Faith and Logic: Finding and Navigating an Individual Balance

March 3, 2009
By

NOTE: This is a guest post by David Stout, Disciples of Christ minister.

I write from the perspective of a Disciples of Christ minister whose girlfriend is a devout Mormon. I am, therefore, very sympathetic and supportive of the LDS (I pray for your church daily) but embrace the theological position often known as Protestant Liberalism. In reading one of Mr. Nielson’s posts a while ago, two things jumped out at me. One is the issue of the relationship of Jesus and the Father and the other is the relationship of faith and logic. I will address the latter in this response and leave the former for another time.

There are many brilliant people in all the various religions, including those which tend to downplay the role of scholarship. Yet in spite of all this brilliance there is still considerable disagreement over many religious teachings. In the early 1800s this state of affairs led a number of individuals to conclude that there was something seriously wrong with this picture and that it needed to be fixed. Among those individuals were the founders of my religious tradition (Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell) and your Prophet, Joseph Smith. All of these folks felt the solution was to restore the Church to its pristine, original form. While they obviously disagreed on the path and shape of restoration, they nevertheless agreed on the need for it.

The result, ironically, was the formation of yet several more religious bodies that do not agree with each other even though all of them contain a number of pretty smart people. While members of these various churches are by and large convinced that they succeeded in restoring primitive Christianity, the problem of Christian unity has not been solved. A common response to this state of affairs from within the “restored” churches is that the people who stayed Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever are either mistaken or, less charitably, rebellious.

My take on this is that religion, by its very nature, precludes a great deal of unanimity in the field of doctrine. In the physical realm various measurements and observations can be made and the nature of a thing pretty well settled. (Though even here there are some mysterious phenomena that set scientists at odds with each other.) But what measurement can be taken of God? Even if God does have a physical body it is not visible to us, except in the world of dreams and visions (not exactly test tube material).

The end result is that all of us are reliant upon own experiences of the divine and/or the experiences of others. Some of these experiences have, for various reasons, become normative for certain groups of people. None has been compelling enough to capture everyone or even most everyone on this planet. Then within each religious (and non religious) group there is further reflection, teaching, revelation, and enculturation. The result is the establishment of certain presuppositions and beliefs that are extremely difficult to even see, much less question, from within one’s own tradition, regardless of how brilliant one might be.

In other words, while science has pretty well established norms and standards that almost every scientist accepts, religion has no uniform code, just a variety of traditions and tests that have grown up over time in different parts of the world. While one would think that this situation would make religious folk tentative in their beliefs, the fact of the matter is that religious people tend to be among the most certain, sometimes with devastating results, sometimes with remarkably healing results.

And therein lies the difficult thing about religion: it can give incredible levels of certainty to different people even though those certainties are diametrically opposed to each other. And what’s more, the same certainties can produce diametrically opposed results. My girlfriend, for example, is absolutely certain that the Book of Mormon is true and the result is a life of love. That same certainty in another person can produce a harsh and judgmental attitude that is at best abrasive.

So how do we proceed in an area of life that is so important, where there is so much certainty, and yet so little agreement? To put it personally, how do I respond to people who are certain that such and such is true even when I am just as sure it’s not?

The bottom line for me (for now anyway) is that I have to hold to my convictions while honoring the right of others to hold theirs. That means not only their beliefs but the means by which they come by those beliefs. For some, a revelatory experience is supreme; for others the dictates of logic; and for still others some sort of historical/scientific/archeological evidence. It is the combination and interaction of meaningful criteria and religious background that determine what makes sense to each person.

To illustrate, “I’ve read the Book of Mormon and God has told me it is true,” is very compelling for some people while for others (myself included) something a little less subjective is needed. This isn’t just a matter of religious belief; it’s also a matter of epistemology, of how someone knows something to be true. It was when this fact dawned on me that I stopped arguing theology with people and began to listen and discuss instead. The result has been most helpful and I am so pleased to discover other people, from other religious traditions, who are also willing to approach religious differences from a desire to understand rather than convert. (I am, BTW, not opposed to missionary activity. I just think it should take the form of invitation and development of thought and faith rather than, “I’ve got to convince you of this stuff.”)

I don’t think belief renders logic useless or irrelevant in the religious quest. I also don’t think logic should be the final arbiter of religion. Instead, I think logic should be seen as one tool in the human quest for understanding. Like any tool it has its place and will be used with different results and levels of effectiveness, depending upon who is using it and when and where they’re using it. I also think that encounters with people outside of our faith tradition, if conducted with respect and the desire to learn, can be a tremendous source of enrichment. At the very least these encounters will remind us that good and intelligent people can come to different understandings. At best they can give us deeper insight into how we understand ourselves and God.

15 Responses to Faith and Logic: Finding and Navigating an Individual Balance

  1. Ray
    March 3, 2009 at 2:14 am

    I’m headed to bed, but I just want to say how much I love this post. I’ll try to comment further tomorrow (later today).

  2. March 3, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Hi
    I stumbled across your blog on LDS BLOGS. I thought you mighe be interested in a site my wife and I just built called MormonsMadeSimple.com, which uses simple, explanatory videos to explain the Mormon faith. Feel free to feature any of these videos on your blog, or just share them with non-member friends. We’re hoping these videos will be missionary tools to help members share their beliefs. Anyway, sorry to spam your comments section. I couldn’t find any contact information for you on your blog.

    - Doug & Laurel

  3. James
    March 3, 2009 at 8:10 am

    DAVID I think after reading your post most all of us would like visit your church. Or at a minimum have this read in Sacrament.

    Were lucky to have you as a friend of our faith.

    (I am, BTW, not opposed to missionary activity. I just think it should take the form of invitation and development of thought and faith rather than, “I’ve got to convince you of this stuff.”)

    Great approach we should take it on board.

  4. Joe P
    March 3, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18

    http://www.mrm.org/topics/marriage-family/being-unequally-yoked-a-latter-day-saint

  5. March 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

    This post was wonderful.

  6. March 3, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Your thoughts reflect so much of what has been in my own recently. Thank you.

  7. Andrew Ainsworth
    March 3, 2009 at 11:25 am

    David, I much appreciate your thoughtful and well-written post.

  8. Aboz
    March 3, 2009 at 11:54 am

    You say: “A common response to this state of affairs from within the “restored” churches is that the people who stayed Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever are either mistaken or, less charitably, rebellious.”

    The problem with this type of assumption in mormonism or other “restoration” branches, is the fact that we are led to believe from a statement from Orson F. Whitney that God intentionally keeps people blind so that they can perform his work where he has put them, which happens to be OUTSIDE the Church. Somewhere in the scriptures it says God will give them a strong delusion. So how do we know that God hasn’t given us all a “delusion” to be where he wants us to be to perform our work? This essentially puts the responsibility for people’s lot in life whether they have accepted the Gospel or not on God. And it also makes it clear that we cannot judge why God has put somebody where he has put them, or why he has given them the particular delusion he has given them so they will be the way they will be. And in saying delusion, I don’t mean that he gives them something false to believe. I mean that he withholds a measure of truth from them, not leading them to Mormonism immediately. So if God isn’t going to reveal to them the truth immediately, what light do they have to rebel against? Therefore, they are not rebelling, but are OBEYING.

  9. Ray
    March 3, 2009 at 11:57 am

    The bottom line for me (for now anyway) is that I have to hold to my convictions while honoring the right of others to hold theirs.

    I absolutely LOVE this sentence. Another friend said it this way:

    I must act to glorify the Father, and I must extend to you unending grace as you walk your own path.

  10. MH
    March 3, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    David I love the last paragraph, especially how you talk about how logic should be used. “I don’t think belief renders logic useless or irrelevant in the religious quest. I also don’t think logic should be the final arbiter of religion. Instead, I think logic should be seen as one tool in the human quest for understanding.”

    Too many people fall off of this tightrope, as it can be difficult to navigate.

  11. March 4, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Thank you for this wonderful post.

  12. Anita
    March 4, 2009 at 9:23 am

    David

    I’m continually impressed by your willingness to color outside the lines. I appreciate your inclusive views. They’re refreshing in a world that spends too much energy trying to find reasons to exclude and condemn.

  13. hawkgrrrl
    March 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Great thoughts, David. Thanks for adding to the conversation here. I can see why 3 of our nation’s presidents came from Disciples of Christ.

    The approach outlined above for missionary work, is in fact the sanctioned approach. It’s just that there are too many individuals who lose sight of that. The mission of the church is to invite people to come to Christ. But, again, too many people miss that mark and shoot for the three-fold committees: “redeem the dead, proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints.” But the mission is still to invite people to come to Christ.

  14. March 16, 2009 at 10:46 am

    amazing stuff thanx

  15. Cory
    July 17, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Thank you Joe P for emphasizing the stark contrast between David approach of understanding and love, and the less divinely inspired “haughtiness poorly masquerading as concern” approach. I think it has enhanced out appreciation for David’s comments and our admiration for his and his girlfriend’s ability continue to view each other as children of the same God.