His thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not ours.[i] Lean not to your own understanding.[ii] God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.[iii] The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the glory of God in the face of Christ.[iv] These are only a few of the many scriptures Christians use when reason runs dry, when there is no reason for a specific belief, when core beliefs are diametrically and demonstrably opposed to known truth or when they are logically backed into a corner. It’s a dilemma of one’s own making.
There are many such verses and I am on the receiving end of these almost everyday because I am in regular dialogue with (usually Evangelical and often Fundamentalist) Christians about my own journey, the robustness of the tenets of their faith and all the assumptions that go along with faith. Just yesterday it was Matthew 11: 25.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
A few days ago, it was this one from a friend:
“At the risk of ripping out an over-abused point of Scripture, I’ll say that if there is a God who created the universe, then that God would be supra-logical, that is to say beyond logic.”
Not long ago, I had this one hurled at me, perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 2. It concludes with this gem, the idea that I do not grasp God’s supernatural logic because I am in another class of human being, those without the Spirit of God, perhaps the most arrogant and discriminatory of religious claims I have ever faced, delivered straight-faced without a second thought:
“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
I had initially intended to embed this discussion within another post, Hell, No! (coming soon) but the more I wrote, the more it took on a life of its own and I realized it needs its own rebuttal. It comes up very often in discussions about the legitimacy of eternal torment. It also often comes up when things don’t go the way Christians thought they would, when prayers aren’t answered as expected, generally when all kinds of bad or unexpected things happen. I have a number of things to say about it.
Context is sometimes a problem with the verses above, but not always. Sometimes the bible does explicitly seem to condemn critical thinking and reason and in some cases, like Matthew 11, actually values the mental simplicity of infants over wisdom and intelligence because infants are open and will truly believe anything. This is how we must come to the Christian Faith (and it is also a convenient and frequent excuse for ignorance and not educating oneself). In some cases though these verses are just plain taken out of context. Consider the passage from Isaiah 55.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord”
On the face, this looks like it could possibly be used to confound those who would restrict the plans of God to logic and reason. But consider the entire passage, which puts things into some perspective:
Call upon him while He is near
Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And he will have compassion on him
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon
For my thoughts are not your thoughts
Nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord
It is clearly making reference to God’s unending mercy, not his unending wrath. The point here is not God’s suggestion that we suspend the use of reason and logic, but rather it is a testimony to unfathomable virtue! Those who are inclined to use this verse in an attempt to confound logical arguments use it incorrectly. They are not using it to make a point about the mercy of God, but to point out that we simply are too low, too primitive and unrefined, fallen, not spiritually awake or quickened to understand the mind and designs of God. Note that the appeal to the mercy this passage extols unfolds using reason and logic.
Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:27 is not making the argument that we should not rely on our reasoning faculties. After the infamous “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” he gives his rationale; “so that no one may boast before him.” One would have expected something else entirely if Paul had meant by this verse to nullify critical thought. Again, he uses reason to make his point.
Appeals to Reason
What is the first chapter of 1 Corinthians if not an intricately constructed reasonable argument? How then can Paul be asking us to suspend reason? This passage is not an attempt to suspend reason, but to lay out a different, more radical rationale for his preaching, confounding what people might have expected. But he does so using reason.
How clear is it, by use of reason, that the writer of Isaiah believes God’s mercy is unfathomable? What a marvelous If-Then statement the writer of Proverbs 3:5 provides in the context of, and immediately after asking us not to lean on our own understanding:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
[If] in all your ways submit to him,
[Then] and he will make your paths straight.
As it is in every case, the exhortation by the religious (and this is true of any worldview, not just Judeo-Christianity) to suspend logic because God’s ways are not ours or any such argument, is itself an appeal to reason! Even the much –loved and oft-cited (incorrectly) Pascal’s Wager (If you believe you lose nothing and gain everything, if you do not believe you lose everything), arguably the first defense of hedging one’s bets, requires the inadequacy of reason as one of its explicit assumptions (click the link and look at point #3), but then uses reason and logic to make its point.
There is no possible world where using reason to ask someone to suspend reason in accepting a statement then made from reason makes any sense at all. That is, unless that last statement is logical gobbledygook that is simply to be accepted blindly. Who would knowingly do such a thing and still be considered cogent?
What’s Good For The Goose…
The suspension of reason works both ways. Implicit in the requirement to suspend reason is the idea that we cannot know God’s loftiest ideals, designs and plans. Fair enough, but I have a question. Why then should anyone believe that you have the inside scoop on God’s plans and ideals, that God should be trusted blindly? If God’s plans are so much higher than ours, then how is it that you have any idea of God’s plans? Why should I be listening to you telling me what God wants?
“Ah,” you might say… “We have the Bible, the word of God to guide us!” Well, first, now we’re back to relying on reason. It requires reason to read and comprehend, so the argument is lost there. Second, even in the bible there is no schematic for some alternate form of thinking that would supersede reason. Oh, there are plenty of examples of what we now would call irrational or perhaps less offensively and more politically correct, “cultural” commandments and commands, precepts and lines of thinking, but those are not justified by some alternate reality of cognition.
Perhaps it is the Spirit, as Paul says, that only those believers with the Spirit know or understand the mind and plans of God. Perhaps the workings of the “spirit” of believers is the alternate reality superseding reason. What is the mechanism for that? Feeling? Is there some spiritual structure inside you that works alongside or even separate from your brain? How does it work? How does it communicate with you in ways that are different from anyone else’s intuition, giving you a sense of certitude that what you’re feeling or thinking is divine? It can be asserted all day long, but can it be supported or backed up with anything? Can that be done? Can anybody even explain it? “No,” you might say! “It’s the realm of the Spirit and above logic and explanation!” Yet to maintain the rationale for the existence of such a device you use reason. Well, at that point there is nowhere to go. “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”[v]
Third, how do you know the bible is guiding you? We are told in that Bible a number of times that God sends delusion, and especially in 2 Thessalonians that God intends to mislead people specifically so that they will believe a lie! We are also told in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan also deludes us:
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the glory of God in the face of Christ”
As Ebon Muse points out, the Koran also says that God leads people to delusion and asks how you know whether you are one of the deluded or not? What if Allah or Shiva is the true God and Christianity is the delusion God created so that you would believe a lie? Or what if Christianity is true and Islam is the delusion God created to deceive infidels and prodigals? Who can know, who can say without appeal to reason?
Many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists themselves believe that God deceives in asserting that He created the fossils simply to make it appear as if the earth was old and that it was created with history. How can anyone be held responsible for not choosing correctly when God’s ways are not only incomprehensible but when he himself admittedly deludes people and allows them to be deluded? (see also 1 Kings 22:23, 2 Chronicles 18:22, Jeremiah 4:10 and 20:7, and Ezekiel 14:9 and 2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
The bottom line in all this of course, whether or not you can accept that God actually does delude people, is that this works both ways. The answer to this tangled fishing line of folly is simply that we cannot suspend reason and still be the least bit coherent outside our own brains. Even faith needs reason. You believe what you believe for a reason. You have heard words spoken or read words written. You comprehended them and acted on them. This is a cognitive process and there is no getting around that. Functional changes to your brain will surely bring functional changes to all your spiritual stuff as well. Any appeal to the override of reason and logic to undermine a skeptical argument also undermines all arguments on all sides.
Well, We Don’t Really Need to Suspend Reason…
I suppose that there are those who would argue that we are not to suspend our own reasoning at all, but we are simply to acknowledge that a Supreme Being with infinite understanding and wisdom is necessarily high above us and that we could not possibly understand the mind of such a being. We are to simply instead accept the bible as God’s word from a loving and faithful father and assent to it without expecting answers to unanswerable questions, because after all, God’s ways are not our ways. We are, when things make no sense, simply to resign, to throw up our arms in trust without reason.
Would you expect the same of your children on matters of critical import? And does God really work this way in the scriptures?
The bible is full of God’s attempts to make logical sense to his oracles and those he communicates with. Every book, every story, psalm, epistle, gospel, every prophet, judge, patriarch, and king, all have a point to make and all use reason; human reason. How else would they do it? We must read and comprehend after all, and that is a cognitive process. If there was some other mechanism superseding reason, one might expect a different medium than the printed word, or perhaps a spiritual language that only those with the “spirit” understand. But no, in the world that we all live, this is all we have. Even those who “have the Spirit” must read or hear.
In the book of Job, where God schools the poor man by putting things into perspective, establishing His sovereignty and power, where He did have an appropriate situation to insist that Job put his reason aside and bow to God’s infinite understanding and transcendent wisdom He does not do so. He does not ask Job to suspend his thinking when it would have been most appropriate! He uses argument and reason laying it all out in a most compelling (to Job) fashion.
How many times is the phrase “For this reason…” found in scripture? It certainly seems God’s preferred way of doing business. And why not? If there is a creator, if this God is real then this is the way he created things. This is the way things work. These are the universal physical laws. Why put Himself above it?
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD.”
Why Is This Such A Popular Argument?
In the paper I linked to above, Creationism and the Appearance of Age, Scott Pfahler discusses the reasons why those who embrace the appearance of age theory find it popular. His reasons also seem applicable to those who suggest that God is above logic and thus cannot be understood through human reason. I have synthesized and expanded on his reasons and I am indebted to his work:
1) It renders whatever the proposition being advanced outside of human reason impossible to disprove. By removing reason and appealing to a supernatural transcendent rationale, we can do nothing more. It has also thus inoculated the claims it protects against falsification, a cardinal sin in science. Who can argue with God?
2) It is a theological proposition and thus like all theology it is not testable. It is completely out of our hands.
3) It is intellectually lazy. God said it, you believe it, that settles it. There is no reason to study further, to do what humans were created to do, to learn and grow. God’s ways are not our ways. Or if one is to study, it is either to study theology (see #2), which again, cannot be disproved or falsified, or study in such a way as to not disturb or challenge the foregone conclusion. Once the conclusion is challenged, the “God’s ways are not our ways” defense is invoked.
4) It does not allow us to explain why things are the way they are, but only asserts that they are that way. Again, throw your arms up.
Of course this whole essay is an appeal to reason, and there are those who will reject it on those grounds, especially if it involves challenging sacred cows. Those who invoke this argument in order to make or refute any point should know that as far as I am concerned, the conversation is then over. There is simply nothing else to say, there is no basis for anything further. We throw our arms up. There can be no more entertaining any points made from their position.
What This Means For Me
I want to understand things. I always have. Even when I was an Evangelical Fundamentalist I aspired to a coherent faith, asked a lot of questions, read many books, soaked up all I could. Yes, there were mysteries that only God understood, but as far as what I was expected to believe and assent to, I thought it all made sense and had to make sense; it had to have structural integrity. That was never negotiable to me. If I ever ran out of reasoning headroom I went looking for a better answer and cannot remember ever appealing to the abandonment of human reason. The more I learned, the more I freed myself from a rigid mindset where the desired and predetermined conclusion had to color the evidence rather than the evidence independently leading to a conclusion. “Follow the argument, wherever it leads,” as Socrates said. That is a toxic process for scriptural literalism. Thus the argument from so many evangelicals; God’s ways are not our ways.
I am not interested in being right for the sake of being right, or winning arguments. My goal is not to prove anyone wrong. I am interested in the truth about the world I live in and in the application of my truth to the cultivation of love in my life. I am interested in authenticity in what I profess and believe and in who I am. I am not a philosopher or a scientist; I am an artist and a music educator. This is not simply a cerebral exercise either. My head and my heart inform each other and are united and unified on this. With that in mind, I close by recounting some of my replies in online discussions that have involved reason and the mind of God. Hopefully this will highlight why this is important to me and how I think about it.
After stating that I think much of the bible and its main story is not worthy of a good and loving god:
Now I draw that conclusion strictly using the only faculties I know and have without invoking anything that I do not know or have. I cannot bring myself to commit the sin of violating those faculties.
After stating that I cannot fathom a loving god who would not feel like he owed those he intended to banish an explanation for what He does:
Granted, I am making that statement based on my own understanding and my own conscience and mind. Unfortunately that’s all I’ve got and those words [love] have meaning because that’s the way we understand them. Given that, why wouldn’t god want to explain himself? I know I do with my kids, to the best of my ability, and I certainly wouldn’t condemn them for not understanding something so far beyond their means.
On being presented with a fantasy scenario at my death, where I am met by Jesus at the Pearly Gates, who then affirms that He is everything He is portrayed in the bible, author of Leviticus, destroyer of Amalekites, sentencer of people to hell, the God who hung on a tree to save his people, who offers no explanation or justification for any of that and will not sit in my dock, but does offer me one last chance at forgiveness if I will only ask. If not, then I will walk away and He will leave me to my unpleasant choice for all eternity, my existence marked by futility and frustration and an insatiable thirst for Him.
Jesus, I’m not going to play by those rules because that’s not the way you made me. But neither am I going to walk away. I am going to sit right here and listen. I am ready to talk when you are. If anyone is going to walk away it will be you. Jesus, this is the only way I know to be faithful to what I am, to what you have given me, and to the rules of the universe and the human heart that you have made. I am not giving you an ultimatum to ‘sit in my dock’ but neither can I assent to things by committing the sin of violating all that I am and all that you have expected me to be by virtue of how you made me and the laws of nature. I will sit right here and wait. I’ve got time.
But I am done with any belief system that would have me suspend the only faculties I know I have been provided with to blindly accept by faith things we don’t know, or even worse, know cannot be true. That would be the gravest sin I can imagine. No god would ask me to commit it. The cool thing is that science does work, those faculties that we are given and that are part and parcel of who humans are, work. We know that. The rest not so much.