The Limits of Reason and Divine Revelation

Reason has limits. We can reason only from what is given to the senses or the mind. We can extend our knowledge of the empirical world by tracing the causal connections among the data given to the senses. Our knowledge of the mental world can be expanded by tracing the connections among the ideas and concepts given with the mind. But reason cannot reach beyond what is given to it except, perhaps, in its sense of not being able to grasp its own existence. When we reason about any natural object given to us, we feel in control of our power to understand it. We feel even more in control when we construct an artificial object. But when we turn our minds to the question of the origin and existence of the mind itself, we find no object given to reason that could be subjected to reason’s power. Reason confronts its limits in its experience of not being able to grasp the ground of its own existence and powers. Reason operates powerfully within the limits of natural given objects, but when confronted with the question of its own origin, it faces a mystery beyond its comprehension.

Unless this Mystery freely itself reveals itself to reason, our thinking about it will be limited to speculation based on decisions about which analogies to press into the unknown. In previous essays in this series, I labeled these decisions about analogies “decision points.” At the first decision point we had to decide whether to conceive of the unknown ground of our existence as matter or mind. We chose mind. The second decision point forced us to choose between an impersonal and a personal God. We chose a personal God. The third decision point now confronts us with the choice between a personal God who is interdependent with the natural world and a personal God who is completely independent and transcendent to the natural world.

Why would any modern western person think of God as part of the world, just as dependent on the world as the world is on God? As far as I can tell, thinkers who view God this way share the presupposition that everything that is real in any sense falls within the sphere of reason’s natural space. We can reason our way into the divine nature from what is naturally given to the mind and the senses. Hence nature’s most fundamental laws apply equally to God and nature, and the concepts, propositions, and words used to understand nature apply to God in a literal sense. Allow me to depart from my usual practice and quote two twentieth-century thinkers who express this view quite clearly. Alfred North Whitehead stated his central axiom in these words: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” [Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 521]. Charles Hartshorne asserts that “theology (so far as it is the theory of the essence of the deity) is the most literal of all sciences of existence…the pure theory of divinity is literal , or it is a scandal, neither poetry nor science, neither well reasoned nor honestly dispensing with reasoning” (Divine Relativity, pp. 36-37). Hence God is continuous with nature.

But when we follow the logic of those who think God must be continuous with nature, the resulting picture of God differs dramatically from the traditional Jewish and Christian view of God: God evolves, learns, and grows along with the rest of nature. God is not eternal but bound to time and space. God does not know the future and knows the past only by remembering it. Although God is infinite in potential, he is finite in actual existence. God did not create the world from nothing and is not all-powerful. God acts only by persuasion and never (ever!) gets all he wills. Miracles make no sense because the laws of nature bind God as well as us.

I think it is fair to ask whether the word God should be used of such a being. Before the rise of Christianity, in the ancient near east or Greece and Rome, the word “god” could be used of such a limited being. But most people under the influence of Christian theology would reserve the word God, to quote Augustine, for the being than “which nothing more excellent or exalted exists.” Even more definitively, Anselm of Canterbury urged, “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” How can we think of God as a being that could in reality or in thought be surpassed in excellence and perfection—even by himself?

Now we return to the thought with which we began this essay: reason has limits. Given reason’s  lack of self-comprehension and experience of its inability to comprehend the mystery of its origin and ground, it is reasonable for reason to look beyond nature and its laws for their divine origin. Though such an act cannot be deduced or predicted by natural reason, it makes sense to maintain openness for the divine mystery to reveal itself within our sphere. And Christianity claims that this revelation really happened, and its view of God is definitively determined by its understanding of this revelation.

Next Time: We are now ready to pose the fourth decision point at which we will be confronted with the decision to enter the sphere of Christian faith or remain in the realm of theism, where God is not named and identified.

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2 thoughts on “The Limits of Reason and Divine Revelation

  1. Chris Highland

    Well, sir, your reasoning here takes me way back to theological and philosophical studies in college and seminary. Most reasonable people would stop reading after a few lines, since you’ve eliminated reason, “limited” as it is to such minor things as senses and the mind! I’m intrigued that someone teaching the next generation of evangelical youth would present the need to accept something beyond the senses and the mind. That would leave a clear choice: Nonsense and mindlessness. What I hear you presenting is the old, the very old, “God of the gaps.” Something like, “You can only think and understand and question so far and then, ah, there’s Faith!” Aha! And, by (our) God, it’s OUR faith and OUR God! What a surprise!

    As for the God or Nature “dilemma” (I would say, false dichotomy), some of us would simply say, God is Nature/Nature is God. . .Nature is Nature. We are the ones who put our own human face on the cosmos and call it (_________________) fill in the blank. I wouldn’t call that reason, but faith enjoys that exercise. Ultimately, not helpful in the slightest, and surely not a proper use of our “Nature-given” reasoning faculties. We’re left with gibberish:
    “it is reasonable for reason to look beyond nature and its laws for their divine origin.” Beyond Nature! That’s one giant leap for the brain there.

    As for the fascinating topic of “revelation” I am quite persuaded by Thomas Paine’s 200-year old conclusion that a person may have a revelation, but as soon as they tell someone else, it becomes hearsay, not revelation. If you do not accept this, how could you (reasonably) discount Muhammad let alone Joseph Smith and countless others who have had “revelations”? I would recommend Age of Reason to any serious student of theology.

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    I do not agree with your characterization of my argument. But I don’t want to repeat it, since I stated clearly it in the post. I intend to argue for each step in my argument and never simply ask for an arbitrary leap of faith. I get the impression that you have “been there, done that” when it comes to Christian faith. Fine. Ideas, faiths, philosophies, and ideologies always have and always will compete for minds and hearts. Many people find these questions very important. You are welcome to argue that they have no significance. But in arguing for their lack of significance you have demonstrated their significance. Anything worth denying must possess significance.

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