Monday, September 1, 2008

A Musing On Faith, Doubt, and Confidence

In the Prologue to Into the World I stated that faith implies the possibility of doubt in the same way that a mountain implies an accompanying lowland. And in comments to my son and--in blog comments--to Jason last week, I made the point that "...if faith can be taken for granted as true, then it can hardly be the life-changing [decision] that Christians think it to be." Since this seems obvious, we can move right to the well know Hebrews 11 definition of faith, and confront some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance, if not outright contradiction: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV) And let us note right away that this definition has more to do with "confidence" than "doubt." In fact, clearly the etymology of "confidence" stems from this contrasting, biblical view.

How, then, might a Christian reconcile faith's obvious relationship to doubt with its clear relationship to confidence?

I want to float the idea that faith closes the "ought-is" gap, and in doing so reconciles doubt with confidence in the experience of persons of authentic faith. (This will be neither a careful nor a nuanced statement; just a musing on a possible insight that might interest you.)

The "naturalistic fallacy" confuses ought and is. (I note that first to quell fear that I'm up to "that.") Separate from the naturalistic fallacy is the question of whether or not human moral sensibility, "conscience," hints at a wider scope of reality than our senses can take in. This question is separate from the naturalistic fallacy for the--I should think obvious enough!--reason that it is a question.

It is common knowledge that what our senses tell us about the world very frequently do not square with what conscience indicates ought to be the case. Consequently, the question of where moral authority comes from pops right up. And in a blog that explicitly exists to--among other things--point out those areas where science cannot answer questions that arise within human life, it is worth noting that the deontological question--Where does moral obligation come from?--cannot be answered scientifically without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

The best that science can do is to argue that societies that encourage people to behave conscientiously are better adapted to survival, thereby narrowing the gap between ought and is. But all one need to do refute this is note that WWII might well have turned out differently, and that the "war on terror" might not turn out the way people of general good will hope, and so forth. For if the connection between ought and is is contingent, then it will fail precisely when it is needed most: that is, when the outcome one ought to act to bring about is most in doubt. Into the World has a chapter dealing with this, so I need not say more here (Chapter 9, unless I add a chapter replying to Paul Tillich's argument against faith being reduced to ethical commitment, in which case there will be two chapters relevant to this topic: numbers 8 and 10--and by the way, I will not oppose Tillich's argument, if I address it, but will argue that he needed to account for an ambiguity in his analysis, and one which leaves the door open for my position as related in Into the World and, possibly, supplemented with the position noted below).

It is possible, however, to take the intimations of conscience as evidence for a call to a higher way of life, one acknowledged not to be supported by experiences in this world, but promised by faith. It is a supposition that seems very close to the words that Mark puts in Jesus' mouth at the very inception of his public ministry: "...the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news." (1:15, NRSV) And the important thing to note here is that it is this supposition which addresses the "ought-is" gap. In fact, it requires the gap: one cannot repent unless there is a gap one needs to redress between what one ought to do and be and what one is. And it promises that the gap will be closed (implicitly): "...the kingdom of God has come near..."

There will be no attempt to deal with subtleties now, so let's get right to how this "supposition" can fuse--as opposed to confuse--faith and confidence without eliminating doubt as a necessary background component of faith. Fortunately the connection is relatively easy to make.

By taking conscience as an intimation of a wider reality than is empirically supportable and committing oneself to living in light of that belief, not only is the ought-is gap closed (by faith), but a person authentically engaging faith in that sense will experience the relief of having that gap closed. Life as it ought to be lived will no longer conflict with life as it is experienced when the view that faith opens to the believer is adopted and acted on. (This is simplistic, but good enough for a first take.)

Might this first take help answer this post's question: "How...might a Christian reconcile faith's obvious relationship to doubt with its clear relationship to confidence?" Part of the answer might well be that "Faith can close the ought-is gap and so help produce an experience of faith that trades cognitive dissonance for an experienced cognitive resonance that results from faith."

Is it the case that faith can address that cognitive dissonance and science cannot? Frank analysis seems to indicate that. And the experience of many believers seems to support it.

In a last comment here, I would like to note that for several years the one thing that kept me from giving up my faith was the knowledge that people who are and were incontestably better human beings than I am, people I know and knew, were and are people whose lives are and were inspired by faith. That is, the possibility that faith opens up was a reality that I could see in the lives of people I have known. That is, I have seen faith as a life-changing decision, exactly as it is supposed to be. And the opposite is also true, but all that faith requires is the possibility. In fact it cannot be more than a possibility, since it also requires doubt.

(BTW: While thinking this through, I realized that this frame of reference opens up a new way to address one of the biggest challenges in today's church. I'll leave you with that vague "promise" of posts to come!)

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