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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

The Limits of Reason

Reason can only go so far. Wrong reason even less.

Wrong Reason (2)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55.8, 9 

Do animals reason?
Reason is a wonderful tool for sorting things out, understanding mysteries, and making our lives make sense – both to ourselves and to others. We need reason, sound reason, to make our way in this complex and wonderful world.

Human beings are not the only creatures that reason. Our dog Cu, for example, demonstrates a keen ability to reason, at least about certain things. Let’s suppose, for example, that he suddenly gets a craving for a treat. What can he do? In his little brain he knows that if he can go outside and at least appear to do his business, when I let him back in, there will be a treat waiting. So he thinks to himself, in whatever manner dogs think, “How can I get this old guy to give me a treat?” Here’s what he does.

First, he goes to the door, sits down, looks back at me, and whimpers pathetically. Then he waits. If that doesn’t rouse me, he’ll come and sit down in front of me and stare at me. If that doesn’t work, he starts woofing and feinting toward the door, as if to say, “C’mon Dad, let’s go.”

All this is highly sophisticated reasoning on his part. He knows that the easiest way to get what he wants is to follow this protocol. But if that fails, he has back-up strategies, which he pursues until I take him out, then bring him back in and give him his treat.

So it seems clear to me that animals reason. But the level at which humans reason, and the things about which they engage in logical thought are much higher than anything we see in animals.

Just because Cu knows how to get me to give him a treat doesn’t mean I’m going to ask him to come up with topics for my columns for the week to come. He’s capable of reasoning, but his ability to reason is bounded by his experience, his knowledge of the world, his imagination, and, frankly, his biology. Cu can imagine going outside to get a treat. Moreover, that’s consonant with his experience in the world. He knows what it takes to fulfill that objective, and he’s really good at achieving it.

But he is not – by reason of being and experience – able to envision a word processor or the ideas it encodes. His creatureliness sets boundaries for how well and how far his reason can work. 

Reason, experience, knowledge, imagination
Because Cu cannot know in the way that I know, he cannot experience the world the way I do. That lack of knowledge and experience also limits his ability to imagine what might be possible in the world. He’s a dog, for crying out loud, and no one would expect him to think like a human.

At the same time, for all he knows – and this is confirmed by his experience – human beings think just like he does. Because when he whimpers at that door, I take him out, so that I can bring him back in and give him a treat. He doesn’t realize that my thoughts and ideas are far more advanced, expansive, and elevated than his. What’s more, he probably doesn’t care. He shows no interest whatsoever in reading anything I’ve written.

Now the only way not to apply this little analogy to God is to assume that God does not exist. For since God does exist, and since He is a reasoning Being like we human beings are, then it only makes sense that He’s going to know more, that His experience is going to be vaster and more expansive than ours, and that He is capable of imagining things that He could make happen, even though we can’t.

So, for many people, the best way to preclude having to reason with God – as, indeed, He invites human beings to do (Is. 1.18) – is to deny that He exists. That way, all of us human beings are on the same level, and we can make arguments about this, that, and the other, so that, the more persuasive we seem to be, the more we can convince ourselves and others that we don’t have to believe in Jesus or follow any of His teachings.

Others may not completely dispense with the idea of God – such as the Sadducees who confronted Jesus – but they have decided that God must be just like them, and thus He must think like they do and exist according to their preferred ideas about Him.

That, too, is an error in reasoning that can lead to disaster (Ps. 50.16-22). 

We know what we know
The problem, of course, is that there are bunches of folks in the world who actually know God and who, knowing Him, have come into more knowledge and a broader range of experiences than those who do not. Presumably, that company includes you and me. Knowing God and Jesus Christ, we possess the gift of eternal life. We see the world more deeply, more clearly, and more truly than those who deny God His proper place in their thinking.

So we are quite capable of imagining things that others, limited as they are by merely human and God-denying reason, are not able to imagine. And we know that what we know is right, for our experience and that of countless multitudes of others from every age, tribe, and tongue proves it to be so. Therefore, those who assail and deny the truth as we know it, and who try so passionately to persuade others of the rightness of their views, are mistaken. They may appear reasonable and be widely respected, but they’re wrong, and we know it.

And it’s our duty, like Jesus with those cocksure Sadducees, to help them see this.

For reflection
1. What’s the point of the little story about Cu? Do you think it’s a valid argument?

2. How did you come to know God? What does it mean for you to know Him? Is knowing God a matter of reason alone? Explain.

3. How would you explain to someone what it means to know God and how he can come to know Him, too?

Next steps – Conversation: Human beings can “out-reason” animals – well, most of the time. Does it make sense that God can “out-reason” human beings? Here’s something you can try with an unbelieving friend: Share your own version of my story about Cu and how animals reason. Then ask, “Does it make sense, if there is a God, that He might know more, have more experience, and be able to imagine more possibilities than we can?” Follow the conversation from there.

T. M. Moore

You can download all the studies in this series, “Let God Be True,” by clicking here.

A companion book to this study, Understanding the Times, is available at our bookstore. Learn more about this book and order a free copy by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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