Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

Creative tension between faith and reason has been part of philosophy and of religious thinking for many generations. Some thinkers demand that all propositions of faith be put to the test of reason and rejected if they fail that test. Others say that statements of faith rise above reason, that reason can be used to assemble clear understanding of the world and our place in it within the boundaries set by faith, but reason cannot judge those propositions upon which faith is founded. Few believers follow the stereotype of empty-headed followers who cling to faith but abandon reason. Many more people in the modern world cheat themselves by clinging to reason while abandoning the deeper truths known only by faith.

During the so-called Enlightenment, which followed the religious wars of the Reformation in Europe, some prominent philosophers and scientists advocated a life in which reason takes the lead and faith must follow. Wars continued to be fought in Europe and around the world, but they were fought for political reasons rather than religious reasons. Science had begun in medieval Europe as examination of God’s creation. Now some philosophers tried to separate science from religion. Over time, myths came into being featuring Galileo, Darwin, and other scientific figures who supposedly led an attack upon religious faith in general and Christian beliefs in particular. Christianity and organized religion were labeled enemies of knowledge, truth, and progress. On the defensive, Christian philosophy sometimes surrendered ground to the legions of Reason. Church leaders always include some who treat the Biblical accounts as metaphor and analogy, not to be treated literally. Among many branches of Christianity, this approach became more prominent, as theologians who proclaimed literal truth from the Bible were called “fundamentalists” and “bibliolaters” and were dismissed from serious theological discussion, pushed to the sides of the room and silenced in the conversation about reason, faith, and truth.

Christianity was very fluid in North America in the nineteenth century. Many branches of Christianity were imported from Europe during that century: Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and others. New variations of Christianity arose in the New World: Adventists, Churches of Christ, Latter Day Saints/Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a bewildering array of Baptists and non-denominational sects. By the twentieth century, rapid transportation and communication allowed some scattered groups to congeal. Often, in the process of uniting assorted congregations and schools and theologians, theological compromises were accepted in the name of Christian unity. Frequently, these compromises included acceptance of European Biblical interpretation, which treated the Bible and its message scientifically and allegorically, casting away faith in a six-day creation, a world-wide flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and other Biblical accounts of miraculous events, times when God personally intervened in his creation for the sake of his chosen people.

Many Protestant Christians in North America continued attending the same congregations while their leadership carried them into what is called mainline Christianity—organizations that call themselves Christian, base their teachings upon the Bible, but also reject many sections of the Bible, being guided by reason first and faith second. Not only does mainline Protestant Christianity dismiss descriptions of miracles from the Biblical record; the same movement feels free also to edit out of the Bible any commandments or instructions that the surrounding world considers antiquated, old-fashioned, and not progressive. At times discussion of particular issues can become heated within these groups, but generally, sooner or later, the world’s leadership is followed by these groups, as faith-based thinking and living must surrender to world’s latest fashions and fads as set by human science and human reason.

 In most cases, smaller groups broke away from the mainline groups and formed associations of congregations that continued to teach and believe the Bible. Only two large North American groups remained under the control of traditional, Biblical, faith-ful Christianity. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) endured emotional, political, and theological arguments and debates in the 1960s and 1970s; in both cases, leadership of these groups was held by supporters of the Biblical message, and the leaders and congregations and other entities that left were those who favored reason over faith.  Southern Baptists and the LCMS remained in the hands of those who treat the entire Bible as God’s Word rather than defining their task to sift through the human messages of Scripture to identify and proclaim a few genuinely inspired words from God.

Conservative victory in the LCMS did not produce a happy, healthy, smooth-functioning synod. The bitterness of the “Battle for the Bible” left some church professionals looking over their shoulders, as if they might be the next victims of a church-wide purge. Disagreements over worship styles and other internal controversies were treated as if their issues were as vital as questions about Biblical inspiration. Even political competition within the LCMS took on the flavor of a Crusade to defend truth and overthrow error. In one seminary, students joked that the cafeteria tables were bugged by both sides: microphones heard the in the office of the seminary’s president were hidden in the saltshakers, and microphones heard in the office of the synod’s president were hidden in the pepper-shakers. The academic environment was tense, unsettled, and uncertain.

Some students felt the pressure stronger than others. One student in particular struggled to find his way in this new (to him) environment. J.

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10 thoughts on “Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

  1. Over the years, hearing people’s ideas on things, I’ve/we’ve discovered that often, when listening carefully, people aren’t often following their own lines of reasoning: rhetoric and repeated ideas. Whenever I’ve heard people saying science and religion don’t agree, or reason countermands faith, if one has listened a bit, the persons themselves aren’t really saying anything, usually ready to argue, and usually will swim around the points because they themselves don’t really understand what they’re saying. I think that’s a very common thing.

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  2. I had very little time in churches as a child, but what time I did have was disappointing, stale, and dead feeling. The sermons were done in monotone voices with no feeling at all. One of these churches was the Salvation Army and there was none of the light and life of Jesus there. A friend from high school asked me to go to her church and I thought why not and I don’t remember the denomination, but those people literally scared me half to death to the point I ran out of the church and ran home. The thing that stuck in my mind was a woman in maybe her 40’s starting to scream, falling on the floor flopping around dress up to her chest and then others starting going that too. I honestly think that scarred me for a long time.
    As I got older I bought my first Bible at about 13 or 14 years old because I wanted to read it and it became a comfort to me, but I stayed away from churches for a long time. That first Bible I passed to my daughter with all my high lighter and dates I started and finished reading it. I reject denominations all they do is cause division in the body of Jesus and have to interject man made rules. I trust only the Bible and I believe every word is fact except where Jesus says it is a story to teach and even then it is a factual teaching moment. If a person doesn’t believe all the Bible can they truly be Christian?
    I did not need a church to be saved I read right in the Bible how to do that and did it. I do have Christians in my life and I do follow people that I trust to teach me well and if I question anything like a good Barean I check it against the Bible. It may offend some, but I believe there is now just as much evil is most churches as there are out of them. There are some that are hanging on, but they are getting fewer and fewer. I know have a large print Bible that is big enough to knock a person out with, but I can now read it again. I tell people I am not religious I have a relationship with Jesus and He is all I need.

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    • I might not be the most energetic preacher, but I try to preach a message worth hearing, and I try to make it hearable. The Church falls short of perfection, since it consists of sinners, but sometimes we need to forgive the sinners around us in the Church so we also can receive the forgiveness Christ intends for us. J.

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  3. “as faith-based thinking and living must surrender to world’s latest fashions and fads as set by human science and human reason.” As I referred to it as compromise that has resulted in weakness of Christianity to influence social behaviors. I hope your floundering student gets his confidence back. He is a great teacher.

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