Is Christianity Reasonable?

Clifford Williams
Department of Philosophy
Wheaton College
Wheaton, Illinois 60187
 
From Pulpit Digest (September/October, 1994), 68-74. 
Copyright © 1994 Logos Publications. 
Reprinted with permission of Logos Publications. 
Originally a chapel talk given at Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois.


The Question

The question I shall address is “Is Christianity reasonable?”  But before I say anything about the answer, I want to say a few things about the question.  The first thing I want to point out is that asking it presupposes that people are reasonable.  After all, what good would it do to show that Christianity is reasonable if people are not reasonable?

Traditional apologetics, both Protestant and Catholic, has adopted this presupposition.  But apologists have often greatly exaggerated the reasonableness of human nature, sometimes elevating human rationality pretty nearly to an article of faith. Surely, however, one of the major themes of the Bible is that human nature is unreasonable; the deliverances of honest introspection yield the same conclusion; and we can scarcely read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov without feeling some of the wild and irrational elements lying deep within ourselves. In addition, the master analysts of the human condition—Augustine, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Ernest Becker—all put their finger on untamed forces rumbling around inside us.

Perhaps, then, the best question to ask is not, “Is Christianity reasonable?”
but “Is Christianity an antidote to human irrationality?” And perhaps the best strategy is not to appeal to calm and disinterested reason, if there is such a thing, but to confront human irrationality with divine irrationality, if I may call it that—to show, in other words, that divine grace cuts through human guilt, to demonstrate that persistent love unseats wild pride, un-reasoning envy and uncontrolled self-centeredness.

This strategy would, indeed, be the best—and the only—one we could use, if human nature were entirely irrational.  But it is not. There is something in us that wants to know why we should have Christian faith.  Can Christianity stand up in the intellectual marketplace?  What does it mean to have a childlike faith?  How can we be sure our faith is not just an emotional identification with the Christian group of which we are a part?

We ask these questions because we have a reason, and one thing we want in life is rational satisfaction.  We want our beliefs to be reasonable, and do not want them simply to be products of our passions or of the unconscious identification with the social, economic or religious groups to which we belong.  So it is okay to ask whether Christianity is reasonable, provided we remember that we are neither entirely rational nor entirely irrational.

It is also necessary to ask this question.  Imagine that a group of atheists are discussing their atheist faith—the faith, that is, that the universe is entirely physical, that its present form was not planned or produced by any superphysical entity, and that it runs on by means of its own steam.  One of the group says, “We can talk about why atheism is true, and we can give reasons for believing it, but in the end it comes down to faith. We have to have faith, or we will never be atheists.”  The others in the group nod knowingly, and the discussion moves on.

The obvious reaction that any outsider would have to this scenario is that it is not true that in the end it comes down to faith if the faith is wrong. And an outsider would shake her head in puzzlement at the assertion that the atheists have to have faith or they will never be atheists.  This assertion sounds, she would note, like the claim that they have to have faith in order to have an atheist faith, which, of course, no one would dispute.  What the outsider would immediately ask is whether the atheists’ faith is justified.

Something like this scenario occurs relatively frequently in Christian circles.  “We have to have faith” functions as a stopper, effectively curtailing inquiry into whether the faith is justified.  Any atheist, except for those in my imaginary group of atheists, would ask, “But how do you know the faith is reasonable?  If, in the end, it comes down to faith, then I, the atheist, can have my atheist faith just as reasonably as you can have your Christian faith.  This means that your faith is quite arbitrary.”  And, in responding in this way, the atheist would certainly be right. Without some sort of justification, faith, whether Christian or atheist, becomes a dice-throw phenomenon.

The next thing I want to say about the question, “Is Christianity reasonable?” is that it is okay to ask it at Trinity College.  I say, I want to say this, but I am not sure I can. For I am not sure it is okay to ask it at Trinity College.  My guess is that someone who wondered aloud whether Christianity is reasonable would be squashed rather quickly—not with overt denunciations, but with facial expressions that the asker will notice, with too easy answers that end further discussion, with remarks like, “I’ll pray for you” or “Are you having trouble with your faith?” or simply with disinterest.

I am not sure that this is true, but what I sometimes pick up is that the 
atmosphere here won’t allow us to ask the question comfortably.  This is 
not surprising, however, for the dynamics in any homogenous group stifle what is perceived to be dissent or questioning of the group’s basic beliefs.  
A group of like-minded people cannot easily tolerate members who are perceived to challenge the group’s shared beliefs, or who even honestly and innocently ask questions about those beliefs.  Such questioning is likely to feel threatening.

My guess, then, is that we would feel threatened if someone were to ask basic questions.  We would be uncomfortable if someone in our midst were openly to wonder about, ask about or investi-gate the things we hold most dear.  If this is so, perhaps we are held together more by fear than by firsthand conviction.  It would not be startling if this were so, for Christian groups are not exempt from the patterns that characterize groups in general.

I want to say, therefore, that it is okay to ask about the reasonableness of 
Christianity at Trinity College.  It may take some courage to do so, but it 
would be a sign of aliveness; it would be an indication of taking Christianity seriously, a mark of wanting a secure faith and not a superficial one.

The last thing I want to say about the question is that it is dangerous to ask it, for several reasons.  The first is that investigating the reasonableness of Christianity can be used as an evasive tactic to avoid having to come to grips with our relation to God.  If there is anything the Bible teaches us, it is that we are masters at this kind of evasion.  And if there is anything that observation of our own inner lives teaches us, it is that we are extraordinarily astute at using such tactics, especially religious ones.  Although ostensibly we may be investigating the reasonableness of Christianity in order to convince ourselves more fully of its truth, secretly we may be engaging in it to flee from God or to impress ourselves with our intellectual prowness.

There is another danger in asking hard questions about our faith, and that is that we may change our minds.  If we start wondering why we believe, we might discover that we don’t know why.  If we ask questions we can’t find the answers to, we might be tempted to give up our belief in Christianity.  And doing so is likely to be an unsettling prospect.  There have, in fact, been countless people who have given up their Christian beliefs as a result of such questioning.  Perhaps it would be better not to ask questions if we find ourselves moving in this direction.

But, on the other hand, perhaps it would be better to give up our Christian beliefs and live honestly than to hang on to them out of fear.  Are Christian beliefs held in fear really Christian beliefs?  If we can’t face the possibility of changing our minds, maybe that means that we don’t genuinely have our minds made up.

The last danger in asking whether or not Christianity is reasonable is that we might discover that it is reasonable.  We might find that there is a God who is willing to forgive more than we are willing to be forgiven.  We might become convinced that this God wants us to give up our addictions to popularity, success, self-hate, food, sex, or television, and that he wants us to be more courageous than we have it in us to be, for example, by being peacemakers in a violent society, by living simply admidst unabashed opulence, or by what may be the most courageous thing of all—letting God love us.  We might even discover that we have never really let God love us, or that we have been pretending to ourselves to be Christians.

Of the three dangers, this last danger may be the most perilous.  If it is, it 
explains why we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the question, for it is at once both exhilarating and terrifying to discover that Christianity is true.  It is exhilarating because we would have an answer to life’s deepest riddles, a solution to the fundamental human malaise, and a presence to salve our internal discord.  It is terrifying because, although we desperately want to be forgiven, we just as intensely do not want to be; because, although we desire to give ourselves completely to the one who forgives us, we also desire to keep our lives just for ourselves.

The question whether Christianity is reasonable is, therefore, both a question we find enticing and a question we shun.  We want to know that the beliefs we have really make sense, but we also do not want to know this.  If we realize that this ambivalence lies within us, we may be able to escape squandering the answer.

Answers

I turn now to the answer.  I want to give two different answers, one showing, not that Christianity is true, but that it fits basic human needs, and the other showing that Christianity is true because it rightly interprets a wide array of facts.  The first answer has sometimes been called existential apologetics, and the second is akin to what has gone under the title of rational apologetics.

Existential Apologetics

What are some of our basic needs?  For one thing, we want security, not just the everyday security of having enough to eat, being warm and dry when we want to be warm and dry, and having a place to go when school is not in session, but a cosmic security. We sense, in moments of deeper awareness, what philosophers sometimes call our ontological contingency.  We are not the source of our own existence, we feel, and we cannot secure ourselves against the ravages to which humankind continually succumbs.

For another thing, we want to be loved.  Much of our waking life is devoted to making other people love us, or like us, or admire us.  We would shrivel up and die, emotionally and possibly physically, if we knew that no one loved usin some way or that there was no hope of anyone ever loving us.

We also want to know that death does not, in the end, defeat us, that it does not bring to naught our life’s projects, our loving, and our efforts to counteract fallenness.  We want, perhaps what comes to the same thing, to know that we have worth, and that this worth is not undermined by our deaths.

We also want to know that we are not irretrievably victimized by life’s fatal malady.  In biblical language, we need to know that sin will not, at the last judgment, condemn us to an unredeemed eternity.  We sense, independently of biblical truths, that something is wrong with ourselves, and we want to know how it can be made right.

The next step in an existential apologetic is to show that Christianity can meetthese basic needs.  Consider the first, the need for cosmic security.  According to Christianity, God is not subject to the hazards of human existence.  So God can be relied on to protect us, in an ultimate way, as he sees fit, come what may.  Consider the second, the need to be loved.  God’s love for us does not depend on our performance; it does not fade with distance; nor does it give up on us when we have fled from God. The third need, to know that death does not win, is met partly by virtue of the fact that, according to Christianity, death is not the end, and partly by virtue of the fact that God will preserve beyond the grave what is valuable in us.  The fourth need, to have the malady within made right, is met both by the forgiveness God gives and by the transformation of 
our character he brings about.

I am not claiming that Christianity does actually meet these needs fully and satisfactorily; at least I am not claiming that it does so in this life.  For who of us constantly feels secure, loved, undefeated by death or made right?  One of the effects of human fallenness is to blunt the full realization that God meets our basic needs.  However, all that an existential apologetic needs is the claim that Christianity can, to some degree, meet our basic needs, that it would fully meet them if we would let it, and that it will actually do so in our life beyond death.  I believe that this claim is true, and, therefore, I believe that Christianity is reasonable in the sense that it satisfies the needs of human nature.

As an aside, I want to point out that the more deeply we feel these basic needs, the more deeply we will feel the efficacy of Christianity to meet them.  This fact was vividly etched on my consciousness one Saturday morning some years ago as I sat in a pew at a nearby church during the funeral of the father of a former student.  Unaccountably and uncontrollably, a sense of my own inability to avoid death swept over me. The feeling of sheer helplessness in the face of death’s inescapability gripped me with terror.  I flushed, I could not listen to the minister, I felt myself going weak, and if I had not had to keep up appearances, I might have gone limp.  When you become aware, with this sort of intensity, of the need to defeat death, you can feel, at least for a moment, the depth of the Christian answer to the human predicament.

Evidential apologetics

I turn now to the second answer I want to give to the question, “Is Christianity reasonable?”  Here the claim I shall make is that Christianity is a system of ideas that has three characteristics: it is accurate, it is comprehensive, and itis coherent.  When a system of ideas has these characteristics, it is likely to be true.  And when a system of ideas has these characteristics to a greater degree than a rival system, we accept it rather than the rival system.  This is true in science and in everyday life, and it is also true in religion.  For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is better than Newtonian mechanics mainly because it possesses these characteristics to a greater degree than does Newtonian mechanics.  Similarly, Christianity is true, and is preferable to rival belief systems such as naturalism, because it is accurate, comprehensive and coherent, more so than those rival 
belief systems.

To say that a system of ideas is accurate is to say that what it claims about reality is the case.  It fits the facts. Christianity is accurate, because what it 
says about human nature, about the universe, and about particular historical facts is correct.  Of course, to confirm its accuracy, one has to have indepen-dent means of checking its claims.  And for a certain portion of Christianity’s claims, there are such independent means available.  Here are a few examples.  The Bible pictures human nature as capable of being in a variety of spiritual states:  praise, gratitude, indifference, rebellion, to name a few.  Observation bears out this picture.  Observation also bears out the biblical picture of human nature as being gripped by pride, envy, lust and greed.  In addition, some of the places and names mentioned in the Bible have been corroborated by archeology and other historical research.

To say that a system of ideas is comprehensive is to say that it covers a wide variety of facts.  Its range of interpretation is broad.  Christianity is comprehensive in the sense that it gives an account of numerous phenomena.  It explains why there is such a thing as religious experience, and why there are experiencesof guilt and forgiveness, rebellion and resignation, defiance and acceptance.  It accounts for the presence of order and beauty in the physical universe, the continued existence of anything at all, the awe-evoking complexity of thehuman brain, and the existence of such things as consciousness and feeling. It tells us both why we want to do what is good and at the same time why we do not.  It accounts for our taking morality seriously and for our craving for 
meaning. It explains the healing of wounds, both physical and emotional, the transformation of character, and the occurrence of morally beautiful actions in the most unlikely places.  In short, it makes sense of all of life and existence.  If we continually fit new experiences into our Christian conceptual framework, we are confirming to ourselves the comprehensiveness of Christianity.

Lastly, to say that a system of ideas is coherent is to say both that it is logically consistent, that is, that it has no contradictions in it, and that it hangs together, that is, that it is unified.  Christianity possesses coherence because it has no contradictions in it and because it gives us a unified view of reality.  Its central themes—creation, fall, and redemption—tie together the numerous and disparate concepts that make up our mental furniture.  In sum, Christianity gives us a portrait of life that is accurate, comprehensive and focused.

So Christianity is reasonable in a second sense, the sense that says it is worthy of being accepted as true.