I recently wrote an article claiming that science and faith are fully compatible. I stand by every word of it. But what happens when they’re not? What happens when rational and reasoned exploration of the natural world stands in conflict with the supernatural claims of Christianity? For example, what are we to make of Christianity’s assertion of the existence of a spiritual realm, something not supported by science. Can such a claim be reconciled with a rational view of the natural world, or is a belief in the supernatural manifestly unreasonable?
Of course, the prevailing opinion in today’s secular culture is that such beliefs are outmoded and ridiculous. Atheists in particular find the whole idea preposterous. They deride Christians for believing in ghosts, fairytales and ancient myths. Such beliefs are a stumbling block for agnostics as well. Many of whom sense there is more to life than just the physical world, but they don’t think of themselves as religious and have a hard time believing in something they consider irrational – like a spiritual realm and all-powerful God they can’t see, hear or feel. Truth be told, it’s a question many Christians struggle with too. Finding a rational basis for faith in the supernatural can be hard, especially in a faith culture – particularly in the West – that often treats such metaphysical inquiries as taboo. Hopefully all three groups will find the following analysis helpful.
Let’s begin by defining what Christians mean when we talk about a spiritual realm. A number of Bible verses give us insight. Passages like, Genesis 1:26, Psalm 82, Job 1:6-7 and 1 Peter 3:18-22, depict an entire world filled with things like a divine counsel, eternal heavenly hosts, imprisoned spirits, angels and authorities. It is incredible to read through Scripture and understand the breadth of the spiritual universe. For a full treatment of the subject I recommend Dr. Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm. In it, Heiser lays out in detail the full expanse and implications of the spiritual realm as presented in biblical text. The bottom line is the Bible makes clear there is vast and eternal spiritual world that exists both apart from, and integrated with, our own.
This claim of a supernatural world is one tenant of Christian faith that directly conflicts with science. Naturalism and materialism are science’s two predominant working hypotheses. Naturalism is the belief that the physical world is all there is, and materialism is the view that everything we experience is a function of material processes. Working from these hypotheses science limits its search for truth to exploring only natural phenomena: things that can be observed, measured and tested. The problem with this approach is it is circular. To hold that science is the only way to discover truth is to assume that all truth is discoverable through science. Because the existence of a spiritual realm is not testable science rejects it, along with any truth it offers, as unreasonable.
This rejection of faith as unreasonable is what gives rise to atheist’s persistent derision of believers. And its acceptance in popular culture is what causes agnostics and questioning Christians to stumble. That is why the criticism should be taken seriously, and why it deserves an answer. As Christians we should be willing to question whether or not our faith in a spiritual realm is reasonable. I believe it is. I’ll explain.
To begin the inquiry I turn to an unlikely source for a Christian apologetic, Enlightenment philosopher Emmanuel Kant. Although raised in a Lutheran home, Kant was not a professing Christian. In fact, he was quite critical of the faith. That aside, he was a brilliant thinker and is widely considered the father of modern philosophy. And on this particular subject, his insights are elucidating.
In Kant’s day there were two primary schools of philosophy, Rationalism and Empiricism. The rationalists believed that ultimate truth could be arrived at purely through logical reasoning, i.e. thinking through things. The empiricists held that truth could only be discovered by means of sensory experience, i.e. testing things. Kant is perhaps best known for spending his life trying to harmonize those two positions. Many a doctoral thesis has been written on exactly how he accomplished it, but an exhaustive treatment of his work is outside the scope of this writing. For our purposes I will focus on one small slice of Kantian philosophy, the limitations of empirical knowledge.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jay Atkins