John Wilkinson believes strongly in reason and in argument in the pursuit of spiritual truth. He employs both, at length, to deny the usefulness of reason and argument in the pursuit of spiritual truth. His book is titled No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith, and its central thesis goes like this (page 102):
It comes down to this: virtually no one I have had a conversation with about their faith journey has ever admitted they came to faith through arguments. Most people’s journey to faith is specific, strange, peculiar—irrational. Augustine heard a child’s voice singing, “Take up and read” and thought it was God telling him to read the Scriptures. Martin Luther came to faith after suffering from depression about his own sinfulness. John Wesley talks about his heart being “strangely warmed.” I don’t think I know any who were argued into the faith. That is because there is no argument for God. Our faith comes to us in a Person.
Wilkinson is a youth pastor, which places him among my most respected persons on earth. I wouldn’t want to set aside lightly what he has to say. There is indeed much of value in it. I loved his second chapter, “Seeing Things For the First Time,” in which he tries to help us old-timer Christians appreciate how outlandish is the story we’re trying to tell our secular friends. Virgin births, miracles, visions, resurrections—it’s all so unlikely on the face of it. Rarely have I seen anyone convey so eloquently what I regard as one of our most severe missiological problems: helping our contemporaries accept all this strange stuff as real.
If only he hadn’t given away so much in the process! He argues from the obvious limited sense-perception and reasoning skills of various species (including humans) to the conclusion, “Because our sense abilities are rather narrow, so is our logic…. reason is stunted by the limits of being human” (emphasis in the original). Reason is finite, he tells us, and in this he is obviously correct. Knowledge of God comes to us by revelation, he also rightly says, and most fully in a relational mode, God revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. No act of human reason could ever take us to Christ apart from God’s revelation.
But no argument for God? There are multiple arguments for God: cosmological, teleological, historical, prophetic, ontological, axiological, existential, and on and on. What are these, if there is no argument for God? It’s not clear how Wilkinson would answer that, except with a general disregard for reason’s usefulness in matters spiritual. Picking up from where I left off in the first quote, he says,
Because our faith comes to us in a person and not in a proof-text, there are going to be things that are beyond what we can explain. As people of faith, we need to be okay with what some call nonsense. Yes, we do believe in a God who has existed for eternity. He has no beginning and no end. This same God formed us out of the dust of the ground and breathed a soul into being …
Some call it nonsense, says Wilkinson. A page or so later he waxes eloquent (I mean that sincerely—the author is gifted with language) and adds,
The Christian message, in all its bizarre glory, comes from across the sea—beyond the horizon. We heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else who heard it from the person who saw it all. The only thing different about people of faith is that they choose to believe the testimony handed down to them. The only thing they have is faith, which is absurd, but that’s okay. And all of the things that come with it: prayer, worship, charity, sacrificial love—all of it too is nonsense…. There is something there that makes sense, but only when we step into it.
What Wilkinson underplays continually is how much sense it makes at when we take that step. Granted, there is a divine move that brings us into knowledge of God; granted, it is God’s initiative and not our reason that draws us to truth; granted, our grasp of knowledge and truth are woefully incomplete—still there is truth and there is knowledge in the truth that we know; and inadequate though reason may be, what reason truly affirms in the knowledge of God may be affirmed reasonably to be true.
Wilkinson’s dispute with this seems at least partly due to a misapprehension of what reason is about. He speaks of the circular move faith makes when it makes its choice based on that which it cannot prove, which is well and good; but he does so in a chapter titled “Circular Reasoning.” This is mistaken. Circular reasoning is a form of fallacious argumentation: an argument which is (borrowing from the title of the book) no argument. But accepting God’s gifts by faith is not arguing, validly or otherwise; it is choosing and accepting. To do one thing in a circle does not mean that I do all things in a circle, and it certainly does not entail that I argue in a circle.
He says (page 56) “reason only answers what; it doesn’t answer why” (emphasis in the original); but that depends on the question, doesn’t it? And in the context there, he seems to have reason tightly bound together with the methods of the empirical sciences, which is considerably more truncated than any reasonable view of reason need be.
Toward the end of the book Wilkinson owns up to the value of reason—sort of:
We cannot escape the fact that reason is necessary to advance even the basic thesis of this book…. Without logic, all ideas fall apart. This book is nonsense because I use logic to deconstruct logic…. We do [not] completely do away with reason and logic; we only want to rid ourselves of the idea of its supremacy…. to return reason to its proper place.
What is that place? He thinks (p. 150) nothing related to faith and spirit makes sense; he annoys himself by his own habit of asking people, “does that make sense?” But he is giving away more than was meant to be. Reason alone cannot reveal God’s character; reason alone could never have deduced the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount or the way of salvation in the Cross; but reason can explore these things and find that they make sense in the light God grants us. Reason can even help the unbeliever see that these thing make sense, or at least that they are certainly not nonsense, no rational barrier to belief.
So then what does he mean by “No argument for God”? If he had meant there is no argument sufficient to take us all the way there, I would have heartily agreed with him. If he had meant that a living relationship with God encompasses far more than reason can apprehend, I would shout “yes!”—for truly life with Christ happens in many more delightful dimensions than that. If he had truly meant (as the subtitle says) we ought to go “beyond reason in conversations about faith,” I would agree: we can do that. But to say there is no argument for God is tantamount to saying there is no reason to believe in him. That’s just not true.
It’s also poisonous to faith. I sincerely hope Pastor Wilkinson’s youth group members experience a very rounded, multi-dimensional encounter with God through his ministry and teaching. It ought to be all it can be: founded on Scripture, embracing the deep mysteries, relational in every way, and walking in the faith of what cannot be proved. And it ought also (contrary to what Wilkinson says in this book) to be well-seasoned with a strong respect for what our God-given reason can be and do for us. It ought even to include training for reason, as well as for relationships, faith, prayer, and all else that belongs to life in Christ.
Someday someone is going to tell these kids there is no reason to believe in God, so they might as well give up the faith. I can hear them answering, “You’re probably right. It sounds a lot like what my youth pastor taught me. He even wrote a book about it.” The youth pastors I know best would hate to leave their students a legacy like that. I believe Wilkinson would hate for his book to have that effect, too. I just don’t know how he’ll prevent it now.
No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith, by John Wilkinson. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011. 169 pages plus notes. Amazon Price US$8.95.