“Turn to God from idols. For the sword of His wrath that had been aimed at you has been sheathed into the heart of His Son. And the arrows of His anger that had been put against your breast were loosed into the Lord Jesus Christ. Because He has died for you, you were forgiven.”
I HEARD A SERMON on idolatry that convicted me. The main point of the sermon was that anything, no matter how good, that replaces God as the core focus of our lives becomes for us an idol. For instance, hobbies, food, work, money, and sports are good things provided by God for the our blessing and enjoyment. But these things were never meant to usurp God’s position as the center of our worship. Believe it or not, even church and Christian ministry can become idols. If we make “doing God’s work” more important than “doing God’s will,” that ministry will become an idol for us. It’s very important for us to remember that “doing God’s work” and “doing God’s will” are not always the same thing.
The tricky part of idolatry is that it is insidious. Because it can masquerade as good and noble things, identifying it can be very difficult. The pastor who gave this sermon shared that his idol was success. Seeing his church grow in number and maturity, watching new people come to know Jesus as savior, and getting positive feedback from the congregation were some of the things that he cherished. But for him, these markers of success became idols. From the congregation’s perspective, however, these things seemed like good things. What church doesn’t want to see full pews?
After the sermon was over, I knew that God was telling me that I had certain idols in my life that He wanted to address. But honestly, I had a hard time identifying what those idols might be. Money, fame, and power did not have a strong hold of my heart. And I did not have any hobbies or activities that I felt had an undue influence on my life. It took me a while to sort out, but God did reveal to me that I had a particularly insidious idol in the form of intellectualism: reason itself was my idol. Now some may argue that reason seems like an incredibly odd idol—it’s like saying that water or breathing is an idol. But please hear me out before declaring my thinking lacking in reason.
Science—The Unnatural Ascension
We live in an age where science is held as king. And there are technological marvels that support this ascension to the throne. In the field of medicine, for instance, there have been amazing discoveries within the last century which have revolutionized healthcare—we live longer, stay healthier, and have more modern treatments for diseases than ever before. And because science has yielded such amazing technological advances, it is assumed that it can open the doors to all truth and knowledge. In fact, science has overtaken religion as the prime force shaping the contemporary mind-set. Where religion used to be revered as the authority on the subjects of personal ethics, social responsibility, and philosophy, it has now been relegated to the backseat and labeled as antiquated and irrelevant while the scientific method has turned from a simple tool for empirical discovery into a guru of philosophical truth. Personally, I find this change truly unfortunate. The reason is simply because the scientific method, although powerful for the study of observable and reproducible phenomenon, was never intended to plumb the depths of all truths. Indeed there are many truths in this world that the scientific method is incapable of testing. For instance, non-reproducible entities such as historical truths, mathematical propositions, rules of logic, and moral truths cannot be studied by using the scientific method.
In fact, when science is used to extrapolate philosophical truths, some really strange and dangerous conclusions can arise. For instance, if one simply extrapolates the logical philosophical endpoint of Darwinian evolution—how survival on this planet was bred by “tooth and nail”—one conclusion is that certain morally repugnant acts such as rape could be deemed as morally acceptable. In the case of the evolutionary theory, the act of rape would just be an attempt to spread one’s gene pool. Just as forcible copulation in other species (such as mice) is not labeled as morally wrong, one could incorrectly deduce that forcible copulation in our own species is likewise morally permissible. And since science has blurred the lines of distinction between me and a mouse, the morality of one species could be logically applied to the another species. To most people (including many atheists), this entire argument is rightly repugnant. But the scary things is that many people actually believe something as preposterous as this (although they may not openly express it verbally, or act it out practically—thank God!).
The difficulty for a purely materialistic atheist is that defining an objective moral framework outside of social convention and personal preference becomes impossible. It’s difficult to imagine how an unchanging objective morality can arise out of a random concoction of matter, time, and chance. Also, because morality is always defined in part by its consequences, if there are no ultimate consequences to our actions, as many atheist claim, then what is the point of behaving in a morally appropriate way? In the Christian worldview, the consequences of breaking the Moral Law are divine judgements by the divine Law Maker.
Another example of poor use of reasoning is seen in the rational determination of the existence of God. Although many people believe that the existence of God is something that can only be done by “blind faith,” there is a large body of excellent physical evidences, logical arguments, moral arguments, and historical evidences that point strongly to the existence of the God of Christianity. But when I bring up these evidences to a nonbeliever, often they will simply brush-off the evidences. Why does this happen? Let me suggest this explanation: I have run across many people who strongly reject the evidences for the existence of God; but when you get down to the nitty gritty, what they really oppose are the consequences that God’s existence would impose on their lives.
Let me illustrate—if God were a giant chicken, then our insatiable appetite for chicken nuggets, fried chicken, and buffalo wings would present big problem for us! Likewise, if there were a God who believed that certain things were “good” and other things were “bad,” then obviously our freedom to do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted would somehow be measured or judged against some “divine” yardstick. And who wants that? That is why many Christians state that belief in God is not an intellectual problem—it is a volitional problem. Before one can reasonably look at the evidence for God’s existence, that person needs to answer a more fundamental question: Do I really want God to exist?
The bottom line is this: reason is not always reasonable. Rationalism is not always rational. As morally depraved people, we have a way of twisting reason to suit our own purposes. In other words, science, although billed as a process that is essentially devoid of prejudice and bias, is, in fact, filled with extreme prejudice and bias (especially when it is used to extrapolate philosophical conclusions). And the wrong philosophy on life can have devastating consequences. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
Now the skeptic may respond to this by saying that religion is not always reasonable either. What about the atrocities done in the name of Christianity? What about the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades? There are several ways to address these legitimate rebuttals. The first is to admit that these horrible events did happen, and they were done in the name of Christianity. But it seems to me that these atrocities do not negate the Christian message, instead they actually confirm it. The Bible is filled with warnings about “false teachers” who will commit and teach sin using the Christian banner in order to advance their own selfish or political ambitions (Matthew 23 and 2 Peter 2). The reality that there are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing is not surprising to any mature Christian. In fact, the Bible predicts that worse is yet to come. To the earnest Christian there is comfort in knowing that God is the ultimate purveyor of justice and that these “false teachers” who promote vicious crimes will have to answer to God himself (Matthew 18:5-7).
There is also some comfort in knowing that when people do morally repugnant things in the name of Christianity, they are actually acting in a way that is contradictory to the teachings of Jesus. These horrible acts were not the result of sound doctrine.
On the other hand, what many do not realize is that significantly more people were actually killed and persecuted by atheists. Jozef Stalin was responsible for the deaths of over 13,000,000 of his own countrymen. Mao Ze-Dong was thought to be responsible for 49,000,000 deaths. And both of these tyrants were deeply influenced by an atheistic worldview. I am not saying that an atheist cannot live a moral life. In fact, some atheists are probably better at behaving like a Christian than many Christians. What I am saying, however, is this—for the Christian to behave this poorly is a contradiction to the fundamental teachings of Christianity, but for an irreligious person to behave this poorly can be a natural outworking of certain philosophical assumptions from the atheistic worldview.
Reason—Magisterial or Ministerial
We can obviously see that reason itself has not done very well in the philosophical arena, and that reason has been used throughout history as a pawn for political power and selfish gains instead of elucidating truth. So what is the proper role of reason in the life of the Christian? And if reason cannot be used as the sole guide for determining truth, what else should be used in its place? In the Bible, Jesus gives a new epistemological basis for determining truth. In John 14:6, he say this: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Specifically, ultimate truth is defined by Jesus in terms of his personhood. This is a radical departure for the scientist who sees truth defined exclusively in terms of intellectual pursuit. Jesus is saying here that the determination of essential truth needs to begin first with faith in him. Reason is then guided by a framework built upon this foundation of relationship with Jesus Christ. In other words, we do not analyze our faith in Jesus through the glasses of reason; we analyze reason through the glasses of our relationship with Jesus.
Here is another way to look at this connection between reason and our Christian faith. As Dr. William Lane Craig points out in his book, Hard Questions, Real Answers:Martin Luther, the famous 16th century protestant reformer, describes two uses of reason—magisterial and ministerial. In its magisterial use, reason sits above faith as an overseer (like a “magistrate”). The problem with having reason as “the boss” over faith is that, as those still influences by the effects of sin, our reasoning is still often error-prone and biased. If we were able to always have perfect judgement and thinking, and therefore always arrive at the perfect truth, then placing reason in a magisterial role would be good and appropriate. But only God is able to reason in this manner. And consequently our only hope, if we still desire to arrive at truth, is to rely on God. To do this, we place our faith—the ministry of the Holy Spirit through sound interpretation of the Bible—in the overseeing position and reason in a ministerial role. In this position, reason serves and defends faith, but never usurps its authoritative role in our lives.
There are several benefits of placing reason in a ministerial role. The first is that our faith remains steadfast despite the constantly changing winds of scientific opinions and contradictory spiritual “authorities.” In James 1:5-8, the author describes the man who does not place his faith in Jesus first as “blown and tossed by the wind.” He then describes this man as “a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” What a descriptive metaphor for us who place worldly reason above our faith! Having occasional doubts is a natural part of the Christian life. Let’s face it—Christianity teaches some radical, amazing, and difficult things! But how we deal with those doubts is determined by where we place the role of reason and faith in our lives.
Please understand that I am most definitely not saying that reason should be neglected in the life of the Christian. Reason is very important (otherwise, this entire article would be a self-contradictory mess). In fact, not only does the Bible command us to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, souls, and minds,” but it also exhorts us to “work out our faith with fear and trembling.” The point I want to emphasize is simply that, as Christians, our flawed reasoning should never be allowed to sit in the most prominent position in our lives. That place belongs solely to God and is practically demonstrated by the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit who guides us in the proper understanding of the Bible. If we mistakenly allow reason to hold that central space in our lives, reason will occupy that throne only reserved for the Lord. Reason then becomes our idol.
Now some may object that placing reason in this submissive role is not really any better than “blind faith.” I think this objection is caused from a basic misunderstanding of how faith really works. The actuality is that all worldviews, including atheism, require faith. For the atheists, they need to have faith, despite the fact that they are far from omniscient, in their absolute confidence that there is absolutely no chance that God exists in this entire Universe. Now that takes quite a lot of faith (especially since the logical defense of a negation is practically impossible). Some, in fact, might even consider this “blind faith?”
My Hidden Idol
My idol was reason. I had a hard time seeing this idol in myself because thinking is such a normal part of daily life—like eating (which, by the way, can also be an idol). And like that person described in the first chapter of James, there were times that I became anxious whenever I met an intellectual challenge to Christianity for which I did not have a ready answer. I can remember staying up until 3 a.m. and scouring references because I was stressed about my unanswered doubts. I never found a serious intellectual challenge to Christianity that provided any sort of obstacle to my faith. In fact, I always came away feeling that Christianity was, as Ravi Zacharias would say, the most “logically consistent, empirically adequate, and experientially relevant” of all the worldviews. But it was still an unpleasant experience to be “blown and tossed by the wind.”
With reason now properly placed in a ministerial role in my life, unanswered questions do not destabilize my spiritual life. It is liberating! And the surprise is that there is a stronger conviction in my heart that Christianity is true when my faith is based on the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit rather than my flawed ability to reason.
One support for this relationship between faith and reason is found on Calvary. While Jesus was dying on the cross, he was flanked by two criminals. One criminal, seeing the crucified Messiah, rejected his claim to deity despite the fact that “a last hour conversion” was really his only way out of his eternal and moral predicament (regardless of how improbable and desperate that solution may have appeared). The other, by faith, placed his hope in Jesus. This criminal had no formal study of the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments for the existence of God; he had no one to confirm the veracity of Christ’s fulfilled prophecies; nobody helped him with an apologetic on Christ’s incarnation; and he had no classes in systematic theology. His salvation was not based on reason as we understand it today. Instead it was simply based on an uncomplicated trust in Jesus. Imagine that! At that moment, all the evidence for a rational faith in Jesus were gone. Jesus was hanging on a cross—a strange place indeed for the God of the Universe! But Jesus gave him a faith that transcended worldly reason, and a peace in knowing that his eternal destiny was secure in relationship with the divine.