Today, faith is often tossed into the realm of subjectivity, myth, fantasy—opposed to objective reality, the natural sciences, and reason.
People who allege a conflict between faith and reason usually use faith in two different (but related) ways: (1) the contents of the Christian religion (or doctrines) and (2) the act of faith itself. The foundational issue for the former is really the idea of revelation: Has God revealed religious truths to the world, and how can we access these truths? But in this post, I want to focus on the latter definition of faith—on choosing to believe. Naturally, these two aspects of faith are related. But for now the main question is: Is it reasonable to believe in religious doctrines, in the first place?
In a word, YES. In Christian thought, one does not suspend the use of one’s brain when choosing to believe. When the Christian declares “I believe,” she is not saying “I choose to believe something I have absolutely no evidence for.” No! The intellect is fully active in the process. Reason, arguments, history, science, philosophy, experience—all of these come into play when preparing to make the act of faith.
Now ultimately, faith is an act of the will – and not just intellect. That is, faith is a voluntary choice to adhere to God, follow Him, and assent to the truths he has revealed (in Jesus, the Bible, or the Church, for example). Christianity stresses that this free choice to enter into relationship with God is above all a grace – a gift from God. Through faith, one prays “thy will be done”—choosing God first. In this way, authentic faith is not just a mere acceptance of doctrines. It is not just an intellectual assent. As the Apostle says, “even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:20).
After examining history and archaeology, one can come to a ready acceptance of the claims of Christ and the reliability of the Bible. After examining science and philosophy, one can come to a ready acceptance of the existence of God and the existence of the transcendent human soul. One can use reason and readily assent to this or that doctrine. But this is not totally equivalent to faith, which is a grace that allows one to additionally say “I put my trust in God and all that he has revealed.” Still, the use of reason is there all along.
So one does not randomly wake up and say “I think I’ll believe in Christ today.” There have been unique moments in Christian history where individuals have had a “Road to Damascus” experience, where people encounter Christ in a dramatic—even mystical—way. But often, the act of faith is informed by evidence and arguments—as much as it has also been influenced by God’s guidance and grace.
As a last thought, consider Christian faith in comparison to a human relationship—you and Peter, in this case. At first, you don’t know much about Peter, so you look him up on social media. You may be able to observe his behavior and examine his physical appearance. You can question and listen to your friend, who happens to know Peter well. But all of this research does not equate to a friendship with Peter. Ultimately, you have to make a choice to enter into relationship with him—to dialogue with him, to respect him, and to trust him. At this level, you do not just know about Peter: You know him. Similarly, the use of reason on one’s journey to faith corresponds to learning about Peter prior to entering into friendship with him. The friendship itself relates to the relationship with God brought about by faith. So the relationship with Peter is not unfounded, since you have explored good reasons to enter into friendship with him. The same is true for God.
Now, some Christians give the opposite impression. They may say things like “you just gotta have faith” when confronted about some aspect of Christianity they don’t know how to defend. Often, when we respond like this, it’s because we simply don’t know enough. We may not be able to articulate why we believe in God, for example, and so may wrongly settle for the idea that God’s existence is simply a preference—like an ice cream flavor. Chocolate is my favorite and that’s just what I think, but you may like vanilla, and that’s just as valid. But we have to counter these attitudes by informing ourselves with reasons to believe. I hope to do so in future posts. But for now, I’ll end with a quote from St. Peter, who expresses that the biblical notion of faith must include—and is certainly not opposed to—reason:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15)