Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How does Christianity fit with reason? (1)

Last time we looked at logic and saw that there is nothing in Christianity that commits a believer to abandoning it! We had to recognise however, that even if the beliefs a Christian holds are logically compatible, it doesn’t mean they are rational to hold. After all I could believe that there are iron monkeys living on a distant planet and this wouldn’t contradict anything else I believe, but it would probably be irrational for me to believe it without any evidence or other qualifying factor. So today’s task is to see whether Christianity can be not only a logical belief, but also a rational one.

Let me tell you now that this is an incredibly huge task for a couple blog entries! Not because Christianity is so hard to defend as rational but because the very criteria of what it means for a belief to be rationally held is hugely debated within philosophy. As such I’m not going to get very precise in this entry. We have a roughly intuitive sense of what makes a belief rational or not, and I’ll try and appeal to this.

Hang on ... isn’t Christianity just faith?

We sense that someone is being irrational if they are being careless in the beliefs they adopt or if in some way their mental faculties aren’t functioning properly. Often we think that a person isn’t being careful enough with the beliefs they hold if they adopt them without evidence or reason. As in my example with the iron monkeys, it would probably be careless of me to hold that belief without reason.

Here is where the skeptic (and sometimes the Christian) chimes in with the charge that “Christianity is about faith, and faith isn’t about reason and evidence.” Richard Dawkins, a prominent skeptic in recent times, makes these sorts of accusations – that a belief held by faith is a belief without, or even contrary to, evidence. Perhaps some Christians today do have such a faith, but if we want to examine Christianity, we ought to see what the Bible itself says about faith. Christians regard the Bible as the authority for Christian teachings, so if we want an authentic look at what Christianity really teaches, we need to have a look at the Bible and figure out what its saying.

Genuine faith!

You might be surprised to learn that genuine faith, as the Bible depicts it, is built on evidence. Imagine again Richard Dawkins’ idea of faith - as some sort of blind wishful thinking - and see how it gels with the following passages.

"... he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)

Here Paul, an early Christian leader who spread Jesus’ message to many people, has been discussing the nature of God with some pagan Greeks. He says that the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a proof that God endorsed Jesus and will use him to judge the world (I know, not a popular topic, right? Will discuss in the furure!)

While Paul was waiting ... in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16-17)

Paul certainly thought reasoning was an appropriate way to communicate ideas. We even read in the next verse that he debated with some philosophers.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect... (1 Peter 3:15)

This statement was written by Peter, the leader of the early Christian movement. He encourages Christians to be able to give a reason for their Christian belief.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

Jesus himself said this when he was asked what he thought the greatest and most important commandment of God was. The intellect is not to be ignored.

I’ve picked just a handful of verses I could have used. It seems the Bible itself resists the idea that faith is meant to be evidence-less blind belief (I’ll deal with alleged counter examples a bit later). Next entry we’ll try and hone in on what exactly faith is meant to be, if not groundless hoping.

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