Reasons to Believe

Apologetics Series - 1

Reasons to Believe:
The Place of Reason in Christian Faith

Contrary to widespread prejudice, there are many reasonable grounds for believing in God. This address, the first in a series on ‘Christian Apologetics’, given at a morning service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 10 September 1995, argues that belief in God is supported, not undermined, by the proper use of reason and by the very structure of reasoning itself.

Faith and Reason

The relationship of faith and reason has often been controversial. As early as the third century the Church father Tertullian asked, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the academy with the church?’ Many Christians today - even professional Christians and Christian students - have a view of faith that is essentially irrational. Their professional life or studies are in one compartment, their faith in another. This anti-intellectual stance has important practical consequences, because unthinking Christians often do things that are mindless or whacky, hold attitudes that put others off from becoming Christians, are ill-equipped to explain Christian faith to interested enquirers, and abandon intellectual and public life to secularists.

In actual fact, there are strong Biblical grounds for affirming reason and rationality:

  • Jesus told us to love God with all our mind as well as all our heart (Matthew 22:37, thus endorsing the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, Deuteronomy 6:5).

  • Paul said that the offering our bodies to God was not an irrational or foolish act but our ‘reasonable worship’ (logikos, a logical act in accordance with true goal of our lives), to be accomplished by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1).

  • Peter urged us always to be ready to answer unbelievers or enquirers who ask us ‘to give the reason’ for the hope we have and the faith we hold (1 Peter 3:15).

  • The supreme biblical affirmation of the place of reason is the Prologue of John’s Gospel, where the Stoic or neo-Platonist term logos (‘word’, ‘reason’) is applied to the pre-existent Son of God through whom everything was created in the beginning and who enlightens every human being born into the world (John 1:1-4, 9). Here the Logos is the principle which unifies all reality and renders that reality intelligible to us.

Christians can use reason in two ways. Firstly to provide evidence for the truth of the Christian faith. Secondly to show shortcomings or inconsistencies in the views of non-believers. The former approach is positive or constructive apologetics. The latter is negative or critical apologetics. The first shows the reasonableness of Christian faith, the second shows the foolishness of unbelief.

1. The Reasonableness of Faith

Historically there have been three classical rational arguments for the existence of God and the truth of the Christian faith. Here I concentrate on the reasonableness or rational character of these arguments, to show that faith is supported, not undermined, by the proper use of reason.

i) The Argument from Causality

Every effect requires a cause. Our minds are so constituted that it is rational to deduce causes from consequences, and illogical to deny it. The entire criminal system rests on this assumption. (Here is a corpse; explain how it was killed. An aircraft crashed on Mt. Erebus; explain how it came to be there). This is called the Cosmological argument: it moves by deduction from the existence of the universe (Greek kosmos), to the existence of a First Cause. Atheists are often illogical, presupposing the law of cause and effect in every day life, but denying its applicability in relation to the origin of the universe as a whole.

ii) The Argument from Order

The Teleological argument (Greek telos, meaning ‘end’, goal or purpose) argues from the evidence of design in the universe to the existence of an Intelligent Designer. Contrary to the common assumption of evolutionary theory, chance does not explain order. Chance explains randomness and disorder, whereas order always points to a purposeful and intelligent mind. A railway station pebble garden on the English-Welsh border reading ‘WELCOME TO WALES BY BRITISH RAILWAYS’ indicates a thoughtful border station master, whereas chance or randomness only explains its subsequent disarrangement and loss of order. ‘Randomness alone cannot produce a significant pattern.’ (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, [London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958], pp. 33-40).

iii) The Argument from Being

The Ontological argument, from the interrelationship of thought and being (Greek ontos), points to the existence of a Highest or Supreme Being. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, defined God as the Being ‘beyond which nothing greater can be conceived’ (Proslogion, 2). He argued that the very nature of God is such that no greater being can be imagined. If the Greatest Being could be imagined as not existing, then something even greater could be imagined - a Greatest Being who truly existed, which is by definition, God. ‘He could not be conceived as not existing which so truly exists that it cannot even be conceived as not existing’ (Proslogion, 3). This Supreme Being, Anselm said, is the God whom Christians worship and pray to.

 

2. The Irrationality of Unbelief

Reason can also be used to show the inconsistency of those who reject or redefine Christian belief in a transcendent Creator God. If faith is reasonable or rational, then unbelief is essentially foolish or irrational. According to the Bible, denial of God is not a rational thing to do, but an act of folly; it is fools who say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’ (Psalms 14:1, 53:1).

i) Naturalism is Inconsistent

The test of consistency means a person must be willing to apply the same scrutiny to their own thinking as they apply to the thinking of others. Atheists and nonbelievers often use more stringent tests for truth against the Christian message than they do in relation to their own viewpoint. It is inconsistent to use arguments against theism that would equally undermine atheism if applied to the sceptic’s case instead. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

For example, Lloyd Geering, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and a well-known secularising Presbyterian minister, argues in his recent book Tomorrow’s God: How We Create Our Worlds (Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 1994) that ‘God’ does not objectively exist but is simply a human construct, a symbolic expression of our ultimate values, part of the world of meaning we create for ourselves in the attempt to make sense of life. On this view ‘God’ is like a character in a novel, who doesn’t objectively exist but is a product of author’s creative imagination.

What if we were to apply this argument to him? Professor Geering does not really exist; he is just a literary construct. We have words and writings purporting to come from him, but, on his own terms, they are a linguistic and symbolic construct, and there is no reason why we should accept that they are the revelation of a real person who exists apart from and independently of them. Geering is inconsistent. Applying his critique to his own views shows that he obviously expects to be treated differently than he treats God.

ii) Naturalism is Self-Contradictory

A similar example of negative apologetics is C. S. Lewis’s brilliant argument about ‘the self contradiction of the naturalist’, in his book on miracles. I could summarise his argument like this: If naturalism is true, the universe as a whole, and my thinking in particular, is the product of natural or irrational causes. But if my thinking is the product of irrational causes, I have no grounds for believing it to be true. Therefore, I cannot establish the case that naturalism is true.

Lewis says, ‘All arguments about the validity of thought make a tacit, and illegitimate, exception in favour of the bit of thought you are doing at that moment. . . . Thus the Freudian proves that all thoughts are merely due to complexes except the thoughts which constitute this proof itself. The Marxist proves that all thoughts result from class conditioning - except the thought he is thinking while he says this.’ (Miracles [London, Bles, 1947], p 30).

iii) Naturalism lacks a Basis for Moral Outrage

One of the strongest arguments against Christian belief has been the argument from evil: how could an all-powerful and all-loving God allow the continued existence of evil and injustice in a world for which he is responsible? This argument is often adduced, despite the central tenet of the Christian message that God so loved world that he gave his only Son to enter it, experience our suffering, and die a victim of evil and injustice on the cross - precisely to overcome this sin and evil he is alleged to be indifferent to.

But Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and perhaps the world’s leading contemporary Protestant philosopher, points out a flaw in this antitheistic argument from evil. The existence of evil, particularly of appalling human cruelty and wickedness like that displayed by Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, can be viewed equally as contradicting naturalism and as providing evidence for theism.

‘Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true? I don’t see how,’ answers Plantinga. ‘A naturalistic way of looking at the world . . . has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness. . . . There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live. . . . But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity; that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature it is to abhor wickedness.’ On a truly naturalistic view of reality such wickedness would simply have to be accepted, without demur or protest. (In Kelly James Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe: the Spiritual Journeys of Eleven Leading Thinkers [Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1993], p.73).

Conclusion

Cumulatively, these two lines of rational evidence, one positive and the other negative, when weighed thoughtfully and dispassionately, point to the irrationality of atheism and the reasonableness of theism. Belief in God is supported, not undermined, by the proper use of reason and indeed by the very structure of reasoning itself.

Rob Yule
10 September 1995
© 1995, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand