Friday, August 31, 2007

The Nature of Faith is Confussing in Modernity

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A lot of people are confused about the nature o faith. Some think these are contradictions. A big soruce of misconception s a popular definition of faith as "believing thing without reasons." Take a comment, one I find typical, from a recent message board encounter:

Originally Posted by Atheist_Devil View Post (carm aug 31 2007
I completely disagree with you. As Dan Barker calls it, faith is the "Great Escape".

So here we see the atheist take on faith still casting it in pejorative terms. The atheists set up their straw man definition of faith in which it is defined as "believing things without a reason. OF this is a totally inadequate definition.

Where do we turn for an understanding of faith? The best place would be the Westminster's Dictionary of Christian Theology, which is the official defining source of theological concepts. Here we see the simplistic bromide "faith is believing things without reasons" just wont do.

Westminster defines faith in a complex way, the article is very long and the definition is long.

The only atual Biblical definition of faith (Heb 11) does not encapsulate all that the Bible says on the subject, but indicates its main features 'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.'

some translations say "evidence of things not seen. Faith is not a wild abandonment of logic, it is like faithfulness, it is a commitment to an understanding or a realization one takes as truth, and that realization can be gleaned from many sources including revelation, logic, personal experience. All of these things can be good reasons.

Westminster demonstrates the commitment aspect of faith in the sense of faithfulness which is part of the definition it gives for faith.

It is a confident obedient trust in the reality, in the power and love of God known through his acts, and an awaiting of their future consummation. The bible contains a variety of emphasis within this overall view. The noun 'faith' is comparatively rare in the OT where, (eg Hab 2.5) It may indicate faithfulness or loyalty to God rather than a passive reliance. But dependence upon God as distinct from human powers was imortant for Isaiah (7.9, 30.1-5). While the OT so often sees faith concertized as obedient action (Duet 6.1) the note of trust also resounds especially in the psalms.

Not to lose the complexity in a simplistic short hand, but we can encapsulate the OT view of faith as "trust, faithfulness, obedience." We see that is not passage acceptance of truth claims without reasons. The definition says the trust is based upon "The power of God" and that is a reason, it may one atheists don't like but it is a darn good one. If one has experienced the power of God in one's life one need no better reason.

In the Synoptic Gospels those who respond to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom and respond to his salvific powers, are commended for their faith (Mark 2.5, 5.3) Unbelief is a hardness of heart a refusal to accept the immediacy of God's saving power (Mark 6.1).

Atheists have a strong tendency to deny that belief is a choice. They seem to think that it is some conclusion one is compelled to by logic, or maybe by stupidity; although in the context of religious belief they say that faith is antithetical to reason. They are missing the boat, in this definition we see that Jesus expected us to make a commitment, that is the essence of faith (from the last preceding quote). The basic skeptical position is hardness of heart, refusal to accept immediacy of God's saving power.

The dictionary lists tensions with faith. Tension is a favorite concept among theologians. It means the pull exerted between two seemingly contradictory ideas which are both true and yet conflict in some way. Tension is not a real contradiction but often results form either misunderstanding wrong emphasis. Tensions with faith are:

The first on the list is faith vs works, which I will not go into here. The second is faith verses reason. That's the atheists cease upon as a contradiction but they are driven by the wrong understand ing of faith. The Catholics have always recognized that "reason was capable of demonstrating the existence of God." (Ibid) while Protestants tended to down play reason as the product of the fallen human mind. The source of the modern misunderstanding of faith is the result of historical accident. It comes from the skeptical crisis in early modern Europe. This is specifically the 1600s, after the religious wars, when the Protestants and Catholics squared off against each other to decide which was the true way, faith or reason. We need to take note of a couple important thing here:

(1) the Catholics did not say "boo faith we like reason." They said faith and reason are not enemies. Faith and reason work together.

(2) the Prots did not say "reason is no good don't ever reason" they said human understanding can't equal the truth of God, faith is required for salvation so faith is over reason.

(3) The Prots did something else interesting: they turned to empirical proof rather than logic as the exposition of reason. The Catholics like logic because they Aquinas and the logic of their God arguments. the Prots had God arguments too but they preferred their own empirical God arguments such as the design argument.

The Protestants also used a form of Scholasiticm that was more rigorous than the Catholics version (and purposely so, to counter the Catholic intellectual heritage) but this went by the way side when they place all their epistemic eggs in the science basket. As a result seventeenth century Protestantism was instrumental in the rise of modern science. On the Catholic side Descartes made his name writing philosophy which was in direct response to the Church's request that the enter the battle on their side and help defeat the intellectual claims of the protestants. that is what produced the meditations. That whole period is known as "the skeptical crsis of early modern Europe." It was a major problem and created vast social upheaval and led to the rise of modern science as a means of checking reality. A major part of the struggle was over which to accept, tradition and authority or empirical proof. Tradition and authority were the answer of the faith camp. One might be tempted to think that this was the answer of the faith only camp but not so. It was the reason camp (Catholics) who construed tradition and authority extensions of reason. It was the faith only camp (Protestants) who developed empirical experimental methods as an extension of faith. Although a Catholic invented range and domane (Descartes) and a Catholic invented statistical probability. All of these things came out of this era and had some tangential connection to the skeptical crisis.

My dialog partner continues:

When faith is invoked, you've admitted you've lost the rational argument and have retreated into the land of conjecture, speculation and maybe. Believers are not on the same intellectual plane.

This is because he misconstrues faith as "being stupid and beilef without reason." Kierkegaard called faith "irrational" but he did not mean by that blind stupidity crashing around and accepting stupid things. He meant an existential encounter, first hand face to face experience of truth. For him logic was hypothetical, only on the pages of books. He wanted engagement with God!

Faith is a free-for-all. If one faith claim is accepted, any other faith claim can be "true" as well. All it takes is "belief". How egalitarian! Everything is as good as everything else with no standard used to make these world views held to account. Ah, but there is a standard, isn't there. It's called results.

Of course the claim that I "admitted this" is nonsense, I don't' know what I said that made him assume this. But in anyway, he does the point, how can choose between conflicting tenets of faith? I really don't think this is a very tough one, although the answer may allude many people. The answer is bipolar:

two tensions

(1) On the one hand, there is the personal existential aspect of faith.

This is what people are seeing when they give that most annoying of answers: "it's truth for you." This is the kind of relativism that makes fundies cringe. But I have to admit I do my cringing too when I hear it, even though I think I have a handle on it.

This is not saying that truth very from one person to another, although some who use that phrase, I can't help but feel really think that. It means that since we don't understand truth exhaustively the existential commitment is what I recognize immediately as truth, even though ti's really just similitude. This is an aspect of my understanding that is standing in for truth since our understanding of truth is limited. It's personal commitment, that is it my on self defining moment that clarifies for me what I'm willing to faithful to as a sense of ideal and idea.

It's a way of saying "I am willing to keep my commitments, as long as I understand truth this way I will treat this as truth." This is the nature of the case an needs must be, because your understanding of God is pathetic. We can't possibly stack up to the reality of God, it's too overwhelming. Everything we know of God has to be metaphor because we just handle the way God really is. It's beyond words and thus beyond anything we know.

(2) the use of logic.

On the other hand, at the other end of the pole is the use of logic to understand. We can sort our competing truth claims by the use of logic. The atheist bromide that faith is anti ethical to logic is simply wrong. Logic is the standard we can use to sort out competing truth claims, even if they are the result of this other pole of personal existential commitment to perceived truth. How can these two co-exist without contradicting? Logic is also a personal commitment. It is an objective truth finding mechanism but we are not objective creatures. We cannot be objective. Objective truth exists "out there" but we just can't understand it exhaustively. For this reason we must hold our logical conclusions as personal existential commitments so we don't' impose them harshly upon others, but we can live by them ourselves.

Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology
. ed., Alan Richardson and John Bowden, Great Briton:Westminster Press, 1983.207

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Check out this link. While it is a critique of Dawkins, the author has interesting things to say about faith (if I got the right article):,,2158503,00.html

"doubt about doubt." Interesting way of putting faith.