04 January 2016

Is Christianity Rational?

The dictionary definition of the word rational means that a claim is perceived to be "based on facts or reason and not on emotions or feelings."  Likewise, a rational person has "the ability to reason or think about things clearly." 

Religion is perceived by many to be irrational.  In other words, religious beliefs are only based on humanity's more primitive thoughts and traditions that emerged from a context in which much couldn't be explained rationally.  Religion became both a quest for explanations and for a sense of control and hope in the face of all the uncertainty and dangers of primitive human existence.  For those who view religion as irrational today, religion is a holdover from a less enlightened era, which modern people need to discard.  At best, religion may serve to promote beneficial moral behavior and organize people to perform benevolent acts. 

However, religion continues to have a massive appeal in our modern era.  Many predicted that the 18th-century European Enlightenment and the scientific revolution would bring about the end of Christianity, which possesses a foundation of unobservable, supernatural claims.  Rationalists, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that Christianity would die a natural death as a new generation of enlightened minds embraced a more naturalistic and universal understanding of God, who could be considered the distant, supreme architect of the universe.  Jefferson was really smart, and I'm grateful for his contributions to our political beginnings as a country, but he was wrong on that one. 

The most interesting and meaningful questions are not ones that observation and rational thinking can answer.  We might have a certain confidence in current theories about how the universe began, but we can't begin to answer why it exists.  We might think that we understand the evolutionary development of humanity and other life, but we can't explain what life is and how it suddenly (or gradually) turned from inanimate stuff into living stuff.  Even a rational genius like Stephen Hawking understands that observational science has limits to the kinds of questions it can tackle, much less for which it can provide answers. 

So now to the question: Is Christianity rational?  Christianity offers assertions that are not immediately observable.  So, if you think you have to be able to observe something with your own senses in order for it to be intellectually reasonable, then I suppose Christianity is irrational to you.  Or if you think that in order to believe in the supernatural claims of Christianity, then you need to observe similar demonstrations of the supernatural with your own eyes, then I suppose it's irrational to you. 

However, I would suggest these issues do not make Christianity irrational.  The vast majority of human history is not observable.  I suppose only very recently can we say that something that happened in the past is observable in the form of recordings, if it was indeed recorded.  But this is a recent reality and still limited. 

The bottom line is that every person is operating on some faith in regards to those big questions that are not subject to our immediate observation.  For roughly a century and a half modern humanity has warmed up to the idea and embraced a materialistic and atheistic view of existence.  The scientific theories of the origins of the universe and the development of living things have become for many their deeply held convictions.  I call it conviction, because to have such confidence in these theories' truthfulness takes faith. 

I don't mean that these theories are irrational.  On the contrary, they are quite rational based on certain observations.  From those observations, the theories have been reasoned.  But because the events (Big bang, evolution, old earth, etc.) have not been directly observed, then it takes a certain amount of confidence in the witness of the stars, rock strata, and fossil records coupled with a certain interpretation of the data to assert that these theories are good theories, and even more faith to declare they are true.  Actually, most who are given completely to an evolutionary, materialistic, atheistic world view are extremely confident about their views (i.e. they have a lot of faith).  To call any of the theories it into question is to tread irreverently on their holy ground.  

At the very least a Christian worldview and an atheistic, materialistic worldview are on equal ground in regards to being both rational in the fact that both are reasoning from certain data and requiring faith to assert confidently their truthfulness because both have at their foundation things that cannot be observed directly.

The data that I refer to in regards to Christianity is of course the Bible.  Right now, someone reading this is deciding whether to bother reading on.  Maybe that is you.  You may think it irrational to consider the Bible as data.  But I would challenge that bias in you.  Instead, I would ask you attempt to recognize at least the collection of writings we call the New Testament as a historical document that chronicles a real historical movement of the first century.  Actually, as far as ancient documents are concerned, the New Testament is right at the top of the most reliable and plentiful documents we possess concerning any part of antiquity.  No credible historian can simply dismiss the evidence of the Gospel writers simply because the content makes supernatural claims in regards to Jesus.  One should consider the claims in light of the actual historical movement itself and any corroborating evidence.

Even if you are predisposed to reject the claims of supernatural events, like Jesus' miracles, you still need to take a moment to think rationally about the claim of the resurrection, which is the foundation of Christianity.  The reason this deserves any rationally thinking person's time is because of the historical witness to it, not merely in the preserved writings, but also in the people themselves who supposedly witnessed it. 

The Gospels are clearly written as history.  Fairy tales, myths and legends are written in a style in which the reader knows he is reading fiction, even ancient ones.  The questions still remains, however, if the Gospels are reliable history.  At this point, some basic logic helps us.  If the resurrection was simply a fabrication of a few men for their own unknown purposes, then we have a logical dilemma.  It's certainly rational to consider that these men (the disciples) lied about the resurrection.  People do lie.  They lie to gain advantage, to avoid negative consequences, to get rich, to advance themselves and so forth. 

The logical question then becomes this: What advantage were the allegedly lying disciples trying to secure for themselves when they spread their lie that Jesus had been resurrected? What we do know is that these men and those who spread the message of a resurrected Jesus encountered tremendous push back from their neighbors and authorities.  However, they could not be threatened or beaten into silence. 

Under severe persecution, they maintained their adamant message of the resurrection - many all the way to their death.  Rationally, that doesn't make sense if you were the one in on the hoax from the beginning.  People will die for a lie in which they believe.  We all have the potential to be deceived.  However, it defies logic for people to die for a lie they themselves made up.  Furthermore, we have no evidence from Jewish or Roman historians of the time period that any Christian with knowledge of such a hoax ever recanted the story.

If you have a bias that simply makes you dismiss Christianity categorically as irrational, then I would encourage you to consider the resurrection as a possible event in history.  You may still dismiss it; however, I hope that you can admit that those who accept it as history are not irrational.  Yes, it is still a step of faith to assert it as truth.  Again, I didn't witness it.  But it is not a blind leap of faith.  It is a faith that is built upon a foundation of a certain historical witness that I find very compelling.  I find it to be unparalleled in content and most significant of all human history.  And if it is true, which I believe, then it is the defining event for all humanity and the reason that Christianity is the truth.

It certainly takes faith to believe confidently that Jesus was resurrected and that the propositions of Christianity are true, but it is not a faith that defies rationality - at least no more so than it defies rationality to have confidence (i.e. faith) in the truthfulness of the Big Bang or the evolution of the species from inanimate material.   

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