Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Too Much Faith in Reason

Our modern era with its greater emphasis on human reason and self-determination has influenced Christianity in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, it has encouraged people to take matters of faith into their own hands (and hearts), instead of relying solely on religious and civil authorities to dispense an unquestionable version of truth. This is good because all institutions are comprised of human beings and all human beings are fallible. History, the Bible and personal experience all concur that people and institutions, even religious ones, have erred and will err. This does not mean that they are not good, do not contain truth or that we should not be a part of them. Not at all! But essential matters of faith – who God is, how we know and serve him, how to live a good life and how to go to heaven – are too important to entrust completely and unthinkingly to others. Faith is ultimately a matter of the heart, and God will hold people to account as individuals. Therefore it is good that we assume responsibility for faith as individuals.

The downside of our modern era is that it has encouraged Christians to place inordinate faith in human reason. We have slipstreamed into the prevailing currents of our time and come to believe that the diligent application of reason and logic will bring us straightaway to the throne of the Almighty. We venerate theologians and scholars, as if they best understand God. What about the person who is humble and full of faith? We hire pastors with Masters of Divinity and read religious books from people with PhDs, thinking that higher education surely means they have more to teach us about God. What about the person who has learned to love others and be intimate with God? We spend significant time deciphering intricate theologies, such as how events are to play out in the end times, as if "being right" about obscure and complicated subjects adds considerably to our godliness. We look to hermeneutics (i.e. rules of interpretation) and study the Bible's original languages of Greek and Hebrew to lay open the mysteries of truth in Scripture. Please do not misunderstand – there is value in education and better understanding. But it is a mistake to emphasize human reason more than faith and love from the heart.

We forget or minimize that it is the job of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). First and foremost, we should learn to hear and trust His voice. Since it is the pure in heart who see God (not the well educated or exceptionally smart), we should tune the attitudes of our heart to the good and right in order to gain spiritual insight (Matthew 5:8). Jesus advocated faith like a child. The Apostle Paul said that without love, nothing else matters, even all the knowledge in the world (I Corinthians 13:2).

If one uncovers enough layers and digs deep enough, the root of the problem is human pride. “And you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent hissed to Eve in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5). You will understand. You will be in control. You will not be dependent on God. You will be your own man. That is the deception that led to the original sin. We still fall for it by thinking that if we can just understand everything through reason – if we can noodle it out – then we can control the events of life and contain our religion. We can stand at the helm and shape our own destinies. There is a grain of truth here, because the application of wisdom and understanding do tend toward better outcomes. This is the basis of the scientific method, and it is a primary theme in the Book of Proverbs. However, we must not forget there are far greater forces at work in the universe to which are subject. One greater than us directing the course of history. While we play a role and our actions make a difference, we do not ultimately shape destinies. We are not in control to such a degree. Only God is. The Old Testament philosopher put it so well: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

The unfortunate result of elevating human reason above faith is a religion that lacks vibrancy, passion and power. It becomes like a plain bowl of oatmeal or an endless, tedious crossword puzzle. By attempting to decipher and contain Christianity, we turn it into a simplistic set of doctrines and rules. In effect, we put God in a tidy, little box, as if the Infinite Almighty would fit in one! People attend church and participate in religious programs, but the abundant life Jesus promised is missing. Little happens. The Spirit is quenched. People wonder why they do not feel close to God, so they read more how-to books – to better figure it out! But the reason why Jesus did not perform many miracles in his hometown was not because they did not have everything figured out. It was because they lacked faith (Matthew 13:58)!

The better choice is to revel in the mystery and immensity of God. When God called Abraham thousands of years ago, he told him to leave his country, his people, and “go to the land I will show you." (Genesis 12:1) He promised to bless Abraham, bless others through him, and make him into a great nation. So Abraham started on this journey, even though he did not know where he was going or how everything would play out. He only knew generally that God would show him and do wonderful things through the process. There was no daily agenda or detailed itinerary, nor did God promise Abraham the journey would be easy and trouble-free. Abraham had his share of difficulties, some by circumstance and some by his own doing. However, Abraham trusted that God was with him and believed he would somehow make good on his promises. Abraham stepped out in faith, even though he did not fully understand. The most pure faith does not demand understanding; it is grounded in trust.

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