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Faith and Reason

Updated: Nov 3, 2021



Nelson Bingham

April 19, 2020

This is a trying time for all of us. As we collectively struggle to limit the terrible spread of COVID-19, one of the saddest aspects is to see some of our fellow persons of faith tenaciously clinging to their in-person worship services as expressions of their faith that God will protect them. Some of those folks explain their choice in terms of their belief in faith over the reason of science. This, of course, is only the most recent manifestation of this supposed conflict of spiritual belief versus rationality.

Another facet of this could be seen in last Sunday’s Palladium-Item. The Amish writer, Lovina Eicher, discussing the coronavirus, wrote “God will provide if we trust in Him.We know God doesn’t make mistakes so there is a reason for this pandemic, although we do not understand it at the moment. Trust and believe and have faith.” It is not uncommon for people of faith to make similar statements when bad things occur. “Why,” we lament, “would a loving God do this? What is His purpose?”

The Scripture reading in 1 Peter offers a perspective on this question. Some will say that God is deliberately testing us. I do not think such an assumption is necessary however. Rather, we should understand that adversity and pain are inevitable in our lives and the challenge for us is to respond to such adversity within the framework of our faith, which includes using the gift of Reason to guide that response. The passage from James reminds us that faith cannot be passive; it must be lived in our actions, actions that are, likewise, products of our God-given capacity for rational discernment.

Scripture Readings:

1 Peter 1:6-7 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you

must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is

genuine.It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far

more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many

trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus

Christ is revealed to the whole world.

James 2:14-18 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but

does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly

clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be

warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what

good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But

someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart

from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works

Certainly, many of us are led by our power of reason to question things. Some questions arise out of our immediate circumstances. We want to understand why we are expected to act in a certain way. Why do we need to wear masks? Why must we stay at home? Individuals, especially in our culture, want reasonable answers; we expect to be convinced.

Of course, throughout our lives, we are drawn to think about much bigger questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What should we do? How do we find meaning in our existence? Why do we ask so many tough questions? At least, in the case of this last query, I want to offer an answer. To be human is to ask such questions. Human beings are endowed with two miraculous characteristics – imagination and plasticity.

Imagination enables, nay, compels us to go beyond our immediate experience, to envision ourselves at the nexus of past and future, to know our personal and collective history and to anticipate possible events to come. And, we also possess plasticity, the freedom to make choices and to literally create the future as we have imagined it. What a glorious combination!

It is no surprise that all cultures have stories of creation. Those stories arise out of these wonderful human traits, as answers to some of these powerful questions. We are told [Genesis 1:27] that humans were made in God’s “image.” This means more than simply physical appearance; it means that humans possessed the freedom to choose and the power to reason about choices. Consider how [Genesis 3:4-5] the serpent led Eve to choose to disobey God’s Will and to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – it was reasoning that the serpent used to influence Eve. That has to suggest that Eve already possessed some capacity for reason, as she would, being made in the image of God.

Nonetheless, when Adam and Eve had partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they were different in a very fundamental way – whatever reasoning capability they had previously, that ability to think was vastly amplified by what Genesis [Genesis 2:9, 17] calls “knowledge of good and evil.” This, again, must entail a much broader transformation, a transformation into a consciousness of self. This is evidenced by their awareness of their own nakedness [Genesis 3:10-11]. But the capacity to know good and evil necessarily implies an appreciation of self, of other, and of the meaning of one’s actions, an understanding of oneself as existing beyond the immediate, concrete experience, of oneself as having existence over time and of oneself as accountable for one’s actions and choices. In short, the knowledge gained through eating the fruit must be nothing short of the capacity to create knowledge itself, the capacity to reason, the capacity to imagine. In Genesis 3:22, God says, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil…”] This knowledge includes a sense of time and of oneself as situated within a temporal series of events, a consciousness of past and future that enables (or forces) humans to comprehend the reality of their own mortality, of their own death. And it is death, according to the psychologist Erik Erikson,that gives meaning to life.

And so, it all begins – this human gift of reason. Now, the Biblical account of creation does not answer all of the questions that the human mind is capable of generating. For example, Cain took a wife from the land of Nod. Where is that and what is Nod’s relationship to God’s creation of the Garden of Eden? We don’t know. On the other hand, lest the skeptic feel too smug about this limitation of Scripture, we might note that science, that great cathedral built by rationality and logic, offers us the Big Bang as its answer to the question of where we come from. Imagine (and consider how miraculous it is that you can do so) all of the Universe compressed into one unbelievably tiny and unbelievably dense mass which explodes outward with such force that it continues moving outward so many eons later. Is that really more reasonable to believe than the Biblical story of creation? How can we know what is true?

Some will say that truth is made up of facts. Others will conceive of truth as knowledge (which includes conclusions based upon facts, interpretations if you will). Still others might identify truth with wisdom, a more holistic appreciation of a multitude of bodies of knowledge, including accumulated experience of acting upon that knowledge and seeing the consequences of those actions. In Ecclesiastes 7:23-25, one reads:

“I was determined to be wise but it was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be,

it is far off and most profound – who can discover it? So I turned my mind to

understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things

and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.”

And a bit further {Ecclesiastes 8:1], we are asked,

“Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance.”

It might be said that truth reflects reality – our intuitive recognition of the world (physical, social, spiritual) that exists beyond our own personal experience, indeed beyond tangible evidence.

There are those who say, and I am one of them, that the most fundamental truth is that God is Love. And, from this, it follows that you should love every person and love your neighbor as yourself. This is a pretty powerful keystone for one’s life. Should we love every person equally? I have a sense that that was one thing that set Jesus apart. Should we, in fact, love ourselves as we love others? Many of us find that very challenging. Should we love the poor and the victims of oppression? Are we truly called to love the powerful and the victimizers as well? Why don’t we love every person equally? Why is it so difficult to love the powerful oppressor? I would suggest that it is Reason that leads us, along with its companion, Feeling, to separate people into such categories and to act accordingly. But wait! There I go again – falling into the clutches of Reason.

If it is important for us to know Truth, how are we to do so? The Bible suggests [Mark 10:15] that only those who believe as a child, with the innocence and trust that that implies, can enter Heaven. Yet, we humans are endowed with this process we call reason. Many of us cannot avoid using that reasoning in our search to know truth. What sources of authority shall we use as a basis for our reasoning? Some look to a spiritual leader for the definitive statement of truth. Some believe that the Holy Scripture is an inerrant source of truth. Quakers seek the leading of the Spirit in silent worship, but test that leading through corporate scrutiny.

Other sources of truth come from the psychological realm of human feelings or emotion. We may have a sense of what feels right and that sense may be our ultimate basis for truth. Some will attempt to avoid being misled by such feelings by careful adherence to logical reasoning and evidence. Science is one form of such reasoning though not the only form; philosophical analysis is yet another.

What should we do when sources of authority clash? Were we created through a process of evolution or by the hand of God in seven days? Is homosexuality a sin or a biological condition? Should we be guided by Scripture or the Inner Light?

This brings us to the idea of Faith. Reasoning is a way of building upon certain premises and assumptions and gathering information and analyzing that evidence in terms of rational rules. But faith has to do with the fundamental premises with which reasoning begins. Those premises cannot be determined or evaluated by reason any more than a person can pick himself up by his own bootstraps. Here is another analogy: A person lacking in foundational beliefs is like an astronaut in space, trying to use a wrench without the stabilizing support of gravity or of a much larger object to provide leverage. In such a case, pulling on the wrench is likely to cause the astronaut to turn and spin. Similarly, trying to use reason without any anchoring truths is likely to produce intellectual weightlessness and confusion. You must start with some assumptions (this is one way of defining faith) from which reasoning can proceed. James [James 1:6] tells us that, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”

So, Reason, like any tool, can be profoundly useful but it can do only some things and take us only so far. Beyond that, we enter the realm of Faith. Indeed, one might argue that Reason gives rise to the need for faith. This is so because reason gives rise to doubt. In the absence of reason, one simply and unquestioningly experiences the here and now, a state that is approximated by a young infant or, indeed, by an animal. Out golden retriever, for example is a wonderful and loving companion, utterly committed to us and trusting of us and accepting of our love for him. He (at least, to all appearances) never doubts; he never contemplates his nakedness; he never worries about the future; he never imagines possibilities. His is a simple, unconditional love unclouded by reason. There is much to admire (or even envy) in this. And, while we cannot (and should not) shed our gift/curse of Reason, we would do well to contemplate its limits and to think about how it must be situated within a framework of fundamental faith.

There was a story some years ago in The Reader’s Digest, describing a conversation between a wise, older woman and a more modern, cynical, young adult woman. They talked of Love. The young woman expressed skepticism that the romantic ideal of true love could ever be possible. The older woman affirmed that she had, indeed, experienced such love with her husband, a love in which she truly cared as much for him as she did for herself, in which she would, if necessary, unquestioningly sacrifice herself for him. Moreover, the older woman explained that she had an unshakable trust that her husband shared these feelings of care and commitment toward her. This, she said, is the basis of deep marital love. The young woman responded with amazement. She acknowledged the older woman’s experience and accepted the validity of what she said, but she firmly rejected the possibility of such a relationship for herself. “I just cannot imagine myself in such a relationship!” she exclaimed. “That,” replied the older woman, “is exactly the problem.” I take the point of this story to be that you cannot achieve real Love through Reason. True Love is fundamentally irrational and amounts to an act of Faith.

So, one way of thinking about Faith is that it represents the unquestionable beliefs that form the foundation stones of our life, the guiding principles that are beyond reason and that cannot be created by reason. Reason, as powerful a gift as it is, is also a curse. We often think too much and rational thought too often drives us toward doubt. One consequence of this is to become cynical about faith, but another consequence is to defensively cling to the trappings of faith and to engage in active denial of any question about those trappings, seeing such questioning as a challenge to our faith itself. Strong faith, in contrast, does not require defense; those who possess such faith exude a quiet confidence in its truth and no challenge of Reason is felt to threaten that faith.

What, then, is Faith? At the psychological level, it may be seen as a sense of certainty that transcends logic and evidence. Faith is also behavioral, involving actions that grow out of that inner certainty. Traveling about in England with the ESR faculty study tour some years ago, I was struck by the powerful testimony of faith that had been demonstrated by early Christians who accepted death rather than betray their spiritual beliefs. I heard about the same strength of faith among 16th-century Japanese Christians, who would refuse to step on a cross (symbolically compromising their newfound faith) even though that refusal meant death. Few of us today have our faith tested in such ways. Yet, we are tested daily in much more mundane aspects of life.

We can conclude that faith is love in action. Human beings are rational beings (or at least we are rationalizing beings) who seek to find guidance (or justification) for our actions through the use of the reasoning ability that we uniquely possess. In the end, however, when the limits of reason are met, faith proves itself to be the bedrock of our actions. Faith trumps reason.

Such ultimate dilemmas, though, should be seen as a last resort. Every effort should be made to find ways for Faith and Reason to mutually affirm one another. We must avoid turning every reasonable action (such as finding ways to worship virtually) into a challenge to our faith. Perhaps our greatest challenge in this regard is the search for common ground between those who not only know different truths, but who base that knowing on different forms of authority. Jews and Muslims. Christians and Wiccans. Evangelical and Liberal Quakers. What does it mean to say that we should “respect” differences of this nature? If we say that our deepest Faith is that God is Love, then what does Love require us to do in the face of the need to engage and share this world with others who do not share that deep conviction? How can we practice tolerance and respect for those who, as part of their own deepest Faith, reject tolerance and respect?

The famous Japanese Quaker, Inazo Nitobe, almost 100 years ago wrote that all faiths may be, in effect, climbing the same mountain by their very different paths and very different ways of climbing. Yet, Nitobe claimed, at the summit of that mountain, all persons of all faiths may look upward at the same blue sky and see the same golden Sun shining there.

Is it possible for Reason to weld with Faith to affirm such an inclusive view of the Divine? Or will Reason compel us to continue down the dark pathways of divisiveness and conflict? Only time will tell. But, I close with what is another of my own deep faith convictions. George Fox spoke of envisioning an ocean of Light contending with an ocean of Darkness and of his belief that the ocean of Light will, ultimately, prevail. Years ago, Charles Thomas gave a message here at West Richmond in which he proclaimed that the meaning of Christ’s life and death was that the battle reflected in that metaphor of oceans of Light and Darkness had been won through Jesus’ existence. The rest of history since the time of Christ, with all of the struggles, turmoil, and human suffering, is a matter of “working out the details.” What optimism! What Hope!

I’m not sure that Reason can ever persuade a confirmed pessimist to become an optimist. But, if I could have only one wish, it would be that each of us would come to understand both the power and the limits of our wondrous capacity for reasoning. And, thereby, that each of us could embrace that gift of Faith that would enable us to fully live in the Light of that optimism and that Hope!

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2020 Nelson Bingham. All rights reserved.

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