Is Faith Reasonable?

There are some who subscribe to the view that faith and reason are diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive concepts. There is another view.

Paul defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I am not going to investigate the original Greek as it is this common English translation that many accept as the basis for their own understanding of faith. I am not concerned with what Paul actually thought about faith, or what those who have closed their minds to the subject think of faith, but whether there is a way of reconciling faith with reason persuasively. I think this quote is a good basis for such a discussion.

The terms “substance” and “evidence” should strike those of the initial view as properly associated with reason rather than faith. “Substance” very much implies the stuff of this world with which we interact in very familiar and ordinary ways. “Evidence” is a legalistic term that refers to a fact, the truth of which makes another fact more likely to be true. For example, the fact that I am married is evidence that I live with my wife. We could be separated but common experience suggests that most often married couples do live together and so, it is more reasonable to believe that since I am married, I live with my wife. It is a reputable presumption. If I have signed a separation agreement it becomes reasonable to suppose that I do not live with my wife.

Neither the fact that I am married, nor the fact that I have signed a separation agreement, will provide absolute proof that I live, or do not live, with my wife. Only if someone stakes out my house, or hires a private investigator, and applies the ensuing concrete observations to a criteria he establishes as constituting the condition “living with” will he be justified in concluding with reasonable certainty that we do, or do not live together. Any indirect evidence, circumstantial evidence, is only suggestive and not conclusive.

Paul’s wording refers to this. “The evidence of things not seen” could be rendered “facts which we perceive directly which suggest that other facts, which we do not perceive directly, are nonetheless true.” This is faith. We are driving along an unfamiliar highway winding through the mountains. We see a sign indicating that there is a sharp turn ahead with a reduced speed limit. What do we do?

One course of action would be to pull over, get out, carefully walk to the turn and look around to see if whoever erected the sign got it right, or even whether there is a road there at all rather than simply a cliff over which we would have driven to our doom. That is not reasonable. What is reasonable would be for us to act on faith. The sign, plus all we know about criminal negligence, personal injury claims, insurance premiums, etc., plus our previous driving experience, plus the previous driving experience of others, all give us ample evidence, albeit circumstantial, to reasonably conclude that the sign is correct and we can proceed safely to navigate the turn at the recommended speed (or even a little higher depending on our assessment of our own driving ability, the condition of our vehicle, the weather, etc.) We are not certain, based on our own personal knowledge, that it is safe to proceed but we proceed nonetheless. We have assessed the evidence of the unseen, made a reasonable judgment call to proceed, and hope that we are correct.

The point is that it would be ludicrous (i.e. incredibly unreasonable) for us to insist on direct personal knowledge of every relevant fact before making a decision. In other words, not to exercise faith, not to base decisions on the evidence of the unseen, would be unreasonable. Therefore, the exercise of faith is reasonable.

There do appear to be some who insist that if you have any reason whatsoever to believe something is true, you are not exercising faith. It is only baseless, unreasonable belief that satisfies them. I do not know what faith these people espouse but it is not that of Paul. If that is what those who take the view of which I initially spoke decry then let us all joint them. A faith that rejects reason is unreasonable. A view of rationality which rejects faith would produce psychosis.

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