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).