Easter, Fideism, and the Tension Between Faith and Reason

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I want to start with a riddle. How full is this glass?

If you said half full, you are incorrect. No glass is half full; this one is partly full of a liquid and the rest is filled with air. 🙂

Among our unbelieving friends, there is a school of thought that all our minds are essentially like a glass that holds what we think we need to know. That glass is always full as well because we are wired to NEED to know things. We are not very comfortable with uncertainty, especially about important matters, so we make sure that glass stays full some way or other. Part of our glass is filled with things we know because of reason (rationalism) but because there are lots of things we don’t know yet, we need something else to fill the void. Many of us choose to fill that void with religion (faith). As an example, because we need to know what happens after death but cannot know through reason, we choose a religious system that tells us what will happen.

Proponents of this idea would go on to say that as society has learned more, the typical glass has become more filled with reason, leaving less room for faith. They believe that as we continue to see advances in areas like medicine and science, religion will eventually become obsolete. Think of this example: in the Middle Ages, medicine was infused with religious and mystical overtones but as we have learned more about the body, today, rationalism has taken over that discipline.

The obvious problem with subscribing to this mindset is that if taken to its logical conclusion, rationalism eventually leads us to the point where God and faith would be irrelevant because we would know everything. Simply put, this kind of thinking is incompatible with any religion much less Christianity. However, the glass analogy is not all wet (pun intended) and I am going to stick with it for a bit in this post because there is an undeniable tension between faith and reason and the balance gets tricky.

If your glass is partly filled with reason and partly filled with faith, I have to say that I find that healthy. I have no problem with admitting that about myself; and I would maintain that just like water and air do not mix in a glass, rationalism and faith do not mix too well either. That is a highly controversial statement especially today in Christianity where we have apologists and others trying to reconcile Christianity with known knowledge such as science, archeology, and history. Of course, reconciling faith and reason is appealing because it it means that Christians don’t have to be very irrational about their belief system. After all, it makes it pretty easy to believe Jesus rose from the dead if you can find a lot of evidence to support it.

I don’t want to pick too much on apologists and others who focus on such things. However, I personally lean away from that. I would call myself a soft fideist, which means that I am comfortable accepting some things by faith without finding it necessary to reconcile them with rationalist disciplines like history or science. In short, I choose to punt. For example, you are not going to find me trying to use science to prove a global flood. I consider that futile and possibly dangerous.

Now, there are several reasons why I intentionally choose fideism over trying to somehow combine rationality and faith. Here are the three big ones:

  1. In a lot of ways, rationalism and faith are just not compatible. If you can prove something using rational methods, faith is not even necessary in the first place. That is a big problem because Hebrews tells us that faith is necessary to our salvation.
  2. I am very disillusioned by much of what I see from apologists and others trying to prove the Bible to be true. That includes many Christian scientists, archaeologists, and historians. Very honestly, I think some of them overreach and fall into the trap of using inferior or even false evidence and sources to try to prove their point. By way of example (and I am not going to name names here), it does no one any good to use scientific arguments to prove creation if those arguments have been proven wrong for decades.
  3. I think taking a fideist approach is the best hope I have for my children following my Christian faith. My children are quite informed. Some of them watch debates between Christian apologists and non-Christian counterparts. My son was recently telling me about a debate he watched and he mentioned how poorly the Christian performed. I did not tell him that he was wrong because I knew he was right. Frankly, it takes a lot of pressure off to tell him that the performance of an apologist in a debate does not affect how we view things that we accept by faith. If my children just take positions based on who debates the best, they are in trouble. If they base their faith on what a Christian scientist tells them, what is going to happen when that scientist gets debunked?

There is a lot of angst toward fideism in the modern church and the term is often used in a disparaging way, almost as if fideists are simpletons. I can understand that because some fideists can really get tripped up determining when fideism even should be applied. In other words, which issues should be a matter of faith and which should be a matter of rationalism? Let’s face it: if you make mathematics an issue of faith, you probably really are a simpleton. Figuring out exactly where faith is appropriate is not easy and my own conclusions about that change often.

On the flip side, I sometimes wonder who is the real simpleton: a person who admits they believe something based on faith alone or a person who is willing to accept flimsy, inaccurate evidence to rationalize their beliefs? Forcing an uneasy marriage between faith and rationalism is not intelligent; it is actually pretty weak. In my opinion, the current church’s attempt to reconcile rationalism and faith leads to pragmatism and a very soft Christianity that we all see too much of.

Of course, there is no bigger example of something that belongs in the faith camp than the resurrection of Christ. We that are Christians are all fideists on that issue regardless of how well an apologist can defend it or what evidence may or may not be found. It is sort of nice to just relax a bit and accept that. Happy Easter.

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2 thoughts on “Easter, Fideism, and the Tension Between Faith and Reason

  1. Alice says:

    Faith is always necessary. But, because we are told repeatedly that science has disproved the Bible, I do think it’s important for our kids to know that current geological and astronomical features are in fact compatible with the Biblical accounts of creation and a worldwide flood. Because if you can’t trust those accounts, the whole Bible becomes vulnerable to the question, “Can I believe this section?”

    • Greg Howlett says:

      To be quite honest, I disagree that the YEC creation interpretation of Genesis is compatible with the current body of known science. Essentially 0% of today’s scientists believe in YEC. That is not to say they are right or wrong. It is just that what is known about science is a moving target and to rely on science to rationalize Christianity is a suspect foundation. For all we know, in 30 years, 99% of scientists may be YEC and 30 years after that, on to something else.

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