Story by Stephen Layman
Professor of Philosophy

Photos by
Jimi Lott

Student Perspectives

The following freshmen were members of Layman's University Seminar titled "Why Do Christians Believe?"

"For me, the most intriguing ideas we discussed dealt with the problems of pain and suffering and how to reconcile them with an all-good and all-powerful God. The material I read on this issue was extremely helpful to me in terms of understanding my own questions about suffering in my life, in the lives of others around me, and in the world in general.

"I believe that it is essential for Christians to be able to defend why they believe. God has given us the gift of intelligence and sound mind. These should be used to their fullest extent. In cases where a non-believer is not easily persuaded by appeals of the heart, a strong defense of the basic Christian beliefs can be very effective. In any case where Christians are able to do this, they are going to be strengthening their own beliefs as well."

Shannon Smythe
Hometown: Lynden, Washington
Intended Major: Latin American Studies/Spanish

"I enjoyed this class very much; it was definitely my favorite this quarter. It was a good introduction to my college career, but there was much more to it than that.

"This was the first time I studied the concepts of philosophy and reasoning in relationship to the Christian faith, and it really made me evaluate why I believe and how to defend my faith. It showed that there is much more to explaining Christianity than the answers I learned in a Sunday School setting. Some of the questions that a critic might ask are hard to answer.

"I particularly liked our discussions about the problem of evil and whether God can resolve contradictions. The reason these ideas were so interesting to me is that they were both issues I've wrestled with in my life."

Mike Lucero
Hometown: Moses Lake, Washington
Intended Majors: English and Philosophy, or History and Philosophy

"The most interesting things we talked about in this class were the arguments for and against God's existence. Probably the most difficult part for me was reading a book written by an atheist. I was frustrated trying to understand a man's point of view that I completely disagreed with.

"I started thinking about it, though, and I believe that it is very important to know what others believe so that we can defend our own beliefs. There are many intelligent people in the world who have questions about Christianity, and to be prepared to answer those questions we must know where those people are coming from. The Bible says to be prepared with an answer for those who ask where our hope comes from. That is one of the most important lessons I learned in this class."

Kellie Bratz
Hometown: Burlington, Washington
Intended Major: Psychology

In the spring of 1998, Stephen Layman was one of the first two recipients of the President's Awards for Excellence at SPU. Honored for his contributions "to the University's vision for the 21st century," Layman is respected for his teaching and his scholarship, including a textbook in elementary logic called The Power of Logic and a book of Christian reflections on the foundations of ethics titled The Shape of the Good. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at UCLA and has taught at SPU since 1986.

Seattle Pacific Professor of Philosophy Stephen Layman taught a University Seminar titled "Why Do Christians Believe?" to twenty first-year college students during Autumn Quarter. Together, they explored Christian apologetics, the branch of theology or Christian thought that attempts to give an organized defense of the Christian faith.

Layman first asked the freshmen to read relevant parts of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and examine Lewis' argument for God's existence, as well as his critiques of such alternatives as dualism and pantheism. Then the professor and his students took a look at "the other side of the fence" by reading B.C. Johnson's concise defense of atheism, The Atheist Debater's Handbook. "Johnson provided us with a clear picture of the challenges Christian apologetics faces," notes Layman.

Finally, the class read and discussed selected portions of some of the best current apologetical works, published articles on the problem of evil by Peter van Inwagen and SPU Associate Professor of Philosophy Daniel Howard-Snyder, and key chapters from J.P. Moreland's Scaling the Secular City.

"The course was designed to acquaint students with some of the main arguments Christians have traditionally used to defend their faith," says Layman, "and to help them organize their own thinking about their beliefs."

In this essay for Response, Layman summarizes three possible views of the role of reason in defense of the Christian faith.

Christians believe many things. Christians believe many things. For example, they believe that God exists, that God is wholly good, and that Jesus rose from the dead. But although Christians share many beliefs, they often give very different answers to the questions "Why do you believe?" and "What reasons or evidence can you give in support of your faith?" Some shy away from giving reasons altogether.

In discussing particular arguments for and against the Christian faith, one inevitably confronts a larger and more general issue: What is the relationship between faith and reason? To what extent should Christians base their beliefs on reasoning, evidence or arguments?

Some e-mail messages from members of my University Seminar last quarter indicate that this issue pops up in various forms:

"Logic is cool for some back-up, but for most Christians, logic isn't why they are a Christian."

"As frustrating as it is to read Johnson's book [The Atheist Debater's Handbook], I think that it is important to know what we're up against when we talk with non-believers. I'm sure that Johnson is not alone in his thinking...."

"It seems like we are all getting a little frustrated with all the unanswered questions. But anyway, I wanted to say that I personally want to find the answers to these questions and study them FOR MYSELF! I do want to be able to defend my beliefs to others, but more than that I want the answer so that I can understand."

Quite often Christians are willing to reason about their faith only to a very limited degree, and at the first sign of intellectual difficulty, they respond by saying, "You can't explain God, salvation, etc.; it's a matter of faith." The philosopher John Locke, himself a Christian, once wryly summed up the situation this way: "I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly: and where it fails them, they cry out, 'It is a matter of faith and above reason'" (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, XVIII, 2).

Clearly, there is something less than intellectually honest about the willingness to use reason and logic only as long as they present no difficulties for faith. On the other hand, Christians are rightly wary of taking on too large a "burden of proof" with respect to their faith. Few Christians have the time or inclination to work out a complete and systematic rationale for their faith; and even if they did, they rightly suspect that such a rationale would be subject to plausible intellectual challenges from various quarters.

How, then, should we think about faith and reason? How are they related, if at all? I want to outline three possible answers.

One possible answer is called fideism. In this view, the most fundamental Christian beliefs, such as "God exists" and "God is good," are nonrational. Fideists hold that it is a mistake to apply the standards of rationality to fundamental religious beliefs.

A problem with this view is that it (in effect) equates Christian belief with superstition, that is, with groundless belief. Any religion, even a religion that believed in a God of hate, might readily cling to fideism as a way of avoiding the sting of rational critique.

Another possible view has been called evidentialism. It takes various forms, but I will simply define it as the view that religious belief needs to be based on adequate evidence in order to be rational.

This view is often presented in extreme forms that make it appear unduly rationalistic. For example, the admittedly vague phrase "adequate evidence" may suggest to some that evidentialism demands that the Christian possess "scientific" evidence that will convince every reasonable person. But moderate evidentialists argue that the role of reason in religion should be similar to the role of reason in morality and politics. In these cases, reason and argument can, should and do play a significant role in shaping (and sometimes even changing) our opinions -- even though we know that moral and political beliefs are influenced by nonrational factors such as upbringing and social status.

Many Christians reject evidentialism on the grounds that "you cannot argue people into the kingdom of God." This objection, however, is weak -- for two reasons. First, it misses the point. Evidentialists need not hold that one can argue people into the kingdom. Presumably, nothing mere humans can do brings people into God's kingdom -- including preaching and witnessing. Nevertheless, God may use preaching, witnessing and, yes, reasoning, to produce faith. Second, certain Scripture passages state that Christians should reason with non-Christians about matters of religious belief. e.g., "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (I Peter 3:15).

Still another objection to evidentialism is that it demands that every Christian have in hand a set of arguments supporting his or her Christian beliefs. Such a demand is obviously unrealistic and perhaps even cruel given that some people have neither the leisure nor ability to learn apologetics.

However, the evidentialist need not be so individualistic about belief. To understand why, we might compare belief in God to belief in electrons. (I have borrowed this analogy from Stephen Wykstra, a philosopher at Calvin College.) Practically everyone nowadays believes that electrons exist; yet no one can see electrons. Furthermore, most of us would be unable to summarize the scientific evidence for the existence of electrons. Our belief rests on the authority of scientists. And it is quite reasonable to accept the authority of experts in this fashion.

Similarly, an evidentialist might suggest that it is entirely reasonable for most Christians to believe that God exists on the basis of the authority of the Bible or the church. But, the evidentialist will insist, such an appeal to authority is reasonable only if we can reasonably assume that somewhere in the Christian community or in the Christian tradition there are persons or groups (e.g., Christian theologians or scholars) who individually or jointly possess adequate evidence for the central Christian beliefs. In the same way, our belief in electrons is reasonable only if we reasonably assume that scientists have good evidence for the existence of electrons.

So, evidentialism is sometimes rejected for weak reasons. Nevertheless, evidentialism does demand that some Christians have adequate evidence for their religious beliefs. And many Christians, including some Christian theologians and philosophers, doubt that such evidence is available. Still others feel that even if the evidence is available, it is somehow inappropriate for faith to be based on it.

Middle Ground
I cannot in short space referee the long-standing dispute between fideists and evidentialists. Perhaps the best I can do is describe a sort of compromise view. In recent years, some Christian philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga and William Alston, have argued for a middle ground between fideism and evidentialism.

To understand this middle position, we might begin by noting that one cannot give evidence for all of one's beliefs. One has to start somewhere. For example, looking out the window, I form the belief that "I see a tree." If someone demands that I prove that I see a tree, I have no defense to give. "I see a tree" is where I start -- this belief is not based on further beliefs. And although my belief that "I see a tree" is not based on further beliefs, it is (I hope you'll agree) rational, perhaps because it is appropriately rooted in my experience.

In any case, it seems clear to me that some beliefs are rational even though they are not based on other beliefs. Let us call these beliefs "basic beliefs."

We may well wonder whether there are basic beliefs in every distinct area of thought, including basic beliefs about physical objects (such as trees), about other people, about morality, and about religion. If there are basic beliefs about religion, then perhaps "God exists" is one of them. And those who have had fairly vivid religious experiences may well feel that their belief in God is rooted or grounded in experience, just as the ordinary human belief in trees is rooted in experience. From this perspective, some religious beliefs may be rational because they are basic, while others may need to be supported by evidence.

So, we have a position here somewhere between fideism and evidentialism. It is important for faith to be rational, and we may need evidence for some of our religious beliefs, but not for our basic religious beliefs.

Whatever view we take of faith and reason, I believe it is important for some Christians to read and ponder the Christian apologetical tradition. Reason is a gift from God, and we do well to explore its connections with faith.

As one of my University Seminar students put it, "God has done some incredible stuff in my life, and I have grown and been challenged, and touched by God's love for me, yet at times I still doubt it. I don't want to just give up and decide that there is no way the questions will be answered. And maybe they won't..., but I want to try. I want to try my best to understand."

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