Monday, August 31, 2009

Ask to Receive A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS Chapters

I am grateful for the readers that I have. Problem is, I basically have time to blog half the year, and the last four months have not been in that half. It's showed, and to make things worse, I decided to start work on a book project that I thought would be the best use of my limited time to blog. It wasn't; for me at least the first takes on a big idea are likely to be false starts--and my first efforts at A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS were. Sorry about that.

Rather than try to set up a rhythm on a project that I want to take as much time as I need to do well, I'm going to offer to send chapters out to anyone who would like to read them. But there might be months between installments.

So what about this blog? I'm going to try to set up a little club for Christian thinkers in the St. Cloud, MN, area. Something youth pastors could send youth who might be interested in going a bit deeper into Scripture and theology than is usually done in a church setting. It's a good thing for a Christian dad with a bright 15-year-old to do. If it happens, this blog will likely turn into a record of the topics and presentations done at that group. But it's all tentative for now.

To receive chapter emails of A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS, drop me a line at, and put "chapters" in the subject line.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

To Think, or Not to Think (about Faith): Introduction to A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS

Not long ago I met with a young man who is a youth pastor at a local Pentecostal church. He's very bright, and we talked through the first couple of chapters of C.Stephen Evans' introductory book on the philosophy of religion (Evans' work is excellent for an interested young person who wants to explore Christian faith: the presentation is balanced, thorough and clear, and the reader is never bogged down in jargon wondering where the exposition is going, which is crucial...). When we were about to conclude our visit I asked whether he had shared his new interest in philosophy with other pastors at his church. Since he is reading theology written from perspectives outside of his church in addition to philosophy, he indicated that he had shared his readings with the head pastor, and got two different reactions: (1) encouragement to read and understand the perspectives of other Christian denominations, and (2) bemusement (my word) at his interest in philosophy, since God has so obviously made his existence known to the world through revelation and--recall that he is Pentecostal--through healings, prophecy, etc. It's a remark that reveals an utter difference in intellectual orientation between people in the Church and educated secular people: the Church values credulity, and the academy teaches the value of skepticism. I had a professor who marked the difference by calling the University "the Church of Reason."

Before proceeding I should state two stances that I am taking for purposes of exposition: First, yes, I am intentionally sidestepping my young friend's Pentecostal claim that healings and prophesy, etc., point so strongly to God that to look to philosophy for evidence is preposterous. The point of view I want to engage is the cultural dynamic that yields Christians who think their faith is so obviously true that any need to seek for the truth about it is absurd on the one hand and adherents of the Church of Reason on the other hand who can't imagine being credulous enough to "fall" for claims such as my young friend's pastor makes. The evidence of God's grace in the world to the Church of Faith is evidence of the fall from grace to the Church of Reason. That extraordinary dynamic is worth understanding.

Second, lest my young friend's Pentecostal point of view be taken as an outlier relative to the Church generally, consider what I read at the bottom of my Lutheran Certificate of Confirmation: "We know that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, nor come to him..." Weber's Protestant work ethic immediately sprang to mind as I read that; for if faith is necessarily a miracle of sorts, one will look very anxiously to see whether there is any evidence of that miracle in one's life, when Christian faith dominates the interpretive background. And in a Christian culture where having a 'regenerated' life is socially expedient, well, the entailment of Weber's principle is obvious: a large segment of Christians will look for evidence of faith within their christian experience, as opposed to looking for evidence before taking a step of faith--and yes, my Lutheran heritage states that that step cannot be of my will or mind. That will naturally lead to a cultural dynamic within the Church in which a critical appraisal of personal religious experience is out of bounds. That the Lutheran Church does not extend that credulity to all of the elements of religious experience that Pentecostal churches do does not affect the point. A culture of credulity is born.

As a point of comparison, note that even in the strongest possible reading of the classic Thomistic tradition--and no other Christian tradition relates reason and faith as directly--the foundation of natural theology does not direct one to the articles of faith so compellingly that there is no leap of faith. Accordingly, the essence of my young Pentecostal friend's view is not an outlier, as Christians in more "mainline" or traditional churches might think, and the point can be established clearly in the negative. No church has classes in the philosophy of religion that its members must pass to show that they have sufficiently understood and weighed the evidence for Christian belief thoroughly and carefully enough to qualify as Christian. The very thought is absurd enough to strike one as funny. By default, a leap of faith is in the very least tolerated, meaning no Christian tradition stands apart from the charge of being "a culture of credulity."

Here I need to state that I write as a Christian, so that I can make it clear that the purpose of this essay is to take us beyond the critique and counter-critique offered by the Church of reason and the Church of faith respectively. That, I am certain, is an end devoutly to be wished. To do so, however, will require us to rehearse the critiques as they are typically found in an introductory text in the philosophy of religion. The basic point/counterpoint is simple and embedded in the classic expositions of William Clifford and William James on the subject:

Clifford (paraphrased): A person has no right to a belief adopted without a careful inquiry that scrupulously avoids belief on insufficient evidence: In fact, to do so is unethical and can be dangerous.1

James (for faith): "Our [passions must]...decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds."2

It was James' intent to create an exception to Clifford's point that it is unethical to forgo responsible inquiry into one's beliefs, which we have just observed is in the very least tolerated by the Church. The details of this classic debate do not concern us here for a very straightforward reason: The thesis worked out in the chapters to come is that in the case of Christian faith a careful inquiry of the kind Clifford advocates is precisely what lands us in James' domain of an "option that cannot be decided on intellectual grounds." This is a crucial point for three reasons.

First, it impacts James' view that where the intellect ends the passions become the default means of determining a choice. As shall become apparent, faith itself becomes a means to interpret the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding. That is, the issue is bigger than the simplistic "default-to-passion" view that James is usually taken to advocate and that his opponents falsely think that by opposing they have blocked the route to a reasoned and responsible faith. To give flesh and bones to the claim that faith functions as a means to interpret the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding is the of these essays. But it needs to be said that James is usually given unfair treatment on this count. He went into "The Will to Believe" with a Kantian view of the foundational claims of philosophical theology which claims that the best informed minds see the metaphysical arguments for and against belief in God as equally plausible. Smaller minds ever since have misinterpreted him by interpreting his point from a partisan--and diminished--point of view.3 (The test case to prove James'/Kant's savvy in advancing the view of the ambiguity of the evidence for and against faith at the limit of human understanding is Positivism: Even the view that one ought not include any metaphysical content in one's view is a view about the nature of metaphysics that cannot be advanced on the basis of the principles Positivism advocates. The only possible evidence concerning whether or not to advance a faith position from the limit of human understanding is that there is no other option, except not to think at all. From that perspective the charge against theology that committed philosophical naturalists make comes from the mouths of people who have walked off a cliff and haven't figured it out yet.)

Second, this approach is crucial for anyone who wants to understand the relationship of faith to reason at the level where the connection actually happens. And it happens at the level where faith gives life an interpretive framework for understanding the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding. While James did inform his view with a Kantian background which his critics typically fail to catch in critiquing "The Will to Believe," it is a shortcoming of James' own understanding of faith that he did not draw the contours of the boundary of human understanding with the theological perspectives which extend it through faith: For an understanding of theology at its widest and deepest points must be framed by its particular interaction with human understanding at its metaphysical limits, or the most important and far-ranging elements of that understanding are missed. In fact, a core function of religion and its place in human life is simply ignored or missed.

And third, it is by making the metaphysical connections at the limits of human understanding, by seeing "the dispositional options at the limits of human understanding" as I have called it, that it is possible to trace the re-entry of those dispositions into human life via religion. Yes, in a delicious paradox, one cannot be scientifically profound about faith without becoming metaphysically savvy about religion at the same time. For with religion and faith, properly understood, one is dealing with the means to extend the human quest for meaning beyond the physical, immanent sphere. Framed a bit differently, since human beings extend their perspectives beyond nature by means of metaphysically informed faith, science cannot understand human nature unless it examines metaphysically informed perspectives that extend beyond nature, rigidly construed. But on some accounts of science--that rigidly insist on methodological naturalism--that's not possible. I cannot weigh in on the matter beyond noting the challenge and suggesting that scientists ought to at least take note of what it is that they imply if they do dismiss theology on the basis of an anti-religious or anti-metaphysical metaphysic.

It can hardly have escaped notice that I am not making friends in these essays with either fo the entrenched camps of the so-called culture wars. We live in a culture in which opinion are bifurcated along all-too-easy lines of discrimination, and that discrimination is vicious at times. By questioning religion and faith, I am an outsider to the culture of credulity that the Church has all but become synonymous with, and yet by suggesting that there is a side--and the most important side, for that matter--that the Church of Reason has not accounted for in its view of religion and faith, I am likely to be viewed as an outsider and enemy there too. So allow me to just say it, what passes for both religion and a critique of religion, even in the academy, is shallow and prejudiced. I am aware that there are historical reasons for this unfortunate mess. But rather than dwell on it, I propose to get beyond it.


1.William K. Clifford, THE ETHICS OF BELIEF, see here.
2. William James, "The Will to Believe," see here.
3. A. J. Burger, THE ETHICS OF BELIEF, see here. I chose to use this link to both Clifford's and James' essays not only because they could be compared together here, but because Burger's commentary illustratres the point just made. I encourage anyone who has not read the essays by Clifford and James to do so.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Augustine's Joy in Truth--Ideal or Real?

The last post described Augustine's answer to the deceptively simple question: "What, then, do I love when I love you [God]?" (CONFESSIONS, tr. Warner, p. 216--10/7.)

The short outline of how Augustine answered the question was:

a) "...we all want to be happy." ((p. 230--10/21.)

b) We all desire to know the truth. (Condensed from p. 233--10/23.)

c) Therefore, "...certainly the happy life is joy in truth..." (p. 233--10/23.)

d) "...that means joy in you, who are truth, God..." (p. 233--10/23.)

This line of thought brings up two divergent questions, only one of which we looked at last time. Let's review that one before going on to the second one. The first question is whether Augustine's identification of God and Truth is true/convincing.

"Truth" works as an answer to Augustine's question, " I love when I love [God]?" because it transcends any particular object (accommodating the prohibition on God being an object), because it represents an ideal (accommodating the need to see God as the highest good), and because it can be known (in the sense that we seek to know it better--and can usually do so to some extent). We quickly reviewed Peirce's "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God" as a means of appreciating that Augustine's thoughts may not be as antique as they first sound to our ears.

(In fact you may recall that in a post from last winter I suggested that Peirce's argument would turn the Templeton "Big Question," "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?" on its head. So, to the extent that Augustine's point of view agrees with Peirce's, his approach seems particularly apt to address our secular age. The following quote can be found here: "[Peirce] wondered why human beings have any knowledge at all; and in particular, he wanted to understand how people manage to increase the accuracy of their ideas. He wrote, 'in my own mind all of my work has been exclusively the study of how to find the truth..." (William A. Stanley in an online article.) It seems that Augustine makes the same point about himself here: "When have you not walked with me, O Truth, teaching me what to beware of and what to seek after...? With my outward senses I surveyed, to the best of my ability, the world, and I observed both the life which my body has from me and these senses themselves. From these I entered into the recesses of my memory, space folded upon huge space and all miraculously full of innumerable abundance, and I considered it and was amazed..." (CONFESSIONS, p. 253--10/40.) There are few human beings for whom such a description would be credible, but in the cases of Augustine and Peirce it seems altogether apt.)

But there is a second question that is likely to trouble a reader of Augustine's exposition: Is his identification of happiness and truth together as what all people desire credible? Augustine does address the problem in this way: "[People] love the light of truth, but hate it when it shows them up as wrong." (p. 233--10/23.) It is a flaw in human nature that makes it possible for us to turn against the truth when it doesn't tell us what we want to hear.

It is here, then, that the re-reading of the CONFESSIONS dovetails with the project I am working on: Humanity's double-mindedness about truth because of sin was described this way, in a quote used in an earlier post, "So my two wills, one old, one new...were in conflict, and they wasted my soul by their discord." (p. 168--8/5.)

As you will recall, the project is to transpose the biblical narrative onto an evolutionary framework to show that the biblical perspective answers a question that biological history cannot: Will we act like creatures who expand their sphere of interest within the environment as determined by self-interest, or from the perspective of the best choice for the environment itself (social/cultural/biological/geological/etc.)? Will we take the view of a creature looking out for itself or a creator looking out for its creation? I will argue that the biblical creation story poses just that dilemma, and that just that dilemma marks off the need for humanity to transcend its evolutionary history, and that the gospel narrative presents the Creator doing just that. In short, Christian theology contains the answer to the core dilemma posed by our place in the evolutionary line: will we behave like creatures or creators; like Jesus or ourselves? I know that it sounds incredible, but I am pretty sure that a very good case can be made for this assimilation of theology to evolutionary narrative and vice versa. It will be fun.

However, I have family trips to take over the next couple of weeks, and must stay in training for the Death Row Regatta next month, so something's got to go--and I'm afraid that it's the blog for a little while. For anyone who's hanging in there with me, many thanks! I'll be back in a couple weeks.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Augustine's Joy in Truth and Peirce's "A Neglected Argument"

I've been re-reading THE CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE. If you've read it before, perhaps you will recall that (in Book 10) Augustine asks a deceptively simple question: "But what do I love when I love [God]?" (tr. R. Warner, p. 214.) We will skip over the mere fact that a considerable portion of life's great mysteries would be resolved, if we could fill in the blanks following that question. Augustine himself took a cursory inventory of the ways we can become acquainted with "things," so that he could lead the reader to a seemingly hopeless conclusion: If God is not to be identified with anything that we can identify within the scope of human experience, it seems that God cannot be found. Let that sink in fully, so that you can appreciate the impact of the classical Christian answer to Augustine's "simple" question: "...when I seek you, my God, I am seeking the happy life." (p. 229--10/20)

In fact, Augustine is about to set out his version of St. Thomas' magisterial starting place in the SUMMA THEOLOGICA: "...[humanity] is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of [its] reason." (Part One, Question I, First Article) This is the central question for anyone who wants to appreciate what the Christian faith brings to the table intellectually. My guess is that not one in a hundred Christians can lay out the contours of either Augustine's or Thomas' teachings--the source for the classic answer to this primary question for anyone who wants to begin an honest inquiry into the intellectual tradition accompanying Christian faith.

But I digress. It is Augustine's response in his CONFESSIONS that I find most helpful. In seeking happiness, we seek God (if only we knew it): "How, then, Lord, do I seek you? ...when I seek you...I seek the happy life." (p. 229, 10/20)

Here's a very short outline of the rationale that supports that answer. Focus on the bold text for the overview.

a) "...we all want to be happy." (p. 230, 10/21)

b) [We all desire to know the truth.] "...if I ask anyone: 'Would you rather have your joy in truth or in falsehood?' he would say: 'In truth...'" (p. 233, 10/23)

c) [Combining the two universal human desires,] "...certainly the happy life is joy in truth..." (p. 233, 10/23)

d) "...that means joy in you, who are truth, God..." (p. 233, 10/23) [The rationale for the claim that God is truth: "We see the things that are, because you have made them, and they are, because you see them." (p. 349, 13/38) This statement voices a view of absolute Truth: Being emanates from the divine mind thereby perfectly accomplishing a correspondence of divine thought and all objects by positing the complete dependence of being on the divine mind. (Truth is often defined by such correspondence, even though the theory has never been successfully delineated.)]

This rationale is stronger than it might appear at first to a 21st Century intellectual. No one doubts that ultimate explanations must derive from Being itself. But Being itself is an abstraction, since we can only contemplate being in specific manifestations. Thus, those who want to stick to the facts as they can be confronted in the world will want to deny the meaningfulness of asking ultimate questions.

Here is Augustine's reply, and in answering his question posed at the head of this post, he is responding to the central claim of those who advocate scientism:

"Where then did I find you, so that I could learn of you? I could only have found you in yourself, above me. Place there is none; we go backward and forward, and there is no place. Truth, you are everywhere in session, ready to listen to all who ask counsel of you, and at one and the same moment you give your answer to every diversity of question." (p. 235, 10/26)

The gist is this: When we seek answers to our questions about the world, the world accommodates our quest. Being and truth do seem "convertible," and this "gist" is the same--as far as I can tell--as the underlying point in Peirce's "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God." The universe accommodates minds, and therefore works like mind. As was noted in a post on Peirce's argument, the human mind is in no respect able to counter an analogy with itself that depends on the working of the mind. (BTW: Using evolution to explain the fact doesn't blunt the surprising nature of the ongoing discovery of the amenability of being to mind. The evolutionary explanation is that we have adapted our minds to the underlying reality, in which case evolution supports the view that the underlying reality is amenable to mind, in the crucial respect at hand, and this is necessarily true of science generally. In fact, all scientific projects are instances of the Augustine/Peircian point of view: "I could only have found you in yourself, above me. Place there is none... Truth, you are everywhere..." The life of the mind is the life of faith, on this level, and in this sense the life of the mind is at the core of the Christian tradition. And yes, ironically, I say this while maintaining that not one in a hundred Christians know of this connection to the life of the mind.)

Perhaps this seems a bit too abstract to be absorbed into the biblical source of the Christian tradition, since the spirituality of the Bible is so concrete and (it is claimed) embedded in history. In fact, this disparity might explain the irony just noted.

It is to that disparity that my core insight in A THEOLOGY FOR ATHEISTS WILL is addressed.