Faith and Reason Series: Is Faith the Opposite of Knowledge?

Faith and ReasonIn a lecture given at Biola University in November of 2011, Dallas Willard opened with the following statement:

“The most significant event for human existence in the last 200 years has been the displacement in the common mind of the content of Christian teaching from the domain of knowledge into the domain of faith.” (Willard, Biola University, November 2011)

In The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning and Public Debate, Phillip Johnson points out the challenge posed by metaphysical naturalism (the prevailing mindset in science) to Christian belief. He states:

“…the intellectual culture of our time enforces a distinction between belief and knowledge, and between faith and reason.”1…“the paradigmatic illustration of the distinction is the assumed contrast between scientific knowledge and religious belief, supplemented by the parallel contrast between scientific reason and religious faith, which rationalists assume to mean belief without reason2”, or I would add knowledge.

J. P. Moreland in Kingdom Triangle similarly raises the concern that metaphysical naturalism (the prevailing mindset in science) and postmodernism (the prevailing mindset in philosophy) have so redefined knowledge that many Christians now believe that true knowledge about God cannot be attained. Rather, Christian faith is mere belief, where belief is detached from real knowledge. Such a state of affairs raises the question:

“Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition, a perspective that, while true, cannot be known to be true and must be embraced on the basis of some epistemic state weaker than knowledge?“3

This question is of great significance for Christian life. If our contemporary culture can convince us that what Jesus Christ revealed and taught about God, Creation, his kingdom, salvation, morality and eternity are anything less than true knowledge about reality, then we will cease to be “salt and light”4 or “bringers of good news”5 to a lost and dying world; we will cease to be those who are “set free by the truth”6 ; in fact we will be incapable of even truly following the one who himself claimed to be “the truth”7. The stakes have never been higher.

The starting point for the Christian then needs to be a return to what is at the heart of the gospel. It was not mere belief in something that ‘if’ true was cause for hope that led Jesus’ ragtag followers to change the face of the world. Rather it was entering into the knowledge of what ‘is’ true which became living hope; hence Jesus’ defining description of a disciple’s living condition: “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

Unfortunately, because Western culture since the Enlightenment has done such an effective job in redefining ‘knowledge’, many Christians live as if their faith is mere belief and that the vibrancy of their faith therefore is based upon the power of their own convictions, rather than seeing that their convictions have no power to uphold anything unless they themselves are founded first upon true knowledge. It is also why so few Christians consider the training of their minds to be as spiritual a matter as prayer or attending worship service. The general demise of anything resembling Christian education in most churches is testament to this fact.

Has the culture impacted your own view of faith and knowledge as a Christian? Here is a good place to start identifying where it has, and beginning to change how you think. Ask yourself this question and write down an answer(s) before reading any further: “How do you know that Christianity is true?” [Note: Your answer may be “I don’t” or “I can’t”, in which case I hope you will stick with us and let us help you change that fact.]

With the re surging popularity of Christian apologetics it is not uncommon for Christians to begin recalling (or feeling as though they should be able to recall) arguments surrounding such topics as the reliability of the Bible; evidence for the resurrection; or other evidential arguments in favour of Christian truth. And there is indeed an increasingly important role for these to build a case for the questioner that Christianity is in fact a reasonable faith. But what does God say on the matter? How is it that he has ensured that we can really know that all we have trusted Christ for is true? The answer is thus:

“And we know he lives in us because the Spirit he gave us lives in us.” (1 John 3:24)

Could it be that while strengthened by evidential arguments, our knowledge that Christianity is true actually comes from the internal witness of the Holy Spirit? Well, that seems to be what Scripture clearly points to. Jesus said that the “Spirit of truth would guide us into all truth.” (John 16:13) “Oh!” but you say, “that sounds so subjective. That’s just the kind of irrational arguments that makes faith seem so contrary to knowledge”. But why must that necessarily be so? Such a perspective only seems so if you first accept our cultural re-definitions of knowledge. But why must we accept them? Is science really the arbiter of what constitutes real knowledge? Think about it. How much of your life do you live based upon knowledge that is not scientifically derived? For most of us that is virtually all of it. Do you need scientific evidence to know that you are sitting at your computer or holding a mobile device reading this blog right now? Don’t you ‘just know it’? And who would charge you with irrationality for saying that you did? In fact, likely the opposite would be so.

Now, I grant you that my internal experience of the Holy Spirit does not constitute a rational defence to someone else that my Christian faith is true. In order to show that to be the case, I do indeed need to appeal to other lines of reasoning. However, for the Christian we must allow God’s Word to affirm what is true. We know Christ lives in us because the Holy Spirit testifies this to us first hand.(cf. Romans 8:16) We know it at the most intimate and basic levels of human understanding and knowledge. And this first hand, ‘basic level’ knowledge is perfectly rational.

What this does for us immediately is return our pursuit of knowledge of God into the right sphere. Many Christians pine for “deeper” levels of spiritual walk with God, but they pursue it merely at the level of more information or more religious activity, hoping that either will necessarily produce this “deeper” faith. Education and the practice of spiritual disciplines indeed have their place, but only where they lend themselves to gaining true knowledge of God, which is fundamentally relational. “This is eternal life”, Jesus said. “That they may know you, the one true God and Christ Jesus whom you have sent…that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:3, 26)

We must reject our culture’s attempt to hijack our ‘knowledge’ about knowledge. Because God is real, he is there to be known. Because he has revealed himself to us through Christ, he is now knowable. Because he has given us his Spirit, we may know him. Now we have the great joy in Christ; to confidently pursue the ultimate of all life pursuits…knowing God, and in so doing coming to a real knowledge of what is true. I close with words from J.I. Packer on this great subject:

“What makes life worth while is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has, in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?”8

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[1]Phillip E. Johnson, The Right Questions: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 40.

[2]Ibid, 41.

[3]J. P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 76.

[4]Mathew 5:13-14, NIV.

[5]Romans 10:15, NIV.

[6]John 8:32, NIV.

[7]John 14:6, NIV.

[8]J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), 36.

 

2 thoughts on “Faith and Reason Series: Is Faith the Opposite of Knowledge?

  1. I agree that “…my internal experience of the Holy Spirit does not constitute a rational defense to someone else that my Christian faith is true” and that I identify with the desire “to know God”. Absolute truth is something I desire very much. However, it seems that many arguments are complicated by a failure of communication of real definitions/meanings of words.

    For example, “know” means “be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information” and “knowledge” means “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”. Of course there are similar but different definitions of these words, but my point is that knowing something or someone does not mean that (1) one is aware of everything about that subject or person or (2) that knowledge one has is 100% correct about that subject or person. In other words, it is very important that one uses metaphors, stories, examples, expressions, and other words to define terms, otherwise it is easy for the heart/core of the discussion to be lost.

    You suggest that some people believe “Rather, Christian faith is mere belief, where belief is detached from real knowledge”, but is your definition of knowledge absolute truth or awareness of information? Are you 100% sure that God exists or do you believe that, through His grace, you are aware that He exists? I don’t wish to discuss the conundrum between God’s grace and man’s choices, but rather I want you to answer the question, “Is knowledge absolute, eternal truth?”

    Or, is knowing a more transitory thing? The scientific method operates based upon probabilities and percentages, so a wise scientist will likely avoid assertions that anything is 100% certain or 100% uncertain. In other words, a wise scientist will neither confirm or deny the existence of absolute truth.

    So, your suggestion that others think belief is detached from real knowledge is confusing because some people may think of knowledge as absolute truth while others may consider it awareness of true or false information.

    Sorry for the long reply, but your example of knowledge seems like a misrepresentation of the true dilemma. – “Do you need scientific evidence to know that you are sitting at your computer or holding a mobile device reading this blog right now? Don’t you ‘just know it’? And who would charge you with irrationality for saying that you did?” – Again, does “know” mean awareness of information or absolute truth? If we are constrained to the constructs of time and space, even this is debatable. Humans often reinterpret memories, so knowing as awareness makes sense, but unless proof that I read your blog (e.g. a witness who clocked in at this Starbucks and my internet history traced to this date) can be brought to the future date/time at which one is trying to prove that I read your blog, how can you know (absolute truth) or be absolutely sure that I read your blog? Even if one can bring proof to that future time, can one be 100% sure I read the blog? Even if I recall reading your blog, am I interpreting that memory correctly?

    I know my example strays from your example of being sure of something in a moment in time, but my example seems to more accurately reflect the reality and challenges of belief in scripture. Furthermore, my example includes differentiation between knowledge as absolute truth and knowledge as awareness. Thus, it seems that both anti-theists and people who believe in God have to deal with annoyingly limited human capabilities that make the assertion of absolute (100%) truth unrealistic/uncertain outside of a moment interpreted slightly differently by everyone who observed it.

    It seems these discussions about the existence of God would be better if we used the words “my belief” and “my conclusion” in the context of probability and personal choice more readily than “knowledge”, “truth”, and “existence” in the context of absolute (100%) reality. Also, the categorization of people into groups (e.g. Christian, atheist, Muslim, etc.) is also detrimental as it assumes knowledge (rather than checking assumptions through questioning the person) based upon prior experiences of people in that category, but that’s another discussion.

    To summarize my questions so that you can avoid re-reading and save some of your time (thanks for taking time to read this): Do you define know as (1) awareness of information (true or false), (2) 100% absolute surety, or (3) some other definition? Do you assert that 100% absolute truth does or does not exist, or do you think that 100% absolute truth may exist but belief/faith & probability/statistics should be emphasized as proof of timeless 100% reliable truth is often if not always absent?

    • Hi Josh,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to offer a brief reply to what I think is the core of your question.

      You asked for my definition of knowledge, which I could not give until we clarified what kind of knowledge we’re talking about. When we talk about knowledge we typically think of ‘propositional knowledge’, which I would define as justified true belief. Here, an assertion such as “it is raining out” is a true belief we can hold based upon sufficient justification for holding it. (e.g. we step outside and get wet).
      Another type of knowledge that is no less knowledge however is ‘knowledge by direct acquaintance’. Some philosophers refer to this as ‘simple seeing’, which basically amounts to my direct experience of a thing or person.

      In either case, I do not think that 100% certainty is attainable, nor do I think you need 100% certainty to make the claim or have confidence that you know something.

      I’m really not sure what your final question “Do you assert that 100% absolute truth does or does not exist…” is asking. Since truth is that which corresponds to reality, truth exists. (I find the modifiers ‘100%’ and ‘absolute’ redundant) To me the issue is not the existence of truth (ontology), but our capacity to know it. (epistemology) As I mentioned, while truth exists I will concede that 100% certain knowledge is unattainable.

      The purpose of my article was merely to help Christians reconsider the content of their Christian convictions and the experience of a living relationship with God as not simply ‘belief’ but ‘knowledge’. In a culture that still bears the marks of Enlightenment rationalism when it comes to knowledge, and relativism when it comes to ethics and religion, I would like to see Christians reclaim a vision of their Christian faith as a “knowledge of the truth” (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4) rather than just a personal faith. To see that Christianity isn’t true because we believe it, but that we believe it because it’s true. Perhaps however, as you pointed out my use of the word ‘know’ and ‘knowledge’ was a tad ambiguous. Part of the peril of writing on such a topic is suppose;)

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