Is Faith Irrational?
Is it possible to believe deeply in reason, logic, and learning while embracing faith in an unseen, miraculous, supernatural God? Join us as we ask and answer tough questions about faith in our new series “I Have a Question”.
Well, I want to say, I’m really excited about the series we’re starting today. And I’m so glad you’re here to be a part of it.
We live in a time of increasing polarization, and that’s especially true when it comes to religious faith.
People who are on the left tend to be concerned about masses of people in the middle of the country who cling to God and guns out of fear, or resist good science, or are intolerant toward other people.
Those on the right often complain about elitist cultural gatekeepers often in the media or in academia who tend to be disproportionately secularist and often hostile to faith.
A sociologist named Peter Berger famously wrote if Sweden is the world’s most secular country and India is the world’s most religious country, America is increasingly a country of Indians being governed by Swedes.
We live in an amazing part of the world that prizes technology and education and mindfulness; but we also live in part of the world where people sometimes assume being a person of faith means you must not appropriately value education or thoughtfulness.
I was on a flight a while ago. I had a long conversation with the guy who was sitting next to me.
He was quite secular, and he had all kinds of questions:
How do I raise my kids with a moral compass?
How do I process the death of my father?
What is my own life supposed to be about?
He was thoroughly unchurched and the longer we talked the more and more clear his thorough unchurchedness was.
After an hour or so, he asked the inevitable question, “What do you do?”
I told him I was a pastor, and his eyes got really wide, and this was his response — “Well, I’ll be damned.”
I said, “Well, I hope not, but let’s talk about that!”
And that would be a fascinating question to focus on right there. It’s not just people of faith who doubt; skeptics doubt. Doubters doubt their doubts. It’s part of the human condition.
We all trust in certain things, and we all live with doubt, so we’re launching this series called, “I Have a Question.”
We want to be a church where every person is respected and every question can get raised and dealt with in a real, open, and honest way.
Our model for this actually is Jesus. That might surprise you, but in the Gospels, sometimes people with doubts come.
One man wanted help with his son, and he says to Jesus, “Yeah, I believe in you, but I don’t. Help me with my unbelief.”
Another time, one of Jesus’ own twelve disciples named Thomas had doubts about Jesus’ own resurrection, and at the very end of the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus had appeared to them all, it says, “…they worshiped him, but some doubted.”
Jesus never says to anyone, “Well, you doubted, so I’m done with you. You’re useless to me.”
He deals with people with sensitivity and honesty and respect, and we want to be that way, so over the next several weeks we’ll look at questions people have like:
Is the Bible anti-women?
Are all religions basically saying the same thing, and if they’re not, does being a Christian mean you’re hostile or arrogant toward other faiths?
How can we trust the Bible when it seems to embrace institutions like slavery?
If God is good, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?
These are questions the Apostle Paul had to grapple with when he wrote his letters to the various churches.
Today, I want to lay a foundation for all of this series by asking a real basic question — Is faith irrational?
Is it possible to believe deeply in reason and logic and learning and embrace faith in an unseen, miraculous, supernatural God?
I want to do that by looking at four common ideas about faith that I think are actually misconceptions that get in people’s way when it comes to belief in God.
And then we’ll look at what this means for your life and for my life.
Alright, here we go —
4 misconceptions about faith
1. Faith actually means believing good things for no reason.
Archie Bunker once said, “Faith is something you believe that no one in his right mind would believe.”
This misconception is quite widespread.
A Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, put it like this:
Universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith — believing something without good reasons to do so — has no place in anything but a religious institution.
I have a friend who works in higher education who says anyone who believes universities are about reason pure and simple has never sat on a faculty committee or watched how decisions actually get made in a university.
But what I want to focus on is this definition of faith as believing something without good reasons.
An idea behind it is faith means believing what authorities tell you to believe regardless of the evidence, whereas reason means believing what the evidence tells you regardless of what authorities say.
I want to start by pointing out that for the first three centuries of its existence, the Christian faith spread and grew remarkably in spite of the fact that it had no authority at all.
As a matter of fact, it was often illegal in the Roman Empire through those centuries to become a Christian.
Sometimes that was the grounds for persecution or even execution.
In other words, Christianity did not grow because authority was behind it. Often, it grew because authority was opposed to it and at an unprecedented rate.
It grew from around 1,000 Christians in AD 40 to maybe 10,000 by the year 100 to maybe 200,000 by AD 200 to maybe 5 or 6 million a century after that.
How did that happen?
Well, clearly it wasn’t because there were authorities who said, “You have to believe this stuff.”
We get a little glimpse into its growth in the book of Acts.
For instance, once when Paul was in Athens — Athens was historically the center of Greek philosophy. Socrates and Plato and Aristotle were the pinnacle of human thought and logic and reason.
We’re told in the book of Acts:
Paul reasoned [That word is chosen quite deliberately. Not just preached, but reasoned] in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace [Now, he’s stepping out into the marketplace of ideas] day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’” (Acts 17:17-18)
Epicureans and Stoics were intellectuals of that day. They both held what we would call endowed chairs in Athens.
We associate Epicureans with gourmet meals in our day, but actually they were among the very early believers of a common notion in our day which was the claim that physical reality is all there is. There is nothing other than atoms (physicalism).
One of their sayings went like this:
Nothing to fear in God. There is no supernatural. Nothing to feel in death. There is no afterlife. Good pleasure can be attained. Evil pain can be endured. That’s what life is about.
It’s a very old idea prominent in Athens.
Then, there were the Stoics. They gave preeminent place to reason and logic above emotion.
They believed self-mastery — to be able to order your emotions and your inner world — was the ultimate in human flourishing.
Paul and many others like Paul had this conversation in the marketplace of ideas and many others (thousands of others) like it.
You see, the Christian understanding of the human condition did not grow by avoiding rational conversation on the basis of authority; it actually grew by inviting rational conversation, often when opposed by authority.
Christianity’s explanation of life (How did we get here? What is the human condition? What is the human purpose?) together with a community of unprecedented love that taught all of humanity was meant to be one together, that everyone was of equal worth — and there were actually solid grounds for that claim that created a new kind of foundation for virtues like humility and forgiveness and generosity — simply overwhelmed the ancient world in a way that all of the money, authority, and power of Rome could not stop.
It’s worth noting that universities themselves, beginning with the very first ones in Paris and about a century later with Oxford and Cambridge, were a Christian idea that grew out of monastic communities — guilds of scholars that wanted to love God.
The motto of Oxford University to this day is, “The Lord is my light,” taken from the Psalms.
Then, Harvard and Yale and Princeton — in fact, 92 percent of the first 138 colleges and universities in America — came into existence by followers of Jesus who believed all human beings ought to be trained in logic and reason so that all human beings would be able to reflect and love the Lord their God with all of their mind.
Whether you agree with it or not, faith was never understood, by the people who engaged it, to be opposed to reason… but to be tested by reason.
The second misconception is quite widespread in our day —
2. You can’t believe in science and believe in God.
The idea behind this one is that, back in the old days, people just didn’t know how to explain stuff.
They didn’t know where thunder came from, so they said, “It’s the god Zeus.”
They didn’t know why the sun appears to go across the sky, so they said, “It’s the god Helios and his little chariot.”
Now, we have explanations for those things, and eventually, we’ll have scientific explanations for everything.
According to quite a common line of thinking, science is the only real solid grounds for claims of knowledge.
A great problem with that is there are a lot of real critical questions human beings need (to live) that science cannot answer, like:
Do people have equal worth? or
Is hope more valid than despair? or
Is there a purpose to life?
The claim that science is the only arbiter of knowledge is, in fact, not a scientific claim. There is no branch of science that has established that idea.
It’s a claim of faith.
Maybe the ultimate mystery is, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why should anything exist at all?”
It turns out science cannot answer that question, and that can be kind of humiliating and kind of painful to our egos because there’s something about the belief that we can know and do everything that tends to exalt us.
Old story — a group of scientists said to God, “We no longer need you. We don’t need you to explain or create life. We can clone. We can transplant. We can make life on our own. We challenge you to a man-making contest. We’ll do it just like it says in the Bible.”
God says, “Okay. You’re on.”
The scientists bend down to scoop up some dirt, and God says, “Oh, no! You go get your own dirt.”
That’s the question of, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Some people think Christianity is irrational because it involves miracles like the birth of Jesus at Christmas or the resurrection, and science has proven there is no unseen, supernatural realm; therefore, there are no such things as miracles. But science has not proven that.
Faith, from a Christian perspective, is not belief without evidence; it’s commitment without half-heartedness, but it’s based precisely on knowledge of God and God’s ways.
This is especially important for us to understand in a moment when it seems like so many people, particularly in the realm of politics, seem to just cling to beliefs based on very, very strong emotions.
One of the great hymn writers in church history was a man named Isaac Watts. He wrote “Joy to the World,” which we sing at Christmastime and “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and a lot of other great hymns. He also taught logic. He actually wrote one of the most widely used logic textbooks of his day.
Through the history of the church it has been great thinkers from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to thinkers in the twentieth century like Dorothy Sayers or C.S. Lewis who have given the church its most important directions in its moments of greatest need, and it’s precisely because knowing reality matters so much that restricting knowledge to the scientific method is such a mistake.
One scholar, a philosopher named Ed Feser, writes that it would be a little like saying because a metal detector has greater success at detecting metal objects, coins and so on, we ought to say, therefore, a metal detector can detect absolutely anything that there is to be revealed.
He says that a metal detector will not detect everything. It won’t find tennis balls. It won’t find wool scarves. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That doesn’t mean they’re not there under the sand. It will detect what it is designed to look for, and science is that way.
Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, headed up the National Institute of Health and is currently the Science advisor to the President — one of the most recognized and awarded scientists of our day and also a follower of Jesus — put it like this:
Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world but is powerless to answer questions such as, “What is the meaning of human existence?” We need to bring all the power of both scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear an understanding on what is both seen and unseen.
Christians, above all people, have an obligation to fearlessly and humbly follow the truth in every sphere, in every discipline no matter what.
A friend of mine used to say, “Jesus would be the first person to tell you, ‘You must follow the truth wherever it leads.’” Because all truth is God’s truth.
The last thing Jesus would ever say is, “Don’t read that book, don’t ask that question, and don’t think that thought.” Churches do that sometimes but not Jesus. He believed deeply in truth.
This leads now to a third misconception and one I think can do the most damage to our lives.
3. No one can really know moral truth or spiritual truth, so agnosticism or skepticism is the best response.
Often in our day, faith is just relegated to tradition or preference or opinion but not knowledge.
It’s thought that you can know stuff about chemistry or math but not when it comes to God and not when it comes to morality.
It’s sometimes claimed that all religions say basically the same thing and they simply deal in opinion or tradition or preference, but one of the most important and frequently used words in the Bible is the word knowledge, and it’s at the core of Jesus’ mission, whether you think he’s right or wrong.
Jesus said this one time:
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32)
It is not an accident that the last half of that statement by Jesus — “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” — is written on more walls of more universities than any statement any other human being ever made.
Again, whether you think Jesus is right or wrong, he claimed to know. He didn’t just walk around giving dispensable advice, and neither did any other great religious leader.
He claimed to know that what is most real is God and God’s kingdom, and, therefore, you can trust him —
That the good life is being loved by and alive to this God;
That the good person is one who is thoroughly immersed in love — to will the good for God and for other people;
That you can grow to become a good person by becoming a learner, a student, and a follower of Jesus himself.
This is not just a tradition; this is a body of Christian knowledge, and it has not been proven untrue. Jesus knew a well-lived life depends on sound knowledge about what matters most.
Let’s talk for a minute about what it means to actually know something.
A couple of questions —
First, can you believe something and be wrong about it?
Of course, you can! My kids do it all the time.
And they would say the same thing about me.
And they would be deeply, deeply right.
Of course, you can believe something and be wrong about it.
Secondly, can you know something and be wrong about it?
No, not by the definition of knowledge.
Knowledge is something different than feeling very, very, very certain about it at the top of my lungs.
To know something means I am representing it. I am thinking about it. I am handling it. I am talking about it as it actually is, for good reason and not just based on a lucky guess. That’s what it means to know.
What counts as knowledge is hotly contested in our day because to have knowledge means to have authority, so it has become very politicized.
We’ll say to other people, “Don’t impose your opinions on me.”
We do not say, “Don’t impose your knowledge on me.”
Because knowledge, reality, and truth will impose itself on me whether I want it to or not and whether I believe in it or not.
Dallas Willard put it this way — “Pain is what you experience when you bump into reality,” because reality is just there.
You see, we live in a day when people are often urged to consider life’s most important issues (What is a good person? How do I become a good person? What is the purpose of my existence?) as matters of opinion or preference or tradition or subjective value, but not things an educated person could ever claim to know.
For most of the history of the human race, in the ancient world, the idea that education does not address knowledge about what matters most would have been perceived as a train wreck.
In our day, in other words, where knowledge is most desperately needed, it has become often apparently unavailable, and the result is that people (often really bright and quite educated people) are plagued by skepticism and cynicism and confusion and uncertainty and doubt and eventually despair.
By contrast, like a light coming through the gloom, the biblical writers insist that what is being presented is knowledge.
My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. (Hosea 4:6)
Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge… (2 Peter 1:5)
Faith and knowledge are not opposed to one another.
The gospel writer, Luke, said he very carefully investigated his writings so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
This does not, as we will see, legitimate arrogant, dogmatic postures. This does not mean Christians are untroubled by questions and doubts. I sure have them.
Paul put it like this:
For now we see through a glass darkly… now I know in part. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
It’s kind of fascinating to me. A biologist named David Barash has published a book called Through a Glass Brightly. He’s deliberately contrasting his language with Paul’s language.
He’s claiming that science now has shown us through a glass brightly what religion through a glass darkly could not show us.
He says we can face — this is a quote:
…the reality that life in general and our individual life in particular is inherently meaningless.
But if life is inherently meaningless, what’s the point of writing a book about it?
More than that, name a single empirical study in a single peer reviewed journal in a single branch in any of the sciences that claims to have discovered that life in general and individual life in particular is inherently meaningless.
Where is any study in any of the sciences in any article that would present the meaninglessness of individual and cosmic life as a scientific finding?
Of course, you will not find it anywhere, and yet a sentence like this gets presented as if it’s documented, scientific truth, and people all just think, “I guess someone has found out something,” and it crushes the human soul that needs to know.
There’s a little phrase about knowledge that your mom used that has deeper meaning. Your mom would say to you, “You know better.”
It’s such a fascinating phrase.
“You shouldn’t have stolen that candy. You shouldn’t have pulled your sisters hair. You shouldn’t have lied and said, ‘I don’t know who did it,’ when you know because you’re the one who did it.”
Your mom didn’t say, “You believed better,” or “You prefer better.”
“You know,” and your mom was exactly right.
You call your mom after this service and tell her, “Mom, you were dead right.”
Now, in our day, the idea that we are capable of moral knowledge is hotly contested.
And often in a very well-intended desire to avoid sounding judgmental or arrogant, and in very well-intended response to people, often religious people, and often Christian people thunder on in real dogmatic and authoritarian ways.
A British philosopher, Mary Midgley, has written a book with a fascinating title.
It’s called — Can’t We Make Moral Judgments?
She took the title from an actual moment in one of her philosophy classes when a very bright student raised her hand and said, “But surely it’s always wrong to make moral judgments.”
In other words, we can have knowledge about math or physics or geology, but morality is a matter of opinions. I have mine. You have yours. It’s relative to someone’s culture or preferences or upbringing.
Therefore, you can’t impose your moral judgments on someone else.
The problem, of course, is that the statement, “It’s always wrong to make moral judgments,” is itself a moral judgment. It refutes its own self — If it’s true, it can’t be true.
We simply cannot live or choose or raise children or have a political society or navigate through life without moral knowledge.
Knowing right from wrong is essential to our humanity, and this gets very personal.
Ask someone who’s willing to confess to some kind of wrongdoing — “If you could go back to your old self before you started this long string of wrongdoing, what would you say to your old self?”
Most people would say, “What are you thinking? You know better.”
In other words, it’s possible for us to know something but deceive ourselves or play tricks with our minds to distract or forget in ways that enable us to do what we want to do as if we did not know what we really know.
The apostle Paul, who, although he lived 2,000 years ago, was quite brilliant about the mind and the nature of knowledge, put it like this when it comes to human beings. This includes you and me.
For although they knew God, [they knew] they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
Every mom has spoken that to every child. — “You know better.”
We know better.
This week, as one real practical application of this message, rather than just worrying about my doubts, I might ask myself, “Where am I not living up to what I know? Where might my future self come back and tell me, “You know better?”
In my family or in my work or with my words, with my money, with my sexuality?
Search your heart. Where do you know better?
This practical side of things leads me to one last misconception, and this one is prominent inside the church as well as outside the church.
4. Christianity is about being right.
Being right is a good thing. It helps you deal with reality, but it’s not the best thing. It’s actually kind of a dangerous thing.
When you were in school, did you ever sit next to the kid in class who was right all of the time?
Some of you were that kid. Many of you in this room were, and it’s kind of a burden you carry.
A really smart guy said once, “It’s actually hard to be right a lot and not hurt other people with it.”
One of the amazing things about Jesus is he was always right but he never hurt anyone with it.
His words often caused pain, often deliberately, but they were never the words of a puffed-up, smart-guy with ego problems who belittled people with lower IQs.
He could be with children and slaves and beggars and lepers and the uneducated and the illiterate, and he never made them feel slow. He never made them feel stupid. They didn’t look like that to him.
One of the reasons I believe Christianity to be true is that it understands the relationship between knowledge and love so profoundly.
The church at Corinth was filled with people who suffered from the smartest-guy-in-the-room syndrome, just like the Bay Area tends to be, and Paul wrote these words:
We know that “We all possess knowledge.” [That was a kind of saying in Corinth where they loved knowledge.] But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. [Man, there’s a world of knowledge in that sentence right there.] But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
There was a dad who was a really, really smart guy, and he had a baby, a little boy. It was the weirdest thing. That little guy did not care how smart his dad was at all. He was not impressed.
This dad was at a grocery store one time, and the little 3-year-old was fussing and whining and cranky and upset and angry and obnoxious and wouldn’t stop.
His dad was whispering quietly, “It’s okay, Lucas. We’ll be done soon, Lucas. You can handle this, Lucas.”
A woman heard him and said, “You’re so patient with your son Lucas.”
The man said, “My son’s name is Wendell. I’m Lucas.”
A really smart guy who doesn’t know what to do with a 3-year- old.
Since he doesn’t know what to do he starts to sing his son a song. This is kind of a goofy song with a made-up melody. He makes up the words as he goes along.
“I’m so glad you’re my son. I’m so grateful I get to be your dad. I love seeing your face. It makes me happy when you smile. I love sometimes at night, when you don’t even know, to go in and look at your little body when you’re sound asleep. I love dreaming of what you might be one day when you grow up. I want you to know that whatever happens, wherever you go, and whatever you do, I will always love you. I will always be your daddy, and you will always be my boy, and you will never be alone.”
Wendell got real quiet, and his eyes got real wide, and his face got real calm, and his heart got real still.
He listened to that wonderful song all the way out to the car.
His daddy put him in the car seat, and when he started to drive away Wendell said, “Sing it to me again, Daddy. Sing it to me again,” because you never get too old for that song.
Richard Foster, who wrote about this, said that’s the song we were all born to hear, and no other song can take its place.
In the end, God will not ask me how much I knew; he will ask me how much I loved.
We were made to love. We know this. We know better. We know.
This is why we have this church.
We are a little outpost of love, of knowledge about what matters most in Pleasanton, so that people can know they are loved, so they can hear that song.
Next week, we’ll look at the question, “Is the Bible anti-women?” It’s a very important subject. I’m very excited about that message.
This week, go sing that song.
We are not here to show everyone that we’re right. We’re here to show everyone God’s love.
Would you pray together with me?
Blue Oaks Church