Those born into decent homes and immersed in a particular ideology have no reason to question what they’ve been taught. I was no exception in this regard, as one raised in a functional Mennonite home, and had believed the whole “we-aren’t-perfect-but-are-better-than-the-alternatives” (a self-congratulatory mantra repeated when anything bad comes up as to prevent a full examination of our fundamental assumptions) until that paradigm became untenable for me.
This assumption of being right in our foundation, even if the details are not quite right, is not only something true of Mennonites. No, it is a feature of those indoctrinated into religious systems or political ideologies of all types. The college educated ‘progressive’ is not any more free of bias than the average Amishman—both reflect the cultural institutions that created them and, if anything, the ‘smarter’ of the two is likely more subject to bias than the humbler or that is what the current research indicates. At very least, nobody is completely free of bias and oftentimes our most base assumptions are the most difficult to honestly examine—most difficult because we have so much invested in them emotionally or otherwise.
My ‘Rational’ Foundation
Of these foundational assumptions, in Western culture there is one assumption that stands out above the rest and produces the strongest reactions when challenged. It is an assumption that is especially hard to root out of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people. It is a sincerely held belief about the nature of reality that is so prevalent that it underlies the most secular ‘progressive’ or religiously conservative and fundamentalist thinking of our times—from those espousing climate change and those pushing flat-earth theories, both share this same underlying assumption in common.
This assumption being the idea that we (either individually or as humanity collectively) are rational creatures, able to determine truth for ourselves and can essentially save ourselves through our capacity for logic and reason.
If you would have asked me, as a Mennonite, what my foundation was I would have likely answered by saying, “Jesus Christ, of course!” That, after all, is the theologically correct answer to give, something easily reference in the Bible, and a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence, right? Of course, as an adherent to Anabaptist “believer’s baptism” and Arminianism, I would insist that my church membership was a choice. It couldn’t be any other way, could it? I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been because I was raised in a Mennonite home, born in a nation where most people identified as Christian and was fully immersed in a culture where even non-believers affirm Christian values, right?
Nah, it had to be my own careful consideration of the evidence that led to an inevitable conclusion and from that I made a rational choice to believe that man, born two millennia ago in some Palestinian backwater to a teenage virgin mother, who was actually the creator of the entire universe, allowed himself to be brutally murdered, offering himself as a means to spare us from his own wrath and then, according to those most invested in his teachings, rose from the dead and that not believing this is a one way ticket to eternal torment.
And I believe all this for reasons… [Insert circular reasoning here]
When Christian apologetics fail to provide satisfactory answers, which they inevitably do for anyone beyond the intellect of an adolescent, those steeped in rationalism must either abandon the enterprise of faith entirely or live in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance.
For example, there is no way to prove the resurrection account in Scripture through rational scientific means, it is completely irrational and yet the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on this miraculous event being true. How does one reconcile such an extraordinary claim with science? By a reasonable standard this is impossible to believe, right?
Is Christianity Rational?
Some, like St Thomas, who would not believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, doubt until they have personal experience and thus choose what is entirely rational. Many others, however, are content to compartmentalize, they partition the miraculous to another time and place (to history or the future) and try to have things both ways.
Truth be told, the resurrection of the dead is not a rational proposition and never will be, it is logically, reasonably and scientifically impossible and thus is, by definition, totally irrational. There is nothing rational about the central premise of Christianity, where a man who is actually God’s son is born of a virgin woman to save the world from sin, and you did not acquire this belief through rational means either. No, according to Scripture, the means used are irrational in terms of material reality and from a normal human logical perspective.
Faith, according to Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, originates from an immaterial spiritual source and does not follow our own rules of logic and reason:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:3-12 NIV)
Nicodemus is being entirely rational and rightly perplexed. Jesus presents a riddle, he tells Nicodemus he “must be born again” (in reference to a spiritual second birth) but then tells him the Spirit is like the wind and goes wherever it pleases. However, earlier in the passage Jesus does tie the work of the Spirit to being “born of water” or Baptism.
So, does entering the kingdom start as something rational—as the product of a human choice to believe something they’ve been told—or does it originate from a source inexplicable as the wind and as involuntary as our physical birth?
For years I believed what I was taught, that Christianity started as an intellectual acceptance of a particular proposition, that one should recite the “sinner’s prayer” (often in a moment of emotional upheaval) and later, upon their confession of faith, would be Baptized. There was no reason for me to question this indoctrination, it made sense to me, I mean how else does someone change except they make a deliberate choice? And how else do we make a choice besides through the faculties of logic and reason?
Unfortunately for me (and others from my fundamentalist/Evangelical background), that’s not what the Gospels tell us. For example, when Peter reveals the identity of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” he is told directly, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-17) If the true identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter through normal or rational means, why do we expect anything different for ourselves?
Or, explain why the unborn John the Baptist “leaped” in the womb when his mother Elizabeth first encountered Mary who held the incarnate Logos within her own body as we read at the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel—Was that response a rational choice, this leap of joy due to John’s careful study of the available evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion? Of course not! The unborn do not have the freedom or cognitive ability to weigh the evidence and make a rational choice.
This assumption that Christian faith is something of rational origin simply does not comport with what we see recorded in Scripture nor does the idea that conversion is the product of an adult choice to believe. It goes completely contrary to what Jesus said about those who would and would not enter the kingdom:
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:16; NIV)
We believe we are motivated through rational means of the mind, that is a foundational assumption of modern thought, and have turned Christianity into something it was never intended to be: merely an intellectual proposition. But this is wrong, the human mind is never described as the prime mover, the choice to follow Jesus is never said to be an adult decision or even something born of human will. Yes, certainly we are to participants in our own salvation or St Paul would not urge Christians to “work out” their salvation with due seriousness in Philippians 2:12, but there is something about it all that goes beyond all human rationality and this is a truth not hidden in Scripture.
A Fundamentally Flawed Perspective of Faith
Many Protestant fundamentalists seem to see themselves as a fusion of rationality with faith, they paint themselves as objective and their religion as something a reasonable person should accept but are neither rational nor faithful. No, they are compromised and inconsistent. They do not strictly follow the scientific method, having arrived at their conclusions well in advance of their studies, nor are they faithful for trying to prove something beyond the realm of science with their extra-Biblical theories. They show, with their actions, that they do not actually comprehend science or the rational nor do they truly accept spiritual and supernatural things.
Fundamentalism is, in essence, the bastard child of modernism and the Protestant religion. Both modernism and fundamentalism are products of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (so-called) that arose from Roman Catholic Scholasticism. And this Scholasticism, much like modern Protestant fundamentalism, started as a means of “articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context” or, in other words, is an appeal to a person’s intellect and mind rather than their heart or soul. It has since developed into what amounts to a denial of the latter things that becomes completely absurd in the Christian context.
While there is little doubt that the turn towards science and reason has led to the development of technology and understanding of the physical world, we can be thankful for modern medicine based in experimentation for extending our life, this shift has done absolutely nothing for spiritual well-being or our pre-rational human needs. A gaze into the night sky through a telescope, for example, could be awe-inspiring and yet it can’t answer those existential questions of meaning and purpose. And, unfortunately, rather than stick to the means of love or the “greater things” that Jesus promised to the faithful, fundamentalists try to compete (albeit fail miserably) with their secular counterparts in the realm of science and reason.
Fundamentalists, as Protestants, have put all of their eggs in the Bible basket and also—as knee-jerk conservatives—cling to an untenable version of literalism that puts their religious dogma in direct conflict with modern scientific observation. But, as an end around to their paradigm being made obsolete, they turn to pseudoscience and apologetics that barely keep their own children let alone convince anyone outside of their circles. They have no choice, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they believe that the Bible must be completely reliable, but in the same way as a scientific textbook rather than reliable for spiritual truths, and try to rationalize around the many obvious problems with that perspective.
Meanwhile, while insisting on a young Earth and six days literal days of Creation despite the mountain evidence to the contrary, these same fundamentalists become dismissive when speaking of things like sacraments. This, unfortunately, is a tradition that dates back around five hundred years to a man named Huldrych Zwingli and others who with him lowered the status of such things as Baptism and Communion to mere symbols—reasoning that things of spiritual import originate in the mind, as intellectual acceptance, and with this completely reasoned away possibilities beyond their rational capabilities.
The difference between a fundamentalist and an irreligious secularist is that one has taken their logic the full way to a reasonable conclusion while the other thinks they can have it both ways—accepting the irrational over the rational when it suits them and their personal agenda. Then, simultaneously, rejecting what they cannot comprehend, like their secular counterparts, simply because it goes against their own experience and cannot be scientifically proven. They take Jesus literally only when it is convenient for them or when it makes sense them from their own rational perspective and then reject literalism when it goes against their own religious indoctrination.
Here are some cases to consider…
1) What Saves, Preaching or Baptism?
While writing this blog I ran across an article, “The Sacrament of Preaching,” that addressed a glaring blindspot of many in the Protestant fundamentalist world, and amongst Revivalists and Evangelicals in particular, and it shows in what is emphasized in their tradition. In the church that I grew up in, for example, the order of the service centered on the preaching, often an affair intended to provoke, guilt-trip or convict. There’s a reason why Evangelical churches tend to have venues like lecture halls and that’s because preaching, an appeal to the mind or emotions, is perceived as the primary means of bringing salvation to the lost.
There is little doubt that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important.
After all, didn’t St Paul tell us as much?
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14 NIV)
Yet that passage is in the context of a lament about those who have heard and yet did not accept the message of the Gospel, here is that missing context:
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 10:16-21,11:1-8 NIV)
If preaching saved in and of itself, then why didn’t the people who heard simply believe? Why did others, according to the quote of Isaiah in the passage above, believe through revelation despite not seeking it and never having been preached to?
St Paul makes it clear that it is only through the grace of God, not by preaching or through human understanding, that anyone is saved.
It is a rationalist’s delusion that preaching is the only way that someone can possibly be saved. Unfortunately, that is an idea that has been pounded into Protestant heads for centuries now and this comes at the expense of the other means of grace used by God and described in Scripture. In fact, many ‘great’ Revivalist preachers, in contradiction to Scripture and the reality that preaching is as physical a means as any other sacrament, basically mocked the idea that anything besides means of the mind could bring someone to salvation.
But it is St Peter whom they mock, who clearly likens Baptism to the waters surrounding Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:21, “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Like king Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan seven times to be healed, we are also told that Baptism washes sins away, brings forgiveness and new life (Acts 2:38, 22:16, Col. 2:11-12), which is to make these acts as much of a means of salvation as accepting the words spoken by a man about Jesus Christ.
Part of the problem here is the soteriology of fundamentalist “Evangelicals” who typically portray salvation as a once and done event. This confusion is the result of salvation being thought of something in the future only, as in salvation from death, and not also salvation from sin in the present. But Scripture describes salvation both in terms of having been saved (Titus 3:4-5), also in being saved (2 Cor. 2:15) and will be saved (Rom 5:9-10) which suggests something a little different from the “born again” sinner’s prayer form of salvation preached by some.
In other words, our salvation is not this moment or that experience, our salvation is rather a continuing work of God’s grace that comes to us through preaching, revelation, Baptism, the prayers of the faithful, and the many other ways that the work of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. In a sense, nobody is saved through the visible means themselves, nevertheless, these things are the necessary physical expressions of the spiritual work of grace and thus inseparable. Yes, the prime mover is always God and yet there is always evidence of this moving in hearts that takes physical form.
2) Communion, True Presence or Mere Symbolism?
It is very strange, a year or so ago a fundamentalist friend, a sort of logically minded sort, got very emotional and angry when I refused to back down from taking Jesus at his word. Mind you, as far as I know, this is a man who would not question Ken Ham’s interpretation of the Genesis account nor the resurrection of the dead and yet ended up blocking me for suggesting that the words of Jesus could be understood without needing to be rationalized away their literal meaning or any additional explanation.
The discussion was about partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or Holy Communion) and how this was one of the sacraments downplayed and reinvented as ordinances by Anabaptists under the Zwinglian influence. But the curious part was how a rationally minded guy would get so emotionally bent out of shape over simply taking Jesus at face value or as a child would. He insisted, despite Biblical description completely to contrary to his position, that there was no sacramental value to Holy Communion, that it was merely symbolic and to say otherwise was ridiculous. In his mind, Jesus had to be speaking metaphorically and there was no convincing him otherwise.
This is what Jesus said:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:51-67 NIV)
Many of the rational folks in the crowd evidently had enough hearing Jesus double-down on this bizarre-sounding claim. Had Jesus been speaking figuratively why would he have let so many walk away without stopping them and saying with a chuckle, “Oh, you guys think I’m being literal! Come on now, it’s all just a big metaphor!” But Jesus did not. When the eyebrows raised and murmurs began, he repeated himself all the more emphatically and lets the chips fall as they may rather than back down from this “hard teaching” and, rather than explain his words as being anything but literal. he even asked the disciples if they were going to abandon him as well.
If it weren’t clear enough in John, this is the account of the “Last Supper” and first partaking of Holy Communion:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29 NIV)
Is this mere symbolism?
Again, the words do not hint to metaphor. No, they are words of substance as much as his command, “Lazarus, come forth!” was received by dead flesh causing it to reanimate and Lazarus to be resurrected. I mean, if you can’t take Jesus at his word as far as his body and blood, why believe that God could speak anything into existence—let alone literally form mankind out of dust as is claimed in the Genesis creation narrative?
From a perspective of human logic and understanding, one of those events is no more rational than the others, a rotting corpse does not come back to life, our flesh is not the same as dust, and bread is bread is bread. Again, there is nothing rational about the claims foundational to Christianity and it is rather odd that anyone would insist otherwise. I mean, at very least, one might want to consider the serious physical and spiritual consequences of partaking casually of what is supposedly only a symbol:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30 NIV)
It is interesting that many from my own Protestant roots take the first half of that chapter concerning the veiling of women quite literally, not once expressing doubt of the spiritual significance of a piece of cloth being draped on a woman’s head, and then have their eyes glaze over when the mystical significance of Holy Communion is discussed in the latter part of the chapter quoted above. You would think that the same sects that require women to cover their heads all of their waking hours would want to partake of the body and blood more than once or twice a year, and yet they strain on one while swallowing the other.
Anyhow, is it any wonder we are weak and not seeing the promises of “greater things” (John 14:12) fulfilled in us when we are too ‘rational’ to take Jesus seriously about his own body and blood?
Rational or Faithful, the Choice is Yours!
Obviously, we are given an ability to use logic and reason. We should not waste or neglect this rational ability in the name of faith either. However, it would be wise to realize the limits of our rationality and at least entertain the possibility that there are things of true substance beyond what our minds are able to comprehend. One may want to consider that God, being God, does not need to be rational according to our own rules.
In fact, even for a complete non-believer, at the edge of reality as we know it there is a realm where things do not act accordingly to our rational intuitions based in time and space. For those who have gone down the rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics, it is quite clear that matter does not behave in the manner would expect it to and becomes irrational from a normal human perspective. The discoveries of the past century have basically turned the concreteness of the physical world, as we know it, into a mere wave of probabilities and a place where particles may very well pop into and out of existence.
So, in short, this is absolutely the wrong time in history to double down on rationalism at the expense of transcending spiritual truth. This idea that things must make rational sense, from a human perspective, is to undermine the very substance that faith rests on, one committed to that might as well end the farce and go the full way to denying everything outside of the realm of material science. However, a person who goes that route is truly only lacking in the humility to know their own limitations. Your inability to wrap your head around something does not make it any less true.
In a time when secular scientists are even beginning to see the end of their own abilities to comprehend, many fundamentalists are still stuck in a watered down modernist paradigm they’ve inherited and rely on a horribly convoluted/inconsistent/selective rationalism rather than simply accept Jesus at his word. In their insistence on their fundamentals and understanding of things, they are like one who has traded his birthright for a bowl of stew—are you still stuck in a rationalist’s delusion, unknowingly governed by emotions or confirmation bias, and missing out on true spiritual sustenance?