Reason in Religion

Imagine that you are involved in leadership at a church that is bursting at the seams (a dream for many). You seriously need an upgrade to your facilities to keep up with what God is doing. You find a great piece of property for $800,000 that would serve you much better in the present and could easily be expanded in the future. All things considered, God is moving in your midst, the facility would help, it is available; why not go for it?

So you go to the bank. They evaluate your finances. You get into lengthy conversations about equity, interest rates, mortgages, terms of payment and so on. Wait, what is this? Is your church now governed by money? When we consider financial constraints as we make our church plans do we put God’s sovereignty in the passenger seat and let the almighty dollar do the driving? Where is “faith?” This all seems so “unspiritual!”

By talking to the bank we are not under any delusion that they control or mitigate God’s plans. Rather, we appreciate that God moves within the human experience and he chooses to use human means and methods to do so. That God works within human limitations is the central theme of the Bible, the incarnation of Jesus. However, I have seen church schemes that focused much more on God’s alleged plans for the church than they did on practical realities that the church faced. Some people focus so much on what they think God is doing that they do not take the time to consider the pragmatic boundaries within which God chooses to work. In the end they often prove not only less effective for God than they might have otherwise been, but in some cases their efforts are flatly counter-productive to God’s work.

What does this have to do with reason in religion as the title says? Reason, like finances, is a practical reality that has been overlooked by large swathes of the Christian church in Western Civilization. Religion is supposed to be about spirituality, our relationship with Jesus, about visceral experiences and euphoric insights. The feeling of mountain top elation is what it’s all about. Logic, analysis and rationality are for mathematicians and scientists, not the spiritually minded. We have been led to think that if we apply our intellectual faculties to the realm of religion that we somehow undermine the essence of a relationship with Jesus.

How has this tendency expressed itself in the Western church? The de-emphasizing of theology is one aspect. How many Christians can give an articulate explanation of the Biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, a cornerstone of authentic Christianity? How many Bible studies focus around what a certain passage of scripture “means to me?” The question of personal significance of a Biblical passage should be the last question to be asked, not the first! If it’s the first question we ask when we read the Bible then we are practicing eisegesis, not exegesis. And if you don’t know what those terms means… well… that furthers my point about the trend toward de-emphasizing theology.

Other fields of study, including Apologetics (part of the reason the NCAC exists), Church history, philosophy, and many other fields have also been neglected.

When we fail to draw upon our rational faculties with respect to spiritual questions then our theology more easily strays into flat-out heresy. Our beliefs about God no longer reflect the actual person of God. Our expectations of the “Christian life” drift away from God’s plans for us. It has been said that “Reality is that thing you bump into when you are wrong” and I dare say many Christians have bumped pretty hard, in large part because we have come to accept that what is merely a part of the Christian story is actually the whole story. A relationship with Jesus most certainly is an emotionally charged experience, but it is also a reasonable experience. We forget that balance to our own detriment.

There is a growing movement of Christians that places a significant emphasis on the role of the mind in spiritual matters. Like the accountants in the Church we can be seen as something of a kill-joy, or worse yet, acting in opposition to God. However, like the accountants in the Church we are simply trying to remind our brothers and sisters in Christ that God has always worked within the human experience, within our systems. He is not trying to call us beyond our humanity, rather he created our human nature and he uses very human means in his work among us. He does not limit himself to merely human means, of course, but he certainly does not divorce his more “supernatural” methods completely from their human counterparts.

Church accountants are certainly not expecting people to bow down and worship the almighty dollar. It would be unreasonable to expect all church decisions to center around the church finances, or to make the accountants the final authorities on church matters. Rather, the accountants are simply there to make sure the church’s plans are consistent with the church’s financial abilities. That’s it. Accountants seek no further influence than that (at least not from an accounting perspective).

Similarly, those who call Christians back to a faith built on a stronger intellectual foundation are not seeking to rewrite Christianity. We do not want to make every Christian thought and experience purely cerebral and excise the emotional aspect of religious experience from Christianity. [I intend to write part 2 later which will take a look at this article; it touches on this very issue.] Like the accountants who provide some broad, practical boundaries on Church activity, we simply want to remind the Church that it must remain within the bounds of rationality, logic and reason. A spirituality divorced from reason is no longer a human spirituality. It is nothing close to a divine spirituality either as God is the very source of rationality in the first place. It is nothing but pure fantasy and wishful thinking. It is false.

The primary reason why those of us pushing for a more holistic Christianity (one that gives the thought life its proper role and function) may seem extreme at times is because the Western Church has strayed so far out of balance. We seem extreme relative to the current state of the Western Church, but most of us are not extreme relative to God’s intended plan for humanity. Having said that, though, I must admit that there some in our midst are actually extreme in one unhealthy direction. Their imbalance needs correction just as much as the other imbalance. However, the fact that they err in one direction does not change the fact that the majority of the Western church errs in the other direction. The right answer we should all strive for is a proper balancing of all aspects of human nature including, but not overemphasizing, the spiritual mind. Until that happens, though, we will keep pointing out the predominant imbalance.

The Western Church, with its emphasis on emotional experiences to the exclusion of mental fulfillment, is like a young partier, deeply in debt and still spending wildly. An accountant who might pressure such a young person to curtail her spending may be perceived as “anti fun” but such changes are necessary to avoid personal disaster. Similarly, the reason-centric Christians who are calling for change are not pushing for a watered-down form of Christianity, but a fuller one. It may seem as though we are “anti fun” but, like the accountant, we are trying to avoid long-term disaster. We actually have the best interests of the Church in mind. We see what others do not, that the many Christians have a lopsided form of faith which is hindering their relationship with Jesus, not helping it.

Until we have “balanced the budget” so to speak, we will keep making our point; raising our voices. We will keep pointing people toward the better way. We are not asking Christians to deflate their relationship with Jesus, but to fulfill it by loving God with their entire being (Mark 12:30).


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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4 Responses to Reason in Religion

  1. My concern is much the other, that those who are calling for a greater commitment to the intellectual life of the church are too invested in a Hellenistic interpretation of the scripture and are blissfully unaware of it; that the effect of it has inhibited the church for over a millenium; to this has been added a Germano-Celtic overlay which still effects the Western evangelical church today.
    The success of the many on the internet who speak for a more theologically thoughtful church, should they succeed, will only succeed in stultifying the church once more. This is what happened as the the various groups of Jews in the period 200BC to 200AD became, through gradual osmosis or purposeful study became more Hellenized intellectually. Thus Jesus became incomprehensible to them, for he refused to teach by the criteria they had imbibed.
    If we are enthralled by the same criteria, we shall have a Jesus that is misunderstood, as well.
    It was easy for the church to slip back into Hellenism as it was being attacked by mystery religions and pseudo-Christian thought systems. But to put the church into a Hellenistic frame is to distort it. We are all so much a part of the Hellenistic legacy, that we don’t notice.
    If my choice was between an anti-intellectual church or a Hellenistically bound church, unresolvable consternation would be my estate. That is not the choice. I have the choice of challenge. In order, I challenge my own a prioris, then others, then their disciples.
    It seems to me that the Bible speaks to things out of its own system of reason which is foreign the Western presuppositions. It is not the intellectual life that leads to truth but an interaction of heart, mind and strength(the doing) interacting with the Holy Spirit that reveal the proper a prioris, the proper lines of argument. The process repeats itself throughout life- heart, mind strength- if allowed to.
    At this point, more than sixty years in the church, it seems to me, that somehow, Arminianism, Calvinism, Molinism all seem to miss the point. The same could be said for most doctrines of baptism, communion, last things and many more. A solid soteriology cannot save me. Solid hermeneutic methods have lead men astray. Being right or wrong about last things, cannot bring Christ back, only the fullness of time. Only the humility that is bought at great price clarifies the miind to what is lovely, true and of good report.

    • Paul Buller says:

      On the one hand I have to heartily agree with you that intellect alone will not lead to the fulness of truth, but one needs heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30) working together, all guided by the work of the Holy Spirit. This is largely the thesis I’m working with in this article and I think we’re on the same page there. I hope nobody understand my message any differently than that; you are spot on in that observation!

      Regarding the extent to which various worldviews do or do not align with the fulness of God’s truth I dare say none of them do completely. A worldview is a human paradigm for understanding so it seems impossible to believe that any human paradigm could FULLY (and accurately) capture all supernatural realities. Some will reflect the fulness of truth more faithfully than others, but all fall short due to their inherent humanness.

      On the reverse side, though, even the New Testament (inspired scripture I think we can agree) makes reference to, and utilizes, non-Hebraic cultural paradigms as a starting point for introducing Jesus to their audience. John begins his Gospel by labeling Jesus as the “logos,” a word which had strong philosophical implications for Greeks. Paul, in his address to the Athenians (Acts 17) draws on references from Greek philosophers to establish his point. In both cases, though, the reigning paradigm is not merely parroted approvingly, but used as a starting point to direct the audience to something beyond it. Even the Hebrew cultural paradigm, it could be argued, was merely a starting point from which Jesus began in order to point to something beyond it as well; himself.

      • Yes, but I note that Paul did not seem to think that his Athenian venture was as successful as so many seem to think today. His next stop was Corinth and he says, “when I came to you, I was determined to know nothing amongst you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” I was just looking at a program last night on the journeys of Paul. they showed the place of the Aereopagus and the Agora, quite separate, the two. He left the marketplace for the university, so to speak, and reached few while he was in Athens. Beside, he was supposed to meet Silas and Timothy there, the Agora being the most likely place to meet. Oddly, luke fails to tell us if they found him there and gives the impression that paul left alone, leaving the two young men to catch up to him, either on the road to Corinth or the city itself. One is tempted to read into this that Paul was distracted and discouraged and somewhere along the way his confidence was restored.
        It seems that roads are the metaphors for Paul: the road to Damascus, the road to Corinth, the Appian Way. In prison, Paul could still imagine a road to Spain in his future. Each of us finding the road we are to be on is paramount, then sticking to the
        message we are called to: Jesus crucified, arisen, exalted, returning.

        • Paul Buller says:

          With all due respect, I no longer understand what your primary point is. Based on the core message of my original post and your apparent opposition to it, I would assume that you are opposed to the use of reason in religious matters. However, your responses in our discussion on this religious matter have all been reasonable. For instance, you first distinguished between two apparently competing methods of approaching religious matters – Hellenistic and Hebraic – and you seemed to suggest they were mutually exclusive and that we should prefer the latter instead to the former. This sounds remarkably like the use of the Law of Non-Contradiction and the Law of Excluded Middle. Both laws are foundational to reason which makes it sound remarkably as though you are using reason to draw religious conclusions.

          Furthermore, one is tempted to understand the line of reasoning in your most recent reply as follows.

          1) If the Bible supports evangelistic methodology X, Christians should utilize evangelistic methodology X.
          2) The Bible supports evangelistic methodology X, therefore
          3) Christians should utilize evangelistic methodology X.

          This is, of course, reason properly applied to a religious matter. This line of reasoning is refered to as Modus Ponens ( The fact that you are using reason to persuade me about a religious matter again inspires me to ask precisely what your point is. I am sincerely confused. Thank you for your engagement on the matter.

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