Faith, Reason, and the Search for Reality

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Is faith really at odds with reality?  It would seem that this is the exact impression that 300 special visitors to the Creation Museum got as they wondered its halls which consistently rejected or misrepresented scientific evidence and replaced it with a document several millennia old.  This particular document is in fact the Bible, and when it comes to its own academic study, well, the reaction tends to be the same when evidence comes up.

A Faith Continuum*

The task is to describe the relationship to what some have labeled “reality” versus and faith, which many would assume as being the opposite.  As many aspects of the human experience (i.e. emotion, intelligence) the position of faith falls on a continuum.  Rather than different intensities (because both ends of this scale can be quite intense), it may be more accurate to talk about the interplay of faith and reason where the difference between the ends of the spectrum is more about the way a person embraces reason.

Faith is a phenomenon that while it may require a dive, it can include knowledge based on evidence that the water actually exists.  Blind faith, at one end of the continuum, climbs the ladder to the high dive, but does so in the complete blackness of night and unabashedly assumes that someone has filled the pool.  Even in the case of this extreme, may I point out that knowledge confirms that there really is a diving board and a pool, even though lacking confirmation that there is water below.

What I will call “informed faith” takes into account all the available evidence with the acknowledgment that the search for scientific truth is never complete, but that an infinite God can contain answers that may not seem tangible or obvious.  Informed faith may go so far as to study the properties of metal from which the diving board is made, observe others diving, and even analyze the water before mounting the ladder and participating in the dive.

The Cannon, Blind Faith and Biblical Scholarship

In many of our churches there are award shows where people hold up blind faith as trophies: the hopeful answer to all their problems.  In its most extreme cases, faith takes possession of sentences and phrases nabbed from their homes in Scripture and made to stand guard against disease, poverty, and age.  If the formulas that they create do not work, then the reaction is not to blame God, but to reexamine the method and attempt again to curry the favor of the celestial vending machine.

The problem is that these manipulative games are not to be questioned for fear of offending their practitioners or consumers.  Even though these methods are based on erroneous interpretations of incomplete pieces of the biblical text, they are grounded in “faith” and the weight of that faith can cause tall buildings to crumble.

Reason appears on the scene in the hands of the biblical scholar.  These scholars use techniques including historical, redactive, and canonical critical methods to analyze the text within its own home both in the context of the words themselves, but also in light of other contemporary documents and culture of the time of its authorship.  Scholarship can set aside preconceived belief and investment of faith in search of the intended meaning of the text whether it be the intention of the author or of God who inspired it.

As the scholar operates and scrutinizes the inevitable happens: some small tidbit is discovered that interrupts that gentle and even flow that people identify as faith.  The problem is that this small piece will cause a need for the change of some piece of relatively insignificant bit of theology.  Yet as insignificant at it may be the weight of faith gives gravity to any change, and the experience is a tidal wave of cognitive dissonance.  The solution then is to suppress the evidence and reject the conclusion.

The Irony of Reason in Faith

It may be ironic but the Age of Reason not only bequeathed to us the gift if empiricism, but also its evil twin of firm resistance to the logical and intellectual challenge of our most cherished beliefs.  When people of faith use reason as a tool to construct a foundation of concrete, a few cracks caused by further reason can seemingly lead to its ruin.  Here is the break of the logic of faith: belief in an infinite deity precludes anyone from creating such a static foundation because only a full and complete concept of God can allow someone to complete a structure of stone.  It would stand to reason that to contain an infinite deity in a finite brain is completely preposterous.

Step into the shoes of a mainstream Christian for a moment.  If you believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and sacred in its own right as a testimony to the God that you serve, what good would it do to reject the conclusion of those who have devoted their lives to the study of this book?  Would their conclusions, though uncomfortable at first, help you to more fully understand the content of the book that is so important and would not that understanding lead to a deeper relationship with the God you spend your Sunday mornings worshipping?  What does it serve for a Christian to reject the reality of their own holy writings?

Reality of Faith

If Galileo and the Flat Earth Society have taught us anything, it is that people do not easily give up their belief.  Changing or giving up belief does not mean recanting faith, but a reexamination of our own faith constructions in light of truth.  Jesus encouraged his followers to build their “house upon the rock” instead of out on the beach, but that statement is about safe placement of the structure (for Jesus that would be the Hebrew Bible), not the raw material with which to build it.

Homes, even when built in a safe place, still need regular maintenance and repair.  When biblical scholarship or scientific endeavors uncover truth, adding to our grasp of reality, it as if we begin to see evidence that the roof is leaking and in need of repair.  It is not a matter of “accomodation” but rather an acknowledgement that our God is truely incomprehensible and so in its very nature faith must be flexible enough to embrace truth.

The other lesson of Galileo is that change is possible.  Granted it took many years and much deplorable action by the church, but it did become accepted (except for some  modern outliers) as fact that the earth is not the center of the universe.  Christians and church leaders were eventually able to recast their opinions and readings of particular passages in the light of the evidence for a different arrangement of the solar system.  The hope here is that by teaching Christians to have open dialogue, by helping them change the structure of their “house” in order to allow for needed repairs, and by means of patience and diligence change is possible.

[*Another excellent perspective on faith is more of a maturity model developed by James Fowler that I feel is equally valid within the context of this discussion.]

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About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

10 responses to “Faith, Reason, and the Search for Reality

  • Doc Bill

    Allow me to recommend reading John Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop, and especially his writings on a new reformation. You’ll find him intellectually stimulating and about 2000 years more evolved in thought than Ken Ham.

  • Sabio Lantz

    “Faith” is a hackneyed, overused phrase when it comes to religious dialogue. In order to clarify conversations or even internal dialogue, I would substitute words like, “trust”, “belief”, “religion”, “acceptance” or whatever nuance of the multi-definition word your are seeking. People use it sloppily without really even knowing themselves what it means. To most Christians it is merely Christianese for “my feelings about God”.

    With a little introspection, you can see how you are really using the word and start untieing these knots of theology.

  • Aaron

    Agreed! We certainly need more varied ways of talking about “faith,” which is a bit of what I was getting to in my description of a continuum above.

    I would also say that we need different words for “Christian” as well. Both have so much baggage and mean so many things to so many people that it struggles to retain any real usefulness without the use of a series of qualifiers.

  • Saskia

    Not to be nitpicky, but cannonical should be canonical. Nice post.

  • Aaron

    Thanks for keeping me in line 😉

  • Jesse

    Aaron,

    This doesn’t necessarily pertain to this entry of yours, I just found your blog today and I’m commenting more on the blog itself then any individual post.

    I am an atheist but I have been really moved by several of your posts. I have some questions I’d love to pose to you about religion and faith (questions might not be the right word, perhaps statements I want to bounce off you is more accurate).

    Very briefly, I’d be interested in talking to you about faith vs religion. As an atheist but not, I hope, a militant one, I have a lot of respect for honest faith, but I cannot stand organized religions. It is the organization of the church with its hierarchy and dogma that most offends me.

    I do not believe in God because I have never had a personal religious experience and I see no evidence for it. Someone cannot convince me of their experience, it didn’t happen to me. But by the same token I cannot judge the worth of their experience, so for me to say they are wrong would be the worst form of arrogance. This is what I call ‘honest faith’, because it is generated from within (or, you could say, it is generated from without, by God, but manifested within, I’m not gonna argue that). I enjoy this kind of faith, even if I do not share it.

    The flip side, and what terrifies most atheists I think, are believers who believe because they have been told to, who have faith simply because that is how their parents told them to be. I know too many people who have have never studied Scripture, do not have any idea what the belief differences between a Catholic and a Lutheran and a Puritan are yet they adamantly demand that I accept them as a Catholic. That is ludicrous, and, in my opinion, it is bad faith.

    I get the feeling from your articles that this bothers you as well (I could be wrong, it is late and I have been reading a lot of blogs tonight, if so I apologize for putting words in your mouth). To be frankly honest I’ve never met a believer who I could talk about this in a friendly way with before, so if you have the time, maybe we could strike up a dialogue by e-mail.

    -Jesse thetrueapropos@hotmail.com

  • J

    In my (admittedly atheistic and probably rather cynical) opinion, a ‘mainstream Christian’ does not need to feel uncomfortable having to reject the conclusions of someone who has studied the Bible, they ought to feel uncomfortable about there being so many people out there who’ve studied the Bible and have come up with so many different conclusions that it starts getting a bit doubtful if this sacred text really does contain the One Truth or whatever.

    After all, for every Ken Ham there’s a Kenneth Miller.

    So they don’t need to ‘reject the reality of their holy writings’, they need to figure out which one of the presented realities is the correct one. Which is a far more awkward position to be in.

  • Aaron

    Well, Jesse, I am moved by your comment! I cannot come with a single point in your comment that I do not whole-heartedly agree with. I would love to dialogue with you. I will drop you an email soon!

  • atimetorend

    Hi Aaron, this is a really good post. Came across your blog maybe through Art Boulet’s or Sabio’s, I forget.

    I’ve thought of faith as a continuum as well. I put Answers in Genesis type faith on one end — believing things that are really impossible or silly to believe in order to have “faith”. On the other end of my faith continuum would be someone like John Shelby Spong, who really doesn’t seem to require any particular belief that is unbelievable to me. Though on the Spong end I can never quite figure out what faith is anymore. I think scientific facts are the easy part of reality to work into a Christian faith, but historical criticism of the bible is harder to do that with.

    It seems to me Christianity is tied to certain historical events in a way it need not be tied to scientific facts Certainly many can be stripped away as non-essential. But when you strip away literal resurrection, or virgin birth, or whatever is considered by someone to be the “core,” it is hard to see what is left. So I wonder how far the continuum of what is called faith can be stretched before it breaks. I did put Fowler’s book on my to-read list earlier today…

  • Aaron

    Agreed! What is the issue with feeling uncomfortable about giving up a lie for the truth? It is quite the ackward position to be in, especially considering some have poured their entire lives and millions of dollars into an idea which some people are strongly suggesting is false!

    But if the honest and firm intention is really the search for truth, why would being uncomfortable stop that pursuit?

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