Recently a fellow writer at this site, the Reverend Evan McClanahan, explained why he thought the Christian Faith is not Rational. In part 1, he argued that rationality “has taught… that the very foundations for Christianity are up for debate,… [and] hollows out the absolute and certain teachings of the Church.” He is correct in his assessment that countering baseless accusations from hysterical and dishonest critics by defensive crouching constitutes the epitome of futility.
He goes on to cite the apologetics of William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas and Frank Turek, recognizing the reasonableness imposed by God as discovered in logic and science. The problem is however, these ministries cannot “prove” associated theological assertions of transcendence, thereby enabling unbelievers to escape accountability from justifying their own nihilism. Such materialism undermines the foundations of Christianity regarding revealed truth.
In part 2, Reverend McClanahan lays out examples regarding the root of unreasonableness. He notes how Gary Habermas persuaded Anthony Flew to abandon atheism, but not to embrace Christian salvation. Or that Rabbi Pinchas Lapide accepted the Resurrection as an historical event, but rejected Jesus as Messiah. And how debates between William Lane Craig versus Sean Carroll, and Dave Farina and James Tour foundered on the lack of common ground relating to scientific interpretations regarding the universe’s beginnings and the origins of life.
Part 2 emphasizes that “Christians should not be embarrassed about claims of stupendous miracles, but unbelievers should be embarrassed that they cannot account for creation itself.” The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg echoed this understanding in his pithy summary: “The believer in God has to account for the existence of unjust suffering; the atheist has to account for everything else.” Such obstinacy indeed requires a change of heart.
Apologetics from the Mind of an Engineer
Perhaps my own regard for rationality has been biased by my training and careers in aerospace engineering and patent law. As an aside, logical proof does not apply to the physical world, the knowledge of which derives from empirical evidence and analytically derived models. Although conundrums plague causality at extreme relativistic conditions and in quantum entanglement, most of our experiences permit us to expect repeatable behavior from various objects, whether mechanical or chemical. The theologically minded engineer presumes a Creator of laws, and thereby rejects the chaotic demon of magic.
How do we account for miracles then? Well, most of the time, we assume an information deficit from transmitted ancient texts. On occasion, a naturalistic explanation might arise. Perhaps the best known public miracles in the Hebrew scriptures are the parting of the sea in Exodus 14:21-22, and the battle at Gibeon when the sun stopped in Joshua 10:13. How can such events be naturally explained?
We can surmise that wind setdown enabled the Israelites to escape from the Egyptians. Numerical simulation shows that high intensity steady wind can produce a temporary land bridge across a body of water. Such phenomena have been analyzed at the Suez and eastern Nile delta. A solar eclipse on October 30, 1207 BC caused the sun to effectively cease shining on Joshua’s behalf, as explained in Vetus Testamentum and Astronomy & Geophysics. This unexpected circumstance facilitated Israelite pursuit of the attacking Amorites. Modern confusion arises from mistranslation of מָ֗עד(a-mad in the Hebrew text) to a narrower kinetic meaning rather than the subject’s typical activity.
This leads to the issue of epistemology – the nature and basis for knowledge related to Christian revelation. Ushered in by the Reformation and facilitated by cost reductions in literary printing, sola scriptura gained popularity for textual comprehension. For moral exhortation, literal hermeneutics could enlighten the reader to better emulate virtue. But with broad introduction exploratory discoveries, particularly in geology and astronomy, more nuanced biblical guidance gained traction.
Thus, the Bible’s teaching could be “true” without the presumption that every phrase could epitomize the Word of the Almighty without parsing or context. As an obvious example, the dimensions of the bronze ablution basin in front of Solomon’s temple described in 1 Kings 7:23 and 2 Chronicles 4:2 – with a diameter of 10 cubits across the brim and a circumference of 30 cubits around (with the biblical cubit measuring approximately between 1 ½ to 2 feet). The ratio of circumference-to-diameter produces an error of 4.5% in the value of π, which would be intolerably high for engineering applications. Unfortunately, we can’t independently verify any of these measurements, as the Babylonians destroyed the artifact after conquering Jerusalem in 587 BC, as reported in 2 Kings 25:13. At any rate, mathematical constants will remain fixed.
As to resistance from metaphysical skepticism, we must distinguish between methodological materialism and its pugilistic cousin philosophical materialism. The former seeks to characterize physical responses to controllable stimuli so as to predict repeatable phenomena, while the latter arrogantly contends that everything reduces to purely material substance. Not only does this unsupported extrapolation suffer from an absence of empirical basis, but it currently confronts cosmologically challenges from galactic gravitational behavior.
And then we have hobgoblins in quantum interpretation – particularly “Many-Worlds” espoused by Dr Carroll. For those unfamiliar, this concept doesn’t refer to the “Multiverse” but rather to a plethora of realities that split off from our inhabited timeline with each quantum wave-function collapse. In reality, it would be much easier for many of us to believe in the tooth fairy.
Moreover, the systematic efforts that persuaded Rabbi Lapide or Professor Flew to a non-committal middle ground, untenable as that might be, nevertheless demonstrates progress. For those whose minds were already decided – i.e., having no inclination towards critical evaluation of their own philosophies, the good Reverend McClanahan understandably concludes that persuasion via rationality constitutes a fool’s errand. But most people are not so stubborn, including those who operate within the analytical and material realms.
The Ultimate Limits of Science and Reason
Two questions come to mind regarding rationalism’s relationship to faith: compared to what? – and what’s the alternative? Atheism isn’t any more rational than theism, and an argument from physics suggests that denial of a transcendent creator has no more salience than would presumption. Rationality incurs no direct imposition on evangelization, at least in my estimation. If Christians forego rationality for their apologetics, do we instead worship at Hillsong or turn to Joel Osteen or Jimmy Swaggart for spiritual guidance? Some of us would not consider either an attractive proposition.
Of course, Reverend McClanahan expressly rejects such complete abandonment of rationality, while recognizing the efficacy of intervention by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, the ground needs to be plowed and the seeds sown for water and sunlight to yield any harvest. To foster that endeavor, my tenuous efforts to recount the circumstances regarding the Resurrection have emphasized archaeology, dating and Holy Week chronology, although their persuasive ability will likely be meager. We might not witness the fruits from such apologetic labors in the Great Commission. But in our skeptical and technology-driven age, prudence indicates that as a rhetorical tool rationality still retains promise.
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