Q&A: Questions About Faith’s Relation To Reason

Q&A: Questions About Faith’s Relation To Reason

Greetings Evan,

I have two questions for you: Is faith in God ultimately grounded in reason, and if so, is that a problem (theological speaking, that is)? For the sake of my question, I’ll use the following definition of faith from the Oxford English Living Dictionary: Complete trust or confidence in someone or something. And I’ll define God in the classic Judeo-Christian sense.

From the research I’ve done, it seems there are several epistemological frameworks for how faith should be grounded. Evidentialism, for example, says our faith should be rooted in the evidence (whether the evidence is philosophical, empirical, etc.). On the other hand, William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Kelly James Clark, Peter Van Inwagen, and other contemporary Christian theologians support the view of Reformed Epistemology, which argues that we can know that God exists apart from any argument or evidence and that our faith in God is grounded in our properly basic experience of him.

However, upon careful reflection, a common thread I noticed throughout all of these views is that they are all rationally defended. That is, although the view itself may say that reason is not needed to ground faith in God, the proponent of the view still offers reasoned arguments to believe the view itself (even for extreme views such as fideism which say that faith is above reason, reasons for believing their claim are given). Now this may not seem like much of a problem, but consider this: Imagine a person, Alice, holds to Reformed Epistemology. If her friend, let’s call her Robin, offers arguments for why Reformed Epistemology is wrong, how would Alice respond? Alice would respond by providing counter arguments for why Robin is wrong. The critical point to note here is this: Although Alice view claims that faith in God is not grounded in reason, Alice must still provide reasons to support her belief. In other words, Alice’s faith in God is ultimately grounded in her reason, despite the view, she holds to.

This is the same reason it’s absurd to try to use reason to argue against reason. You have to assume principles of reasoning are true (like the laws of logic) to argue that reason is not true. It’s self-defeating. In the same way, for someone to argue that reason shouldn’t ground our faith, they have to assume that (albeit implicitly) reason should ground our faith. Why? Because we recognize they have to offer arguments and evidence to support their view, and if they don’t, we clearly see they’re being irrational. This seems to be why philosophers who hold to views like Reformed Epistemology write long philosophical papers with detailed arguments supporting their beliefs. These philosophers know that if they didn’t, they would be irrational for holding to their view. It seems you just can’t escape using reason.

Now, on to the second question (I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you!): If our faith in God is ultimately grounded in reason, is that a problem for the Christian (or theist)? As William Lane Craig has pointed out, it seems that if our faith is grounded in reason, then “one’s faith hangs in the balance with every new issue of The Philosophical Review or turn of the archaeologist’s spade” and that faith grounded in reason is like grounding your faith in “shifting sands” (https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/faith-and-doubt). Or what about the refugee in an atheistic, war-torn country who has no way of accessing the natural theology arguments for God’s existence? These seem like real problems that one who accepts that faith is grounded in reason must overcome.

I know that this question is quite a lot to take in, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on this matter that I’m currently wrestling with.

– Christian

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As for myself, my own belief in the existence of God and the truth of Christianity are grounded in both the evidence and the inner witness of The Holy Spirit. I find this to be a sound foundation. They are two pillars as it were, of my epistemological grounding for affirming that Christianity is true. During dry seasons in which I feel a lack of experience of God, I can help to reflect back on the arguments that demonstrate that it’s true (i.e The Kalam Cosmological Argument, The Fine-Tuning Argument, The Local Fine-Tuning Argument, The Ontological Argument, The Historical Case For Jesus’ Resurrection). Likewise, when I encounter an objection I’ve never heard before, or even an old objection phrased in a new way, which could do a dent in my faith, it helps to have The Holy Spirit assure me of the assurance of my hope until I find an answer. So, when one pillar starts to crack, the other pillar keeps the roof from collapsing until it can be repaired.

Now, some people can get by all their life on Witness-Alone, though I’ve never known anyone to get by on evidence-alone. Though if an evidence-alone faith can sustain any of you reading this article, more power to you. In my own case, I prefer the both/and approach to Christian Epistemology (both evidence and the Spirit’s inner witness) than either The Spirit’s inner witness or evidence. I have found my faith is at its strongest when both are in play.

Now, with that out of the way, I will go on to address your first question. You said “a common thread I noticed throughout all of these views is that they are all rationally defended. That is, although the view itself may say that reason is not needed to ground faith in God, the proponent of the view still offers reasoned arguments to believe the view itself (even for extreme views such as fideism which say that faith is above reason, reasons for believing their claim are given). Now this may not seem like much of a problem, but consider this: Imagine a person, Alice, holds to Reformed Epistemology. If her friend, let’s call her Robin, offers arguments for why Reformed Epistemology is wrong, how would Alice respond? Alice would respond by providing counter arguments for why Robin is wrong. The critical point to note here is this: Although Alice view claims that faith in God is not grounded in reason, Alice must still provide reasons to support her belief. In other words, Alice’s faith in God is ultimately grounded in her reason, despite the view, she holds to.” 

I think you’re confusing giving reasons to believe a certain epistemological framework (in this case, Reformed Epistemology) with giving reasons to believe in God. Certainly, if Robin thinks belief in God is not a properly basic belief and gives reasons for defending that position, the defender of Reformed Epistemology (Alice) will need to give some rebuttal. However, while you may need reasons for thinking that belief in God is properly basic (Belief that a belief is properly basic is not properly basic), belief in God would still be or not be properly basic regardless of what Alice said. For Alice in this instance is not defending why she believes that God exists, rather she’s defending why she doesn’t think she needs arguments to be warranted in believing that God exists. So, in defending reformed epistemology, Alice would not be acting inconsistently.

So, when “philosophers who hold to views like Reformed Epistemology write long philosophical papers with detailed arguments supporting their beliefs.” they do so because belief that X is properly basic is not itself properly basic. “X” may be a properly basic belief, but the belief “X is a properly basic belief” is not itself properly basic. Therefore these philosophers do indeed “know that if they didn’t, they would be irrational for holding to their view”. 

Now onto your second question. You said “If our faith in God is ultimately grounded in reason, is that a problem for the Christian (or theist)? ……..what about the refugee in an atheistic, war-torn country who has no way of accessing the natural theology arguments for God’s existence? These seem like real problems that one who accepts that faith is grounded in reason must overcome.”

I wholeheartedly agree! This is one of the reasons why I can’t bring myself to be a hardcore evidentialist. While it is worth the time to look into the evidence for Christianity so that one can have an even firmer faith than they might have if they just went on the inner witness of the Spirit alone, if you say that someone must have examined an argument in favor of Christianity in order to be justified in believing it, then you condemn a massive plethora of Christians around the world. Like you said, not everyone has had the time to sit down and work through the Cosmological arguments or The Fine-Tuning arguments. An atheist in a war-torn country could cry out to God and, in that moment, feel His presence (cf. James 4:8). After he returns home, he may open an apologetics book and see that there just happens to be a strong evidential basis for what he already came to believe through experience the presence of The Holy Spirit. He could go “Wow! I know that I encountered God, but I didn’t know His existence could actually be demonstrated through reason!”

And in fact, I think every Christian should be like this hypothetical atheist. As William Lane Craig has pointed out in his own defense of Reformed Epistemology, there is a huge difference between knowing Christianity is true and showing Christianity is true. You could know that God exists on the basis of an encounter with Him, but that’s not going to help you in a debate with an atheist.

Think of this as an analogy: I can know that I met Matt Smith (The actor who played the eleventh Doctor in the BBC series Doctor Who) at a Starbucks this past weekend. Nevertheless, you probably wouldn’t believe me. I know I met him, and I know that I know I met him, but I could hardly persuade you of that. You’d go “Yeah, right.” Now, if I played you a video of my phone of Mr. Smith sitting next to me saying “Hello to all of Evan’s friends. This is The Doctor speaking.” or something of that sort, then I could show you that I met Matt Smith. I’d be giving you evidence.

By the way, I did not meet Matt Smith this past weekend. That was just for the purpose of illustration. That would have been really awesome if I did though! Really awesome!

So, in conclusion, while belief in God can be grounded in arguments and evidence, if the Reformed Epistemology view is right, then it doesn’t have to be.

If you have any questions about Christian theology or apologetics, send Mr. Minton an E-mail at CerebralFaith@Gmail.com. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or Non-Christian, whether your question is about doubts you’re having or about something you read in The Bible that confused you. Send your question in, whatever it may be, and Mr. Minton will respond in a blog post just like this one. 

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hi Evan, thanks for the response. I understand what you're saying, but I'm afraid I still don't agree. I believe my point can be seen more clearly if I rephrase my example with Alice and Robin. Once again, imagine that Robin presents a defeater of Reformed Epistemology to Alice. The defeater seems to Alice to be sound, so she gives up her belief in Reformed Epistemology. Now, what follows from Alice giving up her belief in Reformed Epistemology? What follows is that Alice must give up her belief in God as rational, because the epistemology framework by which she held her belief was shown to be bankrupt. Notice that Alice can't respond by arguing that her belief in God is properly basic, so she can hold it in the face of evidence, because the proper basicality of belief in God has been shown by Robin to be incorrect. See Evan, here's the issue: The very fact that reasoned objections can be offered against the epistemology framework by which a person may hold belief in God, clearly demonstrates that reason is what ultimately grounds one's faith, because the person must defended the epistemology framework by which they believe, otherwise their belief would be irrational.

    1. Interesting. This is something to think about? Do we need to be justified in holding that our beliefs are properly basic in order to believe we are justified in holding them in the absence of arguments?

      I'm not entirely sure we do. Consider other things we consider properly basic beliefs but aren't aware that they're properly basic. Most people think right and wrong are objective facts without even thinking about them. They just know that torturing a little baby for fun is wrong and nurturing a baby is right. Now, true, you do have some moral relativists out there giving arguments in favor of moral relativism, but that really isn't the point. Regardless of whether objective morality does exist, I think most philosophers would take this as a properly basic belief. Properly basic beliefs may be right or they may be wrong, but I think most would say you aren't irrational for believing good and evil exists even though you've never studied the arguments for and against moral objectivism. Moreover, your average Joe doesn't even know what the phrase "properly basic" even means.

      I think in order for the objection to stand, you'd have to say that in order for us to hold to *any* of our properly basic beliefs, we must know they are properly basic and know *why* they are properly basic. But that seems epistemically too much to ask of people. How many properly basic beliefs would be deemed irrational just because we didn't have any justification for believing that our beliefs were properly basic?

  2. You said in your answer Evan, "Alice in this instance is not defending why she believes that God exists, rather she's defending why she doesn't think she needs arguments to be warranted in believing that God exists. So, in defending reformed epistemology, Alice would not be acting inconsistently." However, I disagree. Alice is indeed defending why she believes in God, albeit implicitly. By defending Reformed Epistemology, Alice is defending her belief that belief in God is properly basic. To make things easier to read, Let P stand for the proposition "belief in God is properly basic". Now, because Alice believes P, she forms her belief in God based on P. If her belief in P is shown to be irrational, Alice reason for believing in God is now irrational, and Alice must give up her belief in God.

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