r m p

Theological Publications








by Robert M. Price


I want to respond briefly to a challenge frequently issued by well­- meaning religious believers to the rest of us. In fact I am sure most readers will have been confronted personally with this challenge, namely, that a leap, or at least a step beyond reason is required if one is to live a full and well-directed life. The believer does not mean to violate reason, since reason is deemed fine as far as it goes. It just is not perceived as going far enough. It is held that the living of human life requires fundamen­tal answers beyond the kind available from mere logic. Thus, the challenge continues, a leap (or step) of faith toward belief in the Bible (or Reverend Moon, or whatever) is advisable. Only so can we be sure of the meaning of life, the proper moral code, etc. Fair enough. In the interests of friendly dialogue and mutual understanding, I want to take these claims seriously, and to indicate where I believe they fail to convince.


The Limits of Reason

First, in what way is reason said to be deficient? This claim is made in three different forms.

Sometimes the charge denotes the doctrine of the "noetic effects of the fall,” an implication drawn by some Calvinists (e.g., Cornelius Van Til) from the larger doctrine of "total depravity." Reality, it is held, truly operates according to reason and logic; the trouble is that sin has so blinded and warped the rational faculty of man that his logical capacity is a very poor one, and is fundamentally distorted. Otherwise, it would be plain to everyone that the Bible is the Word of God, etc. This argument is not to be taken too seriously, for its allegation must apply equally to the logical faculty of the one making the charge, at least so long as his words are understandable, however unconvincing, to the unbeliever. (If the Calvinist's "pre-fall" reason were regenerated and restored, would we "sinners" even be able to understand him?) Besides, since the only "reason" we know, the only “logic" we refer to by using that word, is being proscribed here, the result is the same as if we were simply being told to abandon reason in favor of a gnostic mysticism. And this is in fact what we are being told to do.

A second form of the "not reason alone" claim is that "post-fall" reason is still functional and healthy in itself, but that we unbelievers are "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” The facts are supposed to be plain, an open-and-shut case as a matter of fact. Reason alone should lead any open-minded person to believe in the Bible (or the Divine Principle, or whatever). The trouble is that unbelievers are not open-minded. We are really just throwing out a smokescreen to avoid repenting, because we’ve got something to hide. "Men love darkness rather than light, for their deeds are evil.” Therefore, only repentance and faith will take away the veil, and allow right belief to prevail. Again, this claim may quickly be brushed aside. It is a bald-faced ad hominem argument. It merely charges one with bad faith instead of actually dealing in logical refutation.

A third, and more weighty, form of the argument is that there is too much more to reality and to human life to allow us to remain content with what reason can provide unaided. Indeed isn't it easy to agree that the error of "scientism" is its imperious arrogance in ruling that only the quantifiable is real? Weren't the original logical positivists properly taken to task for not admitting that there are always other "language games" besides that of the scientifically demonstrable, in which statements may be judged meaningful? So the basic premise seems justified. Yet the way in which it is employed by the apologist for faith may seem more controversial.

Sometimes this challenge is brought to bear when there is no contesting the relevant facts. Suppose an evangelist or revivalist is challenging his hearers to begin a vital "personal relationship" with Christ. It is assumed that the audience is already nominally Christian, as is implied in the remark, "You may know about Christ, but do you really know him?" That is, even if one accepts the cognitive claims about Christ, there is more at stake in the situation. Volition, existential commitment, is just as important. Will you commit yourself to what you know with your mind? This is a point well taken. We run into difficulties, however, when those to whom the challenge is directed do not assume the cognitive validity of the religious claims. Suppose we do not already believe that Christ or the Bible is the revelation of ultimate Truth? Will existential commitment (a leap of faith) be adequate to carry us across the chasm of intellectual uncertainty? Blaise Pascal in his famous "Wager" said yes. So did William James in his deliberations on “the will to believe.” I want to examine the reasoning here, because there is more to it than first appears, yet there is finally less to it than there is supposed to be!


Intellectual Honesty

Thomas Henry Huxley held that it is actually immoral to accept intel­lectual convictions for which we do not have sufficient reason. Now of course one might be mistaken in an honest judgment of the facts, accepting for sufficient what is really insufficient reason. What Huxley meant to censure was what we commonly call "intellectual dishonesty," the witting acceptance of a rational-type position on other-than-rational, and thus inappropriate, grounds. The “leap of faith” appeal seems to be telling us that just such a jump is navigable and justifiable, since we need answers that reason alone cannot provide. We may (indeed must) readily admit that reason is but a formal instrument and that logic is always employed after presuppositions have been established. That is, of course, what presupposition means, after all.

But as "unbelievers" in revelation, we decline to leap, and this for two reasons. First, the logic of the argument assumes that there is only one "there" to leap to from "here.” Pascal says that if Christian dogma is true, then you have the devil to pay if you do not “wager" in Christ’s favor. But if it is false, then a "mistaken” wager will cost you nothing and will on the other hand provide happiness and security (albeit ultimately illusory, but so what?) for this life. Yet what if Christianity is false, but Islam is true? Uh- oh! You’re headed for hell! There are just too many possible directions in which to leap. And after the leap had been made, it would seem to have been the right choice, ipso facto. How could it seem otherwise, if the leap were really one of faith? But on this side of the chasm what guide have we? The "bet" Pascal wanted us to make is not the" sure thing he thought it was. One could lose one I s shirt, and at precisely the point when one made of asbestos might come in handy!

Another reason not to leap beyond reason to faith in a revelation is that this is not really allowed even by that extra- rational margin recognized just above. For if in life we must sometime s go beyond reason, would it not seem that our goal in so doing would be itself extra- (or pre-) rational? Yet the revelation provided by an inspired scripture or creed is rational in nature ("propositional revelation") however stridently it claims exemption from rational verification. Here is that inappropriateness of criteria that spells intellectual dishonesty.

            Of course, there are types of religion, e. g., mysticism or Liberal theology, wherein that religious" something more" does not pretend to take the form of privileged cognitive knowledge. For instance, for Paul Tillich revelation is an unveiling, but not a rational explanation, of the "Mystery of Being itself.” This kind of revelation claim, that of mysticism, is indeed "more than rational" and does deserve serious attention. I only mean to challenge those who would ask us to accept a rational-type belief on other­ than-rational grounds (i. e., faith).


A Place to Stand

At any rate, we say we are declining to take the leap advocated by believers. Yet they may reply that we have leapt already, merely by taking the position we hold, for “not to decide is to decide.” In other words, it is impossible to stand in the middle. We inevitably leap to one side or the other. We act on the assumption that the religion in question is true, or on the assumption that it is not true, no matter how agnostic (and thus technically neutral) we may claim to be. Living on the basis of any presuppositions is supposed to be a leap of faith. We all leap, then; we can do nothing else—so why be ashamed of leaping to the side of Christ or the Bible, etc.? The problem with this seemingly cogent point is that it depends on an equivocal use of the term "faith.” Is the “faith” of the one who simply declines to believe in revelation on the same level with the “faith” that does believe?

No, it is not, as religious apologists themselves quite clearly recognize in other contexts. For instance, the New Testament is clear that the kind of faith in view is nothing like the “faith” that, e.g., I really exist, that my body is substantial, that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse under me. Instead, we are told that “faith is the substantiation of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). The apostle Paul says that “we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This distinction is crucial. Faith in revelation is not faith in the inevitably evident. It is not the acceptance of those everyday realities which would take more faith to deny, the realities we cannot help but believe. Faith in the religious sense is that eulogized in the Gospel of John, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed” (John 20:29b). Or as Matthew puts it, faith is in realities which “flesh and blood hath not revealed unto thee, but rather my Father in heaven!! (Matthew 16:17). By contrast, no leap is necessary to attain the perhaps unspectacular certainties of the agnostic. So without leaping we are already standing someplace.

What the religious person is really asking us to do is to leap from the common ground of mundane existence occupied by everyone, to a higher ground where life’s answers are available to believers. But we ask if there is really any ground higher enough to merit attempting the climb. For per­haps where we stand now is not so bereft of the moral truths we are supposed to go seeking afar off, in some revelation. Let us look at some of the realities self-evident where we already stand. I have already mentioned those intuitive certainties which it would take a leap of faith to deny: my own existence, that of my physical body, the reality of my physical environment, etc. (Even Descartes admitted that his doubt of these things was only hyperbolic, all for argument's sake.) I believe we may add to the list certain moral truths, e. g., that persons deserve respect, that love is good, that honesty is obligatory, that truth is valuable. The crucial point is that these moral certainties seem to be intuitively established prior to any leap to “higher ground.” The religious apologist himself implicitly recognizes this when he urges that one ought to make the best available choice of possible revelations, presuppositions, directions in which to leap. He appeals to an implicit moral obligation to find and honor the truth. He assumes that prior to accepting the “revealed moral standards” he offers, the unbelievers will recognize the need8to find moral truth. And he is right- -we do! But then why urge us to look further? The basic urges to truth, love, and righteousness to which he appeals seem to us as undeniable as our perceptions that we exist in a real world. It would take faith to deny them. Intuition yields these convictions; what more has faith to offer? We fail to see why other ground would be higher than that which we already occupy. "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven? I or 'Who will descend into the deep?' For the word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14).


Saving Knowledge

At this point our religious friend will naturally suggest another angle from which to view the problem. If he is willing to grant the unbeliever his moral seriousness, even the workable adequacy of his moral stance, another question would seem to remain outstanding. What if there is some “saving truth" available only to faith, and without which one will be damned? If this were true, the believer suggests with obvious cogency, wouldn't it be good to know it? The "blissful ignorance" of the agnostic might one day turn out to be anything but blissful (Remember our asbestos shirt.) If the question "whence morality?" is settled, the question of salvation still needs attention. A leap of faith might still be in order.

In answer, we must pose a counter-question. If God is a God of truth who requires honesty (and what creed denies it?), would he make salvation dependent upon an act of faith which some cannot make with intellectual integ­rity? Remember, we have already argued that to attain unto some alleged “saving/revealed truth" by a leap of faith would be impossible to do with intellectual integrity since it seems to entail accepting rational-type claims on other-than-rational grounds. If one must demur from the evangelist's offer of faith, because one is zealous for honesty, will the God of truth con­demn him? If our well-intentioned religious friend finds himself answering (however reluctantly) “yes,” then we must reject his offer as incoherent. For then it cannot really be the God of truth that we are being asked to obey!

Fundamentalists may have a rejoinder at the ready: “But the truth is often narrow and no one objects!” For instance, no pilot veers off his landing pattern because it would be narrow-minded to do otherwise. No one complains if a disease can be cured by only one treatment, so long as treat­ment is available at all. A point well taken, to be sure, but this is not the point at issue.

On the one hand, the line of reasoning just summarized does effectively refute the common liberal bias against the notion that one religion might be superior to others. (Is anyone really prepared to maintain that Buddhism or Judaism is not superior to the Rastafarian drug-cult?) Theoretically, there is certainly no reason that there might not be only one way of salvation, with non- believers in that religion being badly mistaken.

On the other hand, whether those non-believers (skeptics or believers in false religions) are damned by virtue of their ignorance is quite another question! And on this not even all Evangelical Christians are agreed. Some will allow some latitude for “those who have never heard the gospel.” But it is pretty well agreed that the rest of us are in trouble, whether we have simply declined to accept faith, or having once embraced it, now reject it.

Let us urge the religious believer to reconsider this position. Suppose that there is in fact one true plan of salvation and that we are “missing the boat" (however conscientiously) by not accepting it. Our doubts are not negative but positive since, as Paul Tillich would say, they are affirmations of' Truth. We reject this or that candidate for “truth" because we will be satisfied with nothing but the truth and are afraid that many notions do not pass muster as truth. We could not with intellectual integrity accept them. And if we have mistakenly cast aside as glass what turns out to be the gem of revelation, because we honestly could not recognize it as such, will we be damned for it? We would think better of a God of truth. So we admit to the religious person concerned for our eternal destiny, that he might in fact have the truth (as might a thousand other sectarians), but that the bare possibility is not cogent evidence. And, from his vantage point, we would suggest that he keep in mind the warning of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott: "Failing to recognize that faith is a gift and not exclusively a product of the human will, certain conservative Christians refuse to believe in the integrity of a man who says that he cannot believe" (Adamant and Stone Chips, p. 88). Even if we are wrong, we may not be damned.

Finally, in answer to our religious friends, agnostics, and unbelievers must deny that the limits of reason compel us to accept their claims for special “revealed truth” inaccessible by normal channels. We cannot see how the gap can be leapt with intellectual honesty. We deny that our refusal so to leap is in itself a leap. We are not convinced that a leap of faith would supply any lack, for we perceive no lack. Like the religious believer, we already love the truth, and so we fear no reprisals from the God of truth, if such there be. And we humbly acknowledge that there is always truth yet to find. But we feel ourselves on safer ground if we seek it in a manner that it may be found--that of rational inquiry. We wish to “test all things and hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).



Copyright©2008 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design