January 2021 Credo

Beyond Fideism & Rationalism: Faith Seeking Understanding

Concerning the relationship between faith & reason, I believe that the two antithetical positions of rationalism & fideism are both unsatisfactory. The fideists are correct to emphasize the limitations of reason & the primacy of divine revelation concerning the knowledge of God. Moreover, God is a Personal Subject & not an object to be manipulated. So a proper saving knowledge of God is based on our I-Thou relationship with God (Martin Buber) rather than on abstract rational proof. However, if we go too far as to deny the role of reason, we may inculcate attitudes of dogmatism & anti-intellectualism. For many thoughtful Christians, their nagging doubts have to be suppressed, & for many honest non-Christian seekers, their challenge to justify the Christian faith can never be met. In the long run, this would be harmful to evangelism & may lead to the marginalization of the Church in the secular society. Especially when we are faced with the problem of the plurality of revelation claims in many religions, we can give no good answers.

On the other side, the Christian apologists are correct to remind us of the Biblical command to “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1P 3.15). So apologetics should not be neglected. If we divorce faith from reason, the consequent intellectual fragmentation is far from desirable because faith should involve the whole person, including his reason. As Mk 12.30 says, we should love God with all our mind! However, Christians do not need to surrender to the hegemonic claims of rationalism or empiricism. As said above, “God has spoken” is the message of the Bible (Heb 1.1-2), & knowledge of God is a kind of personal knowledge beyond reason (Jn 1.14, 14.6, 8.32; Rm 8.14-16).

So it seems that we should seek for a balanced position which accords primacy to revelation while reserving a legitimate role for reason. The approach “faith seeks understanding” tries to achieve this. It recognizes the primacy of religious faith, but faith is not one that disdains reason or claims of experience. Contrarily it exercises fully the capacity of reason.

Contemporary Resurgence of Natural Theology

Natural theology is the project of using reason to “prove” or justify the belief in the existence of God. Aquinas’ five ways and William Paley’s design argument are the classical attempts to do that, & they have been influential for many years. However, since the rise of analytic philosophy in early twentieth century, Christianity had been under fire (see Russell’s Why I am not a Christian? & Religion & Science). Then due to the rise of logical positivism, as represented by A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth & Logic, religious language was thrown into doubt & even regarded as meaningless. The traditional theistic proofs have also been heavily criticized & declared utterly useless, & the problem of evil was deemed insoluble, e.g. by John Mackie. There was a widespread feeling that the Christian beliefs might not survive rational scrutiny.

However, the past decades “have seen the field of philosophy of religion flourish.  This may surprise anyone familiar with the field’s status as recently as just some forty years ago.  At mid-century philosophical circles dismissed philosophy of religion as an uninteresting area of which Hume & Kant had already had the last say.  Logical positivism & existentialism, both descended from Hume & Kant via vastly different lineages, were the prevailing movements of the time & neither held any tolerance for rational argument concerning the existence & nature of God…  But things change.  Today philosophy of religion is a vibrant & exciting area of philosophical research with four academic journals & at least three professional societies devoted to the field.  One of these, the Society of Christian Philosophers with over a thousand members, is the largest single-interest group in the American Philosophical Association. Indeed, many of the most influential philosophers at work today publish regularly on topics in this particular field” (Jordan & Howard -Snyder, p. ix).

Firstly, many Christian philosophers rose to the challenge & used similarly rigorous method to defend theism & rebut the atheist critics. For example, see Alvin Plantinga’s God & Other Minds (1967) & God, Freedom & Evil (1974). The foremost natural theologian of this period is the British philosopher Richard Swinburne. His The Concept of Miracle (1970), & the subsequent trilogy, The Coherence of Theism (1977), The Existence of God (1979) & Faith & Reason (1981), have, in my view, successfully rebut the charge of meaninglessness of religious language, & provided a reasonable cumulative argument for the existence of God.

Secondly, not only the traditional arguments for God, e.g., the Cosmological Argument (see Bruce Reichenbach’s The Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment in 1972), have been revived, new arguments based on contemporary scientific developments such as the Big Bang, have been reconstructed & defended. One notable example is William Criag’s The Kalam Cosmological Argument in 1980. Another example is the new version of the design argument based on the discovery of fine tuning (see John Leslie’s The Universes). Other ground-breaking developments are contemporary defense of the Moral Argument (see Adams 1999), & the Argument from Religious Experience, inspired by Swinburne’s principle of credulity (also see Davis 1989, Gellman 1997, Wall 1995 & Yandell 1993). Concerning the latter argument, I think William Alston’s Perceiving God (1991) is a must-read.

The Significance of Apologetics for the Asian Church

The above is only a very sketchy account of the recent developments. These developments have greatly strengthened the respectability & convincingness of Christian apologetics, & it is imperative for Asian Christian scholars & theologians to appropriate these advances, hardly fought & won by our dear brothers & sisters in the West. Not only we can provide a better rational defense of the existence of God, we can also apply philosophical analysis to defend the intelligibility of specific theological concepts like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Revelation, Hell & so on (analytic theology). (See Swinburne’s tetralogy on these issues.) There is also a greater prospect for the integration of science & faith. As Philip Quinn says: “the result of these activities has been to show that at least some parts of theistic world-views are at least as respectable, philosophically speaking, as the main rival world-views such as naturalism” (quoted in Wainwright 1996, p. 50).

It is unfortunate that many Chinese intellectuals (& even theologians) have not caught up with all these new developments. However, there are encouraging signs that some Asian Christian philosophers are catching up & even contributing to this resurgence. One notable example is the Singaporean scholar, Andrew Loke, who is now working in the Hong Kong Baptist University. He has provided an updated defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (Loke 2017), among many other publicatons. I have written more popular books about Christian apologetics & the Christian worldview in Chinese. Moreover, I have contributed to a sustained defense of the Argument from Religious Experience (see Kwan 2006a, 2006b, 2009, 2011).

When Asian Christian scholars join in this movement, I also think we can have unique contributions by combining the strengths of Western & Eastern cultures:

  • Integrating Rational Apologetics with Practical Apologetics
  • Integration of faith with life
  • Combining analytical thinking with synoptic vision
  • Combining rational, systematic apologetics with flexibility & sensitivity
  • Development of Inter-religious dialogue & apologetics in our pluralistic context

In the end, let us hope that through our concerted efforts, “We demolish sophistries and all that rears its proud head against the knowledge of God; we compel every human thought to surrender in obedience to Christ” (2C 10:5, NEB).

Kai-man Kwan received his D. Phil. from the University of Oxford. He is a professor of the Department of Religion and Philosophy, Hong Kong Baptist University. He is also the Director of the MA in Ethics & Public Affairs & Centre for Sino-Christian Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. His current research interests include religious experience, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, epistemology, political philosophy and social ethics. He has written several books in addition to many articles in academic journals.