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Is faith reasonable?

Jay Atkins
Jay Atkins |

I recently wrote an article claiming that science and faith are fully compatible. I stand by every word of it. But what happens when they’re not? What happens when rational and reasoned exploration of the natural world stands in conflict with the supernatural claims of Christianity? For example, what are we to make of Christianity’s assertion of the existence of a spiritual realm, something not supported by science. Can such a claim be reconciled with a rational view of the natural world, or is a belief in the supernatural manifestly unreasonable?

Of course, the prevailing opinion in today’s secular culture is that such beliefs are outmoded and ridiculous. Atheists in particular find the whole idea preposterous.  They deride Christians for believing in ghosts, fairytales and ancient myths. Such beliefs are a stumbling block for agnostics as well.  Many of whom sense there is more to life than just the physical world, but they don’t think of themselves as religious and have a hard time believing in something they consider irrational – like a spiritual realm and all-powerful god they can’t see, hear or feel. Truth be told, it’s a question many Christians struggle with too.  Finding a rational basis for faith in the supernatural can be hard, especially in a faith culture – particularly in the West – that often treats such metaphysical inquiries as taboo. Hopefully all three groups will find the following analysis helpful.

Let’s begin by defining what Christians mean when we talk about a spiritual realm. A number of Bible verses give us insight.  Passages like, Genesis 1:26, Psalm 82, Job 1:6-7 and 1 Peter 3:18-22, depict an entire world filled with things like a divine counsel, eternal heavenly hosts, imprisoned spirits, angels and authorities. It is incredible to read through scripture and understand the breadth of the spiritual universe. For a full treatment of the subject I recommend Dr. Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm. In it, Heiser lays out in detail the full expanse and implications of the spiritual realm as presented in biblical text. The bottom line is the Bible makes clear there is vast and eternal spiritual world that exists both apart from, and integrated with, our own.

This claim of a supernatural world is one tenant of Christian faith that directly conflicts with science. Naturalism and materialism are science’s two predominant working hypotheses.  Naturalism is the belief that the physical world is all there is, and materialism is the view that everything we experience is a function of material processes.  Working from these hypotheses science limits its search for truth to exploring only natural phenomena: things that can be observed, measured and tested. The problem with this approach is it is circular. To hold that science is the only way to discover truth is to assume that all truth is discoverable through science. Because the existence of a spiritual realm is not testable science rejects it, along with any truth it offers, as unreasonable.

This rejection of faith as unreasonable is what gives rise to atheist’s persistent derision of believers. And its acceptance in popular culture is what causes agnostics and questioning Christians to stumble.  That is why the criticism should be taken seriously, and why it deserves an answer. As Christians we should be willing to question whether or not our faith in a spiritual realm is reasonable.  I believe it is. I’ll explain.

To begin the inquiry I turn to an unlikely source for a Christian apologetic, Enlightenment philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Although raised in a Lutheran home, Kant was not a professing Christian. In fact, he was quite critical of the faith. That aside, he was a brilliant thinker and is widely considered the father of modern philosophy. And on this particular subject, his insights are elucidating.

In Kant’s day there were two primary schools of philosophy, Rationalism and Empiricism. The rationalists believed that ultimate truth could be arrived at purely through logical reasoning, i.e. thinking through things.  The empiricists held that truth could only be discovered by means of sensory experience, i.e. testing things.  Kant is perhaps best known for spending his life trying to harmonize those two positions.  Many a doctoral thesis has been written on exactly how he accomplished it, but an exhaustive treatment of his work is outside the scope of this writing.  For our purposes I will focus on one small slice of Kantian philosophy, the limitations of empirical knowledge.

Kant begins by conceding that the only way for humans to gain knowledge about the physical world is through our five senses. We discover what something looks, tastes, smells, sounds or feels like by seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing or touching it.  That makes sense. But then Kant goes on to ask what grounds we have for concluding that the thing we are experiencing accurately represents the thing as it actually is. Wait, what?

Kant is saying there is a difference between what exists, and what we experience. Think of it this way: say you have a brand new car loaded with all the latest technology but with a radio that only picks up one frequency. As you’re driving around flipping through channels all you hear is a single station.  In that situation is it reasonable to assume that because you only hear one station, that only one station exists?  Kant says no, it is not.  Just because you don’t have the tools to pick up other frequencies does not mean they are not there, and to conclude so is unreasonable.  The unreasonableness is made manifest the moment you meet someone with a radio capable of picking up other stations.  Once you can hear them you realize they were there all along, and that reality is much more expansive than you previously thought. The point is, the only method we have for determining if the reality we experience represents reality as it actually exists is to compare the two.  Not a problem in the case of the radio, but impossible in the case of the entire physical universe.

From this Kant reasoned there are two different realities, or realms.  He called them the noumena and the phenomena. The noumenal world is the realm of things as they actually are, and the phenomenal world is the realm of things as we experience them.  To Kant’s mind the noumenal gives rise to the phenomenal. That is to say, things that we experience come from things that really do exist. But because our ability to experience them is limited to our five senses, all we can ever know about them are those qualities that we can see, hear, taste, touch or smell.  We have no way of knowing if they possess traits beyond those we experience with our five senses. Stated another way, just because you didn’t see an angel sitting on the rock you kicked doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.  The noumenal existence of the rock includes the angel sitting upon it even if the angel isn’t part of your phenomenal experience. To conclude the angel doesn’t exist just because you can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it is unreasonable.  By extension, to assume a spiritual realm doesn’t exist just because you can’t scientifically test it is unreasonable too.

This view of two separate, but overlapping planes of existence bears a striking resemblance to the picture of reality presented in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 13: 8-12 Paul tells us that the world we are living in now is only part of the picture.  “We know in part,” he says, “but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” In other words, here and now, in the physical world, we only have access to part of creation. One day, Paul assures us, we will know creation in all its full and infinite existential glory. We will trade our human view for God’s view.

Again, Kant was not a professing Christian and he did not arrive at his conclusion about an unseen realm through divine revelation. He did so using reason alone.  Moreover, I doubt Kant would endorse a biblical interpretation of his work. Nonetheless, it is striking to me how closely aligned Kant’s secular philosophical conclusions are with biblical teaching. I strongly suspect that is because God is an imminently rational being, and a spark of his perfect rationality is reflected in us, his image bearers. That spark allows us to apply reason to really hard questions and arrive at biblical truth.

So back to where we started.  Christians should not be afraid of derision, nor should we cower in the face of accusations that we have abandoned our reason to embrace a blind faith in fairy tales.  In the final analysis it is we who are the rational ones. Science is a noble and worthwhile endeavor, but let us never forget its proper role.  Science is a process for probing and studying the natural world, and that’s it. Study of the spiritual realm is beyond it’s capacity.  It is ill-equipped for the task.  Just because science’s radio can’t pick up the Christian station doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and to conclude so is, in a word, unreasonable.

By day Jay Atkins works as a Government Affairs attorney for a California-based technology company. By night he is a lay author and Christian apologist. He thinks and writes about proofs for faith and how they intersect, or should intersect, with public policy.

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