Christians have always struggled to understand the role and place of reason in faith. The central problem is not whether or not reason is important but what reason can and cannot do. This reminds us of Plato’s warning about the danger of “misology.” Plato felt this was a great danger to man, in fact one of the worst things that could happen. The misologist is a person who has become discouraged by certain inabilities in the capacity to reason and concluded that careful reasoning is no longer relevant at all. To a large extent much of modern society has, at least popularly, fallen prey to this problem. Since we cannot be sure of some things we decide that it is pointless to attempt to reach any reasonable conclusions. Plato put this problem well: “Let us then, in the first place, be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all.”
Though reason is important to Christian faith most people are not drawn to Christ by reason. T. S. Eliot, and from what I recall John Warwick Montgomery, were so drawn to faith but this is extremely rare, even among brilliant thinkers. Job 11:7 puts this well, “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?”
Reason cannot lead you to faith but having believed reason can help you immensely in answering objections to the faith. We do not know God through reason alone but the God we know is not unreasonable. He is above the laws of reason but the faith is not anti-reasonable or illogical. What we need is an examined faith and reason has a role, albeit subservient, in this having such faith.
The late Christian philosopher Elton Trueblood (A Place to Stand, 26) once told the story of a philosophy student in a leading American university who asked one of his professors, who was not a Christian, if his studies in philosophy would help him to see the truth of his Christian faith. The professor said such studies would have no such effect but then added, “Your studies will do something that is equally important. They will enable you to answer the attacks upon the faith. Your opponents are more vulnerable than you or they realize.” This answer is similar to Coleridge’s idea: “Reason becomes an effective ally by exposing the false show of demonstration, or by evincing the equal demonstrability of the contrary from premises equally logical.”
Samuel Johnson and Socrates spoke of an “obstinate rationality.” I believe, with Trueblood, that this kind of reasoning, joined with a good sense of humor, allows us to look deeply at our own pretensions and silly notions and to appropriately laugh at ourselves. We need a lot more of this in the pulpit and in the pew. Far to many Christians, especially conservative Christians, believe they know the truth quite well and then take themselves and their beliefs far too seriously. It is a serious thing to believe but to believe that your beliefs are something akin to the truth and nothing but the truth is a dangerous ditch. Through the tough and critical use of reason we will not free ourselves from mistakes but we can clear the roadway thus allowing us to see our flaws more plainly. Trueblood was quite right when he said, “Recognition of error is really, therefore, our major ground of hope of rationality. However hard it may be to be right, we can see, in many instances, where we are wrong” (A Place to Stand, 26).
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