Dear Theophilus: On Faith, Reason and Doubt

By Gary Osmundsen
Faculty, College of Theology

Posted on October 17, 2017  in  [ Theology & Ministry ]

Jesus taught about having faith like a child, but I am sure that this does not mean we should blindly believe everything we read in the Bible. When I bring up my doubts to most Christians, they simply tell me to pray about it or trust God. I would like to actually have a faith that is based on reason – is that wrong?

Sincerely,

Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

Thank you for your thoughtful question. I think you are correct when you say Jesus didn’t believe we should “blindly” form beliefs. Indeed, I think Jesus would forbid forming beliefs about anything that matters blindly since doing so is intellectually irresponsible. So, it’s right to believe in a conception of faith that is, as you say, “based on reason.” But, let’s first get clear on what Jesus meant in Matthew 18:3. There he says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The first thing we should consider is what’s so special about becoming like a child? I think Jesus refers to children in that passage because they model for us how we should trust God. I know some have suggested Jesus meant we should approach God like children because they have the right heart. Then one infers that having the right heart is somehow opposed to reason. But this is neither a convincing interpretation nor a valid inference. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis once quipped: “Jesus wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.” So, I think we should get clear on why Jesus chose to illustrate the virtue of faith by appealing to children.

Have you ever seen a parent ask a child to jump into his or her arms? I have. In fact, just the other day, I was trying to get my four-year-old daughter, Avagrace, to swim in the pool with me. I told her, “Jump in, Avagrace! Daddy will catch you.” After some hesitation, she confidently jumped to me. Now, I can assure you that, given this was her first time, she would not have jumped to anyone. She jumped to me because she had evidence and reasons supporting her belief that I am trustworthy. Therefore, evidence gave her confidence to entrust herself into my care. This is not uncommon. We see children entrusting themselves into the care of their parents in matters that involve, say, food, clothing, bathing, medicine, crossing the street, leaving them with caregivers, etc. It seems, then, that Jesus brilliantly chose to use a familiar image to illustrate the virtue of faith. Therefore, this conception of faith is in no way opposed to reason.

Now let’s address the relationship between faith and doubt. As Avagrace illustrated above, faith is a disposition – accompanied by affective states like trust and confidence – one has towards the truth of something despite lacking conclusive evidence in support of it.

Here is another way to illustrate this virtue of faith through sports – specifically, long distance running. I happen to run and remember reaching a point in my training where I thought there was a strong possibility I could qualify for the Boston Marathon. This hope in qualifying began a journey of faith towards achieving it. I had my doubts, for sure. Indeed, many times I found myself running at a pace during workouts that was so slow, I thought there is no way I can run a full minute and a half faster than this for 26.2 miles. Thus, I experienced episodes of doubt that came in varying degrees of strength. Much of this doubt was triggered because I lacked conclusive evidence that typically comes from perceptual experiences. That is, I didn’t experience running at a pace fast enough to qualify during many of my workouts. But this doubt was unjustified doubt. The reason why is because I wasn’t factoring in the accumulated fatigue going into each workout.

The remedy for this unjustified doubt is faith. But it’s not blind faith. It’s a disposition – accompanied by affective states like trust and confidence – that’s grounded in evidence. I had evidence from previous workouts and races that I could run fast enough to qualify when I wasn’t fatigued; I had testimonial evidence from experts I’d trained with who assured me I could do it; and I had memorial evidence that I could trust God with my needs and things outside my control. Therefore, I combated episodes of unjustified doubt with faith grounded in various kinds of evidence. It was not blind faith.

Hopefully, this helps you better understand a conception of faith that is reasonable and an effective, responsible way to combat unjustified doubt. Indeed, I think it’s the biblical conception of faith, too. If you don’t think so, find a biblical exemplar of faith that lacks any evidence for why they’re entrusting themselves unto God.

As far as the last part of the question goes: It seems one should think hard about the evidence justifying the perceived doubt. If it’s like the unjustified doubt I experienced above, then combating it with faith sourced in evidence seems to be the right response. And your friends may, perhaps, be right. But if it’s justified doubt – that is, doubt brought about because of strong evidence against your belief – then responding with faith looks like the kind of blind faith intellectually responsible people should avoid.

This, of course, elicits the question of what conditions need to be satisfied in order for doubt to be either justified or unjustified. Furthermore, it’s worth exploring the question of what it means to have a childlike heart. But these are topics we will have to revisit at a later time. Right now I have to attend to my children.

Peace to you and yours, Theophilus.

To have your own questions answered on Dear Theophilus, please email cotblog@gcu.edu with the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” To learn more about the College of Theology, visit our website or contact us using the request more information button at the top of the page.

More about Gary Osmundsen:

Gary Osmundsen, PhD, is from Cape May, New Jersey. He is married to Julie Grace Osmundsen. They have four children: Emmafaith is 9, Joel is 7, Avagrace is 5 and James who was born on October 7, 2017. Dr. Osmundsen received a BA in Sociology from Eastern University (2001), an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics from Biola University (2006) and a PhD from the University of Oklahoma (2014). His research interests are in areas of epistemology, religious epistemology, philosophy of mind and the philosophy of sport. He enjoys competing in endurance sports like triathlons and marathons.

About College of Theology

Living Faith is a Christian blog that interacts with a variety of biblical, theological and practical topics written by Grand Canyon University's College of Theology faculty and specially invited guests of the college. Our content provides practical and biblical advice from a Christian worldview for living our faith in the midst of an increasingly secularized world. In addition, our content wrestles with cultural topics and issues that challenge how we live out our faith as believers. For this reason, contributors to our Christian blog strive to write with compassion and apologetic concern to honor Christ and edify the church in every way possible.


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