I listened to an interesting series of hard questions about Christianity posed to Tim Keller by some heavy hitting interviewers. I got sidetracked by the first question: Are not faith and reason contradictory terms? The question took me back to college when I first began to wrestle with faith in the academic world.
Implied in that question is an assumption that the only rational conclusion of reason is disbelief in God. Reason is defined by Merriam Webster as “the power of the mind to think and understand in a logical way.” Faith is defined as the “strong belief or trust in someone or something.” Reason (logic) depends on a premise, and premises are not necessarily subject to proof or disproof.
Soren Kierkegaard famously reasoned by logic that there is no God; then he turned around by the same use of logic to prove that God exists. The difference in the two conclusions, both logical in process, is the premise with which he started. The problem with reason and faith is not that they are mutually exclusive; the problem is the limitation of humanness and our ability to test the primary premises.
Kierkegaard says, “Reason is forever bound to repeatedly collide with the Unknown.” (Faith, Not Logic, Is the Basis of Belief) We can test a premise by logic, but the fact that a premise holds together does not necessarily mean that the premise is true. Reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but reason can only take us so far; then we must necessarily take a leap of faith if we are to go further. Many are not willing to take the leap, but that does not mean the leap is irrational or contradicted by reason.
Though not present in that question per se, a popular thought on the subject is that science is the only reliable thought process, and science excludes (or gives no merit to) faith. Science is defined by Merriam Webster as “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.” If reason were limited to what science can cover, the question would still be a bad one. Science is necessarily limited to the natural world. Science only takes us so far. That science can neither prove or disprove God (meaning that it can not take us outside the natural world and past the Unknown) does not mean that science and faith are mutually exclusive.
A better question would be a personal one: are you willing to jump from reason to faith when reason bumps into the Unknown?
Many people conclude, based on the fact that science cannot prove God, that there is no God. All it really proves is that science cannot tell us what it cannot prove, and that is proof of nothing. To conclude that there is no God at the point where science bumps against the Unknown is really not science, but faith. Maybe it is anti-faith; but it is not science. It is faith in science, or it is an unwillingness to put faith in anything but that which science can demonstrate. Since science is limited by time, space and matter and by the human capacity to understand it, the conclusion that there is no God is a choice to put faith squarely on human capacity, and nothing else.
Admittedly, only faith is necessary to believe in God, but reason and belief in God are not compatible.
An illustration of this is journey from America to Europe. Traveling to Europe from Chicago, for instance, can start in a vehicle that can travel across the United States, but a boat or plane is necessary to travel across the ocean to reach Europe. Science can only take a person to the edge of finite humanness; faith must take a person the rest of the way.
Science can only reveal what time, space and matter show us; it cannot bridge the gap across the Unknown. If a person is unwilling to take the boat (faith), the destination (connection with God) cannot be reached.
I can hear the question ringing in my ears, “But how can we know that?” The answer, I think, is pretty simple. Just as we can know about Europe, though we have never been there, from people who have made the journey, we can know (or have some idea) of God from people who have made that journey in faith. The fact that someone has been to Europe (or claims to have been) is not proof that Europe exists, but it is pretty good evidence.
Of course, Europe exists in time, space and matter. We can prove Europe exists independent of a person’s experience of it. That is not so in the same way as God. We can test God though. For instance, we can determine if there is anything learned about God from people who have experienced Him that is contrary to science or reason. If God exists outside of time, space and matter, however, science may not be able to explain God or some things about Him.
Reason is not as constrained as science, though human reason is still finite and limited. We still bump into the Unknown with reason. At the point where reason bumps into the Unknown, we have no choice but to go by faith or to stop there. Still, people who have made the journey by faith can tell us of their experiences, and we can test those experiences against science, reason and our own experiences. They either begin to add up, or they do not.
For me, they add up. I took the leap years ago, and I have never been disappointed. My faith has not been undermined by any science or reason.
No scientific process has been offered to prove or to disprove the existence of God. People must choose a position on the existence of God. Reason can be used to analyze, support and undermine belief in God as well as unbelief in God, but there is no ultimate proof for or against God. We have also seen that reason that undermines the existence of God must start from a premise that God does not exist. Reason that supports the existence of God must start from a premise that God exists.
I suggest that there are clues to the existence of God that are hard to dismiss. There are many things that cannot be scientifically proven as fact, but we accept them as fact based on what we know, like the existence of love, emotion and even the ability to reason in the first place. We believe there is such a thing as love and emotion and the ability to reason because it seems more plausible than not that they exist based on all the things we know. The same is true of God.
Belief in God is a mixture of reason and faith. Elements of reason and faith exist in both positions because we cannot rationally, scientifically prove either one. We bump into the Unknown at some point, which is the same thing as saying that we are human and finite.
An unwillingness to grab onto faith when one reaches the end of science is, itself, a kind of faith: it is a faith in what science alone can explain and prove; it is a faith in the known in favor of the unknown; it is ultimately faith in humanity (and even in the limitation of humanity), rather than something Other.
The rationalist, materialist, Hegelian either chooses to make no conclusions about the Unknown (agnosticism); or chooses to conclude that there is no God (atheism). It seems to me that the more honest, rational and scientific position would be agnosticism. After all, we do not know what we do not know. There is risk in all three positions. The pure rationalist who is either agnostic or atheist and the person of faith could all be wrong. The agnostic hedges the bet (but really gets the benefit of neither view, so what is the point?) It boils down for each individual to a determination of which position is most plausible and which position a person is willing to hold on to.
Again, I go back to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard chose faith, and he acknowledged that he reasons from belief in the existence of God (not towards it). This is not a rational or irrational position. It is no less rational than reasoning from belief in the non-existence of God. Depending on where we start our reasoning, we will find rational and scientific evidence supporting our position. What Kierkegaard demonstrated through application of logic is demonstrated today more notably by application of science. Atheists support their disbelief with science, and theists support their belief with science.
I have found no scientific or rational fact or thought that undermines my faith in God; and I suspect of the atheist that he could say the same thing about his belief in the non-existence of God. Where we begin our reasoning makes all the difference in where we end up.
My experience of the existence of God adds to my conviction in profound ways, but I suspect that an atheist’s experience of the absence of God also adds to his conviction in the non-existence of God. This point also further confirms my conviction. God answers the door of the one who knocks. The door of the one who is not knocking is left unanswered.
In the end, I can fully and honestly say that reason supports my faith in God in every way, and my experience of God has been fulfilling in every way. Faith and reason and science are not contradictory. I am always bumping up against the Unknown. At that point, I have chosen faith in God, and I have not been disappointed, but I did not take that leap in spite of reason. I took that leap when I came to the end of reason. Looking back, I find support for faith. Others at the point of the Unknown have chosen not to take the leap of faith, but it is not for the want of reason; it is for want of faith.
For anyone wrestling with the tension of reason and faith, there is a remarkably poignant and personal story of a person who has described a similar journey of struggle. She says:
This walk has proved to be quite a journey. I’ve struggled with depression. I would yell, scream, cry at this God whom I had begun to love but didn’t always like. But never once did I have to sacrifice my intellect for my faith, and he blessed me most keenly through my doubt.
Obviously, the quotation suggests where the journey took her. The journey began with a five year old atheist. It is worth a read: The Atheist’s Dilemma