Quadrilateral: Reason (Part 3)

III) REASON: At the beginning of my second year of teaching in college, a biologist joined the faculty. We seemed to be kindred spirits, and I looked forward to having a new friend in an academic setting. However, one day early on in our acquaintance, he came to my office and said, “Ron, I’m not sure we can ever be friends.” I was shocked and disappointed. When I asked him why he thought that, he said, “I’m a scientist, and I believe in evolution.” I will never forget the look on his face when I responded, “I also believe in evolution.” He was dumbfounded! We became good friends, and when I left that college, he told me with tears in his eyes that I had been a “godsend” for him. I thought it was so tragic that the Christianity he had been exposed to led him to believe that one could not be a Christian and at the same time believe in evolution. His experience of religion had been so oppressive intellectually (and also in other ways) that it had driven him from the possibility of believing in and relating to a God infinitely bigger than science or any religion could ever fully appreciate and comprehend. 

In our consideration of reason, we first need a definition. Here are two which I find helpful:

  • Reason is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.
  • Reason is the capacity of consciously making sense of things, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on existing or new information. 

A faith that is hostile to science is doomed to eventual extinction.

Reason is often related in our society to science. Science is guided by what is called the “scientific method.” With this method, science builds its theories “from the bottom up” through what is called inductive reason. Through observation, experiments, measurements, quantification, and replication, scientists build their hypotheses which through further evidence become theories. Because of this scientific method, science is self-correcting as new evidence requires changes in older theories or, at times, the replacement of the old with the new. Sometimes these transitions come slowly. (One scientist even said, “Science advances one funeral at a time!”) However, this process doesn’t mean that all past discoveries and theories are suspect. For example, I would imagine that the “Periodic Table” in chemistry is here to stay as well as our knowledge that the universe contains billions of galaxies (with each galaxy containing billion of stars) and in measured in trillions of miles. When people of faith deny the obvious truths of science, they, like the proverbial ostrich, are sticking their heads in the sand while all thinking people are taking potshots at their rumps. A faith that is hostile to science is doomed to eventual extinction. (Currently, 1/3 of the US population doesn’t believe in evolution. Those rejecting evolution believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Two-thirds of white Evangelicals and 15% of mainline Protestants do not believe in evolution. Currently, 47% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats believe in evolution. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats believed in evolution. I suggest that such a shift says something about the current electorate.)

However, we must distinguish between science and “scientism.” Scientism is a form of positivism which reduces all knowledge and truth to only what can be measured or verified through the scientific method. Scientism is an opinion or a conclusion which transgresses the legitimate field and limits of science. All reputable scientists reject scientism. They may believe that only what can be measured and verified through science is real, but they admit that science can only address the questions it is equipped to answer—questions like how, where, what, when. Questions concerning the mysteries of “Why?” (not “why” in the sense of cause but in the sense of purpose) are beyond the purview of science. 

Scientism naturally leads to materialism which is the philosophical position that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that all things, including mental states, feelings, and consciousness, are the results of material interactions. (The word “materialism” in the popular sense refers to the valuing of possessions and physical comfort over any spiritual or ethical values. I would suggest that this popular definition in our culture is directly related to the philosophical definition.) Victor Frankl, the Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, warned of the dangers of reducing humans to chemical interactions. Such a heartless reduction of humankind and ethical/spiritual values can easily lead to gas chambers and crematories. 

So, how do we relate reason to theology and our personal faith? If we believe that God created the cosmos, we must accept the proven discoveries of science. (In my philosophy class at seminary, there was a student who rejected the theory of evolution and maintained that the universe was created in 4004 BCE. When the professor asked him about dinosaur bones, the student said that God had placed those bones in the earth to test and see if people would trust bones or the Bible. The professor’s response was, “Well, you had better look out. A God who will lie to you in nature may lie to you in Scripture.”) Truth is true wherever we find it. A religion that is afraid of truth has very little faith in God as Creator.

However, as a people of faith (and even those who have no religious faith), we must carefully distinguish between science and scientism. We must also train ourselves in the discipline of logic (how to think and reason). The tragic demise of a liberal arts education in many higher institutions of learning whereby students learn how to think can only result in a population that is vulnerable to propaganda, half-truths, nonsense, and outright lies. When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” he answered with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) which to this day is the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. However, he added one word: “mind.” We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, might, and mind. I take this to mean that we are to use our minds as we develop our faith. We do not need a frontal lobotomy to believe in God or to be Christian. And neither do we need to compartmentalize our knowledge and thoughts. I have known brilliant men and women (some with PhDs in science!) who believe in creationism, the Rapture, and the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. They can believe that way because they have compartmentalized their mental and spiritual lives in ways which allow them to embrace unhealthy and illogical contradictions and propositions. The sober truth is this: God can use us in spite of our ignorance, but God cannot use our ignorance. 

If God is transcendent, then God is infinitely more than what we can understand.

As Christians, we cannot prove our faith, but we can provide a rational and logical basis for that faith. As we strive to develop our faith, we must keep in mind one crucial insight: If there is a God who created this universe and if that God is both transcendent and imminent, then no human will ever be able to prove the existence of God. Neither we nor scientists can prove God exists; and neither can any of us prove that God does not exist. If God is transcendent, then God is infinitely more than what we can understand. Science builds from the bottom up, step by step and stage by stage. It is impossible to build from the bottom up and prove or disprove God. Why? Because a transcendent Creator can never be objectively observed, measured, quantified, replicated, captured in a test tube, or defined and analyzed by a scientific theory. Discoveries made in science (especially in physics, astrophysics, and biology) may incline some to believe that there is a God behind creation in light of its exquisite and mindboggling design and history, but that is not a proof—it is a profession of faith. Theologians may use these discoveries as possible evidence that there may be a Creator, but such claims are suggestions, not proofs. (Scientists who are also theologians maintain there is nothing in science that rules out the possibility of a transcendent Creator. They even deal with quantum physics as well as the “bouncing universe” and the “multiverse” theories in their conclusion that none of these realities and theories proves that there is no God. One of them is an Anglican priest who taught and researched quantum physics at Cambridge University in England. But all of them are quick to admit that none of these discoveries and observations definitively prove there is a God.) 

So, how can we as a people of faith “know” God? I believe an insight from the Jewish faith is helpful here. “To know” in Hebrew does not mean just intellectual knowledge. Knowing includes intimate knowledge and experience. We see this meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures when the verb “to know” is used to refer to sexual intercourse. In Genesis we are told, “Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Genesis 4:1) Knowledge can be that intimate and personal. It is experienced more than intellectually reasoned. Such experience can and should become a part of our reason, but the experience is primary in matters of faith. 

Augustine (354-430 CE) wrote the following:

Understanding is the reward of faith/trust. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe and trust, but believe and trust that you may understand.

Albert Schweitzer ended his monumental book The Quest for the Historical Jesus with this often quoted paragraph:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” 

Some might hear these quotes and conclude that they must blindly believe in God no matter what the evidence or lack of evidence. No healthy religion demands blind belief or blind obedience. If science could prove without any doubt whatsoever that there is no God, then intellectual integrity demands that all theists abandon their faith. (However, as I indicate above, such a proof is not likely to happen if by God we mean Transcendent Being.)  I suggest Augustine and Schweitzer were both referring to the only way one can come to an authentic and transforming faith. If we wait until all our intellectual questions are answered before we take the leap of faith, we will never know God in the sense we spoke of above. At some point we must take the risk of committing ourselves to God if we are ever to experience the rewards and challenges of faith. As Brian McLaren says, “We make the road by walking.” Thinking can take us only so far. At some point we must commit, risk, and act. It was not by accident that the earliest name for Christians was “people of the way” (Acts 9:2). That’s why Jesus said 87 times in the Gospels, “Follow me.” In that following, we will learn who He is (and who we can become). As we grow in trust and faith, we will experience God’s presence and will in ever deepening ways. However, that does not mean that we will never again have doubts and struggles. Jesus in Gethsemane is “proof” that such trust is not always easy. After all, our Lord was honest about the cost of following him and trusting the One he called Abba. He did say, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” We will all have times in our own Gethsemanes. But we also will have our own mountaintop experiences. The more we trust that God is love, the more we become creatures of love ourselves and the more we become like Jesus in our own unique ways and pilgrimages. But it’s still a pilgrimage which is not free of obstacles.

The older I become the more I realize that our faith is a matter of betting our lives that God is love and that what we see in the Christ Event is both the secret of the universe and the unfolding of the mystery of God.

The older I become the more I realize that our faith is a matter of betting our lives that God is love and that what we see in the Christ Event is both the secret of the universe and the unfolding of the mystery of God. In our faith we are being asked if we really trust that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the Creator of this universe. To the political, economic, social, and some religious powers of this world, such a claim is foolish and ridiculous. The world wants proof, and it understands and trusts power and security.  In the first chapter of I Corinthians Paul says that the Jews seek signs and the Greeks seek wisdom/proof. Neither group can understand the paradoxical strength and wisdom of the Cross (God’s self-giving love). Authentic Christianity asks “believers” to bet their lives that the essence of the infinite, transcendent Creator of this vast and intricate universe is the kind of love we see in Jesus Christ. Can we really trust (and daily flesh out that trust) that ultimately love wins? And if we cannot trust the God revealed in Jesus Christ, what alternative will we choose? 

We began this section on reason with two definitions. There are other definitions and synonyms for reason which perhaps allow more insight. Reason can also refer to “cause, ground, purpose, intention, objective, and goal.” Looked at in this way, reason addresses the “Why?” questions of life. The ultimate goal of Christian theology is to express the “why” of creation and human beings. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What are the goals of the Creator? Why is there anything? Science is not equipped to answer these types of questions. (In philosophy there are called protological, ontological, and teleological questions.) But these are uniquely human questions, and they are the questions which relentlessly hound our souls. Augustine also wrote, “Our heart is restless until we find our rest in Thee.” There is an “itch” in our humanity which can only be “scratched” by our Maker. The question “Why?” can be both a gift and a curse. The testimony of the faithful is that our “whys” can only be answered ultimately by our God. And they would also bear witness that the Christian faith at its depths provides profound answers which make life worth living. 

[The only kind of “reason” we are capable of is human reasoning. As such, our reasoning is that of creatures who make up part of this vast universe. Sometimes in our arrogance or naivete, we assume that our human reason is capable of knowing all truth. But perhaps there are limits to human reasoning that are inherent in our being homo sapiens. We are but one strand in the web of life (however extraordinary and unique that strand may be). If there is a Transcendent God who created the universe, I think we could assume that the “reason” of such a God infinitely surpasses our own reason. I am not suggesting that the reason of God necessarily contradicts our reason or that God’s reason is in any way irrational. What I am suggesting is that human rational reason may not fully reflect or contain the Suprarational Reason of our Creator. The “more” of Transcendent Being infinitely exceeds that of humans or any part of creation. Perhaps there should be a certain humility is all our human pontificating.]

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