Do faith and reason conflict?
Renowned Indonesian evangelist Stephen Tong addressed the age-old debate head-on Thursday at a preaching session at the National University of Singapore.
His answer: faith and reason operate in different spheres and actually complement one another. Faith is the more important of the two.
True faith is not counter-reason, the Rev. Tong, 70, expressed with the help of his English translator. In fact, faith "improves" reason and "makes it complete."
“True faith will bring your reason that has been lost to be loyal to the truth,” he said.
Speaking to a lecture hall filled with students, he highlighted that every person exercises some form of faith in their day-to-day living. He was fielding a question from the audience during a segment designated for that purpose.
Mundane things people do like brushing their teeth and sitting down on a chair demonstrate faith. In the former, faith that the toothpaste is good for health is exercised. For the other case, faith that the chair will hold one’s weight is demonstrated.
Most people simply believe their parents are who they say they are. And most people believe the earth revolves around the sun without having actually seen it.
Indeed, the viewpoint that reason should come before faith is a contradiction in terms, he pointed out. This is because in holding such a view, one has already exercised faith.
It is an overly "arrogant" thing to seek to live purely by reason, Tong stressed.
Reason alone cannot bring fulfillment in life. This is because it is incapable of apprehending transcendent things such as love.
The evangelist told the story of a scientist whose mother wept over him. Being a rationalistic scientist, he simply stored her tears.
A teacher saw the bottle and asked him what it contained. When he told him the truth, he did not believe.
So the scientist brought the bottle to the laboratory in the hope of finding some proof that they were his mother’s tears.
Obviously, his investigation was lacking in the area that it could not detect his mother’s love. Here was a rationalistic scientist confounded by presuppositions he and the teacher had in common.
Tong told the story in response to a question about proof of the existence of the transcendent.
In contrast, people who embrace faith are passionate and committed individuals. They are so confident that they are willing to pay any price for their faith.
“A person without faith is not perfect,” said the evangelist.
Prominent philosophers Blaise Pascal and Immanuel Kant acknowledged this.
Pascal, who invented the mechanical calculator, expressed that the heart has its own reason. Conventional reason has the ability to perform mathematics. Yet human beings have another faculty in them that affirms that something is right or good or ought to be. In other words, there is a moral and ethical dimension to human existence.
At the end of his life, Kant, who had written extensively on reason, expressed that there were only four things he honestly wanted to know. First of all, what is a human being? Secondly, what can we know? Thirdly, what should I do? Fourthly, what is my hope?
Not even well-known atheists like Chairman Mao or Cold War Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were consistent in their expressed beliefs.
Before his death, Mao told the late American journalist Edgar Snow that he was going to see God but had forgotten to buy a ticket. Khrushchev, when pressed to give an honest account of his religious beliefs, said: “God knows I’m an atheist.”
In fact, “evidence is not enough to prove everything,” Tong expressed. “Evidence is only a small part of the truth. Science is only to know a bit about the superficial.”
Here, the evangelist addressed both rationalistic Christians and critics during his talk and in fielding some questions.
The first group seeks to prove the existence of God out of their piety. For a long period of time in church history, Christians have relied on major arguments in Natural Theology such as that God must exist because the universe is so magnificent, history has a direction and because mankind has a logical concept of the greatest.
But such efforts are "unworthy" of God, Tong emphasized. This is besides the fact that they do not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Kant demonstrated that when he highlighted that the God "proven" in Natural Theology need not be the God revealed in the Bible.
The evangelist responded to a declaration in a recent book by English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking that God did not create the universe.
Even today, scientists do not fully understand the universe. So they should refrain from making such presumptuous claims, he advised. Actually, progress in human knowledge about the vast, expanding universe has only served to reveal human ignorance.
An evolutionary explanation of origins cannot stand the test of logic.
There are three unbridgeable gaps. They exist between non-existence and existence, existence and life and life and human beings, Tong cited Alfred Russel Wallace as saying. Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin.
In the final analysis, as Kant has said, it is difficult to believe in the existence of God. But it is harder to believe that God does not exist, in view of the wondrous universe made in many ways for the benefit of mankind.
Tong highlighted just a couple of cases throughout the session to illustrate this.
The human face was designed so that it could hold up a pair of glasses. Even the fact that water expands and floats when it freezes is so that people can have seafood in the winter.
Convincing enough for the unconvinced
The evangelist described himself as a doubter as a young man. He had told God that if He would help him solve his questions, he would in turn help others solve theirs.
Because God did that, he became an international preacher. He has preached over 300,000 times. Every year, he holds 600 preaching sessions and travels over 300 times.
During his meeting, he defended the Christian understanding of God as a convincing one.
Asked why it is necessary to believe that God revealed Himself through the Bible, he expressed that a God who hides Himself is an unworthy one.
"God is not a dying God, or deaf God, or blind God or dumb God," he said. "He is an existing God, a living God, ... the source of life, ... of truth, ... of grace."
If that is the case, He "must" make some self-disclosure of Himself. A God who hides Himself and leaves mankind guessing is very cruel. But God is the source of wisdom, truth and revelation, he said.
"A true God must be true, ... honest, ... really love us, ... truly wanting to give us the truth," he said. "It's reasonable to believe in God through His revelation to us."
Beyond intellectual argumentation, Tong, who has preached to over 32 million people in 53 years, also offered comfort for the disheartened.
Nobody is useless, he emphasized, urging his young listeners to live optimistically. Indeed, even if one amputates every limb, such a person would still be useful – as an inspiration to others.
The preaching session was organized by the CVCF and co-hosted by the VCF, CCC, Navigators and STEMI.