday about faith and reason correctly, namely that people who are trying to discover or learn about God need to approach Him through the vehicle of faith rather than from the position of reason, and that if they do they will ultimately discover the truth and be ‘set free’, then I think he either greatly oversimplified his point, or he has fallen into a rather common misconception whereby faith and reason are set before people as two opposite and polarised positions and that to hold to the one is to deny the other and vice versa.
Before we go further, let us assume that ‘Faith’ means what we believe and that ‘Reason’ means what we know or can prove. (I am not going to bother fully defining the terms ‘Faith’ and ‘Reason’ and what they mean in this blog, as I am trying to keep things simple. If you want more complicated definitions for these terms then go and read some philosophy or theological books, or surf around on the internet until you find a more detailed definition..!)
Many people today – both Christians and non-Christians alike – tend to see faith and reason as two separate and distinct things, like the diagram below illustrates:
With regards to the diagram above, imagine that the oval entitled ‘Faith’ defines all that can be known (or is assumed, or taken) by Faith and that the oval entitled ‘Reason’ determines all that can be known (or is discovered, or proven) by Reason. This particular diagram also illustrates how most people today separate these two things – Faith and Reason.
A belief that Faith and Reason are separate is called ‘Dualism’ and it is a popular ideology in today’s world. Because of the writings of Descartes and many other philosophers and thinkers over the last 500 years such as Hobbes, Voltaire, Shaw, Sartre, Nietzsche, Hegel and so on, many people today (especially in the West) have come to believe that faith and reason should not – or cannot – be combined; that the sacred and secular realms should not be mixed; that the ‘church and state’ should be kept separate; that religion and science cannot cohabitate; that one must be right and the other wrong etc.
Dualistic thinking has had other side effects – for example the common notion today that one’s faith is a ‘private matter’ and should be kept to oneself, or that reason and one of its major subsets, science, is the only legitimate way of determining or proving what is or is not true.
Now there’s only one thing wrong with dualism and that is that it is wrong – especially when it comes to faith and reason within the context of Christianity. There are certain circumstances when Dualism may be a perfectly reasonable ideology to hold to, particularly if a person practices an esoteric type of spirituality based purely on subjective and private mystical experience.
For example, if you worship the moon goddess ONJohn on the distant and invisible planet of Xanadu, which you learned about because you had a dream one night after eating some spicy pizza, and in the dream an albino pygmy appeared to you dressed in a fireman’s outfit, and he instructed you to show loyalty to both ONJohn and to Xanadu by busting out into disco-dancing every time Olivia Newton John’s 1980 hit song, Xanadu, was played on Classic Hits radio… then in a situation like this dualism is perfectly acceptable and logical – even if what you believe is not true. In situations such as this it is possible to have a separation of faith and reason; but it is not possible for one to do this, nor should they try, if they are a Christian – or even if they are not.
The reality is that when it comes to matters of faith and reason within Christianity, or in most areas of life for that matter, faith and reason cannot be divided so cleanly and separately as Dualistic thinking would have us believe. A far better illustration of how faith and reason interact with one another could be drawn like this:
Diagrams are simplistic – especially when it comes to trying to represent complex subjects such as faith and reason – but I am trying to show that there is a large overlap between faith and reason when it comes to Christianity and, indeed, to most of life. Perhaps we could shade in the middle section, to better illustrate how faith and reason overlap and complement one other, rather than stand in antithesis to one another (as Dualism would have us believe). Now our diagram would look like this:
Again, diagrams are crude representations – but I hope you can see the point I am trying to make, which is that faith and reason overlap and often to a large degree.
Now I am the first to admit that there are certain parts of Christianity that I have to take on faith or by using faith alone, because there are truths which one cannot reason out on their own, or discover, or even prove. One such belief is that the Christian God is a ‘Trinity’ and that God is three persons in one being, fully expressed in the perfect Godhead of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. This triune being is the God of the Christians – and this ‘truth’ about the Christian God must be accepted by faith as no-one could reason this out on their own, and in many ways this truth is not even fully understandable by reason. Rather, this ‘truth’ is something God has revealed to us.
Now before the skeptic bleats out, “There, you see..; you Christians believe things that are not provable and are even bizarre”, which is an appeal to the primacy of reason and to rationality (and to dualism) over the act of faith, there are many things in life that we take by faith and/or which are bizarre – even if we start out by using reason to discover them.
The bumble-bee flies when, according to all scientific research and the laws of aerodynamics and gravity, it should not be able to fly. This is not ‘reasonable’ and is even bizarre, yet it flies. In this particular example we don’t have to exercise any faith, because we can see bumble bees flying around outside our windows and they were around well before scientists started researching how they could fly.
American scientist Robert Goddard over 100 years ago back in 1909 believed that a device could be created that could fly to the moon – today known as the ‘rocket’. He launched the world’s first-ever liquid propellant rocket in 1926 and was even criticised by a New Zealand physicist, A W Bickerton, (shame on him!!) who wrote, “This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.” (A.W. Bickerton, NZ, 1926). Robert Goddard had the faith to believe that a rocket to the moon could one day be a reality and he continued his research right up to his death in 1945. He died 24 years before Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins in Apollo 11 made flying a rocket to the moon a reality in 1969. In this instance, Goddard started with faith and used his reason to figure out how to make what he believed in, by faith – even something bizarre – happen!
When the duck-billed platypus was first encountered by Europeans in Australia in 1798, a pelt and a sketch were sent back to Britain by Captain John Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales. The initial study and conclusion by various British scientists’ was that the attributes were a hoax. English botanist and zoologist George Shaw (who ended up producing the first description of the animal in the Naturalist’s Miscellany in 1799), stated that ‘it was impossible not to entertain doubts as to its genuine nature’. It was thought that somebody had sewn a duck’s beak onto the body of a beaver-like animal and Shaw even took a pair of scissors to the dried skin to check for stitches(!) In this example a bizarre animal was discovered, certain parts (or ‘truths’) about the animal were revealed to others (e.g. the skin and a sketch), yet until a live animal was produced it was believed that it could not possibly be true – even though the platypus really did exist, and had existed for thousands of years! And there are many more examples like this in world history.
In fact, God revealing to mankind that he is a Trinitarian-being at first glance may seem quite bizarre, but it actually does make some sense – at least in part and to the Christian rational mind. For example, God also revealed He has always existed (Exodus 3:14) and that He is ‘Love’ (1st John 4:8). Now if God were not a Trinity but was (or is) only a singular being – like ‘Allah’ in Islamic religious belief – then He could not ‘be’ love and could not have existed eternally from everlasting to everlasting as love, because love can only exist between persons. (There are some nutters out there who, perhaps, love rocks or other inanimate objects – but rocks can’t love you back, nor can you ‘love’ a rock unless a rock even exists in the first place to love!) Thus if God has always existed, and existed before anything else existed, then He cannot say that he is ‘love’ unless something, or someone else, existed with Him. I cannot say that I am a loving person, or an angry person, or even a timid person if I am the only being in existence – existing all by myself – unless there is someone, or some object, for me to be able to express, or show, or demonstrate my love, or anger, or timidity towards.
Therefore, when it comes to God and his nature or ‘essence’, we begin to realise that in order for all of God’s statements about Himself to be true God must be more than one person – which fits in logically with his statements that while He is ‘one being’ (Deuteronomy 6:4), he is not merely ‘one person’ (Matthew 28:19). Thus God must at least be two persons in order for his ‘love’ statement to be true. But in many ways even a two-person God would not be as complete or as ‘perfect’ as a three person God, because – as CS Lewis rightly points out – a relationship between two persons can be, and is often, a very ‘selfish’ type of love in the same way that two teenagers who begin dating (or mating) are often wrapped up in themselves and ignore everyone else. However, with three separate persons in the being of ‘God’, there exists a far more harmonious and unselfish interaction between the persons, because now six different ‘dynamics’ can operate namely i) The Father to the Son ii) The Son to the Spirit iii) The Spirit to the Father iv) The Father and the Spirit to the Son v) The Father and the Son to the Spirit; and vi) the Son and the Spirit to the Father. This may start to seem very confusing – especially to people with an attention span averaging less than two minutes – but one actually begins to grasp with their reason that a Trinitarian God really could make ‘sense’.
Of course at this point someone may say, “Well, if a Trinitarian God is good then what about a Quadritarian God with four persons, or a Septarian God with seven persons – the more the merrier”. I’m sorry… but this is not possible. In addition to its strange characteristics we may wish for the platypus to have stripes like a tiger and also wings and be able to fly – but it does not. The platypus, as strange as this peculiar creature may be, is what it is and it cannot be more than it is. In the same way, I may wish to be 2.5 metres tall, African American and as athletic at Michael Jordan – but I am not; I am 5’11”, pakeha and I have never played basketball in my life apart from one or two games!
So when God reveals to us that He is a Trinity – three persons in one – we cannot require him to be something that He is not; He is the only God we have and we will have to accept Him as He is and just as He has revealed himself to us. I may have digressed a bit at this point, but let me return back to my main point about the overlapping of faith and reason – especially within the Christian faith…
There are many things which the Christian faith affirms or speaks about which are perfectly reasonable and ‘provable’. Christianity as a belief system says there is such thing as ‘good’ and such a thing as ‘evil’ – this is a truth that any thinking (rational) human being can see and believe from a study of the world around them. Christianity also says that there is a soul which exists in humans and that is different from merely our physical self – this particular truth was discussed and accepted by Greek philosopher’s centuries before Christianity came into vogue. Christianity also speaks about a historical person called ‘Jesus Christ’, who we know about from real historical records – in the same way we know about other figures of ancient history, such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.
And even Christianity and its revelations about God such as the Trinity, are not left merely to oral traditions or some elder’s memory, but its history and teachings are recorded in an objective book still in our possession today – the Bible. The Bible contains statements of fact that are provable through rational, scientific and legal/historical methods of inquiry. For example, Luke chapter 3 verses 1-2 states:
‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert’.
Skeptics may not like the part about the ‘word of God coming to John in the desert’, and some of the words in this particular text may seem archaic or strange to our eyes. (For example, ‘Traconitis’ sounds like a disease a compulsive gambler ends up with after spending too much time at the Melbourne Cup!)
But within just these two verses alone there are at least ten references to historical facts, which any honest seeker could verify and test including:
- The existence of a person called ‘Tiberias’ and that he was a ‘Caesar’.
- That this event happened in the fifteenth year of this person – Tiberius Caesar’s – reign.
- That Pontius Pilate (in this same year) was governor of a place called Judea.
- That Herod (in this same year) was tetrarch of a place called Galilee.
- That Philip was tetrarch (in this same year) of places called Iturea and Traconitis.
- That Philip was Herod’s brother.
- That Lysanias was tetrarch of a place called Abilene
- That Annas was a high priest (in this same year)
- That Caiaphas was a high priest (in this same year)
- That there was a person called John who was the son of a man called Zechariah.
Such statements are not subjective or based merely on ‘faith’; they are statements of fact which can be tested and proven by our reason and rationale to be correct, or to be incorrect. And the Bible is full of such statements.
The Bible itself can be tested objectively because it is a collection of writings (or 66 ‘books’), that were written and recorded in original autographs and later copied into manuscript form. The New Testament alone has over 5600 manuscripts that exist in whole or in part, and which can be used to verify and ‘prove’ that what is written in its pages is accurate. You may disagree with the conclusions in the Bible (e.g. that God is a Trinity, for example). But you cannot rationally disagree with the accuracy of the copying and that what is written is an accurate copy – because to disagree with the accuracy of the New Testament writings one also has to logically and honestly dismiss the entire body of ancient literature, as the veracity of the New Testament is overwhelmingly attested to in the volume and number of extant manuscripts available today.
In fact by way of comparison, there are only ~49 manuscripts of Aristotle’s works in existence today – that’s not even 1% as many as the New Testament has in existence! With Plato it gets even worse – only 7 manuscripts in existence (or <0.125% of the NT!) (See this website for more information about this.)
Anyway, getting back to my main point about the false dichotomy and dualistic separation of faith and reason, my pastor appeared to argue on Sunday that we need to start with faith and come to Jesus and His words and then we will know the truth. I disagree. What is needed is to engage both our faith and our reason to discover the truth, and that together this will set us free. One without the other is not sufficient; neither faith alone nor reason alone will suffice… both are required.
Taking the text from John’s gospel as my pastor did on Sunday, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32), it might argued that it seems strange to be asked to believe in a 2000 year old person and his word – or words. Isn’t this purely subjective? Doesn’t this mean that you have to come to Jesus in faith and by faith alone and without reason or using your rational mind to believe and be set free? The answer is ‘No’.
With regards to discovering the truth about anything (and not just religious truth, as I have shown), sometimes our faith may be working harder or be stronger than our reason, or vice versa. But our faith and our reason do not work in opposition – they work together. Our faith and our reason may work together to bring us to wrong conclusions – that is, we may err and make mistakes either in our reasoning (objectivity) or in our faith (subjectivity) – or both at the same time, in the same way that the British scientists did not initially believe that the Platypus really existed either from their reason (study of the pelt) or faith (looking at the sketch and disbelieving it) – but faith and reason never – or very rarely ever – work alone.
Looking again at the passage that my pastor spoke from out of John’s gospel, this passage is not a purely subjective or ‘faith’ passage – and that was the reason why later in the week as I reflected on the passage and upon what he had said, I came to disagree with him.
It is recorded there that, ‘Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31,32). Within this passage we can actually see both subjective and objective truth – faith and reason – occurring at the same time. We see here that Jesus asks us to believe in His word as individuals (subjective), but He was also speaking as an objective (real) person; He spoke His words in the middle of a group of objective (real) people – the Jews; He was asking them to abide in His word – His objective words; He said that it was possible to know the truth (objective truth), and that this truth could set us free – objectively free. He did not say that by knowing the truth that we would ‘appear to be free’ (subjective) or, ‘imagine that we were free’ (again, subjective) – which is the stuff of delusions – but that we would really be free – objectively, even rationally, “free”.
In other texts and even later in the same chapter we read that this person, Jesus Christ, claimed to be the ‘I AM’ – the God of the Old Testament (John 8:58), and that he was ‘One’ with the Father (John 10:30) and yet he was an objective, personal flesh and blood man standing in these people’s midst. He was not an inanimate god such as is worshipped by primitive cultures, who worship or attribute deity to trees and to rivers – or even rocks. He was not a psychological (mind) god like the Eastern mystics worship such as Krishna, Shiva and Vishnu (who no-one has ever seen or proven). This objective person/’God’ also spoke words where He told us that our faith is not to be merely a private concern, but rather that it is to be a very public and objective practice. He said that it should be as objectively visible as ‘a lamp set on a table which everyone can see’ (Luke 11:33).
There is also no-where that we can find where He speaks and tells people that they can just subjectively believe whatever they want to believe about Him, or that they are free to make up stories, or myths, or even lies about Him – or to wait for dreams to come in the night whereby albino pygmies bring mystical revelations about distant planets with bizarre names and disco-dancing practices.
As I pointed out earlier, there are places where faith and reason overlap and areas where they do not. If I want to know how to repair an engine block for a Holden V8 I will not turn to the Bible but rather to a Holden V8 manual, or I will ask someone who has intricate knowledge of repairing V8 engines. But if I want to know about the life beyond this life and the nature of God, and how to experience freedom from sin, find peace, and have an abundant life then the objective words of Jesus Christ found in the Bible are a pretty good place to start.
Not everything that we read in about in the Bible is objective, or is difficult to prove – such as that there is a dark angel called the devil who deceives the world and tempts us to do evil, or that there is a place called hell where ultimately people who refuse to believe and obey God’s word will be sent. But even these subjective or ‘Faith’ truths are not entirely ‘unreasonable’. And there are large portions in the Bible which are factual and objective and which speak to things which can be studied using our reason – just like that platypus pelt placed in front of scientists 300 years ago – which we can use to determine whether what God has said, even about certain things that we must take by faith, could be really and rationally true.
To wrap this up, when I was a little boy my mother would tell me that Christmas was coming soon – and it always did. Christmas was real, it was fun and it was something to look forward to. I believed my mother when she told me that Christmas was coming again, using both my subjective faith and my objective reason. By faith – I believed her because the event hadn’t yet arrived; and by reason – because I had experienced Christmas the year before, and the year before that, and because my mother was a truthful person and, because of her truthfulness, I had learned to trust her and what she said.
In the same way, Jesus Christ asks us to involve both our mind (reason) and not merely our heart (faith). He asks us to believe in Him – someone who is not subjective or merely an apparition in a dream – but rather someone who has real objectivity to Himself. I do not doubt that the objective Jesus Christ (reasonable/rational being) who lived 2000 years ago is far more real than the words I read about Him today in the pages of my Bible; but He has not left me without objective truth or entrusted everything merely to ‘faith’. We have His objective words in the Bible where He said He can give us life and peace if we want these things. He said that if we believe in Him – both objectively and subjectively – we will have eternal life. He said that He is going to return to this earth; that He will come again to judge the world; and that every day which passes by brings us closer to that reality.
On the day Christ returns my faith will turn to sight and the subjective knowledge of faith will mesh perfectly together with the objective knowledge of reason – as right now they only do in part. That day my faith will unite fully and harmoniously with my reason and will co-habitate together perfectly for all eternity. In the meantime, I continue to wrestle with my faith and with my reason to determine what is true about God, about life and even about myself. But I never disengage my reason from my faith or vice-versa. And at all times I remain fully conscious and aware that the real Christmas will soon be here…
Postscript After posting this blog, I participated in some written correspondence with my pastor about his sermon content and my blog article. As I mentioned above in my article, I stated that it was quite possible that I had misunderstood my pastor’s main point about the separation of faith and reason. In fairness to him, here is some of his correspondence which he forwarded to me concerning the content and point of his sermon that particular day:
“I certainly agree that faith and reason are not separate things that can be kept apart in some kind of dualism. I mentioned in my message that the trend toward a split between objective facts and subjective faith was a sad result of Descartes’ philosophy that Christians unfortunately often accept. It leaves us with a sacred/secular divide that is unbiblical and unhelpful. What I was trying to critique, among other things, was the way we still tend to define reason in Cartesian ways, which is a problem.
All reasoning involves faith or subjectivity of some kind. Scientists work within particular traditions, doctors place their faith in particular tools, philosophers build premises on the assumptions of logic, history writers review events from a certain perspective. We are all ‘subjective reasoners,’ to coin a phrase! We don’t stand outside the world as impartial, neutral observers of it, but we observe the world from within it as subjective creatures, through a certain lens.
We always analyse the world through a certain lens, even when using our ‘objective’ reason. The question then becomes, ‘What lens are we using?’ This is where I introduced John 8:31, to show that Jesus gives us an alternative lens through which to view reality which is personal faith in him. I didn’t mean to suggest that this way of knowing tells us to leave our brains at the door or is anti-intellectual. In fact, you could argue that it is the most intellectual way of pursuing truth, as it uses our minds as they were designed to be used, in a Christ-centred way! Jesus certainly invites us to use our minds in the pursuit of truth, but he frees us from a way of pursuing knowledge that places supreme importance on our own rational minds and grasps at the illusion of completely certain knowledge in this life.
I think we’re agreed on the importance of integrating both faith and reason together…we may simply differ on how that integration happens and what the ‘reason’ part involves. Either way, I completely agree that they belong together!”
You can see why I like my pastor…
PS You can listen to his full message in mp3 format at http://www.shore.org.nz/teaching/ (Message on August 14: Ecclesiastes 7:23-29 – True Knowing)