I’ve succumbed. For a long time, since moving this site to github pages, I have abstained from posting on personal and philosophical matters. I had decided to make this a universally useful blog which focuses entirely on technical subjects. However, much in light of the recent drought of posts in general and a profound desire to specifically address the topic of this post I have succumbed to posting about a philosophical topic. So if you like that sort of thing, enjoy.
Allow me to set the scene. The New York Times just published this opinion piece by Peter Wehner on faith and doubt. I should preface by saying that I do not know Mr. Wehner. I have never met him, I harbor no ill will against Mr. Wehner nor against his faith, his opinions or Christians in general. I only take issue with some (okay, lets be frank most) of his arguments in the opinion piece. My main concern is that many of his “arguments” are phrased in a seemingly reasonable way. As if to logically construct some conclusion. In his mind, I’m sure, those arguments and conclusions seem perfectly sound. I will however attempt to deconstruct the narrative and point out the flaws and (in my opinion gaping) logical holes in it.
So let’s get started.
Getting into it
The article is titled “How Can I Possibly Believe That Faith Is Better Than Doubt?”. I shall not dwell too long on this heading but I would like to point out that, despite the suggestion this article makes any attentive reader will soon find out that “doubt” never had a chance.
Why is it that, according to Jesus, faith is better than proof? That’s a question I’ve struggled to answer ever since I began my pilgrimage of faith as a young man. Sometimes it seemed more pressing, other times less so. It can intensify during periods of grief and pain, when faith may not offer much consolation or even make much sense in a world that seems random and cruel.
I don’t have much to comment on in this first paragraph actually. What I do find interesting is that he says he is struggling with faith in a time of crisis. It is interesting because, as I understand it, and as I have been told by the faithful as well, many start turning to faith in troublesome times. One such “turning point” mentioned to me for instance was people tunring to faith towards the end of their lives (in fear presumably). Be that as a result of natural causes (age) or tragedy (sickness for instance). Similarly the ranks of the faithful grow in numbers in times of general, widespread hardship which would indicate quite the opposite of his experience. This is not to be taken as critique, but an intersting observation. It seems to suggest that, actually, in times of crisis people simlpy reevaluate fundamental beliefs.
This question is compounded during periods like this one, when faith seems to distort reality rather than clarify it, when it’s easily manipulated for low rather than high purpose and when some of those who claim to be people of faith act in ways that bring dishonor to it and themselves.
Well … This ones’s intersting. I shall not disagree with him but rather offer some further considerations. Is not the manipulation of people inherent in faith? Faith, as required by religion, rejects logical argument in favor of trust in some arbitrary autoritarian figure like the pope, a pastor etc. This, by design, creates a situation where large groups of people can be persuaded, against their better judgement, emotions and logic to follow an idea or perhaps even orders given by the authority. One could be so cynical as to suggest this as the primary goal of faith. But suffice it that we just contemplate it. I do not want to suggest that religion was formed with ill intent, but merely suggest it created a highly exploitable system.
Why take a leap of faith, given all that? Insisting on a little more empirical evidence before you make the leap seems pretty reasonable.
The apostle Thomas clearly thought so. According to the Gospel of John, the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, to which Thomas replied he wouldn’t believe until he put his fingers in the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and put his hand into Jesus’ side.
Well he seems a reasonable man. If somewhat macabre. I’d have been convinced by seing the man on his feet again.
Fast-forward a week, when Thomas encounters Jesus, who tells him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas does, to which Jesus replies, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Not seeing and still believing is held up by Jesus as a greater thing than seeing and believing. But I’m not sure I have ever fully grasped what it is about faith that makes it precious in the eyes of God. Recently, with the help of friends — pastors, theologians, authors, fellow believers — I’ve tried to deepen my understanding on that subject.
Well now we come to the easy questions. Why is faith precious in the eye of god? It’s literally the only thing keeping him alive. And by this I mean alive in the minds of the people, I don’t want to start a discussion on the actual existence of god (though you may be able to guess my stance on the subject).
If no one today believed blindly in the miracles of Jesus and the existence of god today then no one would believe in Christianity at all. If there were witnesses to those miracles they are not alive anymore. It seems in recent years (the last 2000 years) Jesus and god have, for the most part, satisfied themselves by creating small miracles in a style where it may as well have been natural events. No big public appearances, no man walking on water or spontaneous whine. Thus blind belief is all thats left.
To start out, it’s worth noting that treating Christian faith as different from proof doesn’t mean it’s antithetical to evidence and reason. Christianity is a faith that claims to be rooted in history, not abstract philosophy. St. Paul wrote that if Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, the Christian faith is “futile” and followers of Jesus are “of all people most to be pitied.”
Christians would say, in fact, that reason is affirmed in Scripture — “Come now, and let us reason together,” is how the prophet Isaiah puts it — and that faith properly understood is consistent with and deepens our understanding of reality. “Reason purifies faith,” George Weigel, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told me. “Faith without reason risks descending into superstition; reason without faith builds a world without windows, doors or skylights.”
But faith itself, while not the converse of reason, is still distinct from it. If it seems like that’s asking too much — if you think leaps of faith are for children rather than adults — consider this: Materialists, rationalists and atheists ultimately place their trust in certain propositions that require faith.
Ah and here we come to the statements which are simply wrong.
To say that truth is only intelligible through reason is itself a statement of faith.
To say that truth is only intelligible through reason is not a statement of faith, but a result of the meaning of the word truth. For a statement or fact to be true it means for the subject to exist in reality in the same way as described by the statement of fact. Now as reason is the tool we use to make statements about the world it is by definition the tool to determine truth.
Now if you want to go down the road of Descartes and question whether human/your perception of the world is accurate at all then yes, there is a leap of “faith” required. This is necessary as there is no inherent proof, actually not even the possibility of a proof, that what we/you/I experience is actually real. Therefore if it wasn’t real, for instance if you were simply subject of a simluation, then you could not make true statements of the real world but you may not even be aware of it. The same is true for causality, the principle that underlies all human made predictions about nature.
I want to make clear though that I don’t really believe it is a leap of “faith” to trust your senses and causality, at least not in the same way religion is. The reason is that your senses “make sense”. Observations made with human senses stand the test of the scientific method in that they allow us to make predictions, using causality, which, to this day, have held true.
For instance if you see a ball flying towards your face you will make the prediction that this ball will hit you soon. Many choose in this instance to act on the prediction and dodge the ball, resulting in an avoidance of the collision. Though I imagine each and every one has experienced what happens if one is too late to act and the collision takes place. Our observation, whether actually real or not, has yielded a prediction, determined with causality, which was promptly verified either by being hit or by avoiding the collision. Hence trusting one’s senses, though technically a leap of faith, is simply useful and has proven to work.
Denying the existence of God is as much a leap of faith as asserting it.
I shall simply let a great inspiration of mine, Richard Dawkins speak to this, who said in a tweet:
Ladies & gentlemen, behold the theological mind in all its wishful-thinking fatuousness: “Denying the existence of God is as much a leap of faith as asserting it.” And the same for the tooth fairy? 1
As the pastor Tim Keller told me, “Most of the things we most deeply believe in — for example, human rights and human equality — are not empirically provable.”
This one seems to make sense at first, until one realizes that this sentence doesn’t even make sense. It equates a belief in human rights and equality with a belief in the existence of god. Though this equation seems to make sense as the word believe is used in both it is not. The reason is that both human rights and human equality are concepts, rather than assertions. The existence of god, or an affirmative statement of it meanwhile, is an assertion.
The word believe, when applied to assertions means that one finds said assertion to be true. Used most often when there is insufficient evidence to support the assertion. An example of such an assertion would be “God is real” or “Afrika does not exist”. Assertions with sufficient evidence to support them (they are proven) become facts by the way.
Concepts on the other hand have no truth value. They are nothing more than description of a system. For instance racial segregation, political correctness or human rights.
There is no inherent truth value to the concept itself. However we can judge the value of a system as created by applying said concept. To believe in a concept means to sympathize with its implmentation by judging the value of the resulting system to be high.
What does this all mean? It means that neither human rights nor equality are provable. They are not statements about the real world and therefore can be assigned no truth value. To believe in them is a wholly different thing than to believe in the existence of god.
“The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason,” is how Blaise Pascal put it. Something would not require faith if the proof of it was absolute. According to Philip Yancey, the author of “The Jesus I Never Knew,” “Faith requires the possibility of rejection, or it is not faith.”
That is unequivocally true.
Perhaps the key to understanding why faith is prized within the Christian tradition is that it involves trust that would not be needed if the existence of God were subject to a mathematical proof. What God is seeking is not our intellectual ascent so much as a relationship with us. That is, after all, one of the purposes of the incarnation of God in Jesus.
Every meaningful relationship — parent-child, spouse to spouse, friend to friend — involves some degree of trust. It is better and more vivifying to be the object of someone’s trust rather than the last person standing after a series of logical deductions. That’s true for us as individuals, and it can be true for God as well.
And here we go again with the flawed comparisons. But I shall hold my analysis until later, he elaborates on this.
Faith demonstrates human trust in him — and, according to James Forsyth, pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church in Virginia, which my family attends, it demonstrates that we accept God’s love for us. “There is a force within love that longs to be received,” he says.
Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, told me, “Faith is a greater blessing than proof because it gives us a relationship with Jesus. All good relationships are bound together by love. And love is always an expression of faith.” He also pointed out that proofs don’t necessarily inspire belief. Toward the end of his Gospel, Matthew mentions that some still doubted after they looked right at the risen Christ. (“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”)
Some of those who witnessed the miracles of Jesus eventually sought to kill him. And Judas, one of Jesus’ original disciples, betrayed him with a kiss. So sensory experience isn’t enough to compel belief and allegiance.
Our most important forms of knowledge rarely come from logic or proof, according to Cherie Harder, the president of the Trinity Forum. Citing the work of the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, she says it comes through a more personal knowledge. For example, I know my wife loves me because I know her, I know her heart, I know her character, and because I trust her. “Your knowledge of her is less about physical certainty,” Ms. Harder wrote to me, “and more about a well-placed confidence in who she is (a faith in her that is qualitatively different, and far more personal and holistic, than intellectual certainty).”
I shall skip the bible talk and go straight to the interesting part, the marital relationship. He says he knows her, knows her heart and knows her character. How does he know those things. I’d venture to guess she has repeatedly through action and conversation shown herself, her intentions, her character and so on. Or to put it differently he has observed her caring and love for him. Nothing faithful there. A simple observation followed by the logical conclusion that she must love him.
Now you might say that there’s “faith” involved in drawing that conclusion. There isn’t. It’s simply the most likely explanation for her behaviour, and therefore logically true until proven otherwise.
“Faith,” Ms. Harder added, “is tied to love in a way that logical deduction and reason are not. We are changed by what we love more than what we think.”
Well I think I addressed that adequately above.
Faith can allow us to understand things in a different way than reason does, in a manner similar to what J.R.R. Tolkien meant when he said that pagan myths weren’t lies but rather pointed toward deep truths. The imagination could be integrated into reason, he believed, in a way that helped us to see reality a bit more clearly. Reason is one way to perceive reality; faith — rooted not in partisan ideology but in grace and a sense of the sacred — is another.
Imagination is actually already a fundamental part of reason. In fact the two are coupled rather tightly. Imagination is what allows us to explore ideas for why things are the way they are, the first step of reasoning, until we reject those ideas or verify/prove them in the second step to reasoning.
There’s one other difference between faith and reason. The latter can analyze things like quantum physics and modern cosmology. But what faith can do is to put our lives in an unfolding narrative in ways reason cannot. It gives us a role in a gripping drama, of which the Christmas story is one defining scene. It’s a drama that includes sin and betrayal, redemption and grace; and ultimately it gives purpose to our lives despite the brokenness and pain we experience. This may mean nothing to you, but to people of faith, it can mean everything. If God is real, perhaps it should.
This I take little issue with. If you choose to be faithful in order to find your place in the world, it is well within your rights to do so. I would however rather choose the narrative for the world and our place within it myself and base it on compassion, love, common sense and science rather than a 2000 year old (excuse the term) “fairy tale”.
It’s notable that when Thomas makes his request to Jesus, he’s not condemned. Rather, Jesus gives Thomas what he needed — in his case, proof — and in doing so makes it clear that Jesus is willing to meet us where we are. Some need proof, at least as a start; for others, faith alone is enough.
According to Christian tradition, Thomas would eventually go on to serve as a missionary in India, where he was martyred. I imagine his faithfulness had less to do with putting his hand in the side of Jesus than what transpired within his heart. His intellectual doubts gave way to calm trust. In my experience, at least, that journey hasn’t always been an easy one. For many of us, shadows of doubt coexist with faith.
To emphasize faith is not to cast out doubt. In fact, it is precisely to take doubt seriously, but also to understand the doubter more completely — not just as a reasoning mind but as a full person, possessed of a divine spark that lets us see, now and then, right through the walls we have built between faith and reason.
Well, I’ll be Thomas then. If you let me touch Jesus, I’ll consider joining again. 😉
Be nice to one another.
And Merry Christmas.
I have since been informed that the word truth actually is distinct from objective truth. The former (original) meaning is that something is fit for a purpose or achieveing a goal as in the phrase “the arrow flies straight and true”. The latter decribes an actual fact. As such I must submit that if Mr. Wehner was taking about the former form of truth my argument gets considerably weaker. The former form of truth is indeed intelligible through all sorts of methods. However since he references materialists and proofs I feel safe to assume that Mr. Wehner also was talking about objective truth or at least something which aspires to be as in a thruth which, though unproven, we assume to be objectively true.