Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faith Beyond Reason: A Balanced Biblical View of Faith[1]

Introduction: Faith is some times defined as “unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence” and reason is defined as “the ability to think, form judgments, draw conclusions, etc.”[2] The idea is that faith and reason do not fit together or that they are opposed to each other. This is the impression that many people have in their minds about the relationship between faith and reason. Many religious faiths or belief systems are anti-intellectual and discourage knowledge and reason. For example, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (perhaps the most popular Hindu guru now) explains his view of faith as follows: “Whatever you have faith in, do not make it an object of knowing. You do not need to know that in which you have faith. If you have faith in God, do not try to know God. God and Self are not objects of knowing. And you cannot have faith in that which you have made into an object of knowing. You cannot make love an object of knowing. If you try to do so, the love will disappear.”[3] Is faith from the Christian perspective any different? Is Christianity any different from other faiths?

Faith – A Secular and Skeptical Perspective: Many (including some Christians that are fideistic) think that faith is personal and private and it need not and cannot have any rational foundation. For example, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University biologist and one of the most vocal atheists of our time thinks that faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. He thinks faith is belief in spite of and because of the lack of evidence. Bertrand Russell thought faith to be the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. What is sad is that many Christians, quite ignorantly take the fideistic approach to faith, which says that it is faith alone and nothing else (no evidence and reasons). Fideism is ‘faith-alone ism’. They think mistakenly that it is a biblical view of faith.  

Faith – A Balanced Biblical Perspective: However, what do we learn from the Bible? What is the biblical view of faith? We have to turn to the faith of Abraham, the father of the faithful and friend of God to understand the nature of biblical faith (see Heb 11: 8-12, 17-19; Rom. 4: 18-21; Gen 12-18 and 22; Josh 24: 2-4). Abraham is the paradigm for the ‘faith family/community’ (Rom 4: 16). Christian view of faith is such that it cannot exist without knowledge. Biblical FAITH is not against reason (not antirational) or evidence or knowledge. It goes beyond reason and evidence, but is based on evidence or knowledge and reason or experience and certainly not against them. Faith is FOCUSED on God, His Character (characteristics or attributes) or on who God is and what He does in history. Hebrews 11: 11 says “. . . he considered him Faithful who had made the promise.” And v. 19 says, “. . . he reasoned that God could raise the dead, . . . ” (see Rom. 4: 21 also). The work of God that reveals who God is has to be seen in personal as well as corporate (community, national, and global) history. So, truly biblical or Christian FAITH is FOCUSED on GOD, the object of faith and not just on man, the subject of faith – who God is and what He did and continues to do in the world and in our lives. It is REASONED Faith, not an illogical, or a blind faith. This is what we find in Heb. 11: 17-19. Verse19 says, “Abraham reasoned (Gk. logisamenos) that God could raise the dead, . . . ”  (see Rom. 4: 18-21 also). What was the reasoning that had gone on in Abraham’s mind? Romans 4: 18-21 (as a result of this reasoning, he was fully persuaded or convinced or assured) gives us some insight into Abraham’s reasoning.

 Biblical faith then is confidence, reliance, or trust in the reliable or trustworthy. In the biblical sense, to have faith means ‘trusting someone (or something) that one has reasons and factual evidences to believe and entrusting oneself to that someone or something’. This understanding gets confirmed when we look at the Greek dictionary for the meaning of ‘pistis’, which is translated as ‘faith’. This is a very important term in the NT – it occurs 307 times. Pistis has two aspects to it: 1) Trust or Reliance or Confidence or Acceptance, and 2) Intellectual Content or knowledge that is reflected in the life of the believer. C. S. Lewis says that faith is “. . . assent to a proposition which we think so overwhelmingly probable that there is a psychological exclusion of doubt though not a logical exclusion of dispute.”[4] One of the great expositors of the Scriptures in our age, Stott defines faith as “. . . a reasoning trust, a trust which reckons thoughtfully and confidently upon the trustworthiness of God.”[5] Josh McDowell also defines faith in a similar fashion, but using different terminology, as “the assurance of the heart [mind, the center of our consciousness] in the adequacy of the evidence.”[6] This way of understanding faith actually reflects the significance of Hebrews 11: 1, which says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). ‘Evidence’ is the translation of the Greek word, which literally means, “proof, or proving.” It is not ‘believing what you know isn’t so’ as Mark Twain opined.       

Faith Beyond Reason – A Biblical Illustration: When Abraham and Sarah finally believed that they would become parents, it was certainly belief/faith beyond reason. Humanly/biologically speaking, it was impossible for them to have a son, because they were reproductively dead – Sarah was past the menopause and Abraham was too old (Rom 4: 16-25). Abraham’s body was as good ad dead (he was about 100 years old) and Sarah’s womb was also dead. They went beyond this reasoning and believed what God promised, not blindly or irrationally, but being fully persuaded that God who promised had the power to do what he had promised (vv. 18-21). Abraham considered Him faithful who had made the promise (Heb. 11: 11-12). Humanly speaking, it was hopeless and yet Abraham had hope and believed (had faith), because He brought God into the equation. Thus, his reasoning went beyond the merely human and limited level of reasoning. Later on, this experiential knowledge enabled Abraham to reach a higher level of reasoning, not merely natural but spiritual reasoning that is based on who God is and what He does in history (Heb. 11: 17-19). So we conclude that Abraham’s faith is ‘reasoning faith’ that goes beyond the ‘reasoning that is limited to the natural and the merely human’ and includes God.          

Conclusion: We have to follow the example of Abraham. In the middle of our humanly speaking hopeless situations – infertility, financial crisis, health problems, uncertainty in career, unemployment, rebellious children, unbelieving spouse, delayed marriage, etc., we have to learn to live lives of hope that springs from a ‘reasoning faith’ that brings God into the equation. It is God that makes all the difference. If we leave God out, then hopelessness, pessimism, depression, dejection, low self-esteem, grumbling, carnal comparison, and complaining, would be the natural result. On the contrary, if we keep God in the equation (in our daily lives), then we will live lives of hope (in spite of all natural hopelessness), peace, joy, confidence, and obedience for the glory of God and thus be God’s witnesses in this world. This kind of life alone could be truly called a ‘life of faith’. Are we limited to and by what we see or are we able to transcend this and look beyond with the ‘eyes of faith’ and see what merely the natural eyes cannot see? If we live ‘God-conscious lives’ and have the eyes of faith, then we can or should say, like the prophet of the old, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (Habakkuk 3: 17-19).

It will be a good and meaningful exercise to put these verses down in our own words using our contemporary categories (Though the share market does not bounce back adequately and there is hardly any balance left in my bank account, though our efforts to own a house fail and the rents keep going up, etc.) to drive home the truth to ourselves in our times.

[1] This is written for the UESI-AP Hyderabad Quarterly News Letter City Link, November 2008.

[2] See Webster’s New World Dictionary.

[3] Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “What Faith Means,” under Inner Space: Discourses in Religion and Philosophy, The Times of India, Bangalore, Wednesday, September 21, 2005, p. 4.

[4] C. S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 16.

[5] John R. W. Stott, Your Mind Matters: The Place of Mind in the Christian Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 36.

[6] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), p. 4.