Should we be reasonable about our faith?

Not long ago, a cable TV show host, who is an outspoken atheist, had on his show a relatively well-known Christian pastor. In a discussion about morality and faith, which was overall friendly, the host asked the pastor why “faith” is a good thing. This appears innocent enough and is, I think, a good question. I wonder how many of us would have a good answer for this question. But the host didn’t leave it there. Here is how the full question was asked:

“Why is faith good? Why is the purposeful suspension of critical thinking a good thing?”

Now this is of course a leading question, since the host is attempting to force the pastor to answer the first question in light of the definition found in the second. It can be difficult to give a straightforward answer to these sorts of questions. So it is an unfair question, but really it is only sort of unfair, given the way that many Christians talk about faith. Many Christians seem quite happy to talk about faith as necessarily irrational (reason is incompatible with faith) or a-rational (reason is irrelevant to faith). Sometimes the thought seems to be that faith, in a way, takes over or fills the gap when our reasons run out or, even worse, you have your rational pursuits on one hand (science, political platforms, etc.) and your faith pursuits on the other, and never the twain shall meet. On this latter notion, evidence against (or for) the claims of Christianity are irrelevant since evidence has nothing to do with faith.

On my view, it is a very serious mistake to think of faith as irrational or a-rational. However, I want to be clear at the outset that there can be an over-reliance on reason, especially if we think of reason in its more academic sense. No one needs a well worked out, logically sound argument with premises that entail a specific conclusion to have reason for belief. You won’t last long if this is your criterion for rational belief. If you find yourself standing in the way of oncoming traffic, please don’t try to formalize an argument before stepping aside! The seeing of oncoming traffic should be reason enough. It is also important to mention that one need not be able to articulate what one’s reasons are in order to have reasons for a belief. The proverbial country grandma, who has faithfully served Christ for her whole life, may have terrific reasons for her Christian beliefs, despite, say, a limited education and especially if she were to lack any formal apologetics training. It seems to me most committed Christians have reasons such as various religious experiences, answered prayers, God’s providence in times of need, the testimonies of others of these things, and so on. Moreover, the world testifies of God’s existence, in both its mere existence and its design. If cornered, one may not be able to articulate these reasons, but it simply doesn’t follow that one doesn’t have them. So with our understanding of “reason” sufficiently broadened, I want to make the claim that to think reason either runs contrary to faith, floats freely of faith or that faith is an otherwise blind, reasonless pursuit are not biblical views.

I want to make the claim that to think reason either runs contrary to faith, floats freely of faith or that faith is an otherwise blind, reasonless pursuit are not biblical views.

I have often challenged my students, as something of an assignment, to come up with one example from Scripture of so-called “blind faith,” and I goad them a bit by saying that I don’t think they will find even one instance … but good luck trying. There is always at least one enthusiastic student who cannot wait for the next time we meet to offer a narrative such as Abraham offering up Isaac as a sacrifice, in Genesis 22:1-19, as an example of blind faith. The thought seems to be that Abraham had all the reason in the world not to go through with the sacrifice but chose to blindly place his faith in God. Again, it is of course the case that Abraham did not have a formalized argument for sacrificing Isaac, but is it true to say that he had no reason at all? It seems to me that Abraham made a very rational choice. We should keep in mind that God spoke verbally to Abraham (give that one a second) and told him to sacrifice his son. By this time, Abraham had come to believe (for good reasons!) that God is the one and only Almighty God. It wasn’t so long before this event that Abraham and Sarah had had Isaac. Every child is of course a miracle, but it is on a whole different level when Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is in her early 90s. This undoubtedly expanded Abraham’s understanding (to say the least!) of what God is able to do, and even more importantly, it expanded his understanding that God is steadfastly faithful to fulfill his covenant promise. In a word, God proved himself to Abraham to be trustworthy or what we may call faith-worthy (more on this notion in part II of this post). With all of this as backdrop, when the Almighty God of the universe shakes the sound waves and tells you to do something, is it not eminently rational to act accordingly? It’s true that he had some competing reasons, but they pale in comparison to the reasons he had for going through with the sacrifice. This is not unlike Peter’s cognitive situation on the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 14:25-32, Peter demonstrates his faith in the person and power of Jesus by jumping out of a perfectly good boat and, as a result, Jesus enables him to walk on water. But Peter starts looking around at some competing reasons suggesting walking on the water in a violent storm is not such a good idea, and he quickly cedes his trust away from Christ. It is not as if Peter lacked reasons for trusting Christ, given all that Peter had seen and come to believe about him. His doubt was the irrational choice. So it seems to me that these are examples of reasonable faith responses (or the lack thereof as it turns out for Peter) rather than examples of blind faith.

It seems to me that Abraham made a very rational choice.

One reason that I am so confident my students will never find any examples of blind faith is that I am not sure it is a coherent notion. Though we can form beliefs for poor reasons, I am not sure if it is even possible to form a belief with no reason whatsoever. Take for example, the “faith fall” you maybe did or have seen in a High School youth group. This is where one student stands on a table or chair with his or her back to a group of peers whose arms are interlocked together. Without looking, the student is meant to fall into the arms of the student’s peers. This is sometimes said to illustrate faith because the student who falls is not looking and has to “blindly” trust his peers. But how blind is this? I very much doubt anyone would take the fall unless one knew there were a pile of arms behind him. In other words, the student has pretty good reasons for thinking that this will go well. For it to be blind, one would need to just fall at some random moment in the hopes that a group of peers had strategically gathered behind him. I don’t recommend this for your next youth meeting, nor do I recommend understanding faith as reasonless for our pursuits of God.

In part II of this post, we’ll look at the story of Thomas and try to say something about what the relation between faith and reason is.