The limits of rationality when encountering the living God

In my recent blog about faith, I took a position that a person need not be able to answer every objection to Christianity in order to be rational in believing in God. I went so far as to say that a person is justified in believing in God without having answers to tough objections he himself had in mind that he felt were unanswerable prior to accepting God. In doing so, and in thinking about a long comment made by one reader, I came to a realization about how some people perceive the relationship between rationality and truth that I wanted to share.

It appears that some people equate rationality with truth. In other words, they hold the position that if their position is rational then it must be true. This conflates rationality to truth -- a equation that isn't appropriate.

Rationality has many meanings, but the one that is most often associated with rationality in the context of religious discussion is "logical". In other words, each side is vying for the high-ground of having their viewpoint be seen as logical and the other side as being illogical. But it is asking too much of logic to say that only one viewpoint is rational in this sense of the word.

It is quite possible for two people to hold opinions that are very different yet both hold their respective views rationally, i.e., consistent with logic. This is possible because logic can only tell us if arguments made are valid or invalid. Validity simply says that if the facts which form the premises are true, then the conclusion either is true or is likely to be true. In this sense, we can know whether the conclusions of a belief or philosophy are logically supported by the evidence asserted as justifying such belief or philosophy, but we can never establish with that the belief is true using logic alone.

For example, if I say: "Socrates is a mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are sleepy", a logical analysis of the argument shows that my conclusion is not supported by my premises. There is no reason to believe that my conclusion is true because even if both premises are true they do not rationally lead one to conclude that the conclusion is true. (Of course, even if the argument is invalid doesn't mean that the conclusion is false, but it does mean that it is not rationally arrived upon.)

But now, if my argument is the classical argument "Socrates is mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are mortal", I have stated a valid argument. But my valid argument does not prove that Socrates is mortal unless it is also true that the premises are true. Suppose that Socrates is my pet turtle. If Socrates is not a man, then the argument is still valid, but the conclusion is false. So, rationality if it is limited to pure logic does not establish the truth of any statement. Logic can only test the forms of the arguments and say whether the conclusions follow from the premises. Consequently, it is possible for both the atheist and the Christian to have valid logical arguments for their positions which lead them to opposite conclusions about the truth of Christianity and both still be rationally arrived upon.

Now my argument was that a person can come to faith based upon new evidence that they find compelling even over old objections to Christianity that they found irrefutable before their conversion. What changed? Did they suddenly become an irrational person? Hardly. What happened is that the information that went into their premises changed. For example, suppose that their objection was the old argument from the existence of evil. Suppose a skeptic believes that it is completely and utterly impossible to believe in God based on the following:

A. The Christian God is all good.
B. The Christian God is all powerful.
C. An all-good God would not permit a world in which anyone suffered.
D. Our world is one in which people suffer.
E. Therefore, the Christian God is either not all good, nor all powerful, or doesn't even exist at all.

That's a powerful argument. (Fortunately, it is an argument that has been answered by many people, with C.S. Lewis being among them, but the point of this blog is not to refute the problem from evil. If you are interested in reading about a quality refutation of this argument, see C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea.) If a skeptic holds this argument it seems as if it would be impossible for him to come to a belief in the Christian God and still be rational (since he would have to accept the Christian God's existence in opposition to this admittedly strong logical argument). However, suppose that he comes into some new knowledge in the form of direct experience that Jesus is God. The work of the Holy Spirit opens his eyes and he sees and understands that God exists just as clearly as he sees and understands that a circle is not a square.

What does this new knowledge do? It destroys any argument that he used to argue against Christianity, including the argument from evil. The now-former skeptic knows first hand that the conclusion is not true and cannot be true because he has encountered the living God. So, what does he do with the argument from evil? He dismisses it as wrong without knowing the exact reasons that it is wrong. Why is that? Because new information has made him recognize that the conclusion is wrong (in fact, must be wrong) even if he doesn't know which of the premises are wrong or why they are wrong.

This is not unusual. We all accept propositions as true that we know are problematic without knowing how to resolve every problem with it. In his book The Creator and the Cosmos, astronomer Hugh Ross, Ph.D., made this same point when he explained how he came to faith in the Bible knowing that he didn't have answers for every possible objection he may have had to Christianity. After undertaking a year and a half study of the Bible to see whether it agreed with scientific knowledge, Dr. Ross says:

At the end of the eighteen months, I had to admit to myself that I had been unsuccessful in finding a single provable error or contradiction. That is not to say that there were not any passages in the Bible I did not understand or problems that I could not resolve. The problems and passages I couldn't yet understand didn't discourage me, however, for I faced the same kind of things in the record of nature. But just as with the record of nature, I was impressed with how much could be understood and resolved.

In other words, Dr. Ross understood that we accept many things as true even though there may be problems with them. To become a Christian a skeptic need not be able to come to a full understanding of Christianity or how it is not frustrated by the problem of evil or any other arguments that try to prove that Christianity is false. All a person has to do is be "impressed with how much [can] be understood and resolved" to be acting rationally.

Does this happen? I think it does. And I think I would have an ally for my position in the person of the Apostle Paul who found what I am saying to be the case on the Road to Damascus.

Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi


RazorsKiss said…
This needs to be submitted to the next God or Not edition :D
Seeker said…
Just some clarification;

If it is the case that we sometimes have to take a break from rationality to accept God, how do we know when we've made an appropriate choice? Or if it is acceptable to make a choice on faith when the evidence seems to stand against us, when it is appropriate to ignore the evidence?

We do make emotional decisions apart from logic. We love the unlovable, we live selflessly, we strike in anger because we are moved to fulfill some desire within us. I do understand that we make decisions that guide and enrich our lives that lie outside of logic. But within religion, we are not claiming to deal with relative truth, but absolute. That means necessarily everyone cannot be right.

Within religion people find emotional and "spiritual" satisfaction. But they do so within any number of faith or belief systems, including cultic and radical elements. Many find that within a system of precepts outside of religion. How would you seek to convince someone who is following (what you consider to be) an untruthful, unhealthy or evil path? It would seem that any objections you have would be countered by your own argument. Doesn't that leave us in a relativistic state in which YHVH is no greater nor more convincing than Gaia?
BK said…
Let me clarify: I am not saying that a person is making a break from rationality to accept God. I am saying that a person is perfectly rational in accepting new evidence that trumps his old arguments that God didn't exist even if he doesn't know at that time the reason that those arguments are flawed.

I am not saying that you have to abandon truth to believe Christianity. Christianity is a belief that says "this is true" not "close your eyes and believe anyway." If you think Christianity is irrational (it isn't, of course, but if that's what you believe) then you should not be a Christian. No one is (or should be) asking you to believe something that you don't believe to be true.

When I am talking about the rationality here, I am talking about what a person believes at the time that they convert to a belief (whether it be Christianity, Hinduism or a belief in evolution). They do not have to be able to rebut every argument to faith at that time, just be satisfied by what they have seen or learned that it is true.

Still, a person needs to grow in their faith, and I am not saying that the fact that they are rational at the time of the conversion means that they are free from challenge to the basis truth of their decision. A person may rationally conclude that macro-evolution is true, but that doesn't mean that their viewpoint ought not be challenged on the basis that while believing macro-evolution is rational, macro-evolution is ultimately false. As my post points out, rationality is not the same thing as truth. A person's rational decision to become a Christian could (not that it would) prove to be wrong if Christianity is truly false. Rationality does not equate with truth and it is perfectly legitimate to challenge the truth of someone's viewpoint.

Rationality at the time of conversion is not immunity from later examination of the truth of the underlying belief.
BK said…
Hello uberkuh,

I understand your comment, but it really isn't accurate. Keep in mind that all I am talking about in this post is the initial coming to faith. I would say that a person who has a mystical experience in another faith is rational at the time that they accept that faith in accepting that faith. It doesn't mean at all that they stay rational if their faith is ultimately vacuous. But, at the same time, if they came to knowledge about God (or gods) that is so overwhelming, then they are not being irrational to reject arguments that don't really disprove what they know to be true from personal experience.
Simon said…
Believing in God is irrational because there is no evidence for his existence.

Therefore, there is no logical or rational reason for believing he exists.

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