Faith and Rationality

William B Monsma
Director of Academic Programs


William B Monsma has an AB from Calvin College, a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Colorado, and and MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary. He spent a post-doctoral year in history and philsophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, and did research for one year at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. He has taught physics and philosophy at Calvin College and at Grove City College. Currently he is Director of Academic Programs at the MacLaurin Institute, a Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota, and teaches part-time at Augsburg College.


What is the relationship between faith and rationality? Is faith in God rational?

I heard one answer at a meeting of the University Atheists and Humanists at the University of Minnesota. The speaker had once been a Christian evangelist, but now was a traveling evangelist for atheism. It is science that tells us what the world is like, he maintained; since science can explain everything without God, belief in God is irrational. He proclaimed liberation from the shackles of traditional religion.

Another answer common in the university world is that faith as well as ethics has nothing to do with rationality, but is merely a personal choice. In a letter appearing in the Minnesota Daily of October 6, 1997, two female students wrote, "It is each womanís right to find her own humanity and create her own truth without the intrusion and obstruction of [others]." It is up each one to create their own ethics and religion; if you want to believe in God, fine; but donít impose your beliefs on me. To suggest that there may be a God with whom we all have to deal is to intrude on othersí freedom. Faith is a matter of personal taste, like enjoying theater or playing golf.

Is there some sense in which belief in God is rational?

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame gives us much help in this area. In the issue of Books and Culture of May/June 1996, he outlines his approach.

Plantinga asks what ways of knowing there are. He suggests that in science, there are three:

That is, scientific knowledge is based on logic and mathematics, on observation of the world physical world around us, and on memory. He goes on to suggest that there are other ways of knowing, such as the sense of the divine that all people seem to have. That is, religious experience is a valid source of knowledge.

I believe Plantinga points us in the right direction here. When people sense a transcendent Presence in a reflective moment late at night or on seeing a sunset, the obvious explanation is that they really are encountering the living God.

But then Plantinga gives too much away. He grants the name "reason" to the three ways of knowing in science outlined above. The problem with this is that it puts believers on the defensive: they must argue that there are ways of knowing outside of reason. This is precisely the move used so effectively by atheists: by narrowing the meaning of the word "reason" to the realm of science, religious belief is relegated to non-reason.

Rather, I would suggest that the heart of our rationality is our ability to make sense of our experience, whether that experience is physical, spiritual, or ethical. Most often this interpretation of experience is immediate, as when we look outside and see that the sun is shining; sometimes it is reflective, as when we struggle to understand a friendís behavior or a mass of data from an experiment.

Our science-dominated culture has ruled out religious experience as a clue to reality; but on what grounds? Science in the 1600ís was so successful in understanding the physical dimension of reality that people in the 1700ís began to think that the physical may be the only dimension of reality. But success in one area of inquiry does not invalidate other areas. The burden of proof is on those who would exclude a particular kind of experience from being a source of knowledge.

Beside religious experience, Godís existence explains other things, such as the existence of the physical universe with its wonders, and the sense of significance we have as persons. This is the kind of unifying explanation that scientists look for. Any scientific theory that explains many things by a single hypothesis gains immediate credibility. In just this way, Godís existence pulls many disparate threads together.

This approach is not new; it has much in common with the Scottish Common-Sense Philosophy developed by Thomas Reid and others in the 1700ís in response to the skepticism of David Hume. This was the guiding philosophy of American higher education before the Civil War, providing a framework for combining Christian faith with study of literature and science. A recent exponent was the late Francis Scheaffer, especially in his middle years.

Leaving the meeting of the University Atheists and Humanists, I fell in with two undergraduate physics majors, both of them echoing the speakerís ridicule of beliefs not based on science. As we paused in the hall, I pointed out that science doesnít prove anything, but only looks for the most reasonable explanation of the evidence. Shouldnít we do the same with religious experience? At that point one of the two moved next to me, and said "Iím with you. Iíve just finished a course in history of science, and youíre right." He was ready to talk about God.

This is adapted from a paper presented at the conference on "Christian Scholarship: Knowledge, Reality, and Method" at the University of Colorado, October 1997.