Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 15, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - Is Faith Reasonable?

I Corinthians 1:18-30

When I was in seminary one of my professors came into class one morning with something obviously on his mind. Over the weekend he had visited the church of one of his students. He was not impressed with the student’s sermon. He told us I felt like he was trying to tell me everything he knows. He was speaking to my head, when I really wanted him to speak to my heart.

It is easy, in a series about belief and unbelief, to give lectures rather than sermons. When talking about today’s subject – Is Faith Reasonable – it is especially easy to do so. It’s easy because it is necessary to employ a certain amount of logic and reason as we speak about the shortcomings of logic and reason. As I have worked through this topic I found it easy to get lost in the amount of information I had collected and struggled to fashion together into a message.

Though I will be speaking about logic and reason today, I really want to speak to you heart. We live in a very scientific and logical age, but we all want something that touches our hearts. Science cannot do so, but faith can.

I want to begin by asking you to look at the following image. Take a close look.

How many of you see a square in that picture? What if I told you there is no square in that picture? Your mind may be telling you there is a square in that picture, but there is no square.

Can we trust what we see? Do we always see what we think we are seeing?

This morning we continue our series of messages titled Answering the Skeptics, and today’s message asks the question Is Faith Reasonable? Is it reasonable – is it logical – to believe in God?

Skeptics are fond of pointing out that it is illogical to have faith. Listen to this quote from Sam Harris, author of the book The End of Faithreligious faith is the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence (page 232). In one sentence there is the basic charge of unbelief against belief – it is not logical to belief in something for which there is no evidence. And they claim further, that the use of logic and reason inevitably leads one down the road to unbelief.

Biblical Archeology Review published an article several years ago entitled Losing the Faith, and in that article took up this question of whether or not faith is reasonable. In the article four well-known scholars were asked the question What effect does scholarship have on faith? Did reason, did logic, have a negative impact on faith? Of the four, two had abandoned their faith. Both of them pointed directly to scholarship and to logic as the reason why they abandoned their faith. In the opinion of these two scholars, faith and reason are absolutely incompatible. They came to the conclusion that no thinking person could hold to belief in God. Interestingly, both also said they wish they were believers, but logic prevents belief.

But is it possible to trust logic? My brain tells me there is a square in this picture, but my brain is wrong. What my brain is telling me is there is irrefutable, visual evidence of a square in that picture, but there is not.

While skeptics say that faith cannot withstand the test of reason and the test of logic, I would ask can you trust logic and reason? When skeptics talk about objective evidence, I would ask what is evidence, and how objective is it, really? What seems perfectly logical today may be tomorrow’s equivalent of believing the earth is flat.

As much as skeptics love to talk about logic, it is important to understand that in other areas of life we know it is necessary to suspend logic. Love, for example, has a different kind of logic and uses a different kind of language.

One of my favorite poems is i carry your heart with me, by ee cummings –

i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

That’s a beautiful line – i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart). In the interest of logical thinking I have rewritten that poem –

I do not carry your heart in my heart, because we both know the heart is a physiological/biological pump that cannot exist outside of the body.

I do not carry your heart because that would actually be kind of gross, to carry one of your body’s organs, not to mention that it would be deadly to you for me to do so.

But I will share my logical assessment that biology has brought us to the point of recognizing that we have mutually compatible neuroses and our lives match on a subatomic level.

So, from this moment, let use our minds – not our hearts – and form a legal and social partnership for as long as our physiological systems continue to work and keep us living and breathing.

Wouldn’t you like to get that message on a Valentine’s Day card?

Love teaches us that there are times when we are better served by setting aside logic and reason. You might tell someone you love, I would give you the moon and the stars. Well, that’s a nice sentiment, but logic would say and just where would I put them?

But there is still a type of logic to making such a statement, because it tells another person I would do anything within my power to demonstrate my love to you.

Do you think he applies logic and reason to his marriage? Probably not. In fact, isn’t it true that logic gets us in trouble in our relationships? Guys, on your anniversary or wife’s birthday, try this logic – I was going to get you a present and take you out to a nice dinner, but logic dictates that I take that money and invest it in a good mutual fund. And I’m going to do that from now on. There will no longer be any birthday, anniversary, or Christmas presents; it’s simply illogical to spend money for such frivolous things. Go ahead; try it, and tell me what kind of response you receive.

And continuing to use pure logic, couldn’t you say that love is nothing more than a complicated combination of mutually compatible socialized emotional needs and chemical reactions in our brain that trigger responses that evolution has imprinted into our psyches. I guarantee you I am not whispering that into Tanya’s ear. And while it might be logical for me to hide her Banana Republic card I’m not doing that either. But a purely logical, purely scientific view of love could come to those kinds of conclusions.

We live in a world that recognizes the limitations of logic. How often do we say you know, you’ve just got to follow your head? What do we say? Follow your heart. Remember Mr. Spock, from Star Trek? Live long and prosper was as close to emotion as he could get. Who wants to hang out with that guy? Captain Kirk is the guy I’d want to hang out with. Captain Kirk, who never followed logical, but acted according to the heart, attempting to do what logic would dictate as impossible.

Let me add that we do need a certain amount of logic in life. We can’t make very decision based upon the instincts of our heart, but where is the beauty in life when there is only logic? We instinctively recognize that some things – such as love, and faith – have a different type of logic and language.

But we must also recognize there are limits to what logic can prove, because our logic is often constructed in a way to bring us to a conclusion that agrees with what we already believe. Victor Stenger is obviously a very accomplished physicist and astronomer who has a great intellect. Again and again he makes a variation of the following statement earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God (p. 71). He supports this claim by the use of a particular argument from logic –

1. Probably, if God were to exist, then there would be good objective evidence for his existence.

2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.

3. Therefore, probably God does not exist.

(p. 22).

Stenger sums all this up by saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence (p. 18).

The failure of his logic is that he is fashioning an argument that guarantees the outcome he wants. What is objective evidence? What leads one to say objective proof is lacking? What is an open mind, and is anyone really open minded? How do we prove objective evidence has been found? What would be considered beyond a reasonable doubt?

Here is the trap of logic, and it is one that traps those who challenge faith – you can construct your logic to confirm what you already believe. It is a universal tenant of unbelief that faith is unreasonable because it is not open to rational evidence. But opponents of faith almost universally fail to realize they are shaping their logic to fit what they already believe, thus they are not open to rational evidence either. If you claim to be open-minded it’s not logical to then construct an argument in a way that will lead you to what you already believe.

It is also necessary to understand that faith cannot be measured in the same way as science and technology.

Sam Harris writes imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matter of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God…if religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less (The End of Faith, p. 22).

Certainly no one would go to a doctor whose medical knowledge is based on five hundred years ago or accept as a scientist one whose knowledge is unaware of any of the discoveries of the last thousand years. Does it follow, then, that we are wrong to cling to centuries old beliefs and should they then be discarded as ancient superstitions? Harris goes on to say the Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology (p. 45). Well, let’s think about that statement for a moment. I believe the pyramids, whose construction techniques we still can’t figure out, were built by “sand-strewn men and women.” I would like to know about these “sand-strewn men and women,” would they also include the ancient Greeks? The ancient Greek civilization had an advanced understanding about astronomy several thousand years ago. And what about the literature and art that dates back thousands of years that has yet to be equaled? And even before the time of Christ there is evidence that certain surgical procedures were used. Ancient technology may not always rival that of today, but to say that people were unsophisticated is simply wrong.

Ancient does not equal out of date. It is possible to pass on medical, technological, and scientific knowledge, so that each succeeding generation is able to build upon the knowledge of previous generations. But this is not true with either faith or morality. Medical science has known for centuries that “bleeding” people is not helpful, but harmful. Learning morality, though, begins anew with each generation. Timeless truths such as love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31), caring for the orphans and widows (James 1:27), and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:40) are truths that are passed on, but each generation – each person – must decide whether or not they will accept them and live by them. One generation cannot choose the next generation’s faith and morality. These truths are also valid and necessary in every age; they are not truths or superstitions that we outgrow.

To believe that we have progressed in every other field of human endeavor and should thus dispose ourselves of religious belief is, then, a false comparison, because while there is accumulated knowledge there is no such thing as accumulated morality. We have certainly progressed in leaving behind a lot of bad theology – the kind of theology that supported slavery or led to the Inquisition – but we are not talking about false theology that is created to support our prejudices and hatreds; we are talking about the timeless truths of genuine theology, born in the heart of God and by design must be either accepted or rejected by every individual born into history.

Some truths simply do not change. To love one’s neighbor is and admonition that cannot be treated as though it were an ancient simply because it is two thousand years old.

Faith has a logic that often seems unreasonable and illogical because it is so in opposition to human logic and because it is human logic that is actually illogical. Jesus often spoke in opposites – whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it (Matthew 16:25); the last shall be first, the first last (Matthew 20:16); if any one wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mark 9:35). And in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter five we find this list of things that seem opposite of human logic – blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; the meek shall inherit the earth; blessed are those who have been persecuted. And Paul writes in Romans 11:33-34a – Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord . . . And our New Testament reading from I Corinthians this morning makes this point as well. I think it is accurate to say that the mind of God is beyond our grasp and at times we struggle to understand his ways. It is not the logic of God that is illogical, but human logic.

I have taken to heart two important ideas from a recent theologian and one from centuries ago. Tertullian, many centuries ago said credo, quia impossibileI believe because it is impossible.

(Dismissing God, p. 11).

And Karl Barth, executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, argued that one cannot understand what God reveals to us without already, in a sense, believing it.


This is a short point, because of our time constraints, and I close with a story about Alister McGrath, author of the book Dawkin’s God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. As a professor at Oxford University he is a colleague of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. McGrath came to Oxford first as a student, and a self-described atheist, and expected that his studies would confirm his unbelief. What he found totally surprised him and seemed to contradict all logic and reason; McGrath found belief and he embraced the Christian faith.

Is faith reasonable? I would claim that to believe is the most reasonable thing we can do.

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