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Christianity is no friend of rationalism, but it is rational. That is to say, although divine truth comes by revelation not by unaided reason, that revealed truth is nevertheless reasonable.

I was speaking recently about the emergent church (yes, some people are still interested) when someone asked me why I was so down on mystery. I tried to explain that if mystery means God’s essence is incomprehensible, then I’m all for mystery. But too often mystery is a cover for anti-propositional bias, a suspicion of truth claims, or just plain intellectual laziness. There are things we can’t know about God, but then there are some things we can know if we are simply willing to think (cf. Deut. 29:29).

But American culture does not encourage careful thinking. Cogito ergo sum has become emotio ergo credo. A couple weeks ago I was on a plane to California talking with a nice middle-aged woman. I wasn’t in my seat more than two seconds before she started talking to me–and talking to me a lot. This lady from SoCal was your classic “spiritual not religious” believer. She believed in God, wanted people to be compassionate, and tried to notice the many beautiful things in our world. She didn’t know the gospel from a granola bar. I admit I’m not the world’s best personal evangelist, but I tried my best to make the good news clear.

And yet my arguments bounced off her like Tigger on Red Bull, chiefly because she seemed completely disinterested in arguments. She talked about how much she loved the Bible, but later she said she also loved the Bhagavad Gita (she tried the Koran but found it too “intense”). When I explained that those two books are pretty different and irreconcilable in many parts, she was unconcerned. She called herself a Christian, but on takeoff claimed the sunset in front of us was God. I tried to explain how the Creator-creature distinction is essential to Christianity and how the entire the story of the Bible depends on it. She seemed mildly interested, but still preferred to think of God as everything. When we talked about the “lost” gospels, my historical reasons for rejecting those books meant little to her. It’s quite possible I was inept, or maybe she just didn’t know what to say in response. But I think in large part this amiable woman just didn’t want to be bothered with facts.

At one point she told me about how she used to attend the Church of Higher Consciousness (or some such thing). Being bothered by God’s wrath she asked her pastor how to make sense of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt. He told her this was a lesson in not getting stuck in your past. You know, you got to keep looking forward and not look back. She really liked this interpretation and then asked me what I thought. “Well,” I said, “that’s not really the point. The story is really about God’s judgment. Even Jesus used Lot’s wife as warning that we must be ready for the coming judgment” (see Luke 17:32). She told me she liked the first interpretation better.

How do you give a reason for the hope that you have when the people asking you aren’t interested in reason? It seems to me one of the first tasks of evangelism today is to reintroduce the law of non-contradiction. More and more we can’t just drop the bridge diagram on people, we need to go back and tell the larger story of creation, curse, covenant, Christ, commitment, and consummation. And even before that we may have to help people simply think; help people not just find the truth, but believe that it exists, that it is inconsistent with error, and that it does not automatically correspond to what we wish it to be.

Want to think more about thinking? Check out the Desiring God National Conference this weekend. I’m sure John Piper’s new book Think: the Life of the Mind and the Love of God will be worth reading as well.


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36 thoughts on “Reasons for Reason”

  1. John says:

    This is a very good post, Kevin. I live in the city, and this kind of “facts and thinking don’t matter” attitude is the norm. I have found that some of the most effective means of communicating with this kind of attitude is stories, especially from the gospel. Still, all very frustrating. It will be interesting to see where this thing goes in the future.

  2. Paul says:

    Had a similar conversation with an antroposophist on an overseas flight once. (Wish it had been a NY – Philly flight…) Very frustrating. Yet you offer an interesting juxtaposition of indicating that, on the one had, you may have a “pro-propositional bias” (my term, not yours); and, on the other hand, advocating for the need to “go back and tell the larger story.” It seems to me that one of the great divergences in hermeneutics is between those who interpret the Bible as a container of revealed truth – as – proposition and those who interpret the Bible as a record of truth as – narrative. I’m not going to argue either side, but I wonder how you suss out the relationship between narrative and proposition?

  3. john says:

    I agree that the emergent, new age woman has no logic, but that doesn’t mean Calvinism does. The idea that God loves you is just as ridiculous as God hates you.

  4. Justin says:

    John,

    I think Kevin was defending the Gospel, not Calvinism, which he never once mentioned in his post.

  5. Alan says:

    I had move to California from Dallas two years ago and the degree of spirituality was a first encouraging until I started digging deeper into what some of the church was believing. They are not interested in interpreting the Bible in any since. As Kevin experienced, they have their set of experiences and Biblical interpretations that they are happy with but they don’t care that it is in conflict with the Bible. If they really “feel it” then it “must be from God.”

  6. Trevor M. says:

    Tigger on Red Bull. Classic!
    My only fear of introducing the law of non-contradiction is that people like these slippery spiritual-types will simply not understand it or reject this basic principle of logic. Oy.

    See you at DG this weekend.

  7. Paul Janssen says:

    @ Trevor
    I’m as western as the next guy, so the law of non-contradiction makes a world of sense to me. (though it was, who — Mencken? — who said that ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds) I think that those who increasingly allow not just ambiguities but out-and-out mutually contradictory ideas into their spiritual blood stream are drinking deep of Eastern thought, within which contradiction is not problematic. (I’m not say it isn’t problematic–just that adherents to Eastern though claim it isn’t for them.)

  8. Paul Janssen says:

    Oops I misquoted. It’s “A foolish consistency of little minds…” and it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson. Probably shouldn’t be surprised at the source.

  9. Bill says:

    I find Jehovah’s witnesses to kind of be the same way – they say they care about the truth but often do the same kind of bouncing. I’ve found that in those cases, you need to do what Jesus did with the rich young ruler and go nuclear on them – give them some OT laws about cleaning themselves or giving up all they have or talk about predestination in a really simple understandable but forceful way. Or maybe once they say something about loving everyone, ask what they would say to Hitler in 1939.

  10. Phil says:

    I think that there are people like the woman you met in many seminaries. Which begs the question; if the church doesn’t know what’s going on, than how can the unbelieving world learn the truth? Contemporary Christians need to gain a deeper understanding of what thier faith means and represents, because our ignorance is doing violence to the gospel message and the churches testimony. Christians need to study and learn. Christians also need to be wise and discerning about who they choose to learn from.

  11. I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who has this problem. I have had two major conversations this week with individuals who seem to just not care what the “facts” are. They have their believes and that is it.

    It is even sadder when individuals are in our churches and do not learn the ability to discern. I wonder sometimes if I was replaced with a heretic would the people discern the difference (extreme case and I’m sure they would, but you get the point).

  12. Chris says:

    Kevin,

    You may just be being a bit too hard on yourself. You can’t really be certain that this woman didn’t get home and begin some serious reflection on some of what you gave her. I think overall we put too much pressure on ourselves in evangelistic encounters. Doesn’t Greg Kokul say: we’re just putting a stone in someone’s shoe.” I don’t need to take a person from A to Z in one single encounter. That mindset is what produces the hardcore, obnoxious Christian that so many people are rejecting in our postmodern culture. If I show love and give truth winsomely that’s all I need to do. Perhaps by God’s grace someone else will come along after me and take that person one step closer to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. If I feel I haven’t scored enough points with that person I’ve set myself up to be the one doing the saving as well as having demeaned the person I’m interacting with.

  13. Robert says:

    Kevin,

    When I hear stories like this and encounter people who follow such teaching/beliefs, I instantly think of 2 Timothy 4:3-4 –

    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

    That doesn’t mean that we don’t evangelize to such people and pray for them, but at some point we also have to realize that God is sovereign and He does the work of salvation. I think your focus may be leaning towards Ephesians 4:29, in that you are trying to provide edification according to the need of the moment and give grace to those who may hear what you say. If that is the case, then I’d say you do well in your efforts. Just stay alert to avoid pragmatism (I say this in part to keep myself alert as well).

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us…it is a good reminder to stay alert as to what the need of the moment might be for different people with different false beliefs.

    Grace and peace,
    robert

  14. nick charalambous says:

    Such a fresh observation! I think all of us who have battled for the gospel Truth in secular, syncretistic cultures can identify with how maddening it can be for our interlocutors to reject any and all appeals to reason to defend their “spiritual” views. This isn’t new, of course, since “suppressing the truth” is the mark of being enslaved to sin, but I do think that in our humanistic cultures, starting with the fallenness of man is more important than ever, perhaps?

  15. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Chris, good reminder. “A stone in someone’s shoe”–I like that.

  16. Gus says:

    I think the last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph contains an unfortunate typo… Truth does or does not automatically correspond to what we wish it to be?

  17. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I have a nasty habit of dropping “not’s” and “no’s.” Thanks Gus.

  18. Althea says:

    The woman in the plane sounded like a dearly loved family member of mine. Maybe she was? Hmmm, God does work in amazing ways…

    The thing about my relative is that we’ve had many, many talks over the years and often I have felt like I’ve gotten no where. Then out of the blue, she’d ask a question, I would answer it and the answer would blow her mind.

    For instance, the idea of a good, soveriegn and intelligent God. I used Corrie ten Boom’s tapestry illustration (God, the weaver, sees the design on top, but we see only the underside with the knots). And I shared with her that God writes our stories, He is the Author of all creation. She just sat there, transfixed. I thought she was about to cry, because nothing in her New Age beliefs allows for such grandeur.

    A month later, she asked me to bring a Bible over to her house. We read a little and talked, but she wasn’t as receptive as before. I shared the Gospel and it didn’t look like she really understood. But the thing is, she initiated and engaged me in this conversation. I left my study bible with her. She likes it because it has a lot of notes and explanations.

    However, over the years, she sees me as very different from the rest of the family. She knows me very well and has told me that she believes that I am extraordinary. I’ve told her that I am very ordinary, with an extraordinary relationship with a glorius God.
    Again, she just sat there with a very shocked facial expression.

    Sometimes, what doesn’t get through intellectually gets through another way. I’m not sure what it will take for her to truely understand the Gospel–that we are sinners who deserve hell in desparate need of Jesus’ gift of salvation–but I haven’t given up on her or God’s work on her life already.

    Kevin, all that resistance in your traveling partner’s responses might be a result of an elaborate smoke screen. She might know what you are saying and prefers denial to the truth. I think only God can cut through the smoke screen. But you were faithful to share the Gospel, and that is what pleases Him.

  19. Hi Kevin. As someone who as served as a missionary to your airplane friend, let me throw a suggestion your way. I go to psychic fairs, new age bookstores, Sedona, downtown Boulder, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson meetings, and on and on and on. This is my normal discourse with people. Most of them believe the notion of pantheist monism (all is God and all is one) is good news – no even great news! This is the most exciting notion of all time – why if we just saw the oneness and divinity of all things all problems in the world would be gone, yada yada yada. I just have a few things to tell them (a simple reducto) to see if in fact this is so. If God is all things and everyone – then of course God is Mother Theresa, Dr. ML King, Gandhi and so on. They usually beaming at this point. But of course that also means that God is Hitler, Stalin, Manson, Pol Pot, Dahmer and so on (you might even say Bush at this point given the most likely political persuasion of your new friend!) And of course if God is everything then God is the Katrina Flood and the abortion mill and the slaveships and the bubonic plague and so on. I asked one young jubu (Jew who has abandoned her faith and embraced some form of eastern religion – their own nickname not mine!) if she really believed that everything was God and everything was one. She enthusiastically responded “Yes that it – thats exactly what I believe!” I responded and asked “Was that just God killing God in Auschwitz?” Her face dropped like a stone. It had taken all of ten seconds to take her alleged good news and show it to be the horror that it was.
    Just some ammo for you.
    Lord bless and thank you for trying to reach her.
    Bill

  20. Kevin,

    Great post; thanks so much for your insight. I am curious thought how you plan to introduce something like the law of non-contradiction without using an argument (an argument which in and of itself will use the law of non-contradiction)? Maybe in the normal airplane discussion your partner in conversation won’t raise such an objection, but it seems to me that to rationally introduce the law of non-contradiction you have to open up the scriptures where a non-contradictory creator reveals Himself. At that point you’re getting into evangelism. Is this what you mean, or how else would you introduce the law of non-contradiction “before” evangelism?

  21. Phil says:

    Kevin,
    Great post. By the way, did you coin the phrase “emotio ergo credo”?

  22. si says:

    The Zeitgeist seems to be to love questions, but dislike answers. And to give answers, point to answers or whatever is to dislike questions.

    I guess if God is everything, or nothing, there’s little point in caring about studying it. C.S. Lewis said “As long as one is a Naturalist, “Nature” is only a word for “everything” — And Everything is not a subject about which anything very interesting can be said or (save by illusion) felt.” I think the same applies to Pantheism as well.

    The modern-day heirs of the gnostics hate knowledge (ironic, I know) – it’s sort of physical and we can’t have that. Emotions and feelings are spiritual and therefore more real, therefore more important.

  23. Bloom saw it coming:

    “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: They will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2=4.”

    “The danger university students have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and the various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and culture teaches that …men always thought they were right and that led to wars, persecution, slavery, xenophobia (fear of foreigners or strangers), racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are ever right at all.” (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 25-26)

    What’s wrong with the following statements:

    “Nothing is universally true.”

    “All generalizations are false.”

    “No belief is true for everyone.”

    “Everything is relative.”

    “Everyone’s beliefs are true or false only relative to himself.”

    What do we mean when we say that these statements commit the self-excepting fallacy?

    When someone says, “Everything is relative” does he expect that others should believe his statement and adjust their lives to it?

    How would you respond to someone who says: “I don’t think it’s right for you to expect other people to accept your beliefs”? Does the person making this statement expect others to accept his belief?

    Convert the following into absolutes:

    Who are you to judge? Judging is _____________! (wrong)

    I think you’re being intolerant. Intolerance is ______________! (wrong)

    It offends me when you think I should believe what you believe. Offending is
    _________! (wrong)

    Are these absolute opinions binding on all people?

    How would you respond to someone who says:

    “That’s true for you, but not for me.”

    “That’s just your interpretation.”

  24. Luke says:

    Bill said:
    I find Jehovah’s witnesses to kind of be the same way – they say they care about the truth but often do the same kind of bouncing. I’ve found that in those cases, you need to do what Jesus did with the rich young ruler and go nuclear on them – give them some OT laws about cleaning themselves or giving up all they have or talk about predestination in a really simple understandable but forceful way. Or maybe once they say something about loving everyone, ask what they would say to Hitler in 1939.

    Great observation, I was left quite despondent at the end of Kevin’s story.

  25. Paul says:

    (a different Paul from the earlier commentator)

    I’m sure I’m worse at having these conversations than Kevin and several other people here. When I have conversations like this, my irritation with people like this lady on the plane shines through and they call me “elitist”.

    However, I wonder how this lady would have responded to being asked:
    Do you have a problem with God’s wrath towards the Nazis?
    and
    Is something that is emotionally appealing to anyone “true” or is it only “true” if it’s emotionally appealing to you?

  26. DrewK says:

    “Emotio ergo credo.” I love it! OK perhaps that was too emotio. This is the sad but true state of our culture.

  27. Paul says:

    Kevin –
    Asking again — how do you suss out the relationship between narrative and proposition? You’ve probably covered that elsewhere; a simple posting of the url will do. Thanks.

  28. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Trying to respond to a few questions:

    I’m not sure exactly how to “suss” the relationship between narrative and proposition other than to say that the narrative portions of Scripture are still made up of propositions. Certainly the Bible is more than propositional declarations, but it is not less. I talk about this more in my chapter on the Bible in Why We’re Not Emergent.

    One way to teach the law of non-contradiction is to talk about our Creator God as Mike suggested. Another way is explore the logic of Jesus. People like Jesus. Maybe if they see Jesus use the law of non-contradiction they will be more willing to embrace it. Another strategy is to deal with people’s “real” beliefs and show how they demand the law of non-contradiction when it comes to their own justice or job performance, so why can spiritual beliefs be so nonsensical? Just a few ideas. I bet Greg Koukl has better ones.

    As far as I know “emotio ergo credo” came from my own brain.

  29. David Rodriguez says:

    Very well written article and a very good description of the society we live in today. It’s amazing how people claim to have truth yet in the whole scheme of their “truth” is a number of contradictions. People simply don’t want to believe in a God and just want to believe what they want without actually thinking if it makes sense. “If it feels good do it.” is the mentality people have. If it sounds good to us, its true. This is the people we deal with. No wonder when tragedy hits, these people either turn cold hearted or go insane. There is NO rationality in the world we live in. It’s scary to think that so many people are so far away from God…

  30. Deb W says:

    I think that another part of the trouble is that many Christians, if they are trained in apologetics at all, are not equipped to think logically, reason critically, or offer facts for the faith. Exposure to apologetics is almost a Fideist approach in a lot of churches.

    When they get to college, their defenselessness against the barrage of philosophical, historical, religious and moral assults sends them downhill fast.

  31. Deb W says:

    Also, I think one approach to people like the woman on the plane could be to think: something that is said to be right is : 1) Right because God says it is and 2) because it IS right.

    In the second sense, we would appeal to the level of understanding of the law that God has already given the person. Because the Bible tells us that all are without excuse and that by nature they know what is right, and because of idea of the image dei, everyone has a sense of moral absolutes – right and wrong and injustice. I would use this as a basis for the discussion.

    For instance when the lady mentioned the lesson with Lot’s wife, I would have thrown her a bone on that one. Not by completely agreeing with her understanding, but by using it as the launch pad.

    How is Lot’s wife about not getting stuck in your past? I think you could have worked with that and from that to clarify the text. Luke 17:31 says: “On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything.”
    People shouldn’t be looking back to Egypt, back to Sodom, back to their worldly goods, back to their pasts. People should be looking at Christ because He is coming again to judge the quick and the dead. Something like that….

  32. Keller Doughtery says:

    After volunteering for two years as a chaplain in a prison, I wonder if some people don’t have the mental capacity to understand the Gospel. For example, countless men could not grasp basic concepts or answer the following question: If sin separates you from God, and Jesus takes away our sin when we believe in him, will sin still separate you from God? These men didn’t have the mental ability to do 2+2, much less the law of non-contradictions! What do you do in such cases where simple deductions can’t be made or an argument followed? This is a different situation from a new-age person. I’m talking about someone Functioning at a low metal level, whether from brain trauma, drug use, or just a low IQ. I know salvation is by faith, not understanding, but it still seems to require some understanding.

  33. Matt Beatty says:

    Kevin,

    Being willing and able to “give a reason for the hope that lies within you” has never been harder. Because all men are made in God’s image in “knowledge, righteousness, and holiness…”, I’m confident that the bulk of men (and women) can be made to understand the Gospel, even if they don’t agree with it or like it.

    If we’re patient, creative and careful, we can (and must!) develop strategies for relating Truth to people who’s appetite for Him has been filled with lesser truths of their own making.

    Good post – an impetus to talk to an unbeliever today!

    Matt

  34. Jared O. says:

    I’m late to this discussion, but this is one of the most helpful posts about one of the most frustrating trends I’ve come across in the church. I’m not sure how to discuss a topic when there is no foundation from which to work; when truth literally loses meaning and its substitute is various degrees of emotional intensity and conviction.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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