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Is Christianity Irrational?
January 11, 2024
To be a Christian means that you transfer your trust from yourself to Jesus. But this trust isn’t just a blind leap in the dark. It involves first considering Jesus’ claims and then concluding that they are indeed true.
We live in a society that prizes education, thoughtfulness, and the life of the mind. And many people assume that Christianity does not properly value the importance of reason, logic, and plain common sense. Most people think that Christian faith is irrational—it’s just a blind leap in the dark. As Mark Twain once quipped: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”—and you should never believe anything without good reason. So here’s the question: Is Christianity irrational? Is faith in Jesus opposed to reason?
First of all, let’s level the playing field and acknowledge that we all believe deeply in things we can’t prove—from basic assumptions about our mind’s ability to perceive reality to our highest ideals and aspirations. For example, though there is plenty of evidence, I can’t prove that my mother loves me in the same way that I can demonstrate that 2+2 always equals 4. And in a similar way, we can’t appeal to some sort of universal reason when it comes to our vision of the good life or what we perceive to be virtuous or beautiful. Whether you are a Christian or an atheist, we all rely on faith of some kind to make our way through the world.
So what do Christians mean by faith? I would like to suggest that Christianity doesn’t ask us to put “blind faith” in God—against all the evidence. Rather we are called to put our trust in God because there are good reasons for doing so.
Let me offer this illustration. In 1859, Charles Blondin became the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. 25,000 people showed up for the stunt, and most of the “smart money” bet that he was doomed to plunge 200 feet to a watery death below. He set out from the American side shortly before 5pm. When Blondin was one third of the way across, he sat down on the cable and signaled for the famous Maid of the Mist to anchor beneath him. He let down a rope to the ship below and then hoisted up a bottle of wine in order to enjoy a glass before getting up and running the rest of the way across the falls. On his return trip, he carried a camera and tripod on his back and stopped to snap a photo of the crowd on the American side before completing his 23 minute journey.
No one thought it could have been done. But Blondin not only did it once; he held a number of encore performances that summer. On one occasion, he walked across the rope backwards, on another he wore a sack over his entire body which blindfolded him. He once somersaulted and backflipped his way across and returned another time pushing a wheelbarrow.
After everything the people had seen, you could imagine Blondin asking: “Do you believe that I am capable of pushing someone in the wheelbarrow across the falls?” And at this point, most people would have said: “Yes.” And do you agree that what I am doing is real – and not some kind of trick? Again, most would agree that this was no charade. But imagine if he asked someone to get inside the wheelbarrow. Would you have done it? Well, believe it or not, at the end of that summer, Blondin walked across Niagara Falls carrying his manager Harry Colcord on his back.
Now, I would like to suggest that this illustrates the essence of faith. Theologians talk about three dimensions of faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. First, there is knowledge. You have to know something about God and Jesus. Faith is not irrational or blind; it’s based on what we can know. We are supposed to consider the claims Jesus has made about himself in the Scriptures and the ways in which he has acted in the past according to the original witnesses, just as Charles Blondin demonstrated his mastery over the tightrope before asking anyone to join him on the high wire. In other words, there is real content to faith based on what Jesus has revealed about himself. Second, you have to assent. You have to agree that this content is true — and not some kind of trick or a mere house of mirrors. Finally, and most importantly, there is trust. You have to personally trust Jesus. It’s not enough to know a claim and assent to its truth, you’ve got to do something about it. You have to place yourself in the wheelbarrow.
Here's the simplest way I can put it. Faith involves a transfer of trust. To be a Christian means that you transfer your trust from yourself to Jesus for your life, your future, your standing before God. Rather than relying on yourself (your record, your ability, your performance), you rely on Jesus Christ (his record, his ability, his performance) for your relationship with God.
So what is faith? Faith consists of knowledge, assent, and — above all — trust. But this faith is not opposed to reason. Rather it is tested by reason. That’s why Jesus encourages us to open ourselves up to the surprising ways in which God might be at work in our world and to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker