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.

No comments: