When Faith Was Rational

NOTE: I’m itching to write an entire book on this topic, but time constraints dictate that a mere post on the matter will have to do for now.  So here’s the very short version of this very important observation about the difference between what faith is now, and what it was in the beginning.

FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION:  Is there supposed to be a disconnect between faith and reason?

I say “no”; a great many others say “yes”, or “maybe”, or are unsure.  And of those who are unsure, a great many live as if the answer is “yes”, for their beliefs are often irrational—and they never look closely enough at the issues to realize it.

I often cringe today to hear Christians say, “Well, I believe that….”, because what comes next is quite often irrational and unsupportable by the Bible.  I don’t mean to suggest that no believers today have reason-based beliefs, but we seem to be in an epidemic of irrationality, even to the point where many do not even perceive a need to have their religious beliefs backed up by the Bible, by fact, by reason, or by legitimate sourcing.

A classic example of this would be the person who says, “Well, I believe that God is leading our congregation to…”.  Such statements are very common, and yet they are rarely investigated.  Is God leading the congregation?  If so, how?  Did he send an angel with a message?  Did he send a prophet?  Did he have an apostle visit the congregation with promptings, urgings, warnings, or directives from God?

In most instances, the honest believer would very likely answer “no” to these questions.  Even so, however, he or she may very well continue to believe that God is indeed leading the congregation to do this or that.  Indeed, our religious culture is so accustomed to such things that the reader may not even perceive the issue in play here.  And so here’s my point:

Faith used to be rational.  It used to be based upon actual facts that were clear and demonstrable.

Noah built the ark because God told him to, and not because he “felt” that he should.  He believed there would be a flood because God told him so, and not because it suited his imagination to conjure up a flood scenario.  Abraham “went” because God told him to go, and he attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac because God told him to do it.  Similarly, he believed that he could have a son in his old age because God has promised that he would.  He did not imagine these things, or “feel” them; he observed the directives from God just as you or I would observe any real event.

Do I mean to suggest that believers should do nothing unless they are told explicitly by God to do it?  No, not at all.  What I’m suggesting is that it’s irrational to carry on as if some certain task, goal, or belief is inspired by God when it is not.

Such stories as those of Noah and Abraham above go on and on, and in every case men and women who are lauded in the Bible for their faith were behaving in keeping with something they were actually promised or directed to do.  In order to show the dullness of today’s popular (and erroneous) paradigm about faith, let me finish building the bright backdrop of the biblical record against which to show it all the more clearly.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Moses and Aaron gathered the Israelites, told them what God had commanded Moses, and performed miraculous signs to prove the message.  After this, the Israelites “believed”.  Exodus 4:27-31
  • Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could take possession of the Promised Land because God had told them that he was giving them that land.  Numbers 13-14.
  • The Israelites crossed the parted Red Sea because God had promised to save them from Pharaoh’s pursuing army and because he had parted the sea.  It did not part because they “believed” it would, but because God himself parted it.  Exodus 14.
  • Joshua and the Israelite army marched around the city of Jericho for seven days because God had commanded them to do so; it wasn’t just a “neat idea” that Joshua had had to inspire his army.  Joshua 6.

Such examples could go on and on, and I hope you get the point already.  Note how these examples of faith were all based upon real instructions or promises from God.  None of them were based upon imagination, conjecture, supposition, hunches, or feelings.  Today, however, many have an idea that faith is not supposed to be based upon fact.  Instead, they seem to believe that baseless “faith” is the best kind of all.  In fact, they would consider it “faithless” to insist on a promise or directive from God before assuming any level of confidence that God is indeed directing or promising something.

I will not venture to show examples here, but I have often heard Christian leaders encourage believers to act without thinking, without analysis, and without hesitation, even when no specific promise or command from God existed.  And what was the justification for this?  It was “faith”, of course!  Such “leadership” as this always brings to mind the words of tyrant Adolf Hitler:

“How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.”
~Adolf Hitler [i]

A classic example of this might be the congregation whose leaders decide that a new sanctuary building is in order.  They set a goal, draw up some plans, and then declare to the congregation that “God is leading us to build a new sanctuary.”  They publish the needed dollar amount, put up one of those thermometer-type posters to show the running total of donations toward that end, and they constantly encourage the congregation to “have faith” that the goal can be reached.

No one seems to notice that:

  • God did not command them to build.
  • God did not promise that they would reach their goal.
  • There is no precedent in the Bible of God having told any Christian congregation to build a building.

They do not seem to believe that they need such support, however, as, in their view, God’s people have been building sanctuaries by “faith” for many centuries.  To them, it’s a given, and any examination of it is not only needless, but counterproductive.  Indeed, how could we expect that thermometer chart to keep rising if someone in the congregation is continuing to question where God is indeed “leading the congregation” to build a new building?  In this way, and in many similar ways, an irrational “faith” is often preferred to an actual faith based upon actual commands and promises.

The problem with this, of course, is that it is intellectually dishonest.  It brings to mind a few particular episodes from the Bible.  Please consider the following.

  1. King Saul was instructed to:  “…go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3)  Saul did indeed attack, but spared “…Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them.”  Saul then proudly approaches the prophet Samuel and boasts:  “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” This dishonesty is obvious, declaring to have performed a commandment of the Lord when he knows that that was no such command for the actual deeds he had done.
  2. Ezekiel 13:1 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy out of their own heart, ‘Hear the word of the Lord!’”  3 Thus says the Lord God: “Woe to the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! They have envisioned futility and false divination, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord!’ But the Lord has not sent them; yet they hope that the word may be confirmed. Have you not seen a futile vision, and have you not spoken false divination? You say, ‘The Lord says,’ but I have not spoken.”  Why would anybody think it’s acceptable to imagine a message from God when God himself has not spoken?

In both of these instances we see people who had no qualms with going on about their religious business as if God were right there both directing and approving of their every step.  To do so without solid evidence of God’s direction/approval, especially when the evidence is to the contrary, is either irrational or dishonest, or perhaps both.  In principle, is there really any difference between the person who privately imagines himself to be commissioned by God and those who do so publicly?  Consider the following:

2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.

Indeed, the early believers were instructed to “test every spirit”, for there was more than one message out there competing for the people’s attention:

1 John 4:1  Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

If there was so much need for caution in choosing what to believe and what to discard then, ought there not be as much caution now?  Yes, there should.  Even so, however, people today seem to have replaced the “prophet” with their own imaginations; they don’t seem to look as often as in previous generations for authoritative sources for what they believe, but merely to consult their own minds as to whether some notion seems acceptable or not.  And when they do happen to look for sources, there is so much shoddy work now published through various means that the chances of finding good information are very low.  Consider this observation from Mark Twain:

In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
~Mark Twain [ii]

We are a culture of “non-examiners”, for the most part, and our aggregate religion is no exception.

Examples of Irrational Belief

So that I’m perfectly clear, let me give some examples of irrational beliefs.

  1. Evangelism.  Years ago, I was on a college campus talking to a believer who was feeling guilty that she had not been faithful about converting others to Christianity.  She decided that she simply needed to “have faith”, so she declared, “OK, I believe that the next person I share with is going to become a Christian.”  She immediately made a bee line for a walking student and said, “I’d like to invite you to my church”.  The student cursed at her and kept walking.  My friend had “decided” to “have faith”, but she had no promise from God; her promise was from her imagination.  Putting faith in one’s own imagination is just silly.
  2. “God wouldn’t let that happen.”  I once warned a believer about a certain danger that was likely if he continued on a certain course of action.  He said he had faith that “God wouldn’t let that happen.”  It did happen.  The believer had no promise from God and his “faith” was in his own imagination.
  3. Praying for Candidates.  I’ve noticed that a great many people seem to pray for specific outcomes in political elections.  More specifically, they pray for their favorite candidate to win.  Interestingly, when I ask them just what they are asking God to do, they can’t seem to find an answer.  Do they want him to make the majority of people vote in a certain way?  Do they want him to commit vote fraud by somehow changing the outcome of the votes after the fact?
  4. “Jesus will fix it.”  When discussing political corruption in a small down, one believer said with confidence that “Jesus will fix it”.  I asked how come Jesus had not fixed the corruption in that same town anytime during the century-or-so that it had existed.  I also asked what Jesus was waiting on.  And further, I asked whether she had a promise from Jesus to that effect.  Her beliefs were obvious, yet she had no reason behind them at all.  In fact, she continued to believe in spite of the observable history.

There are many such instances of irrational belief at work today, and yet so many are continually affirming their own beliefs by other means.  In effect, therefore, while they think they are believing in nothing short of God himself, they are actually believing in their own imaginations–or perhaps in those of others.

About the Indwelling

When I took issue earlier in this post with those who say “God is leading us to….”, I was sure that many would object, citing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as just cause for believing that God is at work leading their congregation in some particular direction.  This, of course, opens a whole new can of worms, so to speak, but I will address a couple of points here briefly:

Make a list of all the things in the last decade that you or you preacher believed that “God is leading us to…” do.

  1. How many of those things were fully and successfully accomplished?  If not all of them, did God’s leadership fail?  And why aren’t all those same things currently on your congregation’s to-do list?
  2. How many of those things proved later to be bad ideas?  If they were bad ideas, do you still attribute them to God?
  3. How many of those things that were believed to be inspired by God are at odds with the direction that God gave to the ekklesia as witnessed in the New Testament?  If there are any differences, how could it be that an unchanging God now gives direction that is at odds with what he gave before?

The fact of the matter is that if people are already prone to mistaking their own imagination for actual guidance from God, they are no less likely to mistake it for the promptings of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  As to what the Holy Spirit actually does for believers, that’s another post entirely, but the abuse of it is rampant today.  A great many bad ideas have been misattributed to God in this way.  In fact, I believe it’s probably likely that most believers are more apt to entertain an idea if they can attribute it to God and/or the Holy Spirit rather than having to take full responsibility for it themselves.

None of the problems described herein are now.  Nor will they stop with this post.  The masses will always be in a rush to commit themselves foolishly to beliefs that are not worthy of fact, logic, and sourcing.  My hope, however, is for those who aspire to wisdom–that this post might be of value to them.  Indeed, this concept that I have outlined here only briefly is one that has use in many fields of endeavor and throughout one’s entire life.

Be warned:  If you adopt the idea that faith should be rational, you will find yourself becoming more and more a stranger in your own familiar surroundings, for this idea is foreign to our present world.

[i] The Face of the Third Reich by Fest, Joachim C  1991

[ii]  Revised edition, Chapter 78, p. 401, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1959, Charles Neider, Harper & Row

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