The understanding of how reason should be used in the church is much more debatable than some would think. On one side of the spectrum, you have evidentialists who would never expect anyone to believe in Christianity if it could not be explained reasonably. And then, on the other end you have fideists who see no use of reason in the study or understanding of God.
Theologian Karl Barth was one of these fideists, as author Kelly James Clark points out in his book Return to Reason. He states that Barth, “sees philosophy and logic as proper in their own right, but as irrelevant to theology. Reason, he believes, is fallen and is incapable of eliciting belief in God” (154). This statement has a certain draw to it. Logically, and even biblically, it seems to make sense. We are fallen people and faith is really a matter of faith, right? So then how does logic and reason play a role in it all?
Well oddly enough, there is a similar draw one can have to the statements of a rational person. After all, people like C.S. Lewis fall on this side of the spectrum and his works have been held incredibly high by most Christians. And if it were not for someone as rational as Lewis, we would not have such profound insight on topics such as pain.
This topic was especially important during the Age of Reason and still today, the question being, “If God does exist and is good, then why did He allow pain in the world?” Some people would say for this reason that God does not exist. But C.S. Lewis, in all his rationality, wrote an amazing defense of God in relation to pain in his book, The Problem of Pain. Using his reason, he engages this problem, stating that, “In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (I) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for his redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute” (111).
The topic of pain is hardly an easy topic for anyone to address, reasonable or not, but the fact is that this former atheist was able to tackle it through reason, giving us a look at its obvious usage within the church. Other reasonable and well-known Christians such as G.K. Chesterton wrestled with this problem of pain as well. Phillip Yancey mentions how Chesterton reasonably found God through pain’s antonym: pleasure.
In addition to the problem of pain, G.K. Chesterton seemed equally fascinated by its opposite, the problem of pleasure. He found materialism too thin to account for the sense of wonder and delight that gives an almost magical dimension to such basic human acts as sex, childbirth, play, and artistic creation. Why is sex fun? Reproduction surely does not require pleasure: some animals simply split in half to reproduce, and even humans use methods of artificial insemination that involve no pleasure. Why is eating enjoyable? Plants and the lower animals manage to obtain their quota of nutrients without the luxury of taste buds. Why are there colors? Some people get along fine without the ability to detect color. Why complicate vision for all the rest of us?
It was through asking reasonable questions such as these that Chesterton was able to find God. So then how do we understand the draw that we may feel towards both people like Barth and Lewis? Is it possible to mesh their opposite views together, or do we have to choose one or the other?
I honestly believe, despite the obvious contradiction, that these ideas can be meshed together to a certain extent. There are times in Christianity where we must simply live out of the faith of the fideist and other times where we must live out the reason of the evidentialist. On top of that, I would go even further and say that on a daily basis we must live out of the harmony of the two combined. The mind (reason) and the heart (faith) are both essential to have in the Christian life. There will be times when things just do not make sense, and it is in those times that we must rely on faith. That is not to say that we cannot search to find reason for our present difficulty, but rather that at any given time we may have to rely more heavily on one aspect of Christianity than the other.
In reexamining Barth’s quote above, I cannot agree that reason is irrelevant to theology. I actually think reason is incredibly important—especially to theology. However, I think it is important to hunger for God in the same way that a fideist would. That is to say that we as Christians are willing to set our reason aside and follow God’s calling by faith alone if need be. I believe that every Christian will have to do this—even if just for a moment in time.
That is not to say, however, that we blindly accept whatever we are taught, for reason is not only good at bringing proof to difficult debates, but it is also an excellent tool for pointing out errors in our current beliefs. If we simply live by faith alone all the time, we are most likely going to find ourselves under some kind of false or incomplete doctrine due to unbridled trust. We need to use reason to question what we are taught so that we can come to a better understanding as to who God is. In the same way, we also must use the faith and revelation of a fideist.
Our life experience will alter this balance between faith and reason. An atheist who has become a Christian may continue to rely heavily on reason for the rest of their life as reason may have been the avenue that brought them to faith. Others, however, who may have had a charismatic experience with the Spirit of God may find themselves in a situation in which they cannot fully explain. And while that does not mean that they will live unreasonably in their Christian walk or that they will not try to understand what happened, it does mean that they may have a firm assurance to hang their life upon without the need for reason to be there when difficulty comes their way. Other’s experiences will give them a different balance, but the fact is that both faith and reason must become a part of one’s life in some way.
Take John Wesley for example. His balance was completely unique to most of the world. He was a man of reason and intellect who reasonably accepted the gifts of the Spirit and saw them everywhere he went. Paul Wesley Chilcote explains him this way:
He was, in fact, one of the most able Christian apologists… in the so-called Age of Reason, when dynamic, living faith often fell prey to either arid rationalism or unbridled emotionalism. Refusing to separate the head from heart, his life was characterized by a winsome synthesis of knowledge and piety, intellectual rigor and disciplined zeal. He was, as biographer Henry Rack has described him, a “reasonable enthusiast” (76).
Wesley (while probably more reasonable than myself), is a great example of the kind of balance I am talking about. Most people who are as reasonable as him would reject every little bit of enthusiasm in the Christian faith and yet, he did not do so (granted, he did reject the claims that he was an enthusiast since he was not one in the way that the people of his time defined it).
The character of the Apostle Paul seemed to have a similar attitude to that of Wesley’s. He had faith and saw that it was necessary for Christians to live by it. In fact, it was he who wrote the ever-so-popular Bible verse “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). On top of that, not only did Paul do many miracles in the name of Jesus but he also wrote numerous books of the Bible, including one of the most complex biblical books: Romans. This book has such profound and deep insight, that there is no way that we can deny the great amount of reason it would have taken to write it. Plus, with Paul being both a convert and an apostle, one should expect that he would need some kind of emphasis on reason in his life.
Or we could of course, take a look at Jesus, the prime example of Christianity. He constantly did miracles that defy reason. He spoke mysteries that could only be interpreted by the Holy Spirit. He was mystical in many ways, and yet everything He did and said was for a reason. We read His words in hopes to gain the faith He possessed and to understand the reasoning behind the things He said. And on top of that, He calls us to live like Him (which could maybe be defined as reasonably unreasonable).
Outside of all of this, I think reason is very important in our dialogue with the unsaved, especially in today’s world. With the rise of science, we have atheism and on top of that, there are many who just do not really care to think one way or the other. If we view their salvation as important and hope for them to receive it out of love, we must use the tools at our disposal. And after having been through the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, we should realize that our society has decided that reason is important. Therefore, if we do not look to use our minds, we may not always do that good of a job at “going out into all the world.”
But despite this emphasis on the importance of reason, I must say that I agree with Clark when he says that belief in God “does not require arguments or evidence in order to be rationally accepted or maintained—the theist has a perfect right to believe without the evidentialist support of an argument. In fact the demand for evidence is perverse, obdurate, or improper” (122). I find this true in my own life. I am not concerned with science or arguments against God because I have the assurance of His Holy Spirit. Whether it sounds irrational or not, I have had an experience with God. I have seen His signs and wonders. If others do not consider this reason enough to believe, then I suppose that these experiences supersede my need for reason. But for the sake of others, I will do my best to reasonably explain my faith and experiences to them.
I realize this that mixture of evidentialism and fideism can create quite a bit of confusion and I’m sure that the biggest question one might ask is “how do I balance blind faith with reason?” My answer (though it may not be a great one) is with discernment and by the leading of the Spirit. If you are a very reasonable person, you will need blind faith to fall back on at some point and you should expect to do so. If you are an unreasonable person, then you need to learn to use reason in your life—if not for yourself, then for others so that they can understand you better.
However you look at it, the truth is that reason is important and necessary. The degree may vary from person to person, but the important thing is that it is there and balanced in some aspect. God has given this to us as a gift, and while we may have violated it in times past, we have an opportunity to offer reason redemption.
Chilcote, Paul Wesley. Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision: an Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. Print.
Clark, Kelly James. Return to Reason: a Critique of Enlightenment Evidentialism, and a Defense of Reason and Belief in God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.
Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Print.