We All Need a Reason

In comments on an earlier post I had argued that everyone comes to faith in a religious belief system through either experience, authority or reason (ideally all three would play a role).

BrianJ asked me to clarify with these questions:

Suppose I find that following the principles found in the New Testament makes me happier, time and time again. That’s an experience argument, I know. But at what point can I start to view the NT as an “authority on happy choices” by your definition? Or, if I apply the “by their fruits ye shall know them” test, at what point does it become sound reasoning to consider the NT as a thoroughly vetted source?

Actually, that’s probably jumping ahead too much. Just help me understand this: How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?

To clarify and expand my earlier thoughts. It would be very rare for someone to come to faith based on authority, reason and experience all at the same time. But as faith matures and the believer is discipled into their worldview I believe you will see people incorporate all three into their belief systems. As a cord of three strands is not easily broken, the reliability of authority, reason and experience will support one another if any of the three is attacked. In fact, to convert anyone from one faith system to another the concerns of authority, reason and experience more often than not must all be addressed.

To make a specific example, many Catholics are persuaded to believe and behave a certain way because of the authority they believe the Vatican, and their local priest hold. An individual may learn to respect that authority from the authority of their parents or their larger culture. Allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and further allegations of cover up by bishops and cardinals should to some degree threaten that authority. But despite these troublesome reports, many Catholics remain faithful, some despite being directly abused. The reasons they may remain faithful have to do with their positive spiritual experiences in mass or while practicing spiritual disciplines as well as their exposure to deep thinking Catholic writings and philosophy (starting with their catechism). The attack on Catholic authority will only threaten faith in the Catholic church if it overwhelms a Catholic’s positive experience with Catholic experience and Catholic reason.

There may be any number of people who are part of a belief system because of only one of the three (authority, reason, experience). But those people are probably most at risk for a loss in faith. The person who only relies on reason will find their spiritual life stale. The person who only relies on experience will find their faith easily attacked by outside questions and may not weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul. The person who only relies on authority will only follow that authority so long as it doesn’t conflict with their outside experiences with reason or emotional/spiritual well-being.

If you’re clever enough, you can recognize that every anti-Mormon argument is an attack at authority, reason or experience. Similarly, every encouragement toward baptism by Mormon missionaries is an appeal to authority, reason or experience.

Brian asked me “How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?” I have placed authority in primarily two places in my spiritual life. The first is the leadership of my local church. I give them authority in my religious life simply because I choose to. I recognize the need for structure and leadership in a congregation. I also appreciated what was happening in my church before I started attending and what continues to take place there. Their wisdom holds good fruit. Earlier in my life I may have also granted them authority based on their greater education and experience. Their authority in my life is a weaker authority because I believe other congregations hold the same qualities and can easily replace the Elders in my church (as compared to the Mormon and Catholic belief in only one priesthood).

The second place I trust as an authority is the Bible. I learned to trust the Bible as an authority initially from my parents and from my surrounding culture in Oklahoma. As the song goes, “for the Bible tells me so” was enough motivation to believe or behave in any particular way. Pointing to a Bible verse was enough to convince me. This was considered culturally appropriate and also the way my family did things. In time I learned reasons to believe the Bible was historically reliable and I had positive and powerful experiences following its teachings that convinced me to continue trusting the Bible. I’ve also added my trust in the traditions of my Christian ancestors (another source of authority) as a reason to trust and rely on the Bible.

As you can see, from just this one example, authority, reason and experience have found a way to intertwine themselves around one another in my religious life and it doesn’t stop there. When I have a spiritual experience (see a miracle, hear voices, feel unwittingly deeply emotional) I test those experiences against what my sources of authority and reason say (as well as what my past spiritual experiences were like). If I encounter troubling historical or philosophical arguments against Christianity, I consult or rely on my sources of authority and my past experiences until I can overcome or resolve those issues (in addition to the reasons I already believe Christianity to be true).

In that earlier post I antagonized spiritual experiences as being sufficient or useful in evaluating all religious claims. It’s not a problem for Mormonism to point to reason and authority as a motivation to believe (in addition to spiritual experience). This is exactly how faith in all religious belief is formed. In fact Mormonism already quite frequently directs investigators and believers to authority and reason. When anyone says “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” they are making an authority claim. When Mormon missionaries point investigators to Moroni’s Promise, they are holding the Book of Mormon up as a source of trusted authority. When Mormons visit Missouri to catch a glimpse of what was once Adam-ondi-Ahman or go on Book of Mormon tours of Central America, they are adding a source of historical reason to their faith. When Elder Holland called on believers and critics alike to consider Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s use of the Book of Mormon for spiritual comfort as they faced martyrdom as well as the evidence of chiasmus he was pointing toward reason.

Neither authority, nor reason, nor experience sit alone in developing faith. Spiritual fruit is not limited to experience, we can also find good and bad fruit in authority and good and bad fruit in reason. When any of the three are neglected or eschewed we are likely to find the kind of poor soil that Jesus said would not produce any fruit.

29 thoughts on “We All Need a Reason

  1. Pingback: Argument from experience and emotion « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  2. I think you have it generally right in pointing out three general basis for faith. I suppose the question remains, is any method of discerning the truth in spiritual matters something that can be relied upon.

    How can we judge any particular method of coming to the truth on spiritual matters other than pointing out that a person arrived at or didn’t arrive at the “correct” result? (i.e. the result that we believe is confirmed by our own methods)

  3. The more I think about this subject, and the more I think about what I know about how we think the human mind works, I have trouble separating the notions of experience, reason, and authority.

    More specifically, I have trouble seeing reason and authority as separate from experience. It seems to me that it all boils down to what we experience. I accept the reasonableness of a proposition based on whether or not it matches my experiences. If it doesn’t, I must either reject the notion or re-examine how I came to accept it, and then adjust accordingly. I accept the authority of an individual, a text, or a group based on my experiences with them.

    “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

    This has been offered as an example of authority but, isn’t it more closely related to experience? If someone has never seen the Bible, has no idea what it is, and has never even heard of it, someone saying “The Bible says it is so” isn’t going to offer much in terms of being authoritative. But once we experience the Bible by reading and learning from it and about it, then we say, “Yes, my experience with this leads me to accept it as authoritative.”

    When it comes to experience, reason, and authority, experience doesn’t trump all. Experience is all.

  4. I suppose the question remains, is any method of discerning the truth in spiritual matters something that can be relied upon.

    I’d rephrase that to: I suppose the question remains, is any method of discerning the Truth in something that can be relied upon.

    Alex, I think you can tangle all three up just the way you entangled experience into all of them.

  5. This is an interesting example of what I’m talking about in the Evangelical realm.

    At first he begins to discuss reasons based on historical evidence . . .then he switches to an argument based on authority. It’s less than 5 minutes long.

    [audio src="http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/BpCommentaries/~5/ufx9m7NyOKY/062310_BP.mp3" /]

  6. Alex said:

    When it comes to experience, reason, and authority, experience doesn’t trump all. Experience is all.

    Tim said:

    Alex, I think you can tangle all three up just the way you entangled experience into all of them.

    I agree with both of you to some extent, but more so with Alex.

    I’ve come to the conclusion basically that people choose (not necessarily consciously) a religious belief or framework because it fills some need in their lives.

    For many people, that means following the religion that they grew up in; sticking with that belief fills needs such as identification, predictability and a sense of belonging. Any number of things can cause someone convert or distance oneself from the religion of the person’s family of origin; probably most common in our culture is to simply go inactive (that’s kind of an LDS term, but it applies to other religions as well) as other things in life fill the needs that religion once filled and/or that religion fails to fill those needs.

    And I have yet to know anyone who was truly happy in his or her religion who converted to something else. I can contrast myself with other family members, who continue to remain active evangelicals and are happy being such; I had long had dissatisfactions with evangelicalism, and drifted in and out of mainline Protestantism and various evangelical churches before I found something (i.e., Mormonism) that filled some needs in my life that other approaches didn’t. My siblings, who have found evangelicalism fulfilling, never have (to the best of my knowledge) seriously considered an alternative believe system.

    So where I agree with Alex is that, in analyzing myself and others I know, the decisions we’ve made to have a lot to do with experiences. At some point, my decision to accept the authority of the LDS church was a choice — and reason was clearly involved, but without the experiences that I had, ones primarily spiritual and social, I would have never made that choice.

    I think it’s certainly possible for people to abandon reason in their religious beliefs; I have known people in cultlike organizations (in one case not even a traditional religion, but a multilevel marketing scheme that filled the role of religion) who have done just that. But as long as that type of organization was filling a need, using reason with the person is fruitless.

    Similarly, for someone who is truly happy in the LDS church, it doesn’t really matter (to take just one example) that the archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon is scant at best, nor does it really matter to the happy Protestant fundamentalist that the evidence against a young Earth is incontrovertible (which, to the fundamentalist, would make the Bible false). The experience, and in a connected sense the authority, trumps reason.

    Authority and reason do shape how we understand our experiences, so they really are all intertwined and shape each other. But with rare exceptions, I don’t see authority and reason as being much of a driving force when they run contrary to the experiences that a person has.

  7. Tim — That was an interesting audio, for the reason you specified. It would be kind of like Mormon saying that there’s external evidence that the Church (or the Book of Mormon) is true, but that even if there weren’t it wouldn’t matter.

  8. as far as experience trumping all. . . If a mechanic you’ve never met tells you that need new brake pads, how do you go about deciding if you should pay him to do it?

    Some people will do whatever a mechanic tells them to do (authority)

    Some people will take a look at the brakes and have the mechanic explain the situation to them (reason)

    Rarely is your emotional state or a spiritual experience part of the equation, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of someone who decides to pray about it and wait to hear what the Lord says about it.

    Spiritual truth isn’t in a special category that separates it from other truths. People come to it the same way they come to all truths.

    Now I’m sure that if the mechanic smells bad and intentionally farts in front of you you may decide to go elsewhere. But experience isn’t everything.

  9. I think people’s emotional states are factors in almost every decision they make. And people don’t apply thier spiritual experiences to their dealings with a mechanic; they apply their experiences with mechanics to their dealings with a mechanic.

    And again, what about intuition?

  10. as far as experience trumping all. . . If a mechanic you’ve never met tells you that need new brake pads, how do you go about deciding if you should pay him to do it?

    A big part of the answer would be what kind of experience I’ve had with mechanics (or that my friends have had with mechanics).

    Actually, come to think of it, I had that exact experience fairly recently. A mechanic told us that the brakes were about to fail on our van, and that it would be risky driving on an upcoming 1,000-mile trip. I was skeptical, since the brakes weren’t very old and also because my experience with a different mechanic at the same shop wasn’t all that positive.

    So we took to the car to a second mechanic and asked for his opinion. They’re about 20% worn down, he told us, which was perfectly consistent with how long we’d had the brakes.

    So is that experience (since my experience is that brakes tend to last 50K to 80K miles)? Reason (since it wasn’t reasonable that fairly new brakes would fail so soon)? Or was it authority (since I trusted the second mechanic)?

    I’d say it was all three to some extent. But if I had had better experience with car mechanics than I have had, I wouldn’t have been skeptical to begin with. Also, my experience is that those who have nothing to gain by lying (as is the case with the second mechanic) tend not to do so.

    So in this case I’d say reason and experience about equally. Authority not so much (although authority might have mattered more if I had known either or both of the mechanics).

    Kulllervo — Where does intuition come from? I certainly had intutition in the case of the brakes, but it came from experience and reason.

  11. Kulllervo — Where does intuition come from? I certainly had intutition in the case of the brakes, but it came from experience and reason.

    And where does reason come from? And where does experience come from? They’re all clearly intertwoined, but I completely reject the notion that intuition is just somehow a re-framing of those other things.

  12. Tim – In your mechanic example, those who trust the authority of the mechanic do so because experience has taught them that mechanics should be trusted. Others do not trust mechanics at all, and consider going to one a necessary evil. Again, experience. Those who trust the mechanic’s explanation accept the reasoning, but only because experience has shown the reasoning to be sound.

    Much like Eric, I recently had an experience with two different mechanics who looked at the same vehicle. The blower for the heater/cooler wasn’t working. One mechanic looked at it several times and said he couldn’t find anything wrong with it. While my friend who had suggested this mechanic trusted the authority of the mechanic, my experience with mechanics was such that if one tells me that there is no problem with a vehicle when there clearly is, then I need to go to a different mechanic.

    Kullervo – I agree intuition is a really important aspect that isn’t being considered here. I believe that intuition is completely removed from experience and reason. Intuition is what led my mum to ask me if I was buckled up one day, despite the fact that, of all her children, I was the most dutiful in wearing my seatbelt. That intuition directly led me to buckling up, just before a driver swerved into our lane, causing my mum to slam on her brakes. It wasn’t experience. It wasn’t reason. It wasn’t authority. It was simply that thought that came to her mind, and she acted on it. I believe intuition comes directly from God, but I have not yet determined why it does, nor why it comes when it does. Definitely something to think about more.

  13. Alex’s comments on this topic are nearly spot on what I would write. However, I think that the reason I would say something similar to Alex is not because everything must stem from experience, but because for me (and probably for Alex too), experience is the primarily mode of processing things.

    I can understand CONCEPTUALLY that all three things could be explained away in terms of one, and that this isn’t specific to experience. However, IMO, trying to explain the triad in terms of reason or authority doesn’t seem as personally compelling to me as doing it for experience.

    I can understand that I probably DO rely on the others, and that things probably DON’T all point to experience, yet I feel that if I were to account for something I believe, I would SEE it from the experience point first and foremost.

    I would explain intuition, as Kullervo raises up, in terms of experience. Kullervo has already rejected that, lol. (then again, I haven’t had too many experiences like what Alex describes in his latest comment, so I can’t from EXPERIENCE say that I believe intuition is different from experience. [see what I did there?])

  14. I believe intuition comes directly from God.

    I don’t.

    I would explain intuition, as Kullervo raises up, in terms of experience. Kullervo has already rejected that, lol.

    Clearly experience and intuition are related. Experience informs everything we do. But I don’t buy the notion that they are synonymous any more than I buy the notion that reason and experience are synonymous, or that authority (or willingness to identify and trust authority) and experience are synonymous.

  15. I don’t believe all intuition comes directly from God either.

    Most maybe, but some certainly has bad or neutral origins.

    Dang, that’s like the second time I’ve agreed with Kullervo.
    Am I still saved??? Does Kullervo count as an apostate group? Or is LDSEVCONV enough of one???

  16. I don’t believe all intuition comes directly from God either.

    Most maybe, but some certainly has bad or neutral origins.

    Or how about, good, just not directly from God.

  17. Totally agree about intuition being a factor (you had a feeling I would, right?).

    Disagree about it being mainly related to experience. In fact, the two are often on opposing planes.

  18. Thanks for the post, Tim. I understand your position better and see where we agree, but I also have a few bones to pick.

    Bone 1

    The first bone is that I think there are two different categories of experience—well, there are probably endless categories, but these two are significant enough to be considered as different approaches altogether. I recognize, of course, that all the approaches you mention are intertwined (to borrow your rope analogy), so it’s difficult to precisely tease out the differences….

    One type of experience is that which I have observed personally; it’s my history. The other type of experience is what people (or at least Mormons) often mean when they say “a spiritual experience.” It’s a feeling—warmth in the bosom or lightness of being or clarity of mind or, as you put it, “unwittingly deeply emotional,” etc. That is an experience, but it is a wholly different type of experience than one’s own history.

    Thus, I view it as a) experience (personal history) and b) feelings. (And I’d have to think this over more, Kullervo, but I might just place intuition in this category.) Thereby expanding your approaches to religion from three to four.

    To illustrate how those are different, consider a man who attends church regularly but gives no thought whatsoever to the doctrine (i.e., he isn’t there for reason) and if asked he’d admit that he thinks other churches are probably also true (i.e., no authority). So, why does he keep going?

    a) He goes because during a period in his life when he wasn’t active/faithful, he was unhappy, etc. He started attending again and life got better. He perceives his friends/family who do not attends as less happy. He gives donations because he notices blessings coming his way when he does, and he approves of what his church does with the money. He prays and fasts and does other things his leaders advise because when he does he notices the benefits. In other words, this man has tested his religion and believes that—at least in his own life—it works.

    b) He goes because he feels good when he’s there. It’s fun, or exciting, or joyous. He likes the music, feels good when he prays. And he invites others to join him because, hey, it’s great! It feels right, so it is right.

    I think a) is much more more likely to “weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul” than b).

    Bone 2

    This isn’t really a disagreement with you, but rather a clarification on your clarification. I think almost no one approaches religion via reason. Which is not to say that people do not have “reasons” for joining a church. But I suppose I’m making a distinction between reason and Reason. They might use Reason—“deep thinking Catholic writings and philosophy”—to support their beliefs or dismiss criticism, but they aren’t converted because of Reason.

    Anyway, I think I was having a hard time following you before because I think of the person who relies upon personal history (experience) as being “reasonable,” even though he is not employing Reason per se.

    Bone 3

    I like the cord/rope metaphor, but I’m convinced that not all three strands are or should be of equal weight. People will inevitably emphasize personal history more than the other approaches—unless they never experience any challenge to their faith, in which case it really doesn’t matter how they got there.

  19. Glad we could clear all that up.

    I can name people who have come to faith through Reason. Certainly not typical though.

  20. I can name people who have come to faith through Reason.

    I guarantee that they decided on their conclusion before they started doing the reasoning.

  21. My problem is that reason, authority, and experience are all fluid. Reason is only as good as the axioms one begins with, and mine will be different tomorrow. I trust some authorities today whom I will repudiate tomorrow (and vice versa). And my personal experience just keeps on accumulating (and contradicting itself: sometimes really bad people do really good things for me, and vice versa).

  22. My problem is that reason, authority, and experience are all fluid. Reason is only as good as the axioms one begins with, and mine will be different tomorrow. I trust some authorities today whom I will repudiate tomorrow (and vice versa). And my personal experience just keeps on accumulating (and contradicting itself: sometimes really bad people do really good things for me, and vice versa).

    Why is that a problem that’s any worse than the basic epistemological problem? Perception is fluid. There’s no way to know anything that’s not fluid.

  23. Kullervo, it is only a problem if you make it one by trying to contain (infinite) consciousness in a vessel that is finite. I spent the better part of my young life fitting pretty well into Mormonism and Christianity (and some other vessels) that ended up being too small to hold “me” (if that makes any sense). People are always offering new vessels, and some (if not all) of them are likely to be as finite as those I have outgrown. So my real question is this: why should I use someone else’s vessel to contain my self? Whenever I do this, it seems that everyone is happy until I find I have outgrown the community standard in some way. Then, the community wants to get me onto the bed of Procrustes. I guess I am just tired of belonging to “churches” — they mean well, but I find them rather pointlessly painful (since I have learned to distrust the effects of being “cut down to size”: it doesn’t seem to make me or anyone else a better person).

  24. Joseph, the entire point of claiming that these things are fluid is that they are not easily contained by any particular vessel. They are constantly changing, growing, and adapting as we ourselves are constantly changing, growing, and adapting. I fail to see the problem you are suggesting.

  25. “…when it is wet, but you (being an idiot) expected it to be dry.” I was looking for something that does not exist.

  26. The mechanic example doesn’t seem apt. Mechanics may be experts, but that doesn’t make them authorities. There are many experts for example in law, but that doesn’t make them into Supreme Court justices. The latter are authorities so that authority outruns expertise.

    If reason depends on the axioms one selects, does one select said axioms on a non-rational basis or a rational one? If the former then reason is irrational. If the latter then the principle is false. Either way the idea that reason depends on the axioms one selects is false.

    Intuition is just that which strikes you as true (or false) without any mediating discourse or steps to see its as such. But there is no inference from, this strikes me as obviously so, to it being so. Many things taken to be intuitive have been demonstrated in say modern science to be false. (This object is solid, for exmaple. It is not.)


    You write that you “give” authority to your local church. But if the church has authority from God, then you give it nothing, but merely recognize the authority it has. If you submit to the authority of those to whom you give authority, then you are only submitting to yourself ultimately as the final authority.

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