Wesley Center Online

A Pragmatic Faith

By Bob Andrews

The wind lashed his face with its cold salt spray, whipping his hair as he stood alone at the edge of a vast, moody ocean. He was a boy, perhaps less than ten years old, staring in quiet reverence out across the dark, surging waters. Small clumps of white foam scuttled across the beach and over his feet as he grappled with the sense of eternity that drenched his soul. That great expanse of water seemed to stretch forever beneath the brooding storm clouds that filled the late afternoon sky with their billowing shadows—shadows that were edged with orange and gold, and tinged with the softest touch of rose and pink. 

In the picture hanging on the wall he stood mute and still, and written across that scene in small black print were the words from Helen Keller:

            The best and most beautiful things in the world
            Cannot be touched or even seen,
            They must be felt with the heart.

We have all experienced the reality of such a moment, a moment when we know without being told, when we learn without being taught, a moment when our spiritual beings grasp some enormous truth that has never been written in a text book, a truth that can only be revealed to the heart.

It might be appropriate then to ask, is such a truth any less real than that promoted by multitudes of highly intelligent professors, researchers, and assorted experts? Is truth the private domain of those who consult vast libraries and call upon rigorous systems of logic and reason? Is it possible that there are other ways of discovering truth, ways that are not accessible to those who rely solely on observation and strict interpretation of verifiable facts? Is the interpretation of verifiable fact the only instrument capable of revealing all that is true in this material world of dishwashers, computers, and airplanes, of medicine, disease, and death?

Many years ago, a Judean carpenter, now proclaimed to be Jesus the Christ, taught, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

What he was saying then, and still is now, is that the material things, which fill our lives, and the rational systems we use to obtain them, are not necessarily the most important things in life.

In addition, it may be said that the true significance of our existence is revealed, not so much by reason alone, but also by the quality of the experiences we are subject to, and very importantly, by the commitment we make to the relationships we experience. A strong case can be presented to suggest that a life that has had goals determined by the processes of deliberative thought alone will be a life devoid of much that makes us truly human.

The Renaissance period of history, during the Fourteenth through Sixteenth Centuries, introduced humankind to a new “age of reason.” The former authority of the church, and acceptance of God's revelation, progressively diminished, and greater emphasis was gradually given to the power of human reason. The supernatural began to be discredited. We find ourselves today, at least in much of the so-called “advanced” societies of our world, proclaiming that if it isn’t “reasonable,” then it isn’t worthwhile.

One of the great problems involved in the use of reason alone, of course, is that by using powerful logic it is possible to justify almost any extreme point of view, without necessarily arriving at the truth. The abortion debate provides us with a good example. Consider also how Nazi Germany rationalized its way to the extermination of millions of innocent people, gaining support by claiming that it was a reasonable thing to do.

The Christian Scriptures have much to say to us about the use of reason, some of it quite positive. After all, the ability to use reason is a God-given gift.

In Isaiah, chapter 1, verse 18, God invites people, “Come now, let us reason together.”

The book of 1 Peter, chapter 3, verse 15, urges believers to, “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

In the scriptural account given in the book of Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1 through  11, Jesus quotes the Old Testament and reasons with a spiritual adversary. Paul, in his letter to the Romans sets out one of the most logical defences of the Christian faith ever recorded.

But the Scriptures also demonstrate the fallacy of relying on reason alone. Since Jesus had gone a long period of time without food (Matthew, chapter 4), and since he had the capacity to perform miracles, it would have been reasonable for him to change stones into bread. But a greater reality was involved.

In the book of 1 Kings, chapter 19, Elijah reasoned, with much justification, it would seem, that his life was in danger and that he was the last faithful prophet. However, once again a greater reality was involved. God provided him with bread to eat, but he did not live by its nourishment alone!

It would seem that many of the greater needs of our humanity are not always obvious to the casual observer. Indeed, such needs can never be revealed by the reasoning powers of the mind alone.. T. M. Kitwood, in his book, What Is Human?, writes,

We are motivated at a level deeper than reason. A mass of drives, instincts, fears within us has been discovered, which like an iceberg reveals only a fraction of its bulk above the surface. It is now beyond doubt that we are motivated by factors of which we are at best only partly aware. . . . Reason is thus seen to be an activity on the surface of the mind, a mere cerebration.

Consider the successful businessman, 45 or 50 years of age. He has the advantage of an extensive formal education, a loving family, a luxurious house, three expensive cars, loyal friends, security, and good health. And yet he has never discovered what life is all about. So he sells his company and hitchhikes across Turkey to live with some peasants on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This kind of thing happens all too frequently. Reason would dictate that wealth and health and fame and family would lead to fulfillment in life beyond description. But all too often it does not. Life is short. Its opportunities are almost gone; and he needs to experience reality before his time is finished.

A rush of “humanist” thinkers and writers through much of the 1800s proclaimed the virtues of human reason, and promoted an almost smug optimism in the capacity of humankind to solve almost any problem by advancing the processes of modern science.

But some were less convinced about the ability of the human race to rationalize its way to a utopian future. A group of scholars belonging to the “existentialist” school of thought proposed a view of knowing, in which experience is considered of greater validity than a reliance on detached and objective rational processes. In particular, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche foreshadowed the despair associated with the inability of human reason in the Twentieth Century to prevent the slaughter of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, to alleviate the horrors of the Great Depression, or to divert humanity from another insane slaughter in a Second World War.

Some of life’s greatest treasures are bound up in the experiences to which we are subject: to be a small boy standing beside the vastness of the ocean; to stand on a high cliff and feel the world stretch out below, retreating into the snow-capped mountains on a distant horizon; to commit our lives to a cause greater than ourselves, to the call of Jesus Christ; to see an individual struggle and ultimately triumph over incredible odds; to stand in a great cathedral in the presence of an eternal God; to visit one’s childhood home and silently walk among the memories; or to stand on the surface of the moon and to see the Earth suspended like a living gemstone amongst the stars in the darkness of space.

To experience any of these moments in life is to be awakened to some portion of reality that could otherwise never have been known. It is a means of discovering truth. To be deprived of such moments would be to live in ignorance of much of the real significance of our existence.

Reason alone cannot make sense of the more profound experiences of humankind—the loves, hopes, fears, the anguish and the joys. But herein lies another problem in our search to discover who we really are. An over-dependence on the importance of life’s experiences can be totally selfish, selfish to the point of denying the possibility of commitment to true personal relationships, which actually help to shape the fabric of human personality. An intense pilgrimage in search of life’s more relevant experiences is likely to end up as devoid of real meaning as an investigation conducted by our reason and logic.

The Christians’ answer to this dilemma is to introduce the attitude of faith. Faith involves elements of both reason and a sincere commitment to relational experiences, a commitment that removes the selfish aspects of experience alone.

To understand the operation of faith we must remember that to have faith is not to leap out desperately into a dark unknown, hoping that something of substance might be there. Almost the reverse is true: Faith is the thoughtful commitment of rational people using all available evidence. Faith goes beyond reason, but does not render it invalid. Faith is the Christians’ way of coming to knowledge of truth.

The Scripture invites us to have faith and to experience—to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm, chapter 34, verse 8). In other words, if we have faith, we will experience and know the goodness of God.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verse 40, Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see . . . ?” He doesn’t tell Martha to see and then believe. What he says is actually the reverse of this. Jesus encourages Martha to commit herself to him, to trust him, and says that the truth would then be revealed to her.

When driving through busy traffic, my wife and I sometimes work together to gain access to a congested intersection without traffic lights. We agree that I will watch traffic coming from the driver’s side of the car, and she will look for vehicles coming from the passenger’s side. When I see a break in the line of cars coming from my side, I’ll say, “Can I go now?” If she says, “Yes, there’s a gap, if you’re quick,” I rapidly accelerate with confidence into the intersection, without so much as a precautionary glance in her direction, and safely join the traffic flow.

Why would I react in such a way? Because I have experienced that my wife is an intelligent person with good judgment. So I reason that there will be a safe gap in the traffic, commit myself to the relationship I have previously established with her, and accelerate out into the heavy traffic. Obviously, if she gave me faulty information, we would both likely be killed. Nevertheless, I never once remember thinking that, just because I did not personally see the line of oncoming cars, there might not be a safe gap.

This is an everyday example of an act of genuine faith—but it does not involve a blind or reckless leap into a dark unknown. It is based on my reasoning processes and my experience with my wife’s judgment, intelligence, and good intentions. And, importantly, it is also based on my commitment to the relationship I have established with her.

In the book of Romans, chapter 1, verse 17, Martin Luther discovered how to unlock the treasure-house of God’s ultimate reality. He came face-to-face with the means of unraveling the essence of truth. It was simple, yet stunningly profound. It had the power to make life-transforming changes. It set people free from their dependence on the mental giants that roamed the earth. Ordinary people could know truth for themselves! The key he had found was the revelation that, “The just shall live by faith.”

The exercise of faith is in harmony with the deepest needs of humanity. Ordinary people, by thoughtful commitment to a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, and taking into account the evidence of God’s intervention in human affairs, can be lifted beyond the necessity to reason or understand. By faith we can know the true significance of our very existence. Or, in everyday language, we can know “the meaning of life”—even if, at times we see it brighter than a summer sky, and at others only “through a glass darkly.”

Like the boy standing beside the ocean, we too must come to understand that the most important things we can ever know will never revealed to our minds alone.

(Some ideas put forward in this essay were prompted by T. M. Kitwood’s What Is Human? [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970].)