Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Faith and reason - finding the balance.

God laid a great task upon humans -
to integrate the practical experience of their faith
with the prevalent intellectual perspective of the world. 

Since the early days of Christianity, there were two clearly identifiable streams present, namely those who practised an essentially existentialist faith and those who accentuated the reasonable aspect of their belief.  The first group had their roots in the early Jewish church and accentuated a practical intimate experience with God. The second had its roots in the Greek, especially Platonic, philosophy and used a more rational approach towards believing. To this day these currents are visible in Christianity. Today, more than before, it is a great challenge for Christians to integrate their faith with reason. How could they accomplish this? In this essay, I discuss the possibilities for doing so. 

An existentialist faith

What is existentialist faith? It a trust in God which is practised and experienced in all aspects of daily life. This faith normally flows from a particular commitment to God. For such believers, this is a way of life - spirituality is at the centre of their whole existence. For them, it makes little sense to speak about spirituality if you do not experience it. The heart of spirituality is experience - the experience of God and his presence in a very intimate, intuitive way.  This practical experience of Christian living is described by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1955), who accentuated his existential faith - at a time when rationality was overshadowing all other aspects of human life.  From an existentialist point of view, science will never be able to give final answers. All knowledge is provisional - but faith is grounded in God.

This existential faith includes the desire to make a difference (it is, in fact, a very basic human desire). In a Christian context, this manifests itself primarily as the desire to bring others to faith in Christ. To share one's experience and motivate others to also commit themselves to God. Although there is a way in which this could be done on a purely existential level, these believers typically find themselves confronted by a barrier - most people do not easily believe if they are not convinced. They must believe that the Biblical message is trustworthy (see Paul's writings in this regard in Romans 10:14; 1 Tim. 1:15; also Mark 4:12). And to be convinced - especially in the present scientific era that we live in - these Christians need to argue, to use reason, to convince others. Although they ground their faith in an existential relation with God, they need reason to bring others to a similar faith. Like Paul, when he argued with the Greek philosophers in Athens.

Since most of these existential believers do not accentuate reason - for them it is not really important what science thinks - this aspect of their humanness is not very well developed. Having feelings of uncertainty result in them seeing the world around them, which operates for the most part according to reason, as a threat - even as a danger.  To reinforce their faith, to guard their views against arguments that they are not able to answer, these believers use all sorts of rules and laws to protect themselves and their community against the outside world - which often results in them leading very legalistic lives. And this strategy is indeed very effective in protecting them against arguments from atheistic thinkers like Richard Dawkins - they do not read such books or watch movies [1].

But this strategy is not particularly successful in convincing other people to commit to such an existential faith. For outsiders, their arguments are typically not convincing enough and the legalistic practice of their faith pushes them away.  For these reasons such groups normally decline numerically in a scientifically oriented world.  In those parts of society where people are not really well educated, a strategy of promoting existential faith through, for example, "signs and wonders", could still yield good results. But this is becoming an ever smaller part of society. Another strategy, one born of desperation, is to work and pray for a religious revival which is probably the most dramatic expression of existential faith. This is surely a good ideal, but these are very scarce nowadays.

An intellectual belief 

What is "intellectual belief"? This is a set of religious convictions which grow out of intellectual reasoning.  During earlier epochs, when the ancient worldview was still prevalent, intellectual Christians used reason not only to formulate their belief but also to argue for it against the prevalent non-Christian views of the time. Many of the early Christian fathers were educated in Greek philosophy. This led to the rise of Christian philosophy - especially of the Augustinian (derived from Platonic philosophy) and Thomist (referring to Thomas Aquinas and derived from Aristotelian philosophy) varieties. With the rise of science - the rational-empirical study of things which requires physical proof - it became clear that it is impossible to prove the existence of God. But the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), himself a Christian, argued that there are certain limits to pure reason - that is, to what extent pure reason can arrive at real (empirical) knowledge [2]. And this allows for faith to exist next to reason. Although we could rationally argue for our faith, we will never be able to prove it in any scientific sense.

For the intellectual Christian, it is nonetheless important to find a rational basis for his or her faith. They do not have a problem to accept the basic scientific views about the world, although they reject the view that science has (or will ever have) all the answers. We find these Christians - mostly Christian philosophers and theologians - often in debates with atheists. They try to show that Christianity is compatible with the scientific worldview. They try to convince people in the wider public space about the viability of present-day Christianity. And we do find that some intellectuals, struggling to reconcile the Christian belief in which they were brought up with the scientific worldview (or post-modern worldview for that matter), eventually settles for some form of that belief to which they can adhere to.

Since "belief" is in some sense the balance between faith and reason, these Christians end up with a form of intellectual belief. They are able to reconcile their Christian views with the current scientific worldview, but their focus on reason often draw them away from any true experimental faith. In this regard they experience a problem in their desire to make a difference, namely that convincing people intellectually is not enough to bring them to faith in God; if people do not see the practical experience of Christian living, they will not easily commit to it. Although the reasonableness of the Christian faith is important to bring people to that faith, it is not enough - what is also needed is the experience of faith in a personal and powerful way.

A reasonable faith

It seems that the most rewarding form of Christian life is when faith and reason are both fully part of our lives. It is not only rewarding in the sense that such a person can experience the joy of practical faith in the framework of intellectual integrity but also in the sense that such a person could be successful in his or her existential desire to make a difference. Although we understand that all human knowledge is partial and temporary, we also know that people's intellect requires convincing them of the trustworthiness of the Christian faith. At the same time, their spiritual needs require a grounding in practical faith. But how is this balance accomplished in us?

During the modernist epoch, some thinkers not only expressed dismay at the over-accentuation of reason but also argued for some synthesis between opposites. One can think of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who expressed his rejection of the non-existentialist reason-dominated state-Christianity of his time in a powerful way. He proposed a synthesis of the "Apollonian" (rational) and "Dionysian" (non-rational, unconscious, including intuition). Nietzsche accentuated the instinctive drives within the framework of the "Dionysian"; it is passion that drives this synthesis. Later Carl Jung (1875-1961) also formulated his theories on the synthesis of "consciousness" (rational) and "unconsciousness" (non-rational, including intuition). It is interesting that these men saw themselves as philosopher/scientist-psychologists. This shows their deep conviction that the intellect should be integrated with the more basic aspects of our existence, leading to "wisdom" (Nietzsche) or a "deeper consciousness"/an integrated self (Jung) [3].

These insights are valuable to Christian living. Both the intellect and the deeper non-rational faculties should be integrated to form a "complete" person. Reason and intuition (faith is intuitive trust) are not disconnected faculties - they are interconnected in a fundamental way so that their development and integration into a balanced harmony forms part of the process of spiritual growth. Their interconnectedness is clearly manifested in Christian life - our rational arguments about God are grounded in the intuitive trust in God's supernatural revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, whereas our intuitive experience of God is grounded in our rational notions about God's existence and His workings in humans. It is only when both the intellect and the inner intuitive experience of God are synthesized, that the ideal of the Christian who is both "wise" and "spiritual" could be realized. It is only when the church accentuate both the practical experience of existential faith as well as intellectual excellence that it will have a real and lasting impact on society.

The desire to make a difference, the passion to be useful to God, should be present if we want to grow towards wholeness - this brings value and meaning to our lives.  In each of us, this passion manifests itself in a different vocation, leading us along different routes. The details of the route to wholeness differ for everyone - no two persons follow the same route. It is a lifelong journey, which is never fully accomplished. There could be times when the apparent conflict between faith and reason will lead one into the dark valley of doubt. It is important, however, to keep the practical experience of faith alive. It implies that one should keep praying - even when one feels no desire to do so. This kindles the flame of faith - even in the darkest hours of the intellectual struggle about one's faith. During this time we gain insights (maybe some metaphor that comes to mind will be of value) that enable us to overcome. With these insights we can sensibly integrate our faith with our reasoning, allowing the process of growth to proceed.

With intellectual growth comes freedom from all the many rules and regulations of legalistic faith, but this freedom is contained within the boundaries of a spiritual relationship with God. With spiritual growth comes the deeply personal intuitive knowledge of God that enables us to overcome and be victorious in all circumstances. As we develop our own perspectives, the potential for conflict with long-held communal views will force us to involve others in our own process of growth - some will resist change, but others will accompany us on the journey.

With time each one of us should develop into "spiritual-wise" persons who could contribute in a unique and special way to the growth of the Christian community where we are active. In this way, we would follow in the footsteps of many others whose lives and wisdom had an impact on our own.  Eventually, we will come to enjoy the pure experience of the Christ-like life in the fullest sense of the word.


[1] Pardi, Paul F. 2010. "Kierkegaard and the Modern Religious Mind". On the internet: http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2010/12/29/Kierkegaard-and-the-Modern-Religious-Mind.aspx. This essay forms part of a series on faith and reason, focusing on the existentialist perspective.

[2] Ward, A. 2006. Kant. The Three Critiques. Cambridge: Polity Press. Ward gives a good overview of the Kantian perspective - if one does not want to read Kant himself, which is of course preferable.

[3] Nietzsche and Jung. 1999. Sailing a Deeper Night. Contemporary Existentialism, Vol 3. New York: Peter Lang. p 50. This is one of the best books that I have read on Nietzsche and his influence on Jung.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud

This article was followed by a debate between Willie Mc Loud and Cornelis Malan (MA Philosophy) from Southern Evangelical Seminary in the US) on www.wmcloud.blogspot.com. 


  1. Willie, 'n deurdagte en gebalanseerde benadering. Om die een aspek ten koste van die ander te beklemtoon is om die holistiese aard van ons menswees te ontken. Seen vir jou. Udo (www.antwoord.org.za)

  2. Thank you for addressing this crucial issue. Any attempt to help people (1) realize the integrated nature of faith and reason and (2) become mature Christians in such a way as to incorporate both these aspects in their lives merits commendation. Your distinction between and elaboration on an existential and a rational faith is especially helpful in that it points to the dangers of embracing either one of the two extremes. In light of his command to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37), Jesus must also have had an integrated view of these two aspects in mind.
    It is hard to see how any Christian can have either a purely existential or a purely rational faith, something which you clearly point out. Those with a more existential faith will at the very least reason with people to follow them in their commitment for a reason, whether it is to inherit eternal life, to have solutions to life’s problems, or for whatever reason; preachers will reason from Bible verses for the necessity to follow them in their commitment to God. The point is that nobody can avoid using reason when articulating some aspect of his faith. Those with a more rational faith, on the other hand, are aware of the necessity to live a Christian life and will therefore have to embrace some existential aspect into their lives. As James rightly points out, there is no such thing as faith without works.
    The main issue when talking about faith and reason is therefore not whether one integrates the two, but how one integrates them. It appears that you advocate using reason to make sense of your (experienced) faith with a number of allusions to this approach in the article. In your opening sentence you seem to make it clear by stating that our task is to integrate the practical experience of our faith with the prevalent intellectual perspective of the world. The method you advocate seems to begin with practical experience which is the rationally justified and explained. I want to suggest another approach, basing one’s experience in certain rational truths (i.e., the truths of the historical Christian faith, for instance the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ). One’s experience should always be grounded in the essential Christian truths, as the well-known apologist, Dr. Norman Geisler, points out; we are encouraged to take a step of faith in light of the evidence and not a leap of faith in the dark.
    Why is this distinction so important? The best answer to the question probably lies in a case in history. In his book, Love Your God with All Your Mind, Dr. J.P. Moreland compares the First and Second Great Awakenings in North America. The First Great Awakening placed a lot of emphasis on the rational by focusing on the contents of faith and Bible study while the Second Great Awakening placed much more emphasis on the existential aspects of the faith as expressed in emotions and a personal relationship with God. The fruit of the first was the Ivy League schools which were formed to formally train people in the Bible and theology, while the fruit of the second was the beginning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. This cannot be purely coincidental.
    In conclusion then, I would propagate an authentic Christian faith which permeates every aspect of one’s being and life. (For this reason I reject the superficial distinction between one’s sacred and secular lives.) But only when our faith is based in the rational truths of the historic Christian faith can we know our experiences are authentic. If we use experience as our primary source of justification it becomes thorny repudiating the spiritual experiences Mormons and some Muslims claim to have had. It is interesting to note that both St. Augustine and St. Thomas had excellent treatises on integrating faith and reason; they did not lead purely rational lives, but both were authentic believers with real existential faith incorporated in their lives.
    Keep up the reasoning (and living, of course)!

  3. I had (and am still having) a hard time wrapping my head around your statement that “‘belief’ is . . . the balance between faith and reason.‘’ You may want to elaborate.

  4. "Belief is in some sense the balance between faith and reason". In what sense? In the sense that it brings together the existential faith that one practice with the rational arguments on which one's faith is based. I restrict faith to its purely existential form; I incorporates an intellectual aspect in belief (even if it is not purely intellectual).

  5. Neels, thanx for your commentary on my article. It seems to me that your reading of the article is summarized by the following remark: "The method you advocate seems to begin with practical experience which is the rationally justified and explained. I want to suggest another approach, basing one’s experience in certain rational truths (i.e., the truths of the historical Christian faith, for instance the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ)."

    I could not subscribe to any of these approaches. In my opinion neither practical experience nor reason, neither practical faith nor "rational truths", should be given preference. This can be seen in the following statement in the text: "Their interconnectedness (ie of reason and faith) is clearly manifested in Christian life - our rational arguments about God are grounded in the intuitive trust in God's supernatural revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, whereas our intuitive experience of God is grounded in our rational notions about God's existence and His workings in humans."

    I cannot accept the modernistic grounding of "truth" in reason. We live in a post-modern world in which reason's position as the sole arbiter in all matters has been fundamentally discredited. It is not solely by reasoning that we arrive at the Biblical "truths", it is also via an intuitive trust in the truth of the Scriptures. See my article on this blog, "Om te glo of nie te glo nie...". There is a translate function at the top of the page.

    1. Thank you for the response.
      I think we both agree that there are aspects to the Christian life that cannot be reduced to simple rational arguments and/or truths. We know that, in spite of our fallen nature, we have a moral conscience; when man sins, in a sense he intuitively knows he does wrong. The issue of intuition is a complex one and warrants a long discussion of its own. The point is that none of us rejects the existential aspect of the Christian life and God’s dealing with mankind.
      My problem is more with your notion that ‘rational truths’ should not be given preference. I repeat my earlier objection to this idea: If we do not have a rational and objective basis for our essential beliefs, we will have a hard time defending the orthodox Christian faith. The Mormon will claim that he prayed about the authority of the Book of Mormon and experienced a “burning” in the bosom, confirming the authenticity of the book. This sounds like a valid experience in terms of your criteria and the only way to refute his claims will be with a rational argument, stating the reliability of the Bible and the falsity of the Book of Mormon. My problem with your position is therefore not with the existential aspect in our relation to God, but the apparent lack of a solid rational ground for our beliefs. Without this rational basis there is no objective way to defend our faith and we are in danger of becoming fideists.
      Unfortunately I have to differ with the idea that, just because we live in a postmodern world, we have to accept the postmodern philosophies and methods. The grounding of truth in reality is as old as mankind; God told Isaiah to come and reason and the ancient Greeks stressed the correspondence theory of truth (i.e, truth is that which corresponds to reality). In a similar way, just because it is counter-cultural in our (post)modern society to question the morality of or object to the gay lifestyle (to name but one) does not mean that it is no longer contrary to God’s word. Many matters of style are open for interpretation but the truth of our core beliefs are timeless. The issue probably also warrants a discussion of its own, so I shall leave it at that.

    2. I can only repeat what I have already stated in my essay, namely that I am of the opinion that one should not give any of faith or reason preference. In saying this, I do not minimize the role of reason. I agree with you that we have a rational basis for our belief. We could surely present good arguments for the trustworthiness of the Bible. But at the same time I do not think that reason can establish the finality of any truth. I agree with Kant that there are certain limits to pure reason - and that this includes establishing the truth of metaphysics. Historical "truths" are also always given from a particular perspective. The existential philosophers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and one could add philosophers like Derrida) that came after him, dismantled the idea that reason could be the sole arbiter of truth. This eventually lead to what is called the post-modern era, in which the arrogance that modern man placed in our human ability to reason, is rejected as being discredited. Acceptance that we life in a post-modern world, does not, however, in any way imply that one accepts the alternative to modernism, namely post-modernism. I think you know very well that I do not subscribe to post-modern philosophy or ideology.

      As mentioned in my essay, I actually go a step further than placing faith and reason on an equal footing. I am of the opinion that in practice it is impossible to fully disassociate our faith and the rational arguments in favor of our faith. We implicitly trust the Biblical account even if we do not recognize it. This is why I say: "our rational arguments about God are grounded in the intuitive trust in God's supernatural revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, whereas our intuitive experience of God is grounded in our rational notions about God's existence and His workings in humans". I include in "intuitive" the spiritual impulse that Christians ascribe to the inward working of the Holy Spirit.

      In the end I agree with you that we could reasonably establish that the Biblical truths - you mentioned "the truths of the historical Christian faith, for instance the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ" - are trustworthy. I also agree that we take the Bible as the sole guide for our practical faith. But I can not accept that those truths are primarily "rational truths", ie that their "truthness" are established primarily through rational means. They are truths because God revealed it as such and we both believe his Word as well as argue for its trustworthiness.

    3. Thank you for your responses and your sincere effort to understand my position.
      I would like to make it clear that I never argued against the integrated nature of faith and reason. In fact, I sincerely believe the two are intertwined and cannot be separated. Reason without faith is just what it is—pure intellect with no faith, and faith without reason (i.e., based on experience) is absurd—my main contention in this discussion.
      Certain truths (e.g., the existence and nature of God) can be arrived at without pure reason. Other truths (e.g., the incarnation, the trinity, etc.) cannot be arrived at with reason; these truths are revealed to us by God and have to be accepted by faith. But even here reason is involved, for one must have a reasonable ground to believe these revealed truths. At the very least, one can argue that these truths are confirmed by miracles. (For instance, Jesus’ claims of his divinity were confirmed by the miracles he performed). This does however not mean that people cannot accept truths, which can otherwise be arrived at with reason, in faith. Some people simply do not have the intellectual capacity to do so while others are too busy and have no time for such intellectual pursuits. Even if one accepts some of these truths on the authority of revelation (i.e., Scripture), one may still later find sufficient rational reasons for these truths.
      The problem I have is when we merely accept things in faith based on some sort of experience we have, something we seem to agree on. Once we start down that road, as I already pointed out, we have no basis for defending Christianity against other world religions and/or cults where people claim to have the truth based on their experience.
      The role of reason, therefore, is to have a basis for what we believe and why we believe it. If we do not have a reason for why we believe, then all truth is relative and nobody can be right or wrong. This does not mean that reason alone is sufficient for faith in God or that sufficient reason will move a person to faith. Even with all the arguments in the world, a person’s will still stands in the way of faith. A traumatic, unjust experience involving a Christian may prevent someone from coming to faith, something which will only be overcome with relationships and not with reason. Having said that, your article dealt with the balance between faith and reason (and not faith and experience). As such I wanted to emphasize the necessity of having one’s faith based in something more objective than experience. Experience is essential in the way a person lives out his faith in practical ways and in convincing people to embrace the Christian faith, but not as something to base one’s faith in. We should have faith in what is true, not what feels good. And this, it seems, we do agree on, although your article did not seem to make this distinction.
      Your statement that “reason can [not] establish the finality of any truth” is something I have difficulty agreeing with. This discussion is primarily about the balance between faith and reason; we both agree that faith and reason are integrated, but we seem to differ on exactly what reason entails. This difference is probably a direct result of the extent to which we accept or acknowledge the postmodern mindset with its relativistic view of truth.
      (I deliberately refrained from commenting directly on Kant and the existential philosophers in our discussion as we clearly do not embrace their conclusions to the same extent. Such a discussion would have been merited, but would probably have diverted too much from the centrality of the discussion at hand.)

  6. The piece of wisdom that I offered before commencing with the article

    "God laid a great task upon humans -
    to integrate the practical experience of their faith
    with the prevalent intellectual perspective of the world."

    should not be viewed only within the context of finding the balance between personal faith and reason. Although the process of synthesis of faith and reason is to a large extent a personal matter (implying that there is no single formula as for the "how"), it is at the same time worked out within the larger context of the faith community and society in which we are situated. All such communities adhere to certain beliefs and have a particular way in which they practice their faith. They are confronted with the intellectual perspectives that become widely accepted in the broader society. The "task" before us is to integrate our "practical experience of faith" in a sensible way with the "prevalent intellectual perspective of the world". Without compromising on the basic teachings of our faith, we should strive towards developing perspectives that make sense to the people of our time. This is in part what I call "spiritual-wise". I will discuss this in more detail in another article to be posted on this blog.

    1. Understandably you will apply the principle/s in the opening remark to more than just the synthesis between faith and reason, but I am more concerned about its application to the issue at hand.
      You mention that we have to act “[w]ithout compromising on the basic teachings of our faith.” These basic teachings (i.e., truths) you mention are, I believe, the rational foundational truths of our faith against which all existential experiences should be measured. Again, without these truths all experiences are equally valid, whether it be of the Mormon or the Christian.

  7. Neels, it seems to me that you argue for the preference of Biblical truth to Christian experience. I agree with that. I, on the other hand, argue that faith and reason are of equal importance in Christian life. In the Christian conversation with people of other faiths (or of no faith for that matter), both the rational arguments for the trustworthiness of Scripture and the godly lives of the saints, which should preferably be manifested in the wholeness of "spiritual-wise" persons, are important.

    It further seems to me that you are of the opinion that the Biblical truths are first and foremost "rational truths". In my opinion they are equally "spiritual truths". I can not accept that their "truthness" are established solely or even primarily by rational means. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this way of thinking is very much part of Christian philosophy in the US. I get the impression - not only from our present conversation - that Christian philosophy to a large extent still operates within the modernist (or rather rationalist) tradition. The reality is that the world has moved beyond modernism (even though many scientists do not want to accept it). This do not imply that we should accept post-modern philosophy, but we could use the powerful arguments against modernism to argue against for example scientism which also operates within a modernist framework, believing that human reason could establish metaphysical truth. They hold the reductionist view that only what could be scientifically proven is true (they reduce the cosmos to the experimentally-accessible part thereof). I discuss that in more detail in my article "Om te glo of nie te glo nie..." (See the list of most-read articles on the right hand side of my blog page and use the translate function at the top if necessary).

    I am of the opinion that Christian philosophers should develop new strategies that are applicable to the time that we live in. In arguing this, I am not saying that Christian philosophy is not of value. I am only positing a valid critique (I think) that is needed if Christian philosophy is to stay relevant and dynamic.

    1. As pointed out in my earlier post, I also believe that faith and reason are intertwined—one is not more important than the other, although they have different roles. I also agree that experience and godly lives are essential in the Christian life, although the discussion here is about the relation between faith and reason, strictly speaking. Our main difference appears to be about what we view as reason, something we will probably have to agree to disagree on. As I pointed out time and again, once we go down the road of using experience as a test for truth, we will have a hard time not acknowledging the validity of experiences of other religions and cults. This plays in the hands of the postmodern mindset, where truth is relative and no one can claim to have the objective truth.
      Although what you say about Christian philosophers in the US is merited, the landscape is much more diverse. Having said that, not all philosophers accept the postmodern landscape. If, as you pointed out, the postmodern mindset is in reaction to the modern emphasis of reason alone, there may be merit in resorting to certain aspects of the pre-modern (i.e., medieval) mindset. Again, this is probably something we will also have to agree to disagree on.

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