• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Do You Have to Choose between Your Brains and Your Beliefs? No, No, and Sort of, but No

In this short series, I’ve responded to the common charge by the current crop of atheists about Christians being not too bright (Richard Dawkins), if not positively dangerous and downright insane, such that one simply must choose between contemporary science and religious faith, between one’s brains and one’s beliefs. And I have replied twice in the negative.

But there is an important sense in which Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. are on to something.

They say they can’t see how someone can reasonably believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith: that God is a trinity of one being in three persons; that one of those persons became human in Jesus of Nazareth; that Jesus of Nazareth atoned for the sins of the world on the cross; that the resurrection of Jesus signifies eternal life for all who trust in him; and that all of these propositions can be believed because taught by the Bible, which is to be accepted as the Word of God written.

And they’re right to find it impossible to see how someone can reasonably believe that–if by “reasonably believe” they cling to a particular mode of reasoning, namely, inference from empirical data or self-evident propositions.

Even many Christian philosophers (notably Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga and Yale’s Nicholas Wolterstorff) freely grant that the method of scientific reasoning cannot be used to prove Christian doctrine. Logical positivism dismissed theology decades ago on the grounds that it could not be demonstrated as meaningful on the austere grounds of empirical science.

But logical positivism itself ran aground as a philosophy of life some time ago. For it became obvious that lots of things–as several commentators on this series have shown in their brief, but acute, contributions–that we find valuable in life cannot be demonstrated or justified scientifically: beauty, altruism, and love, for example.

I have spent much of my career trying to find the best possible grounds for believing in the Christian religion. And I think that enterprise can be a fruitful one.

Ultimately, however, the Bible itself tells us what the philosophers eventually discover: You can’t get there from here.

There simply are no chains of inference that can get you from the idea of God-in-general to God-as-Trinity. There are no demonstrative proofs for the contention that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate and that his life, death, and resurrection are the basis for global salvation. There is no way to lead someone step by step from consideration of the Bible’s various qualities (archaeological vindication, literary power, moral persuasiveness, etc.) to the conviction that it is the very Word of God.

The earliest and most fundamental Christian confession was this: “Jesus is Lord.” And one of the Apostle Paul’s earliest and most influential letters makes the following bold epistemological claim: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

I fundamentally believe, as Blaise Pascal did, that there are plenty of good reasons to believe in the Christian faith–plenty, and sufficient. I also believe with Pascal, however, that there are reasons adequate also to disbelieve.

Those latter reasons, however, do not exonerate anyone. Why? Because faith is a gift, yes, not an accomplishment or natural outcome of reasoning. But it is a gift that God stands ready to give to anyone who wants it.

Those that do not want it, therefore, do not get it. And they cannot therefore justify their disbelief even by pointing to the impossibility of proving Christian doctrine to be true by the light of natural human reason. For the offer stands–to Richard Dawkins, to Christopher Hitchens, to you, and to me: faith is a gift (a “grace”) God is ready to give to anyone who asks (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Faith is always the exercise of trust beyond what we think we know, beyond what we think we’re sure of. Does that mean we have to choose between our brains and our beliefs? No, but it means we must not let our brains circumscribe our beliefs. We don’t understand electricity, but we use it. We don’t understand light (wave? particle? both? how does that work?), but we are glad for it. We don’t know everything about our business partners or surgeons or spouses, but we trust them with our livelihoods and lives. Likewise, we have good reasons to believe Christian teaching, so we should.

But we can’t believe that Christian teaching–it’s just too strange, and huge, and demanding!–unless God grants us that power to believe. And for that reason, at the last, I am not unsympathetic with Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest.

Quite the contrary:

I pray for them, and hope they will eventually receive the gift of faith as well…

…as I pray God will strengthen my faith, too.