Think Again: Why Your Faith Needs Reason
Denying reason and its value is to slap Christ on His left cheek, whereas denying faith is to slap Him on His right. God’s Word is not a book. He is a person. Likewise, He is not found at the end of a syllogistic argument, but rather at the beginning of a relationship. The Divine Logos took flesh- as Jesus Christ. God gave us two means to know Him, via faith and reason, and to reject the truth in either one is to reject He who is truth, the God-man Jesus Christ.
On the road of truth, there are ditches found on either side. If you stray too far one way, you stumble into rejecting faith. This leaves you incapable of beginning the process of discovering truth and unable to end it with the knowledge of the most important things. Falling into the other ditch is rejecting reason. Here, superstition abounds and an illogical hazy mist obscures your vision of God. It’s where your mind remains ever childish, where you drink the milk of Christian teaching and never feast on the meat of His word.
Christian passers-by see atheists and agnostics mired in the ditch of reason and scoff, “look what his man-made reason has done. He should have walked by faith and not by sight. Doesn’t he know our wisdom is foolishness to God?”
On the opposite side of the road, secularists see those stranded in the ditch of faith. “Look at these sentimental, irrational fools, with their Bibles open and minds closed. Why would I ever believe the things they believe, if they can’t even understand or explain it coherently?!”
I wrote a previous article in defense of faith. In it, I was largely speaking to non-religious people, in hopes of persuading them to crawl out of the ditch of reason and make their way centered down the path of truth. Here, the target audience are my fellow Christians who disparage reason. In the first article, I was patient, kind, and understanding. Why? Because faith is a gift of God. Not everyone receives it in equal measure. My goal was to clear the impediments preventing them from exercising whatever amount of faith God has gifted them. My fellow Christians unfortunately have no excuse for their ignorance. We have all been given rational minds, the Scriptures, and the Tradition of the Church. Those of us in the Faith have everything we need to walk centered down the path of truth. The words I write here to my fellow Christians could be considered harsh. Frankly speaking, with sincere love for my brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are a Christian who rejects or disparages the use of reason, you are making Christianity look stupid and thus endangering the souls of honest seekers.
Below is a passage from 1 Corinthians 14:14-20, which I want to use to frame this topic.
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. 15 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 19 nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.
Here is my (quite) dynamic paraphrase of what Paul said:
You are using tongues for your own benefit and forgetting about others. Sure, tongues can be a great thing between you and God, but your personal experience doesn’t do diddly-squat for your neighbor!
You know, I use tongues, I pray in the spirit, I sing in the spirit. What I don’t do is switch off my mind. God made you to worship, so worship Him with your spirit and your mind! Start thinking in a grown up way and begin instructing others instead of focusing just on yourselves.
For the Corinthians, using the gift of tongues was a way they felt intimacy with God. I am not disparaging that, nor anyone’s experience of God where they feel His closeness and love. That is awesome! I 100% support that. But if this is all we seek, we remain as spiritual infants. What is a big difference between infants and adults? In the context of Paul, he is contrasting the ability of adults to use their mind (or in our modern sense, reason) with an infants inability. An infant only knows how to scream and cry and laugh to communicate their needs and wants. They have yet to develop their mind enough to use reason. Paul is telling us to develop our maturity beyond an infant’s level of feelings and ecstasy, to deepen our relationship with God through reason. He is not (nor am I) defaming religious experiences, for they can be the springboard for deepening relationship, just as initial attraction to a person is deepened through conversation, using our minds. If we only keep it at the surface attraction level, we are actually doing more harm than good, in a Christian context of relationships.
Additionally, infants are by nature, selfish little gremlins. No one faults them for this, but if this behavior were found in an adult, they would be hated far and wide. Paul is telling us we must break free of our selfish introspection and use our powers of reason to focus on promoting the good of others.
Listen to the words of Christ in Matthew 22:37-41:
37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Are we engaging all of our mind in the love of God? If not, we are screwing up the first and greatest commandment. As Paul shows us earlier, that isn’t the only one of the two greatest commandments we screw up by not using our minds. He argued it is selfish and unproductive to privilege our preferred means of worship over what is able to be shared with our neighbor.
I could probably end the article here. Is it not enough to know that Christ Himself commands us to use our minds, and therefore our reason, to love God? However, we shall press on with some myth busting, clarifications, and answers to common objections.
Myth 1: The gospel is so simple a child can understand it.
A lot of Christians think this is a verse. Go ahead and look. It is nowhere in the Bible. It is true that the basics of our faith can be understood simply. That said, everything can be understood at a basic level. This certainly doesn't mean things should be understood at a surface level. Far from it. Take this statement: “Calculus is a mathematical tool that models change. It allows us to measure things like the area underneath a curve, or figuring out what the water pressure would be at the bottom of a dam.” A child could understand at this basic level what calculus is.
Would anyone recommend that everyone stays at the surface level? What about engineers? Shouldn’t they learn the complexities of calculus? I certainly hope so! After all, they are called to serve others with what they build, as they reshape the world around us with their creations. When they go to build a dam, they better have learned those equations.
Sure, the Gospel can be understood simply. But if you want to serve others and reshape the world, you need to grasp it in detail. If an engineer spends years in training to make sure the dams he builds will keep people safe from being destroyed by a lake of water, shouldn't you “dam” well put years of training into learning how to keep your neighbors from the lake of fire?
We should approach God with child-like trust, humility, and obedience not with child-like reason. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”.
Myth 2: All of our wisdom is foolishness to God. Therefore we should only focus on God’s word in the Bible.
Yes, our wisdom is foolishness compared to God. However God’s wisdom is not. God’s wisdom is calling out in the streets (Proverbs 1:20) and is offered to us. I agree the wisdom from below is foolishness. That is why we want the wisdom from above, God’s wisdom, revealed in the Logos. James 3:17 speaks of this kind of wisdom:
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
If your idea of wisdom doesn’t include it being open to reason, then it is not wisdom from God. If it is not wisdom from God, then yes, it is foolishness.
This myth assumes the enormous mistake that “God’s Word” refers to a book only. No, God’s Word is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word made flesh, had parts of His teaching, life, death and resurrection infallibly recorded, but the Bible is not the sum total of God’s Word. Jesus is. Putting the Bible, reason, or anything else at the level of Jesus is idolatry. Therefore, the idea that you should only care about the words written in the Bible is critically flawed from the beginning. The focus should be on Jesus. The Bible is a gift to know Him better. Reason is also a gift to know Him better. Both must be used.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is addressing a wicked and corrupt people whose religious practices have become abhorrent to God. In verse 18, the Lord speaks, “Come, let us reason together”. Reasoning is something God wants us to do with Him. Reason purifies faith, and faith perfects and elevates reason when done in communion with God.
Oh yes, and as for the idea that the Bible is the only thing we can finally rely on, here is what the Bible says:
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Scripture, which all of us Christians agree cannot err, commands us to listen not just to what has been written, but also to Tradition. Although this dives deep into a giant can of worms, I disagree the Bible is the foundation of truth. Why? Because the Bible, which I absolutely trust, refers instead to the Church as the foundation and pillar of truth:
“if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)
Historically, this makes sense. The Church that Christ started existed 400 years before the Bible was officially assembled, but those Christians had a foundation of truth that whole time. The Church alone, and not the Bible, has the promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
People often confuse the trustworthiness of the Bible, which is 100% trustworthy, with the trustworthiness of their own interpretation of what the Bible says. These things are not the same. Not even close. If you make your own interpretation of the Bible the final authority, it is not the Bible you are trusting. It is yourself. Instead, the Bible is to be understood from within the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. Why here? Why from inside of the Church? Because the Church is Christ’s body, the place where mankind ultimately has found communion with God. The Body of Christ is where we can come to God and reason together with Him.
Maybe you are thinking, “come on, I can get the basics like salvation from reading my Bible.” I caution you, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). At this point in history, many Protestants don’t believe Baptism is a Sacrament, or that it regenerates people. As such, they ignore it or practice it invalidly. Yet Jesus says in John 3:5, “‘I assure you,’ said Jesus, ‘that unless a man is born from water and from spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
Most Protestants reject the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and yet Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54) The Church never understood these verses to be symbolic. Never. Again, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall”. Have you made yourself the final interpreter? If so, you have made yourself into foundation of truth instead of Christ’s body the Church.
Let me add one more thing: although our minds were darkened by sin, our reason was never destroyed. We never stopped being made in the image of God. That image was simply tarnished by sin. Our reasoning reflects our nature as “Image Bearers”. After Baptism, the stain of original sin is removed and we can again use the reasoning powers God always intended us to have.
Myth 3: Philosophy is a pagan and non-Christian practice that only serves to confuse and mislead.
Most people were taught garbage post-modern philosophy that has nothing to do with either Christianity or the Greek philosophical tradition. In defense of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, both of them arrived at the one God who resembles the God of Christianity. Both of them faced criticism and persecution for denying the gods worshiped in their day. Both defended ethics that look very Christian in contrast to other ideas during their time and place in history. Was it a perfect representation of the Christian God? Hardly, but how could they be expected to get off the ground by flapping only the wing of reason without the wing of faith?
Once their ideas, and others, entered Christian and Jewish hands, they were paired with faith. Great minds like Thomas Aquinas used these tools of reason to shed enormous clarity on the truths of our religion. Furthermore, many of the most pernicious lies in our culture, from materialism to utilitarianism, get thrashed by the ancient arguments from Aristotle and others. It is vital to bring these arguments back to confront once more the lies they dispelled and which can be dispelled again in our modern context.
Philosophy can be used to prove, yes prove, the existence of God. Maybe you didn’t come to belief that way. Great. However, many people have and continue to do so. Others have their faith strengthened by these arguments. Finally, philosophy allows us to “Give a defense for the hope that is within us.” And we should give a good one. Not a defense that convinces us and only us, but a reason why someone else should believe, too. Having a defense of the faith is not optional. Peter tells us we must (1 Peter 3:15).
A longer response could be written about the whole “paganism infected the church” myth. Yes, there was a Christian church that was infected by pagan thought and practices. It had a name: Arianism. In one of the most miraculous moments in church history, against all odds, authentic Christianity prevailed at the council of Nicaea and ended this pagan intrusion for good. In the ensuing centuries, we looted defeated paganism and took everything that was good. The Israelites took the gold out of Egypt and used that same gold to construct the holy vessels of the Tabernacle. Christianity took pagan Greek philosophy and also put it in the service of God.
Myth 4: There is a Greek and a Hebrew way of thought. We are conditioned by the world to think like the Greeks, but God taught His holy people Israel to think differently. Therefore, today as God’s people we ought to go back to the Hebrew way of thinking.
The Hebrew way of thinking is awesome and it definitely ought to be used. The Hebrews had a circular view of history, where events of the past and future mirrored each other and reciprocally cast light on the meanings of the events therein. An example of the Hebrew way of thinking would be contrasting the life of Samson with the life of Christ, or finding the parallels between Mary and Eve, or Paul and Benjamin, or Noah’s Ark and the Church...the list goes on and on. In these comparisons, we aren’t using arguments but rather taking in the brush strokes and contours of the images God presents us in Scripture. Today, we generally call these types of “arguments” typology. I am a huge fan! Read the scriptural tour of the Eucharist article, where the vast majority of it is an argument from typology.
God willed that His scriptures be written in Hebrew in the Old Testament and in Greek in the New Testament. Clearly, God has no issue with His words being proclaimed through Greek language, with Greek grammar and Greek idioms. Acts and other books quote Greek poets and Philosophers in Scripture for example when describing God, Acts 17:28 reads, “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His descendants.’” Here, this Greek Philosophical idea is explicate raised to the level of Scripture. Looking at the early church, it seems clear God started including the Greeks very early on.
1 Corinthians 1:22 says: “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
What is the point of this passage and the surrounding text from Paul? Jews demanded signs, which represents the Hebrew way of finding truth. They want a sign they can compare and contrast to other events in salvation history, which they can understand in light of their law and can reveal the truth of God, by way of God’s power set in human history. What about the Greeks? They want to understand. They seek wisdom. No really, Scripture just said it. The Greeks were actually seeking wisdom to the extent they were able.
Is this verse a repudiation of both ways of thinking? I certainly hope not, as that leaves us with no means of thinking and no means of obeying the Greatest Commandment. Instead, as I said from the beginning of this article: “God’s Word” is not a book. He’s a person. Likewise, He is not found at the end of a syllogistic argument, but at the beginning of a relationship. The Divine Logos took flesh as Jesus Christ. The point of this verse is that Jesus Christ transcends anything we could have arrived at by our reason alone and transcends anything the Hebrews could have come up with. Instead, Jesus is the unity of truth and He is the wisdom of God Himself. It is in Christ that our reason functions, our history is understood, the law is fulfilled, and the power of God is revealed! This is not a call to abandon thought of any type, rather this is a call to reason and learn, while united with the resurrected Christ. This is God, in the person of Jesus, again calling out, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). Christ is referred to as the “Power of God” and the “Wisdom of God”. In this way, He is the ultimate fulfillment of what both Hebrew and Greek thought was seeking. Both means are united in the person of Christ, who we can worship, as Paul would say, with our spirit and our mind.
Objections: Faith and experiences and worshiping God in the Spirit is what it is like to be in a relationship. Reason and study and this type of stuff isn’t relational, therefore it takes you away from Christ.
Answer: First off, this isn’t an either/or proposition. Paul would tell you that you should use your mind also. Christ unifies the destination of both authentic faith and right reason. You are called to bring your whole self into relationship with the whole Jesus, not just your feelings, experiences, or even your spirit. That’s not enough, for you are withholding your mind. Your whole self includes the mind God gave you and unites the reason you have with the reason Jesus has.
Answer: Try having a relationship with your husband, wife, parent, or friend without using reason and without engaging your mind. Would this other person be content if you didn’t care to know anything more than what a child could know about them? Of course not; they would be in a childish relationship with you instead of being able to relate like adults. Again, 1 Corinthians 14 tells us we should be children in relation to evil, but adults in our thinking.
Answer: Maybe this is all you have experienced in your relationship with God. I have good news! There is a whole other means of deepening your relationship with Him, which God wants to bless you with.
Objection: You seem to be advocating that everyone focuses on learning and studying. What about loving and serving others? What about just worshiping God?
Answer: You can’t love what you can’t know, and you certainly can’t worship God if you don't know who He is. Therefore knowledge is one of the prerequisites for worship and love.
Answer: When you were baptized, you were baptized into Christ’s body. This means that like Christ, you have the roles of prophet, priest, and king. Some are called to specialize in some of those practices more than others, but none of those are to be rejected. The Prophet teaches what God has to say. The Priest is involved in worship of God. The King is charged with the care of others. Yes, discharge all of your duties as a baptized member of Christ’s body. Strive to be as knowledgeable and wise as Isaiah when you teach and defend the faith. Worship God with the holy reverence and deep joy that Ezra or Samuel did. Care for those whom you are responsible for like king David did.
One doesn’t take away from the others, rather it fuels and empowers the others in a synergistic manner. A person needs to eat, sleep, and exercise to be healthy. These don’t take away from one another, but rather mutually support one another. Asking why should I be taking time to learn and study instead of caring for others is like asking why should I take time to eat if I could be exercising.
This constant push to dumb down and simplify the faith into some kind of lowest common denominator Christianity is disgusting to me. There is no other relationship you have in which you would apply this insane logic. Would you think, ‘what is the simplest set of things I could come to know about my husband or wife’? Or how about, ‘what is the minimum I could do to not break the relationship in divorce’? No, that is not love. Not of another person, and certainly not of Jesus Christ. Love wants to know the other, wants to go beyond the minimum, over and above what is strictly necessary. Love delights in what is unnecessary and extravagant, out of celebration of the goodness of another. This is a call to love Jesus, not yourself; not your preferred means of worship, but God’s preferred means of worship. It’s a call to obey the two greatest commandments out of love for Jesus Christ. As 1 John 2:4 says, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him”.
So don’t be simple, don’t be children, and don’t turn off your mind. Instead, reason from within the body of Christ, in union with the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is one last passage of Scripture for reflection:
22 “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Repent at my rebuke!
Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.
24 But since you refuse to listen when I call
and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand,
25 since you disregard all my advice
and do not accept my rebuke,
26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you;
I will mock when calamity overtakes you.” (Proverbs 1:22-26)
There is much more I could write on the topic, so if you have questions, objections, or comments please comment on the article or email me directly at the firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, I am not writing this because I think I am the greatest of all thinkers. Rather, I am confident in sharing and repeating what the Church has always taught, and I seek to present the 2,000 year tradition of this faith to others in ways accessible to our modern ears.