I would venture that if you asked people what is meant by ‘faith,’ they would likely say “believing something in spite of the evidence or in the absence of evidence.” However, such has not historically been the view of faith.
Faith has traditionally been understood as trusting a reliable source. For example, while it is possible to prove through historical means that Jesus died, it is not possible to prove through merely historical means that his death atoned for our sins. The former is demonstrable through reason, the latter by faith. This is not meant to say that faith is irrational. On the contrary, when a source is demonstrated to be reliable, we can trust that source even when we cannot prove something through empirical investigation. Jesus and his apostles have been verified to be reliable sources. Their message has been confirmed with miracles, and Jesus’ claims to deity were likewise confirmed via miracles. Given such reliability, we can trust, i.e., have faith in, what they say.
This is in stark contrast to the blind faith that so many in our culture accuse Christians of having. I have been asked on more than one occasion how I can be a philosopher and also a Christian. The answer is simple: Christianity is philosophically rational.
However, sometimes Christians don’t help matters. Sometimes people assert that faith is all it takes to be a Christian. In a sense there is a ring of truth to this; however, that is probably misleading. We have to have faith in the right object. Discerning what object should warrant our faith and belief requires reason. Faith alone is not enough, for one can have (blind) faith in anything. To have faith in the traditional sense requires one to have reasons, and thus to have a reasoned faith.
It is sad that some Christians actually believe (blindly) that we should not base our faith on reason, for such supposedly subordinates God’s Word to human reason. However, understanding (let alone believing) the Bible requires one to rationally understand what it says. We cannot even know what the Bible says without using reason.
Some Causes of the Problem
With such notions in mind, our culture has ridiculed Christians for being irrational. Historically this is false, for many of the best minds have been Christians. But there is a very real sense of anti-intellectualism in the church nowadays. This is particularly noticeable to new seminary graduates who are eager to take various positions in church ministry or academia. I cannot begin to count the number of graduates that I know who have been disillusioned by the church’s disinterest in being intellectually fit.
Another problem is pastors. I wish I had a dollar for every time some pastor called for the congregation not to clutter their Christian faith with reason. Sometimes this call is subtle and sometimes it is overt. Many churches I have visited, even lately, have an anti-intellectual air about them, stemming from the person behind the pulpit. Such leads to disastrous consequences.
This can be seen in the gross ignorance of average Christians who don’t know hardly anything about their faith. I have had countless people talk to me about their Christian “faith” who do not even know whether or not they are Protestant, even though they have identified with Christianity for years. The average churchgoer cannot even articulate, let alone defend, such primary doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation. Many who have grown up for decades in the Church know next to nothing about the Bible, where certain books are, or have any idea whatsoever about how to interpret or study it. Most Christians cannot have an intelligent conversation about God’s nature regarding whether they think he is temporal, changeable, etc., or that these issues are even debated. Rather than have solid studies on the Bible or theology, most are more interested in 12 step programs, like how to better their lives. Several years ago I made a list of the top 10 books in Christian bookstores. There was maybe one book on theology, several on health and prosperity, and others on fiction. Why is this?
I think at least one problem is pastors. They are not the only problem, but they are our leaders of spirituality, and they definitely share at least some of the blame. (I realize this is a generalization, but I have seen and heard more pastors show off their ignorance as well as a desire for others to do the same than I would like.) In my experience and in talking to others, it appears that one reason that pastors want to downplay reason and intellectual faith is because it is difficult. It actually requires a lot of studying and learning. It is much easier to attack reason as an instrument of paganism or the devil than it is to devote one’s life to the intellectual pursuit. However, pastors have a responsibility to lead their flock in worship and devotion to Christ. A consequence of pastors downplaying reason is apathy and ignorance on the part of the parishioners. The Bible tells us explicitly (and many times implicitly) to worship God with our minds (Matt 22:37).
It is worth noting that when reason is downplayed false teaching is much more likely to abound. Both Mormons and teachers of the Word-Faith Movement downplay the use of reason. What is left is an attempt to judge what is true based on feelings.
Of course, pastors are not the only problem. Each person is responsible for his own mind and faith. It is also true that a church can have a marvelous pastor with uninterested followers. Church and Christianity have been so divorced from intellectualism in many circles lately that people either don’t care to learn or don’t know how. So what is the solution?
Part of the Solution
The anti-intellectualism issue has many causes and requires various solutions. One solution is for parishioners and pastors to realize there is a great need for pastors and church leaders to be educated. Some pastors realize the need, but either can’t afford to do anything about it or do not have the support of the church. We must support our pastors in this area. We should not settle for anything less. Most people would not get their hair done by someone who didn’t have a license and training to do it, so why wouldn’t we want the leaders of our churches who are supposed to lead our families and us in our faith to have an education?
In turn, churches should have programs in place to teach their parishioners the basics of the faith. The average Christian isn’t expected to be a theologian, but he ought to at least understand the basics of the faith. A good way to do this is to have studies on the churches doctrinal statement (if they have one!).
Another part of the solution is to be educated ourselves. This does not necessitate formal training, but it we should take an interest in what we claim to be the most important area of our lives: our faith. This means going to church and Bible studies (taught by trained teachers), reading books, and making it a point to learn what our faith is all about. (See my Recommended Booklist.)
Having a rational faith also allows us to apply it to every area of our lives, such as politics, ethics, and entertainment. This is how we love and worship God with our minds. The difference between humans and other animals is the human mind and the ability to reason. This is how God made us different and more like him. We should, in fact, seek to worship and know him through this important aspect of our nature.
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