“Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason… to believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect” – A C Grayling[i]
Many people perceive religious faith as foolish and unreasonable; a form of wishful thinking for gullible or thoughtless dreamers. Such faith is thought to be the ultimate form of irrationality, in which a person trusts without any evidence or against all evidence. For example, Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist biologist, equates religious faith with “belief in something for which there is no evidence”[ii], while an article in the British Spectator pits faith against rationality when it asks, “does not all religion place faith above reason?”[iii] Sadly, even among some Christians this perspective prevails, betraying itself in statements such as “if you have evidence for what you believe, that detracts from real faith”, or “God is entirely beyond our comprehension, you just have to believe”. This sort of thinking, though widespread, exposes a deep misunderstanding of biblical, Christian faith. Examination of scripture reveals that the biblical conception of faith involves reason, evidence, and knowledge. Far from being contrary to genuine faith, these elements undergird faith in both the Old and New Testaments. This is evident upon examination of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt in Exodus 3-14, as well as the account of the Philippian jailer’s conversion in Acts 16. Furthermore, Mark 2 provides good grounds for thinking that Jesus’ own conception of faith included knowledge and evidence. These passages will be examined over the course of three blog posts, by the end of which it should be clear that biblical faith is not opposed to reason, evidence, and knowledge, but actually encompasses them.
Escape from Egypt:
Let’s take a look at our first example, namely the account of the Israelites’ escape from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 3-14). At the beginning of this passage, Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness, which God uses to speak to him. Having seen the Israelites’ afflictions, God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh and command him to free the Israelites, that they might know and serve their Lord. Doubtful of his ability to lead, Moses objects that the captive Israelites will neither believe nor follow him, but instead will deny that he’d heard from God. In response, God asks:
“What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you. (Exodus 4:2-5)
Here Moses is given the power to perform a miraculous feat in order to prove that he’d heard from God. Why is this significant? Well, note that God didn’t expect the Israelites to take a blind leap of faith and just “believe”. He didn’t instruct Moses to chastise them if they asked for some form of evidence. He didn’t want blind, irrational faith. Rather, He offered the Israelites several miraculous signs, of which this was the first, thereby vindicating Moses’ claim to have heard Him, and providing a foundation for rational, knowledge-based faith.
Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason points out a recurring pattern that emerges upon examination of faith in this and other Biblical narratives[iv]. Firstly, God gives evidence. This leads to knowledge, which then serves as the foundation for active trust or faith. In this case, God enabled Moses to perform miraculous signs to serve as evidence that he’d heard from God and was following His commands. Upon witnessing these signs, the Israelites knew Moses was speaking the truth, enabling them to place their active trust in him as their leader and God as their liberator. Furthermore, this pattern is also reinforced in Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh. When Pharaoh ignored Moses’ pleas for the freedom of his people and dismissed warnings of the calamities that would befall the Egyptians as a result of his obduracy, God plagued the land of Egypt, thereby demonstrating His power and providing an opportunity for the Egyptians to know that He is Lord. Unfortunately, rather than placing his faith in God, Pharaoh retreated deeper into stubbornness and obstinacy, resulting in the death of his firstborn son and the decimation of the Egyptian army. The outcome of this was that “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
Both of these circumstances indicate that Biblical faith is based on knowledge. God didn’t ask the Israelites to trust Him without any evidence, nor did he require the Egyptians to free the Israelites without a demonstration of the truth of Moses’ claims. By offering evidence of His power, God enabled the Israelites and Egyptians to know him and to place their trust in Him. On this view, evidence and knowledge are far from antithetical to genuine faith—they are part and parcel of active trust in the living God.
Be sure to check in again on Wednesday for part 2, in which we’ll discuss faith as presented in Acts 16.
[i] Grayling, A. C. (2007). Against all gods, pp. 15-16. London: Oberon Books.
[ii] Big think (2011, June 2). Richard Dawkins: faith [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sm220Q5wks4
[iii] Hobson, T. (2013). Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists. The Spectator. Retrieved from http://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/04/after-the-new-atheism/
[iv] Koukl, G. (2009). Faith is not wishing. Retrieved from https://www.str.org/publications/i-take-it-on-faith#.V9X-EJjJvIU