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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

There are many devout people who rightly (I believe) value a faith in God above all other possessions, but who will also see my attempts as striking against a true relationship with God.

I think they are quite correct (as I will discuss much later) that it is better to have a living relationship with God and to work with Him, than only to understand God in some technical sense. Furthermore, I agree that if it is possible to discover the existence and character of God by reasoning from neutral propositions, this neither can nor shall ultimately benefit the thinker unless he takes the next step and chooses to work with God personally. [See first comment below for a footnote here.]

But although I agree with these notions, I do not think it logically follows from these notions that such a discovery by logical analysis must necessarily fail. Consequently, these notions do not stand in the way of making attempts along this line.

Yet again, for some people, that is just the problem with my attempt: I am using reason to build (or to build up) faith, and they have been taught all their lives that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. These people would say, at best, that my book must fail to reach any useful conclusion; maybe even that I am blaspheming by even suggesting that human reason can search out the Infinite.

This sort of opinion comes and goes throughout Christianity's history. [Footnote: it certainly isn’t restricted to the history of Christianity, but it seems best for me to focus there, as a Christian apologist.] In this case, it last rose in ascendance between the middle of the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th, where it climaxed into a supposed schism between 'religion' and 'science'.

The roots of the widespread acceptance of this strategy are too complex for more than a brief summary in this entry. But the result was that during this period great sceptical thinkers were becoming more numerous than they had ever been previously; great sceptical moralists were culminating a barrage on the abuses of the various branches of the Church (and there were certainly abuses taking place for them to legitimately snipe at); and the Church had managed to remove or suppress the majority of its own great thinkers who might have met the opposition steel-for-steel in philosophical dispute.

The various branches of the Church became aware that they were losing ground. They had to choose between educating people to be able to take care of themselves (because people were becoming increasingly exposed to alternate viewpoints in the media--a situation obviously still in effect today); or else setting up an ideological fortress mentality.

But the branches had previously, in their complacency, let the opposition get too far ahead for anything less than a multi-generation educational program to work. They had few resources to begin such a task, and such a plan might entail the loss of massive numbers of people from the Church until the regrouping and regrowth could be established--and I remind the sceptic that most Christians would equate such a departure with the damning of those souls. [See second comment below for a footnote here.]

Aside from all this, such a program would have had serious political ramifications; and the Church at that time, although divesting itself (slowly) from the political arena, was still very much more a political creature than we find her today. [See third comment below for a footnote here.]

Thus, erecting a fortress mentality must have seemed the safest, quickest, most (relatively) effective means of ensuring that as many people as possible were not deceived by these opponents and, thereby, lose their souls. And, when it came to it, these new generations of vocal opposition were formidably skilled; disputing with them would be dangerous and difficult. [See fourth comment below for a footnote here.]

So, near the turn into the 19th century, we find a long-running development in Western thought to the effect that religious 'Faith' and intellectual 'Reasoning' must be considered to be mutually exclusive operations. [See fifth comment below for a footnote here.]

Naturally, this sort of lesson went down very smoothly for the vast numbers of people who had no great mental strength or training themselves: they need not worry about the arguments of the opposition (or even worry about the scripturally sanctioned duty of understanding their own position as well as they can); for they have Faith. [Footnote: I still have had to be very brief, even overly brief, in covering this issue; though hopefully I have done so in a fashion that a sceptic will find recognizeable.]

It would be a caricature (although one occasionally employed by sceptics who prefer dealing with straw men) to say this is the final position of any Christian since those times--or at least (they might say) the final position of any Christian who really is a Christian and is not really something else (merely claiming Christian coloring for, say, political purposes or social standing).

But there have also been Christians responding against this dichotomous division of principle, especially as the 19th century began changing to the 20th; who have truly and seriously been engaged in defending a 'rational faith'. [See sixth footnote below for a footnote here.] As in every field, not all these people have been especially proficient; and so the actual number of Christian 'apologists' who are worth time disputing (or paying attention to) remained small. Here, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are more of these people doing better work than ever; yet they are still drowned in Christian literature (and in Christian outreach programs) by primarily emotional appeals. And this disproportion can leave the 'taste' that 'real' religion (including ‘real’ Christianity) is not concerned with positively analytical thought.

For many people, then, a division of faith and reason remains a cornerstone of 'real religion'--particularly, of 'real' Christianity.

And here is the crushing irony: it is a lesson that sceptics have learned very well from believers.

What does the typical sceptic see and hear when, by happenstance, she is exposed to a typical Christian witness? She receives the impression that to accept Christianity she must reject her own ability to think; and/or that there can be no 'reason' to believe in God--she must have 'faith' instead.

She is given no reason to believe. Not surprisingly, she doesn't believe.

“Well, tough for her!” the believer may snort. “I don't know ontological or cosmological arguments either, and I believe. I ‘only’ have Faith; if I can do it, she can do it. Therefore, she should have done it!”

But such a reply (felt at bottom, I suspect, in many believers although not usually expressed so directly!) flies against a charitable attitude towards witnessing.

The sceptic does not have any of the advantages a believer already has (presuming the believer is in fact correct). The believer may be mistaking his privileges for humble submission on his part and sinful intransigence on the sceptic's. Is he quite sure he would accept Christianity given no reasons at all (plus what seem to be many reasons against it, which the sceptic may be exposed to and the believer often will not have been)? And if any particular reasons may help ground an accurate religious belief, then for all one can know beforehand other reasons may work just as well or better! The cases must be judged on an individual basis.

“Yes,” the believer may reply, “but as it happens, I am quite sure I would accept Christianity if I were like her and given no reasons at all; for I have been given no reasons and I accept it.”

In Proverbs chapter 14, verse 15, Solomon (the attributed author) states that "The simple believe everything while (in contrast) the prudent man considers his steps." That whole chapter and many of the surrounding ones equate the prudent man with the good, and both with the man who fears and obeys and loves God. So, if you really have no reasons to believe--if you are not "prudently considering your steps"--which of these two men described by Solomon do you represent if you nevertheless give assent to a 'belief'!?

“But this case is different!”


“Because now we are talking about a belief in God!”

What makes that a different case?

“Because... the rewards and perils and duties are the greatest?”

[Footnote: I am obviously dealing in this entry with a fairly common and unsophisticated version of the question of faith and reason. A few entries from now, I will be considering it from a far more technical standpoint.]

But this begs the question: how do you know there are rewards and perils and duties?

“The Bible says so.”

Why should we believe it?

“Because it is true.”

How can a sceptic know it is true?

“She cannot, she must just trust it.”

In other topics you would call this the irresponsible behavior of a credulous fool. [See seventh comment below for a footnote here.] You yourself would not agree to a belief on other topics in this manner; you would consider it an insult for other people to assume that you would or require that you should. She does not know these scriptures should be trusted, and you give her no means of help.

“God will help her.”

Then your witness is useless; God must come to her in some other way than through Christian witnesses.

“He can reach her through the Bible.”

The Bible says that God has chosen to work effectively through us as witnesses; you have just testified this is functionally impossible! Why should she trust Scripture when you yourself deny it speaks sensibly on such a basic issue?

“There is no reason why she should, she simply must.”

Then Scripture is no help to her either.

“God will help her.”

But apparently not through Scripture or Christian witnesses. You (not I!) would say this essentially denies the superior truth of the Christian religion. No wonder she is a sceptic! Who is God more likely to punish for this: her or you!?

As I have just illustrated, a denial of a link between faith and reason not only erects an unnecessary barrier between a sceptic and the truth (as I think Christianity to be), but also undermines any claim Christianity (or any other theism) may have to truth--even if we stick to a 'simple' faith.

But an even more pernicious problem rises in this situation; and although a believer of this sort may not recognize it, the sceptic very probably will...

[Next week: so, how exactly was that believer getting to his own belief after all?]


The first several comments are footnotes I thought would be too unwieldy to represent in the main entry.

.......[first extended footnote starts here]

Such work might, by necessity, entail service--assuming we discover we are not equal to, or superior to God!--and I suspect the concept of being a servant is an emotional barrier for many sceptics. At least, I find it to be an emotional barrier for many believers (including myself!); and I do not know why a sceptic, of all people, would have an easier time with the concept, especially in today's individualistic Western society. Nevertheless, emotional barriers are not logical barriers. If the best I can be is a servant of God, in the work He works, then it would be unrealistic (to say the least) for me to treat the situation as being otherwise. I will have much more to say about this later.

.......[second extended footnote starts here]

My point being, that what can with some legitimacy be called over-restrictiveness, may be the best charity the people involved can imagine or can implement at the time. Whenever I hear Christians being morally horrified that Muslims persecute Christian missionaries in some countries, I remind them that to devout ultraconservative Muslims, we Christians are worse than mass murderers, because they think we are seducing people into an atrocious blasphemy and thus damning their souls. Those people are doing their best to stand up for God and to protect the good, against evil. The Christian Church has occasionally executed people on similar grounds.

.......[third extended footnote starts here]

I find it interesting that the most politically outspoken groups on questions of religion, are still the ones who would prefer the general population to be unthinkingly acceptive about certain proposals concerning religion. This is just as true, although in a different direction, for the so-called 'liberal' groups as for the 'conservatives': I will have more to say later about the ironic intolerance of groups who stress maximum religious 'tolerance'.

.......[fourth extended footnote starts here]

The sceptic may reasonably ask why it apparently occurred to very few people that God, not being stupid, would understand and charitably allow that many of these people would not be leaving the Church out of willful rejection of perceived truth, but out of an honest mistake. A large part of why this didn’t occur to more people can be explained from this observation: even though the vast majority of people who call themselves 'Christian' (including myself) agree that it is Christ the Redeemer and Advocate who (in various ways) delivers God's grace to the world, it is also true that many Christians think God is limited to Christianity (the religion) as the only vehicle for this communication. The question, in practical effect, tends to come down to whether the claim 'Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life' entails or equals the effective claim that 'the Church and/or Christianity is the Way, the Truth and the Life'. I will be discussing this much later.

.......[fifth extended footnote starts here]

This development hardly stopped there. On the contrary, it accelerated so effectively that by the end of the 19th century there was a general feeling, still popularly in effect today, that it began in that century. Meanwhile, although the Eastern Church did not undergo the same historical process, it had long ago incorporated so much apophatic or ‘negative’ theology as a primary tool, that it had already long-since arrived at a largely counter-rational theology result.

.......[sixth extended commentary starts here]

These people can also be found in previous eras of our history, of course. Isaac Newton, for instance, considered himself to be writing, in effect, a Christian apologetic against mechanistic atheism, when he wrote his Principia. I do not think this was merely a convenient coloring on his part to allow social acceptance of his ideas (which would not have been necessary by his time anyway); for he also wrote extensive volumes on the interpretation of Judeo-Christian prophecy! (Besides, he was very consciously and intentionally 'unorthodox' in his belief on some points, so he obviously had no problem speaking out against doctrines he disagreed with.)

.......[seventh extended footnote starts here]

The "folly of the cross" mentioned by Saint Paul, refers to the criticism Christians received for insisting on retaining the crucifixion as a historical event, which in Judaism had shameful religious connotations, and which for the Greeks was virtually a call to be destroyed by Rome as a rebel against the Empire. Paul's remarks concerning the 'foolishness' of God being wiser than men need to be kept in their topical context. Unfortunately, they're often appealed to as an excuse for theological incoherency instead.

This is a very interesting portion of this series. I agree that the witness of "just believe" is not very convincing -- okay, not convincing at all -- to the half-educated skeptic. But then, I think that skeptics who are even half-educated are a minority of skeptics. Most simply don't want to believe and latch onto any half-baked argument as justification for their failings.

There is much to be said for the "just believe" method of evangelism when one is out speaking with people who aren't hardened skeptics. A simple appeal will often reach more people than a voluminous work of apologetics. Why is this? Three reasons: first, too often we apologists set up reasons to doubt with our efforts to apologize. Perhaps the person before us has never heard of the arguments against apostolic authorship of the Gospels, and when we apologists try to respond to these arguments (no matter how good our arguments may be) it may raise questions in the mind of the person that he had never considered until that point. These questions may be readily answerable, but the answers may raise more questions. Eventually, you end up in an endless cycle of questions that never would have been raised if we hadn't tried to delve too deeply at the beginning with a defense of all things Christian or Biblical.

Second, I think that we have to take into account the nature of the Gospels. there is a spiritual element involved in sharing the Gospel. This spiritual element is not always addressed to the mind, but often to the heart. The most hardened atheist can break down and convert if his heart is in the right place when God calls. That person doesn't always need answers -- they may simply need conviction. Sometimes, bypassing all of the heady stuff will bring a more direct response.

Third, there is an element of pride that gets in the way. We apologists generally consider ourselves to be a smart lot. As such, we tend to take a certain amount of pride in our arguments. But when we think we are the ones doing the converting, then I think that God may say, "Okay, you convert them." Last time I checked, my ability to change someone's heart is not very good. If we, however, recognize that all of our arguments are really gifts from God and give Him praise for them, then God can use us in a powerful way. The person who is saying, "Just believe" is admittedly not depending on their own powers and reasoning to reach the other person, but are almost necessarily relying solely on God to do the work. Relying on God is certainly the more effective way to act.

Having said all of that, I certainly agree that the work of the apologist is both good and Biblical. I think that people who take the approach of the person in your dialogue are confused, mistaken and largely ineffective. There is no dichotomy between faith and reason (rightly understood).

I hope this is making sense 'cause I'm typing very fast and having to leave very quickly.


{{There is much to be said for the "just believe" method of evangelism when one is out speaking with people who aren't hardened skeptics.}}

If that’s in the sense of try-and-see, I agree. But that’ll be covered (in principle) next week, as well as onward through the series. It isn’t an example of a big ugly ditch between religious faith and reason.

My main goal in this portion of the series is to check on whether there are realistic barriers in the way of drawing inferences to conclusions on metaphysical topics, including in a fashion that a (current) sceptic of various sorts would be able to also do: the point being that such a process could be done together. Obviously, if a faith/reason dichotomy is true, then that would be an insuperable barrier and I might as well go home early. {g}

{{A simple appeal will often reach more people than a voluminous work of apologetics.}}

Certainly, and for the reasons you gave, too. (This will also be discussed in relevant passing next week.)

In regard to the second and third elements: recall that in my Eth&t3rdPers series this summer (which is part of this same work but several hundred pages down the line {s}), I arrived at the recognition that the Holy Spirit, the 3rd Person of God, is constantly evangelizing each of us. Anything I do, simple or complex, can only be secondary (at best) to this. (Also, my second paragraph in this entry clarifies major restrictions and distinctions between having beliefs and being faithful.)

Not-entirely-incidentally {g}, when I started talking about sin and the wages of sin in that series, I not only focused on myself but explicitly identified pride as being the key sin, with illustrations of how this works in my life. This (also not incidentally) is why, when talking about the sin of heresy (which I distinguish from a mere fact of heresy), I typically use, as an example, the test-case of me preaching strictly orthodox theology for my own purposes. Even though technically I wouldn’t be a heretic to do so, I would still be comitting the sin of heresy to do so: going my own way with it.

Anyway, it should be said (and I do say it in my Introduction, which I didn’t put up for this series, in order to move things along {ironic s}) that this is not intended to be some kind of all-purpose evangelization tool. It was partly a self-disciplinary exercise, and partly a project to see how far I could fairly get in a straight-line argument (and what would be necessary for structuring such an argument.)

{{I hope this is making sense 'cause I'm typing very fast and having to leave very quickly.}}

Yeppy-yep! {beam!} No actual disagreements with you; and it made fine sense to me anyway.

Btw, I tried to put the dialogue in tabs, but they apparently didn’t take, which is weird. I mean, Blogger itself dropped in huge galumphing html codes in those places, but they don’t seem have accomplished anything formatting-wise. Sigh.


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