What is it that keeps us sane?

The chief mark and element of insanity… is reason used without root, reason in the void…. But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane? …[T]o give a general answer[:] Mysticism…


Bath Abbey sanctuary

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic…. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also…. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health…. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing….

Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility–Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world… Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.

A stunning quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, pp. 17-19. I have argued here and here that rationality as the main or only measure of humanity is both insufficient and potentially dangerous… and the idea that mysticism keeps us sane – I would argue keeps us human – is especially meaningful for those of us in the arts.

Three-Part Faith

In academia, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude that people with religious faith are intellectually dishonest. While possibly excusable for non-intellectuals – the attitude goes – we enlightened thinking-types ought not rely on faith; after all, as Dr. Temperance Brennan in the popular TV Series Bones says, “Faith is an irrational belief in something that is logically impossible,” right?


A fairy-tale wall tower at the Tower of London

Pardon the polemical introduction. I exaggerate slightly to make a point… although perhaps the exaggeration is not particularly far removed from reality in some cases? But as a Christian academic, I ask myself the question, what is faith? Is it really the irrational belief in the logically impossible? Perhaps if I have faith that the world will end on Dec. 21 or that fairytales are historically true accounts, I’m approaching that kind of faith. But what about faith in the Christian God and in his gospel (good news)? Are we crazy and irrational?

Rev. Mick Leary of The Church of the Redeemer, PCA in Cortland, NY recently preached on biblical faith, and its main points stuck with me as concisely capturing what true faith looks like:

What is Faith? 

Rev. Leary suggested that true faith comprises knowledge, belief, and trust.


True faith is first based on knowledge, or, more precisely, justification in its epistemological sense; in other words, faith has good reason to believe. Justification involves both good information or evidence and good reasoning. As Christians, we have good information about God and how he interacts with the world – especially his gospel.

Romans 3:21-26 (emphasis added)

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (NIV)

We have a historically reliable book that claims to be the revelation of God’s word to his people through history: the Bible. Of great importance, then, the content of Scripture reveals much about who and what God is – invisible, eternal spirit, creator of the physical world and universe, sovereign over human beings, holy and righteous, etc. – and about how he interacts with human beings. The Scriptures contain verifiable historical events which demonstrate God’s reality, prophesies fulfilled that demonstrate his faithfulness, and future promises that may be presumed to hold true based on previous information.

At this point, the skeptics will already be ready to pounce, for the previous statements are based on further evidence – historical accuracies and a high level of agreement between manuscripts and archeology – (see Tim Keller’s chapter on biblical accuracy in The Reason for God for an overview of this issue) but also on a worldview that presumes the possibility of a God. This is a circular argument, they may say, but there is no way to argue for a world with God or a world without God without beginning with some given axiom that cannot be proven. Hence this discussion on faith. My point here is merely that the Scriptures are comparatively speaking the most reliable ancient book out there, and that they are considered historically definitive in many respects. As such, what they say about God and his people ought to be considered as worth study.

In addition, reason allows for and supports the existence of God from within the finite realm of human thought. Many have tried and failed to argue for or against the existence of God using merely “pure” reason. However, in approaching the possibility of God in existence, reason is more than compatible with such a possibility and can provide very compelling support. Rather than attempting to set a new argument out here, I will refer my readers to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; these two books demonstrate the philosophical reasonableness of God. Finally, the historic tenacity of Christian faith and the individual and corporate record of experiences of God provide further evidence in support of the existence of God and his redemptive plan.


With the solidity of Scripture as our main evidence and reason, tradition, and experience as our epistemological supports, we are then faced with a decision to whether we have enough epistemological justification to actually believe – assent to the truth of – the information presented. It is at this point at which the dividing line is most distinct between those who profess Christianity and those who do not. Many people who explore the information within Scripture and the supports along side it find it intellectually compelling enough that they cannot but accept it as truth (c.f. Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis). Many others are unwilling to accept that the evidence is certain enough to be true. Members of both groups are easily found in both academic and non-academic circles.

But in any case, faith requires the belief that the good information is true. For example, consider Romans 4:18-25 (emphasis added):

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead25 He was delivered over to death for our sinsand was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Skeptics will immediately notice the phrase “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” Aha! See the illogical belief here! But notice verse 20-21. In essence, Abraham faced the physical evidence and compared it to what he knew about God – the Creator of the universe, the God who had called him out of his hometown, the One who had provided for and led him every step of the way – and he recognized the faithfulness of God before and reasonably drew the conclusion that God, as the Creator, had the power to work with his failing physical body to fulfill his promise.


Surely justified belief is enough to constitute faith, right? To return to Rev. Leary’s sermon, the crucial point that transforms belief into faith is the trust that the information is so true that my life can be built on it. This is the toughest part. I may believe for good reason that if I put my money in the a Savings account it will stay there and gain a small amount of interest unless I withdraw it. However, I have to really trust that the bank is legitimate in order to put my money in an account to begin with.

Consider Romans 8:18-30, especially the following verses:

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (NIV)

To borrow almost directly from Rev. Leary, the basis of trust lies with and in God and Christ, in what he did before we knew him rather than on what we are doing. Romans 5:6-8 says, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Trust begins with the recognition that I am weak and that he has done for me what I could not do for myself. He pursues us in love, with grace, in his own timing; in fact, he is often willing to take time when we are not willing to do so. In order to “do” trust, then it behooves us to spend time reflecting on our life in the context of the Scriptures, to look at the way we spend our time on other things (what matters if God is real and his gospel is true?), to gather together and listen to each other as God’s people. We know he is there although we cannot see him. We believe he will act as he has in the past – faithfully, righteously.  We therefore trust in him.

To close, let me refer to Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. (NRSV)

In this brief definition, faith is defined as assurance and conviction rather than mere hope or wishful thinking. While assurance and conviction may be merely asserted by the unthinking person, this verse connotes a confidence that is supported. The NKJV uses the word “substance,” the idea being: faith is well-supported, substantial, evidence-based belief in, yes, the intangible and the not-yet; it is not irrational – or at least no more so than any sensible view of this complex world ought to be.

(See for reference some further thoughts on rationality and its place in human thought in this earlier post.)

Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird | Christianity Today

Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird | Christianity Today

Review by Peter Berger of Robert Wuthnow’s The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. This book addresses the way Christians in America sustain faith through a balance between naturalistic and religious worldviews:

Wuthnow, arguably the most productive and insightful sociologist of American religion, deploys rich empirical evidence against the widespread notion that faith and reason, religion and science, are engaged in a struggle for the soul of America. The evidence indicates that for many religious people there is no conflict but rather a creative tension, which they manage by establishing a balance between two distinct ways of looking at the world.

Integrated Life as an Academic

Last night, I went to a talk given by Karl Johnson, founder of Chesterton House, which is a Christian study center at Cornell University.  In his talk, Karl briefly traced the historical transformation of the university, as follows:

from the 1630s – in which universities were places of spiritual and moral formation as well as of professional training, and in which human limitation acknowledged divine revelation as a source of knowledge

through the 19th and early 20th centuries – in which Enlightenment thought with its optimism and sense of progress shaped the modern research university, and the earlier acknowledgement of the limitations of human reason alone gave way to a sense that we could figure out all that we needed to know

to World War I through the late 20th/early 21st century – in which optimism concerning empiricism as the source of truth gave way to a pessimism that saw the inability for humanity to achieve truth and peace through reason, that rebelled against the division of head and heart, facts and values, and placed emphasis primarily on subjective truth (all of which is commonly referred to as postmodernism)

In this context, he discussed the increased secularization of the university, and the fact that religion and faith issues have been increasingly shunted aside as private, value-laden, unknowable, and undiscussed in the academy except in the context of religion centers (and increasingly, departments).  The university, especially in its larger forms, has also mostly relinquished any attempt at creating “good citizens,” as it has realized that an emphasis on rationality alone does little to shape the morals and ethics of individual students.  Such issues are dealt with in Student Affairs, not in class.  The “big questions” remain unasked – students chuckle at the absurdity of those “religious conservatives” as portrayed in the media, nod in agreement as a pharmacology professor explains that the beautiful intricacy of a cellular mechanism proves how absurd it is that an omniscient being could have had any hand in creating life…

In addition, Karl briefly discussed the anti-intellectualism that grew out of the fundamentalist reaction against Higher Criticism and the elevation of reason and empiricism, the effects of which are still noticeably evident among parts of the evangelical circle today.  Instead of engaging in dialogue with those who denounce faith, conservative Christians have often either been outraged or silent on the subject.  As a result, the interaction between the academy and the church is often impoverished.  So, what are we to do?

Karl mentioned the rise of campus ministry groups, such as InterVarsity, Navigators, Campus Crusade, etc., whose function is to provide connections for Christians on campus in the form of Bible Study, worship times, etc.  As good as these are in many respects, they indirectly perpetuate the academic claim that religion and faith are outside of the purview of other academic disciplines.  Karl encouraged us to pursue the integration of faith with academic study in other disciplines, which is the mission of Chesterton House.  The study center is a resource that provides a venue for questioning and debate, that brings in well-qualified speakers on topics that address metaphysical and other meaningful questions, that connects students across a wide variety of disciplines in their search for truth, that ultimately encourages students to avoid compartmentalizing faith in favor of integrating it with their studies.

As an academic and a Christian, this appeals.  I am always trying to understand how my basic beliefs about the world and about God shape and should shape my studies of music and philosophy.  I also have deep questions, some of which I have beginnings of answers for, others of which remain mysterious in many ways – and these questions are not often addressed in class or even in the social life around classes.  Of course, the church ought to be addressing such questions, but not fearfully – and it often does so.  But my academic life is not a different life from the one in which my questions about life and learning and music occur.

Notably, Karl did not advocate a return to the spiritual and moral basis of the academy.  There is a place – a significant place – for Christian schools (I went to one for undergrad!), but the academy being what is today, Christian study centers may be one way in which young Christian academics may be encouraged to not only pursue vocations in many disciplines, but to pursue them in a Christ-centered, intellectually honest way, such that our lives are holistically integrated, with faith in and service to God permeating every intellectual (and other) activity.

Against Houyhnhnm-ism: Recovering Wholeness in our Perspectives on Reality

“Reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature…” according to Gulliver’s master Houyhnhnm in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels.  While human reason is construed as being tainted by the passions and a natural propensity to vice, the Houyhnhnms’ perfect rationality leads to a disregard for relationships, life, and the soul because their sole aim is “to cultivate reason and to be wholly governed by it.”

As Swift asserts, human rationality is subject to emotions, sin, and individualism, but most of us living in the post-Enlightenment West treat reason as the most unassailable and essential element of ourselves.  I think it is for this reason that we frequently perceive studies of the “rational” and “useful” sciences as more important and worthwhile than the study of the arts.  This view is not uncommon in the Western church either, especially among the theologically minded.  For example, music does not speak directly to our rational sense; indeed, it moves our emotions and not our minds, and may thus be at best, innocuous to furthering our spiritual growth (especially when it is wordless) and at worst, dangerously inhibitive to our spiritual understanding.

I am overstating the case, but to a purpose: I, loving the rational, have struggled to believe that music can have integral value in my life as a Christian because it does not directly influence my rational understanding of my relationship with God.  I tend to “treat the world as an arena of objects that [I] can manage, control, and speak about reasonably efficiently,” yet music, and the arts in general, reveal a world beyond our control and understanding, with more meaning than we can express in rational prose (Begbie, Resounding Truth, 51).  Music makes connections with things in the world, but it does not signify things in the world in the way that words do.  Much of the value, meaning, and pleasurableness in music comes from the relation of musical sounds to each other – the “science” of which forms the meat of my daily work as a music theorist.  These relationships then connect with our social, mental, spiritual and bodily states, interacting with understood conventions, associations, actions and physical perceptions of sound, thus leading to a richly meaningful experience that cannot be contained in rational expression (Begbie, RT, 53-56).

Music reminds of our whole selves, of our interaction with the created order, of the non-rational good that is part of how we are created.  We cannot be caught up in the opposite error, reveling in the sensuous beauty and emotional effect of music without recognizing its import, but if we reduce it to its usefulness or the lack thereof, we miss its ability to restore us to a holistic, integrated perception of the reality of our humanness in God’s created world.