‘Till You’re Blue in the Face: Some Thoughts on Faith and Reason

What is philosophy?

This  question has driven my studies since I first became interested in the discipline ten years ago. For the longest time, I gave little attention to philosophy, thinking that it was for really smart people and those who liked to ask nagging questions about abstract ideas. Yet, when I took my first philosophy class out of a desire to know more about the discipline (instead of taking it because I had to for my degree), I realized that there was much more to philosophy than I had dismissively thought before. More specifically, I began to realize the value philosophy has for the believer.

My interest in the nature of philosophy derives from my previous attitude toward the discipline, which mirrored the attitude many conservative evangelical Christians have toward it. In an age where many philosophers have done much to discredit and harm Christianity, it’s no wonder that philosophy has such a bad rap among many Christians. However, when I began to study the history of philosophy, as well as various philosophical disciplines, I was amazed by the fact that many of the questions philosophy has sought to answer are questions that are very near and dear to the Christian faith. How, I began to wonder, can we as Christians use philosophy such that it is a boon to the faith as opposed to a detriment? The more I studies philosophy, the more another question became prominent in my studies: What is the relationship between faith and reason?

FAQ-Faith-ReasonFaith. Reason. In our culture, where we like to pit A against B, ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ have become perennial foes in both Christian and non-Christian circles. Faith has come to represent those who grant authority to some holy book or, in particular to Christianity, in divine revelation as the basis for and grounding of knowledge. Faith has come to encapsulate anyone whose worldview has room for the supernatural and subsumes all belief under divine revelation.

Reason, on the other hand, has come to represent those who reject any form of divine authority and revelation in favor of human autonomy. Human reason is sufficient to grant us the knowledge we need to understand the world, the wisdom by which to live this life, and the ability to discover the means for survival. Reason is also the standard by which to judge all belief; for one to hold to any religious belief is to, essentially, be unreasonable.

This dichotomy between faith and reason has a long, storied past. But, in Western culture (particularly in America), it has gained prominence among Christians and non-Christians alike, to the point that the discussion has essentially become “faith OR reason.” More so, the discussion on faith and reason has increasingly become primarily an epistemological issue – the one who is right is he who has the right belief(s).

Indeed, it is very important that one believes the right things – Christianity is a religion that distinguishes right beliefs from wrong beliefs. We are called to share the Gospel to the entire world, and to encourage and admonish one another in the Word – matters that involve sharing, correcting, and elaborating upon propositions. However, the emphasis on the epistemological aspect of the faith/reason issue is to miss a key factor at play when Christians and non-Christians debate dialogue – it is the issue of the will.

Credit: Coldbourne.

Credit: Coldbourne.

Let me illustrate. Have you ever argued with a family member about a course of action they are about to take? You know (as do others) that you are in the right, and the reasons for your position are practically self-evident. Reason dictates that your family member not take a certain course of action. The particular family member “sees” what you are saying, and fully comprehends your reasoning. Yet, despite your reasoning, they still choose to take the course of action. That is, they’ve heard your reasoning, and they even acknowledge that they understand where you’re coming from, but they still choose to go their own way. As they saying goes, you argue until you’re blue in the face, but to no avail. Your family member has not heeded your reasoning.

So, back to the faith/reason dichotomy we’ve been discussing. If the matter were primarily epistemological—that it is just a matter of right belief versus wrong belief—then it would seem that the faith and reason problem would be easy to solve. But that is far from the case; instead, what we see is little headway made in one side convincing the other is wrong. One’s case only strengthens his own beliefs and the other’s beliefs.

The modern faith/reason dichotomy is missing the key component of the human will and the role it plays in one’s belief. A Christian refuses to believe the atheist’s argument because he chooses not to; likewise, the atheist refuses to belief the Christian’s argument because he chooses not to. As such, debates end up with the two parties talking past one another. The issue is not primarily an epistemological one; rather, it is also a volitional one.

Paul K. Moser, a Christian philosopher at Loyola University Chicago, has a helpful approach to the problematic faith/reason dichotomy. In 2012, Moser’s paper titled “Christ-Shaped Philosophy” initiated an on-going project at the website for the Evangelical Philosophical Society—a project titled the “Christ-Shaped Philosophy Project.” Though Moser’s earlier works touched on his Christ-shaped philosophy, Moser’s 2012 paper sought to sound a call for Christian philosophers to rethink what it meant to be a Christian philosopher, and to do Christian philosopher. What made Christian philosophy different from secular philosophy?

Agony in the Garden. Credit: Andrea Mantegna

Agony in the Garden. Credit: Andrea Mantegna

For Moser, what makes a Christian philosopher a Christian philosopher (as opposed to a philosopher who happens to be a Christian), is that the individual has encountered what Moser calls a Gethsemane union – the volitional act in which one commits “to the God who sends his Spirit with agape and forgiveness for the sake of union with Gethsemane union with Christ.”[1] Moser’s allusion to Gethsemane points to Jesus’ willing and humble obedience to God’s will when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his arrest.[2] Here, our Lord prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39, ESV). Despite knowing what he would endure on the cross, Jesus humbly obeys the will of the Father.  There is the volitional act of Jesus submitting to God’s will.

Likewise, when one comes to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, they are not merely assenting to a proposition (though this is involved). James 2:19 warns us that even the demons believe, yet they tremble in terror. Salvation involves one’s volitional act of laying aside her own will and submitting to the will and authority of God the Father through faith in Jesus Christ.[3] Moser emphasizes that one’s Gethsemane union with Christ cannot come about through their own intellectual power (or any other human power); it comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Gesthemane union with Christ calls for “volitional cooperation and companionship with Christ, who empowers and guides” in all we do.[4]

[Moser states earlier – and this is vital to understand the proper context of the quote just given – that:

The Gethsemane union with Christ, although volitional, is grace-centered, because it revolves around God’s unearned offer and sustenance of companionship with receptive humans. One must “work out” this union for salvation (see Phil. 2:12), but such “working out” is volitional cooperation with God that differs from “works” as a means of earning or meriting salvation (cf. Rom. 4:4). Accordingly, Paul describes himself as struggling according to all of the energy that God empowers in him (Col. 1:29). No Pelagian threat will arise here, as we distinguish the terms for offering a gift (for instance, completely unearned) from the conditions for appropriating the gift (for instance, cooperation of receptive humans with God). A requirement of active human cooperation with God, after the model of Jesus in Gethsemane, does not entail a requirement of human earning (emphasis original)].[5]

In short, Moser’s “Gethsemane union” illustrates that the dichotomy between faith and reason is a false one; one’s beliefs and assent to authority necessarily involves the will—a volitional act. This is not relegated to Christians alone. All make the conscious choice of what to believe, particularly when faced with claims that go against one’s beliefs. In the context of Christian evangelism and apologetics – it is not just a matter of convincing a lost person that they are wrong and that they need to believe (assent) to the Gospel. It is (more importantly) that their will is moved by the power of the Spirit to choose to believe the Gospel and to accept in faith the God’s free gift of grace found in Christ Jesus. And this can only be done through the work of the Holy Spirit, for no man can move or change the will of another.

The discussion on the relationship between faith and reason, then, is better presented as that of the relationship between faith, reason, and the will. With Moser’s concept of the Gethsemane union found in his “Christ-Shaped Philosophy”, I believe we can set the discussion on the relationship between faith and reason within a more proper context. We can then move beyond the faith=Christian/religious, reason=autonomous human distinction and into a more fruitful discussion of how “faith” is not relegated to the religious alone; rather, all of humanity practices faith—the issue is in whom/what one’s faith is placed. Further, “reason” is no longer seen as self-sufficient or as “requiring no justification from anything more ultimate than itself.”[6] Rather, reason is rightly viewed as one’s cognitive ability to discern, make judgments, and analyze ideas (this is a very basic definition; one of my goals is to write on the ontological nature of reason – a proper view of what reason is).

As believers, the question regarding faith and reason is not one of faith vs. reason. We need not shun reason in order to remain faithful. Rather, reason is an ability given to us by God to use for his glory. Rightly understood, faith and reason work together, and do so as intended when the human will is in Gethsemane union with Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Paul Moser, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy.” Evangelical Philosophical Society, Christ-Shaped Philosophy Project, 2012. Accessed http://www.epsociety.org/userfiles/art-Moser%20%28Christ-Shaped%20Philosophy%29.pdf.

[2] Paul Moser and Michael T. McFall, eds., “Introduction,” in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 6.

[3] Moser, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy,” 6.

[4] Moser, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy,” 9.

[5] Ibid., 7-8.

[6] John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 7.

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