A Rational Faith? Part II

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Visual identity (Photo credit: *spo0ky*)

<This post is the continuation of a thought done previous in another post, “A Rational Faith? Part I.” However, since the two were written months apart, don’t be surprised if you find some overlap and disagreement.>

The term “faith” is hard for people.  I have told people who are atheistic (or at least closed agnostics) that they have faith… it is just the object of their faith that is different. Some accept the statement (with caveats), but some actually are offended at that. Much of this probably is a matter of definition. Consider the following definition by John Krakauer in “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

“Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness, a crucial component of spiritual devotion.”

“All religious belief is a function of nonrational faith. And faith, by its very definition, tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism.”

One might say that this is FAITH AS IRRATIONALITY.

One close to this is the faith as formulated by Kierkegaard. In “Fear and Trembling” he described something that could be seen as FAITH AS AN IRRATIONAL LEAP. Rationality takes you to a certain point. That point leaves you looking, as if from across a chasm, at where you want to be, but rationality can’t get you there. To get where you want to be, you must leave the rational and leap irrationally to your goal, regardless that it doesn’t make sense.

Related to this is the quote by Mark Twain that “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” This could be seen as FAITH AS EMBRACING FALSEHOOD.

Less inherently irrational, but still problematic is the thought of FAITH AS THE ABSENCE OF DOUBT. Since doubt is a cognitive process while faith certainly seems to have a volitional component, this seems strange. And if faith is “the evidence of things not seen” as it says in Hebrews 11:1, then faith is at the very least birthed by doubt. One can hardly imagine having faith if one does not have (or at least have had) doubt. Doubt recognizes our limitations. Infinite doubt may mean no faith. However, zero doubt does not lead to infinite faith. Arguably it does not lead to faith at all. Without doubt, we don’t have faith, we simply have things that we know. Of those things we know, some we know correctly and some we know incorrectly. To know things to be true without accepting the possibility of error is still a form of irrationality.

I suppose one should add FAITH AS A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE. Afterall, some Christians (such as Calvinists or Augustinians) place a high importance on faith being a gift from God. In this case, “faith” is really more of a proper noun, or at least technical noun. The verb sense is missing, and its role as a cognitive or volitional state is removed. It is still in the irrational side of things.  It is something that mystically comes upon us.  It does not really describe what faith is (compared to thought, belief, resolve, trust, or hundreds of others.) Within the mystical experience, only people of a specific faith affiliation “have faith.” Yet we know that people other faiths have, well, other faiths. So defining faith in the general sense with a narrow experience isn’t very helpful for most. In effect, the mystical understanding is not faith as a concept but faith within a concept, “faith in ____.”

Another one can be FAITH AS ACCEPTING AUTHORITY. Kenneth Samples has a quote along these lines: “Faith is belief in a reliable source.”  <I got some of these quotes from a very nice blog.> Certainly, faith, as described in the Bible (such as in Hebrews 11) appears to be a source of evidence in rational thought, rather than a rejection of rationality. Some quote Tertullian “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” as evidence of rationality versus faith, but it is misunderstood in the context. It is not about rationality, but mixing of teachings.

Rational thought involves presuppositions, direct evidence, evidence from authority, and reasoning (data processing). We can come to almost no conclusions based on direct evidence (things we sense and experience). We have to accept the evidence from others as well… and who or what we accept as authoritative. It is hard to come to the conclusion that the earth is an oblate spheroid (or even spherical) based only on direct sensory evidence and reason. We have to accept certain authorities for rational thought.

W. K. Clifford is famous for saying “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Yet there is, arguably, insufficient evidence for nearly everything, including this statement that Clifford apparently believes. Eventually you have to trust what we haven’t personally sensed.

If rational thought involves presuppositions, direct evidence, evidence from authority, and sound reasoning, then one can ask what is the basis of presuppositions. Of course, one could argue that reason is iterative and so presuppositions must come from the reasoning process (bootstrapping of sorts). The problems is that one must start somewhere and these presuppositions will color and filter the interpretation of direct evidence, choice of authorities, interpretation of authority-based evidence, and the direction of the reasoning process. So one might describe FAITH AS ACCEPTING PRESUPPOSITIONS.

In math, one might call these axioms– things that can’t necessarily be proven. They may or may not be “necessary truths.” Some must be taken on as a matter of … well… faith, even where the accepting of these truths seems extremely justified or compelling. Cornelius Van Til is an example of a theologian that focuses on this idea of presupposition in terms of faith.

I would like to add another. FAITH AS BRIDGING REASONABLE AND COMPELLING. I suppose I should come up with a briefer description. However, returning to Kiekegaard, rational thought only takes one so far. With Kierkegaard, one jumps from the end of reasoning to where one wants to be. However, I would like to suggest that rational thought only takes one as far as something being “reasonable.” However, there is no unquestionable logic that will force that which is reasonable to be compelling. In Law, one speaks of seeking to “prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” That essentially means that the evidence and reason produces a reasonable conclusion. That reasonable conclusion is one that the juror believes is solid enough so that a clear thinking reasonable person would find it compelling. However, there is no way by force of logic to go from a reasonable statement to a compelling statement.

This point is brought up in the stories of Achilles and the Tortoise by both Lewis Carroll and Douglas Hofstadter, where the fallacy that logic can compel one to accept a truth is demonstrated humorously.

For me, Faith is those parts of the rational thought process that require more than direct sensory input and rational mental process. These would include:

  • Accepting (tentative) presuppositions.
  • Determining what authorities will be accepted for non-sensory evidence.
  • Bridging the gap from reasonable to personally compelling… from cognition to affective.

All three of these are fluid. Time and experience may modify one’s presuppositions, sources of authority, and the process to be compelled. A living faith accepts our own weaknesses and limitations, and so must always be empowered by an aspect of healthy humility and doubt. Faith that does not have this quality probably should not be called true faith, but is indeed irrational.

A Rational Faith? Part I

The following is a quote from a 9th century Egyptian (Coptic) monk:

I find the proof of the truth of Christianity in its contradictions and inconsistencies which are rejected by intelligence and repelled by the mind because of their difference and contrast. Analysis cannot help it, though the intelligence and perception enquire and search into it.  <Regarding wise men and kings>…they do not accept or practice it except for proofs which they have witnessed, signs which they have known, and miracles which they have recognized, which compelled them to submit to it and practice it. (Quoted in “The Lost History of Christianity” by Philip Jenkins, p. 76)

This quote brings up much that is relevant today. Consider the following;

1.  A number of Christian groups today (including but not-limited to the Signs and Wonders folk) place high importance on “the miraculous.” In missions circles, many consider power encounter an important (some even seem to place it as a necessary) part of evangelism.

2.  Many people, groups, entertainment outlets (check out a few episodes of “Family Guy” if you doubt) argue that Christianity is foolish, anti-intellectual nonsense.

3.  Many other groups, non-Christian, also seek similar anti-intellectual means to proselytize. This may range from the rather silly “burning in the bosom” of LDS to full-blown miracle crusades.

Rather than look at all of this, I would simply like to ask whether Christianity is rational? Is faith, as Mark Twain said, believing what you know ain’t so? Does being a Christian require turning off one’s brain.

Okay, this is still too big of a topic. Let me put down a few thoughts. If more come along, maybe I will add a follow-up post.

1.  Many aspects of Christian doctrine are not “Contextually Rational.” By this, I mean that our understanding of what is rational tends to be tied to our cultural context. For example, for centuries the idea of a god (or gods) who judges the hearts of man was considered a perfectly reasonable and rational thing. The further understanding that sacrifice (personal or vicarious) for sin was necessary to be “redeemed” in the eyes of God (or gods) made sense. The fact that these now challenge credulity doesn’t mean that rationality has changed, but our culture. In talking about rationality, we should separate between what is compatible with rational thought universally, and that which is merely rational contextually.

2.  Some aspects of Christian Faith may not be “Experientially Rational.” A classic example of this is the Trinity. The Trinity is often thought of by many as irrational. Yet, there is nothing inherently irrational about it (in its strictest form). The idea of a being that shares unity and society within itself is only difficult for us because we don’t share that character. We have no problem with having a conscious mind and an unconscious mind (that interact socially yet still somewhat independently) because we have that character ourselves. I recall a situation a time back where there were conjoined twins who shared parts of their two brains. It was thought that if they grew up they might be the first two people (that we know of) who could read each other’s thoughts. The idea of two people physically joined and joined in thought, yet having separation of person (intellect, emotion, will, sense of self) is something we struggle to understand because it is outside of our personal experience. Yet that situation is not inherently irrational. Since non-theists often charge theists with creating God in Man’s image, to embrace an image of God that is beyond our own experiential comprehension, is actually quite reasonable if their indeed is a God. Extrapolating human experience is not necessarily more rational. As another example, the concept of Islamic heaven (what we find pleasurable now, expanded) is no more rational than a heaven that defies our own experiential comprehension.

3.  Christians create our own problems in rationality. We take God’s revelation in the Bible and then try to expand upon it. We try to “explain” the Trinity, or the logic of the atonement, or the nature of eternal life, or process of election. In so doing we bounce between contradiction (rejecting mystery for the non-rational) and extrapolation (rejecting mystery for extrapolation of human experience). This tendency opens us up for (justifiable) ridicule from both ends.

But mystery is not irrational. To accept that some things defy our own cultural context, or our own experience is perfectly reasonable. It only makes sense.