Is Faith Reasonable? Ayn Rand and the Problem of Unbelief

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Culture, Evangelism, Theology

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Mostly likely, though, she will be remembered for her self-developed philosophical system, titled “objectivism.” Rand’s objectivism advocates reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejects all forms of faith and religion. Religious traditions are, in her view, scientifically and rationally unproven and therefore unreasonable (to hear Rand in her own words, click here).

When Christians encounter such a hard, negative stand against their faith, they sometimes offer poor responses that fail to engage. For example, in his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell loosely claims that Christianity is not to be defended on rational grounds because of its inherently mysterious and paradoxical nature. Faith is something to be celebrated, not proven. (Velvet Elvis, p. 34-35; see also a response by Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p. 30). Bell seems to suggest that Christianity’s mystery precludes any rational reflection on its truth claims.

While Christian truth indeed contains deep mysteries, it’s not all mystery. If it were, then we could not know anything about it with any level of certainty. Yet, the very claim of the Christian faith is that we do know, with certainty, particular facts about God, the world, humanity, Jesus, sin, and salvation—because God has revealed these very facts to us clearly in Scripture!

God does make sense, and can be thought of reasonably and rationally. The fact that humans possess rational minds points to a God who is rational, and can be thought of in sensible ways. Faith is a reasonable endeavor. To pursue the endeavor, though, one must be clear concerning the meanings of these terms: reason and faith.

Generally speaking, reason is the means by which a rational mind draws conclusions from a set of data. Reason may flow deductively—beginning with the general principle and then explaining or demonstrating the particular details (for example: gravity exists, so objects fall). Reason may likewise flow inductively—beginning with the particular details and inferring a general principle (for example: objects fall, so gravity must exist). The laws of logic also apply:

–          Law of non-contradiction— nothing can both be and not be at the same time.

–          Law of excluded middle—any factual statement and its denial cannot both be true.

–          Law of bivalence—any unambiguous declarative statement is either true or false.

–          Law of identity—a thing is itself and nothing other than itself.

These are the normally accepted canons of reason.

Defining faith, however, can be tricky. Debates exist over whether faith is an act of trust or mental assent to a set of facts. In the Catholic tradition, faith is largely assent to “the faith,” or the received doctrinal assertions certified by the Church. From the 19th century until the present, the evangelical tradition has included—at times more and at times less—an existential strain which defines faith as a leap of radical trust, not assent to propositions. Historic Protestantism, though, strikes a balance between these extremes, claiming that faith is an act with or toward content—not divorced from it. Faith is trust in Christ for salvation, as revealed in Scripture. Assent to certain propositions is necessary, but faith is more, involving confidence hope and commitment.

With these definitions in view, it seems clear that reason cannot be jettisoned completely from faith, because reason is how we understand the propositions we must believe in order to have faith. So, reason serves to bolster faith with understanding. Yet, a question remains: why does reason not always lead to faith? If Christianity is reasonable, why would Ayn Rand refuse to believe?

Stated simply, based on Scripture’s claim, Ayn Rand wasn’t as rational or reasonable as she claimed to be. Paul, in Romans 1:18-20, explains that reason, apart from faith, has a fatal flaw.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:18-20, ESV).

According to Paul, the unrighteousness of the unregenerate heart causes the mind to suppress what it actually knows to be true: God exists. From creation itself, a rational human should be able to deduce God’s existence, power, and eternal nature. The fact that people do not believe in God does not reveal a problem with the rationality of belief, but with the irrationality of the unbeliever who suppresses knowledge that God has made plain. Unbelief, therefore, is moral rebellion against the Creator, not the result of philosophical “objectivism” or supposed lack of evidence.

So, what should a Christian do when he or she encounters this hard, irrational unbelief? The apostle Peter gives divinely inspired wisdom:

But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16, NASB).

The central command of the passage, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts,” acts as a fulcrum that provides the readiness both to suffer and to give a defense of Christian convictions. In other words, once a believer has settled on the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ, he or she becomes fearless in the face of intimidation and ready to defend the faith. Just as unbelief is primarily a spiritual issue, so is defending against it.

When engaging unbelief, please remember the following points:

  1. Remember that the root problem is rebellion, not rationality. You’re dealing more with an objector than you are with an objection. The unbeliever has irrationally and sinfully suppressed knowledge that God has made plain.
  2. Realize that offering rational, reasonable arguments in favor of the Christian faith may remove some apparent intellectual barriers, but presenting arguments alone will not lead one to Christ. The Spirit of God must supernaturally remove the hardness of rebellion and the blindness of unbelief. Belief is rational, but one must be regenerate before he or she can truly be rational. Therefore, keep the simple message of the gospel at the top of the conversation.
  3. Reaffirm Christ’s lordship over you. If He is Lord (and He is!), then you have nothing to fear and you can be ready give a defense. Equip yourself with reasons to believe, but predicate your whole effort not on your intellect or knowledge, but on His lordship.