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Faith Is Not The Opposite of Reason Part II

Msy last post examined the difference between “faith” and “reason.” Far from being opposites, as some skeptics contend, I argued that faith is often the rational response to a particular set of facts. I used the example of a spouse whose “faith” in her husband’s fidelity is rationally rooted and not just wishful thinking, because it is based on evidence. 

Another example may assist in clarifying the point. You find yourself on the third floor of a burning building. There is no escape from inside and your only hope is to jump from the window. You step out onto the ledge and look down.  The fire department has deployed a trampoline below your window, and the firefighters are instructing you in what to do. But stepping off that ledge goes against everything you’ve ever thought about heights and falling, and the effects of falling on the fragile human body.  Before this moment, you had zero faith that you could survive such a fall. When you decide to step off, you are placing your trust in the evidence of your senses – someone with the capacity to save you has taken the necessary steps to do so. As your feet leave the ledge, you are acting on “faith.”  The evidence before your eyes seems clear, but you cannot actually pre-test it. You must accept that the fire fighters are real and not fakes; that they know what they are doing; that they have tested their equipment and are confident that it works. As you step off the ledge, your faith in their ability to save you is not an act in opposition to reason; quite the contrary. And if you insisted on remaining where you were until they actually “proved” it would work, you would likely meet a rather unpleasant end.

 “So what?” the skeptic may respond. What difference does it make that faith and reason are not actually, or always, opposites? The difference is that many skeptics today dismiss all things religious as examples of wishful thinking, of crutches for those too weak to face reality, of irrational behavior. There is no God, they contend, because no one has ever “proven it.” Anyone who believes in God, therefore, is doing so contrary to reason, simply because they choose to have “faith.” The minds of these skeptics are closed by the mistaken belief that “reason” and “faith” are opposites – irreconcilable ways of thinking – and they conclude their “analysis” in the very spot they began, rejecting the possibility of God.

Must one “see God” in order to know He there? That seems to be the only type of proof to which the skeptic would be open. Yes, “seeing” would be a direct way to reach such a conclusion, but it is not the only way. You can also know someone is there by deduction or inference.  Footsteps in the sand are pretty powerful indicators that someone was walking there, even if the person has passed from view when you come upon the footprint. Or consider a police officer coming upon the scene of a burglary; he can believe someone is inside if he sees the broken front door lock and hears something moving within.  He may, of course, be wrong; it might be the wind or a dog or cat that made the noise. But he would be acting rationally in concluding that there is someone there.  If a police dog moves to a particular closet in the house, he can be quite sure that someone is behind the door.  You would not accuse him of acting “on faith” but would instead recognize that he is employing reason to form conclusions about things he cannot directly see.

The skeptic will no doubt reject this argument, saying: “Of course we can deduce ‘someone is there’ from circumstantial evidence, but I already know that people exist, so it is no surprise that a particular person might be in the closet.  Now you want me to believe in a God that no one has any direct experience with?”  Yes, in fact, I do, because the type of thinking employed is the same. We know that human beings have intelligence, and the power to make and carry out plans. So, when we see evidence that intelligent, purposeful acts have been performed – eg. the burglar’s broken door lock – we deduce that an intelligent actor is at work. But we have no way of knowing that human beings are the only ones who possess intelligence and power. If we stumble upon a created thing that demonstrates complex order, that functions according to a plan, that is information-rich, the only rational conclusion to draw is that an intelligent source is at work. When the thing under consideration has been built to specifications or plans, is purpose-driven and built for a reason, then we can be certain that an intelligent source has acted. Alphabet cereal scattered on a table may spell out an occasional two letter word, but the message: “Al, you forgot once again to take out the garbage” has to have an intelligent source.  

Reaching the conclusion that an intelligent Creator lies behind the creation of this universe and of human life is an act of reason. We need look no further than the existence of DNA, the four “letter” language that codes billions of lines of instructions to build a complex machine. As more is learned about the incredibly information-rich nature of DNA, as well as the fine tuned nature of the laws that govern the universe and allow for human life to thrive, the only rational response is to recognize the obvious: information of such vast complexity and power, and laws reflecting such exquisite fine-tuning, are not random. They require a source adequate to the product, a source of immense power and intelligence, a law giver.  That source is God.

Now, none of this proves that this God is the one described in the Bible.  I am simply showing that knowledge of the existence of God – that he is there – does not depend on “faith,” but is instead supported by rational conclusions drawn from the available evidence.  Knowledge of thenature of God, by contrast, requires greater reliance on faith.  But the journey to learn about God requires that one first believe he is there.  Some of the attributes of God are discernible through the use of reason. For example, the beauty of creation reflects an artistic quality, and the complexity of creation speaks to unfathomable intelligence. But a personal relationship with Him can only occur through faith. The extent to which the transition from reason to faith is solidly grounded will determine whether I am justified in my beliefs or just engaging in wishful thinking. 

Having a “faith” grounded in Christ is a rational act.  In fact, authentic Christianity demands the use of reason: believers are commanded to love God with all their “minds” to test the evidence and retain only what is good.  Most importantly, we are told that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is futile and we should abandon it. 

That seems pretty rational to me….

Posted by Al Serrato

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