Reason in religion – part 2

In a recent post I commented on the role of reason in religion and how the Church has become lopsided away from using our higher intellectual faculties with respect to matters of faith. I briefly touched on the fact that some in the church look at us “weird smartie-pants” types and think that the Christianity that we offer is somehow different from what Christianity ought to be. In this post I want to consider how and why we might look different and what to make of that.

There is some merit to the observation that some “intellectuals” seem to want to redefine Christianity though the problem is with the people not the cause. That the Western Church needs to raise the bar with respect to its intellectual footing is demonstrable; that some of the people attempting to do so are out-of-balance in another direction is equally demonstrable. Some of us who are trying to solve one problem are introducing another problem. What to make of this? Must we choose between two extremes?

The hoppers

Suppose I were to read in the Bible that walking involves the use of my left foot. Well, that seems correct, after all my left foot is one of those body parts that is naturally quite close to the ground. So, I walk around on my left foot. Just my left foot. It’s not walking, of course, but hopping. Relative to walking, though, hopping is far less efficient, far slower and far more likely to injure a person if that’s all they do. It will also atrophy the right leg from lack of use.

Along comes another person who looks at us and shakes their head in dismay. They point out many other Bible passages (ones that we either overlooked or incorrectly interpreted) that tell us that walking involves the right leg. They show us that they have a much better system; they hop around on their right leg.

The truth of the matter is that both of these groups are right, but only partially so. God does expect us to walk with our left foot, and he also expects us to walk with our right foot. We need them both. When used properly, we can move with significantly greater ease, walk (and run) much faster and we are far less likely to suffer long-term ill effects like strained joints and atrophied muscles.

Many in the Western Church see Christianity as primarily spiritual and emotional, and they understand this to mean that we ought to exclude rationality or logic. I have actually heard pastors make snide remarks about the study of theology, and go out of their way to paint themselves as intellectual simpletons in some kind of misguided effort to connect with their audience. The glamourization of a “child-like” faith has gone a little overboard. Most of the Western Church is hopping on its left foot.

Then along come the academics. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the disciplines of Theology and Apologetics have come back in force in recent decades. Lee Strobel has popularized the unspoken angst to seek out answers to the challenges to the Christian faith, and he has been highly successful in his efforts. It’s a simple case of supply and demand; many Christians (tired of hopping on their left foot) created a demand for such material and Strobel supplied. This entire field covers so many disciplines and has created a sub-culture of people well-versed in these areas and ready to dialogue on them.

An Example – Dr. Craig

There are some who overcompensate the error of left-foot-hopping by becoming right-foot-hoppers. They rely solely on their intellect. However, in some cases there is merely the perception that anybody who uses their right foot at all is out of balance. In this article the author, Jeff Cook, claims that Dr. Bill Craig is an example of a person who has mistakenly “intellectualized” Christianity, stripping it of anything existentially desirable (not quite those words, but that’s the general message). Reviewing a debate between Bill Craig (Christian) and Sam Harris (Atheist), Cook claims that Craig clearly had Harris beat on the academic side of things, but Harris still came across as the winner. Why? Because, as the title suggests, the God that Craig is promoting isn’t desirable. But is that really a full picture of the God that Craig is promoting?

The perception is that an “intellect only” faith is something very few people would be drawn to. I think that perception is right. Where I think some of the “left foot hoppers” are mistaken is that we must choose between a faith governed by experience and emotions (a desirable God) and a faith governed by intellect and reason (a reasonable God). Is it really Craig’s goal to eliminate the experiential aspects of faith?

In many interviews and books that he has written Craig makes it abundantly clear that his arguments for Christian Theism are merely one part of a larger package deal. He is merely attempting to establish that Christian Theism is plausible, given the evidence (using his right foot). He is not trying to replace that inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In fact he has come under fire because he is seen by some as placing too much emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s witness (using his left foot)! What he is attempting to do is demonstrate that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives is consistent with the best evidence we have at our disposal (left and right foot, working together). Jesus once quipped that John the Baptist’s abstinence from culinary delights led people to claim that he was demon possessed, but when Jesus enjoyed food and wine they called him a glutton and drunkard (Mat 11:18-19). It seems to me something similar is going on here.

I haven’t met him in person, but from what I’ve heard and read of his literature Craig does not appear to favour his right foot. Rather, he is helping people exercise the right foot that they have so long overlooked. Some of those who admire Craig (and other academics like him) err on the side of right foot hopping, but their overemphasis on the one aspect of faith should not lead us to shun that side of faith. As always, we need to find that balance.

Cultural Expectations

In terms of his debates, though, something must be said about his apparent “loss” against the New Atheists. The appearance of defeat is merely an illusion, as Cook suggests,

The Christian addressed the philosophical question at hand with skill and insight. By the midway point the atheist struck me as seriously outmatched and overpowered.

So why the flip-flop in Cook’s assessment?

The debate about God in our culture is not about what’s rational.

What Cook does not consider is that culture’s expectations on this matter are part of the cause of the problem within the church. Our culture shies away from thinking in rationalistic terms, some would say rationalism is shunned with respect to religious / spiritual issues, and the Church has bought into this lop-sidedness. Rather than correcting culture, we have been swayed by it. God wants us to experience a relationship with him, but he also wants us to think about our relationship too. When we accept culture’s frame of reference for “God talk” then we choose to hop on one foot. In a sense, we dance to culture’s tune.

In his debates Craig makes a point of emphasizing that Christianity stands up to the most diligent scrutiny. In front of a culture that expects the Christian sales-pitch to be about ethereal experiences and romantic prose, Craig reminds them that it is also consistent with the best evidence and appeals to our reason. This is something our culture does not expect, as Cook describes. But rather than play by culture’s game, and appeal to culture’s arbitrary (and misguided) understanding of what “faith” is supposed to look like, Craig centers his efforts on reminding us that we have another foot and that this foot should be given equal emphasis on matters of faith. He does this for the benefit of culture, and the church that has been swayed by it.

The field of Apologetics is not perfect by any means. Some of us have been right foot hoppers. Just as many in the pews around us are left foot hoppers who need to find a better balance, some of us are also off-balance in our worship of God. Those who have learned to use both feet need to help those of us on both extremes to understand the danger of our lop-sidedness and help them move toward a more holistic faith. In the mean time let us try to understand each other, grow in our use of both feet and embrace the tension that comes with a nuanced and complex faith that rests on both emotion and intellect, desire and reason.

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
This entry was posted in Christian Church, General Apologetics. Bookmark the permalink.

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