We live in a world which is still hugely influenced by ‘rationalism’. Rationalism can be defined as a system of thought or philosophy that “regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Often this is manifest in the elevation of science or a similar system of induction or proof as the highest or only acceptable basis of belief. Interestingly, Britannica goes on to say “The rationalists’ confidence in reason and proof tends, therefore, to detract from their respect for other ways of knowing.” A rationalist viewpoint is in itself limited, but rationalists tend not to admit to that.
The impact of a ‘pop. rationalism’ (unquestioning and naive) is that many will look down on the Bible and the claims of Christians. They will view such beliefs as on a par with superstition, and dismiss faith as unthinking or at the very least as of a lower level of understanding which recourse to scientific explanation will so quickly overturn that its okay to dismiss without further investigation.
Can a rational world be reached?
But, does this mean that we cannot reach a rational (or even post-rational) world with the gospel? As you’d expect, the answer is ‘no’.
But the bigger question is ‘How might a reach a rational world with the gospel’? The answer to that is to consider how you approach people who have a rationalistic mind-frame … where should I start? Here are some useful tips. But remember that each person is an individual – there is no ‘winning formula’. Listen, hear where each person is coming from, and respond to each person as they need and God leads.
Some helpful tips
1. The Bible tells us to ‘be thinking’ not to turn off our brains
I have often found it helpful to point out that belief in Jesus is never pictured as an irrational step. In fact, the Bible commends the Bereans for examining the scriptures daily to see if what was said is true (Acts 17:11). When Paul was presenting his defence to Agrippa he countered Agrippa’s charge that he was mad by saying (Acts 26:25) “What I am saying is true and reasonable” and pointed that the evidence was there for him to investigate: “none of this has escaped his attention because it was not done in a corner”.
In fact, the rationalist’s conception of ‘faith’ itself if often in error. They will often think of it as blind belief. But faith is turning from trust in other things to trust in God and His word. Heb 11:1 puts it like this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It’s a ‘substantial’ thing … there is substance to it, and it’s evidence based. The question is therefore not whether we are believing in nothing, but what is it that Christians believe in, and what is the evidence. A rationalist, to be true to themselves, has to investigate these things before they can arrive at their conclusion.
2. They have rejected a ‘god’ they don’t know
When talking to the Athenians in Acts 17, Paul uses their statue “to an unknown god” to expose the problem with their belief. They have dismissed God as unknowable beyond the things they have created as gods, but Paul argues that this God is real and knowable.
So, it is useful to ask people what they think God (or, to put it another way, the god they have rejected), is like and to question where they get this belief or understanding from. It is then often possible to identify the non-rational way they have obtained that understanding, and to encourage them to look at how God reveals Himself in the Bible (for example, invite them to look at Ps 19 and what kind of God that reveals, and where it points to as evidence for such a God … Paul uses a similar approach in Acts 17:24-28.
3. We all worship something
In rejecting the idea of God, the rationalist may think he/she can reject God, but what they invest their time in, what would hurt most if it was taken away from them, and what their satisfaction will rest in at the end of their life when they look back, all point to the God that they have selected instead – it is where our worship is that tells us what our god is. It is often shocking for a rationalist to realise that they do, in fact, worship something, so we need kindness and gentleness in revealing this. It is possible to walk people [carefully and lovingly] through Romans 1:20-25 to help reveal hearts.
4. What we worship does not satisfy
Paul makes this very clear to the Athenians in Acts 17:29 … these are merely things we’ve created by our own hands. There is a lovely, though shocking, passage in Is 44:12-20, which exposes the foolishness of a person who makes an idol with his own hands and then worships it. Although a rationalist would say that it’s just as foolish as we would see it, the reality is that to not worship God is to worship something else, and its just as fragile and ineffective.
5. What we worship will not last
Ecclesiastes reveals graphically how, although God gives us many good things “under the sun”, they are things we cannot take with us (e.g. Eccl 5:10-17) and the conclusion in Eccl 12:6-8 is that it’s all meaningless and so we need to ‘Remember Him’.
6. There must be a better answer
If all this is the case, there must be a better answer. In Acts 17:30-31 Paul points the Athenians to God who “calls all people everywhere to repent” … to make the rational decision to turn from what is not true, cannot last and does not satisfy to the only one who use true, does last and will satisfy. But it is also helpful to take people back to Gen 3:1-7 because there we see that there is a lie (“you can … know good and evil” – i.e. we can be rational and decide for ourselves what is right) which leads to faith in themselves and their own way rather than faith in God. It is to those living in the consequences of this lie that Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life” … He is the answer. And believing in Him is not irrational – it is evidenced by His life, His death and supremely in His resurrection, as well as in the impact that believing in Jesus has in us.
It is easy to be put off by those who claim that they have turned their back on Jesus because they are rational and we are not. But the reality is that their rationalism is actually irrational – they have just never investigated their own claims to their logical conclusion, and they have usually never looked at the claims of Jesus. After Paul spoke to Agrippa, it was Agrippa, challenged by what Paul said, who nervously said (Acts 26:28-29) “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian? Paul replied, ‘Short time or long – I pray that not only you but all those listening to me may become what I am, except for these chains’.” We, like Paul, seek to persuade men and women, longing that they too might find life and peace in Jesus.