Should faith be “blind” / we act by “faith alone”?

A recent discussion raised the idea of following God blindly / in ways that we don’t understand. I’m taking this opportunity to examine that notion and offer some of my thoughts about it.

I think it’s true that God engages people / we find ourselves in contexts with God in ways that are uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because we lack the information to assess a task, situation, or relationship as we would normally do. In other words, we can’t take the steps toward understanding something—what is involved, by whom, when, for what purpose, etc.—in order to determine if and how we will act: whether we “buy in” or not.

Now I believe that the above represents not only a normal process but a healthy and even essential one. True, we assess information to understand—and then act—all the time in daily life (and so it typically goes unnoticed), but also in ways that are essential to our well being and even survival. So in my view, assessment toward understanding, in preparation for action, is a fundamentally human way of engaging with the world. I recognize that we could nuance this a lot, but let’s leave that for later.

So what is God doing by (seemingly) circumventing this?

Well, in my view God is seeking to engage us within God’s greatest project: bringing about God’s kingdom. Further, I believe that God engages us toward this end in a manner that seeks to create trust in our relationship of committed attachment with God (there are preceding steps here, such as cultivating belief and developing understanding, but let’s focus on this step). Yet in my experience, and according to my Bible reading, I don’t think that God seeks to create this trust in a manner that is divorced from / contrary to how we engage with engage—or not—with issues in other areas of our lives.

In other words, I see symmetry between how we relate to the created, natural order and how we relate to God as the creator. So there are times and situations when certain human competencies / virtues will take the fore (relying more on my senses and reason) and other times / situations when other human competencies / virtues will predominate (relying more on my creativity and imagination). And this symmetry is in fact necessary, particularly for developing our trust in God, to the furtherance of our relationship of committed attachment to God. This is a topic in itself, and again I’ll have to leave it for later.

My main point is that I do not believe that God ever calls us (or indeed, ever called anyone in the biblical texts) to act “blindly,” to act on faith alone or even to come to Christianity through faith alone. Nor is this a matter of simply knowing God—being reliant on what I understand of God’s character and nothing more.

Let’s take a few examples. What about Abram (Abraham), Matthew, or Peter?

So what was Abram’s understanding, when he answered God’s request to go to Canaan? It seems that he understood something of who God was, the general destination, and that the request held a certain importance. Yet Genesis 11 also indicates that Abram had, once before, set out for Canaan (with his Father, Terah) but had stopped short. So it seems he also understood something of Canaan itself, that influenced him to go there. Thus I see Abram’s action both as guided (or semi-informed) purpose combined with faith.

What about Matthew’s understanding? Well, by the time that Jesus tells Matthew to “Follow me,” in chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, the stories and news about Jesus would have been widespread. His acts of healing and his willingness to associate with “sinners” would have become our equivalent of urban legends. Thus Matthew would have understood enough to know that Jesus represented a “second chance” for him. So to my mind he risked an act of faith based on what he understood generally (and so hoped for himself, personally).

But let’s take a harder case. What about Simon and Andrew? They meet Jesus only in chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel. Yet even here, if we follow the flow of the Matthew’s narrative, we see that the Judean people of that period had been prepared for Jesus, such that a degree of general understanding had been developed through John’s activity (chapter 3) and specific understanding by Jesus’s own, direct action (described in Mt 4:17).

Notice also that Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to something: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Mt 4:19) Now recall: Hebrew narrative is by nature terse, so details are never superfluous but purposeful and necessary for the reader’s understanding.1 We are not told why Jesus made this comment, nor why it would have been important for Simon and Andrew. Yet it clearly gave them a far greater sense of purpose, and likely they would have understood the tie between that purpose and Jesus’ own purpose.

So What would they have all likely understood?

At very least, that something was afoot—something was happening, and in each case this seems to have been tied to a prior desire (to go to Canaan), hope (to be given another chance), or sense of purpose (to change people’s lives).2

I am emphasizing the role of human “understanding” in order to push back against the reformation principles of acting / engaging with God “by faith alone,” and that coming to belief in God amounts to “faith seeking understanding.” These are substantial notions that I cannot fully explain here. Yet I raise them not only because some may object to my perspective on these bases, but also because this thinking has had a strong, indirect influence on Christian thought in a number of ways.

Particularly, they have influenced a representation of faith as the most important element in relating to God, to the point that faith is “all we need” or that it can “go it alone.”  From my perspective this orientation is responsible, in good part, for the widespread loss of credibility that the church in the western world experiences, to the point that Christianity may be seen as “faith without understanding.”

The idea that faith is primary to human existence has often been supported by the claim that all human beings “start” from faith, as newborns. Yet biology clearly contradicts this.  Instead, it proves that humans start with what we might call “inchoate” (or tacit) knowledge.

Thus in my graduate research I explained how neonatal biology and neurology have approached consensus concerning the occurrence of what they call “prenatal olfactory learning.”3 So against viewing the earliest human disposition as “faith” or “trust,” newborns already ‘know’ (or perhaps, pre-understand) the mother’s scent and are attracted to it. This occurs as a result of the infant’s lived experience, by being (indirectly) in relationship with the mother through the infant’s environment (i.e., the uterus).4

To conclude, my concern is that when Christians promote the idea of “just having faith” or “blind faith” they are actually advocating something unnatural and unbiblical. And my experience is that this not only negatively impacts Christians (via a distorted picture of who God is and how God acts), but also acts as a negative apologetic for non-Christians, for whom this idea—like “faith without understanding”—amounts to intellectual suicide.5

When believing hinders faith

Last post I highlighted the importance of truth-seeking and distinguished various types of truth, with the claim that the Bible focuses on relational truth. Yet before continuing the discussion I need to address what is likely the biggest obstacle to Christians succeeding at truth-seeking (thus developing a robust Christian faith):

Belief.

Excuse me?

To most Christians this probably sounds like madness: how can belief be a problem? Isn’t belief at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? My answer is: Yes and No. For that depends on what belief is—what sense of belief we are meaning.

Let’s first examine the sense of “belief” that is indeed essential for Christians to cultivate. This is belief as a result. In other words, the end-product of my engagement with the Bible and Christianity should be my belief that:

a) humans are a certain sort of being, beings who need to embrace and cultivate their faculties (imagination, rationality, will, memory, emotional response), certain self-understandings (trust and suspicion, confidence and humility, subjective objectivity) and certain relational “goods” (love, truth, patience, forgiveness) in order to thrive,

b) the God of the Bible seeks just the sort of relationship with humans wherein our faculties are most engaged, our self-understandings are best cultivated and our relational goods are maximized,

c) this God began such relationship with human being on a small-scale, with a nation called Israel, with the intention of then expanding these relationships on a global scale, potentially to include all people,

d) God’s relationship with Israel was formalized into a covenant: an agreement of how God and Israel would regard and act toward the other (and of how Israel was to govern itself and interact with others). Yet the intention for global-scale relationship was stalled when the people of Israel wholesale reneged on the agreement,

e) this intention was realized when Jesus of Nazareth, who is both human and divine, acted as Israel and both lived the life required to fulfil Israel’s side of the covenant and died a death that bore Israel’s penalties for having reneged on the covenant,

f) the Bible is a sufficiently trustworthy source of information on this matter, as understood through humans engaging their natural faculties in partnership with God’s guidance (the Holy Spirit).

In other words, the Bible is making certain truth claims about human nature, God’s nature, and the relationship between them, and frames these claims primarily through a series of unique historical events. To be a Christian is to validate these claims and their source—to attest to the positive, truth value of these claims and to the trustworthiness of the Biblical text concerning key aspects of human nature, God’s nature, and their interrelation. 1

So in what way should Christians not cultivate “belief”?

To answer that let’s redefine belief in its positive sense. In this first sense, used above, believing means affirming certain matters as “being the case” or simply being “true.” Several clarifications about belief are important here.

On the one hand, we refer to believing rather than knowing Christianity for two reasons. First, because Christianity deals with unique entities and events rather than with manipulable objects or repeatable phenomenon. So because it cannot be demonstrated through repetition, it cannot be proven scientifically. Second, because humans are the sorts of beings that know in limited ways: our knowledge is dependent on many factors and we possess a limited, or subjective, form of objectivity. Thus we cannot know “beyond doubt.” As such, belief is not just the only method of accepting Christianity, it is the best method.

On the other hand, belief in this sense is a result. It is an orientation that comes about through having cultivated our faculties and developed certain crucial self-understandings, while aiming at key, relational goods. In summary, belief follows the development and application of certain competencies, rightly aimed.

So if belief is the result of certain actions, it is clearly not the means by which that same result is achieved! In other words, holding particular beliefs (about who / what human beings are, God is, and what the relationship between the two should be) is a matter of deeming certain things to be true. And we do this by understanding the claims, assessing their basis and implications, and so becoming convinced that they accurately and fittingly represent the matters to which they pertain.

As such, Christians should never “simply believe” something.

This confuses a claim to truth with its proof, or to confuse truth claims and truth value. Thus I do not believe someone is innocent simply because they claim it, but because the weight of the evidence, rightly interpreted, offers good reason to believe it.

Believing in this second, negative sense amounts to credulity: simply believing what I have been told (and doing so, likely, because I have been taught to do so). In my experience, many evangelical Christians have been raised this way. They have been taught not simply what to believe, but that “belief” is the vehicle by which they acquire their identity, rather than being what holds that identity together.

Let me be blunt: whatever it may be, credulity is not Christian.

Instead, my view is that truly Christian belief results from participatory understanding and observational engagement.

So such belief is the result of the engagement of my whole person with the twin tasks of understanding / pursuing full humanness and committing oneself to truth in all its manifestations. It is a process requiring rigor2, attention, and commitment to one’s own life.

And it can result in peace and joy. Peace through the satisfaction of adopting a lifestyle where one is rightly oriented toward truth, a dedication to honesty with oneself. Joy through the increased possibilities of loving myself and other more rightly as I rightly relate to God, who knows be best and loves me most.

Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

The desire for absolute truth is wrong.

As I’ve sketched it in relation to Christianity, it starts as a wish for absolute access to the Bible’s truth claims, achieved by absolute openness to the Bible through unprejudiced neutrality, with a goal of providing absolute security: certainty about the Bible’s truth values.  But absolute access, absolute openness, and absolute security are all the same:

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I hope I’ve shown over my last number of posts, they are wrong because they are simply impossible.  And they are even more wrong for Christians because these views presuppose either the claim of being like God (which is idolatry) or a disparagement of creation (which is a key, God-given resource for validating biblical truth values).

But this is more than overblown aspirations, more than finite humans coveting the absolute.  In Christian terms, if this is sin then it is not simply a sin of commission—acting wrongly.  It is a sin of the mind and of association—choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, it appears that Christians have developed an entrenched affinity for “modernist” philosophy.

Thus as I argued in my last post, the quest for absolute access to truth claims via absolute, unprejudiced openness and arriving at absolute security (through certainty about truth values) is a portrait of Modernism.

Originating in 17th century Europe, modernist philosophy favoured reason over the senses, experience, tradition, etc., as the best—and only—way accurately to assess truth claims and adjudicate their truth values.  Its goal was to help people to decide on matters that concerned them, and to have certainty about the truth of their decisions.

Modernist thinkers like René Descartes, influenced by Plato, viewed knowledge as stronger (and so better) than belief.  But how could he be sure that was basing his decisions on knowledge and not just mere, unfounded belief?

Viewing reason to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, Descartes’ “method” involved doubting our customs and former beliefs until they pass the test of reason (and so can be considered true knowledge) and rejecting our emotions and passions as outrightly deceptive.  In effect, by starting anew from this neutral “view from nowhere” we would be free from false beliefs and reliant upon true knowledge alone.

The similarities with how some Christians approach the Bible could not be plainer.

So is Christianity bankrupt as a result?  Not at all—at least not on this count.  For again, these ideas are not inherently Christian.  The question is, Why have these views been so broadly (and unwittingly) embraced, and what can be done about it?

As to why, I believe that many Christians have embraced Modernism not only as a hedge against relativism but because it is easier than the alternatives.

First, the finite, contingent nature of human existence implies that we live with various tensions (knowing versus not knowing, presence versus absence, present versus past and future, etc.).  Part of our “job” as human beings, then, is to maintain a flexible and variable relationship between the poles of these tensions.  For example, on some matters we know more (and so can be more confident of our views), whereas on others we know less (and so must be more humble).

Modernism is easy because it effectively collapses the tensions into hierarchies—by following its method we avoid struggling with the hard questions of how to balance these tensions, and with the resultant hard work of possibly revising our beliefs when the balance shifts.

Second, however, Christians who embrace Modernism even collapse key tensions in the Bible!

For example, many over-emphasize how much the Holy Spirit aids Christians in understanding the Bible and under-emphasize (or ignore?) the detrimental and universal effects of sin on the same.  As a result, such Christians are often overconfident concerning how well they know the Bible.

As to what can be done, Christians clearly need to move beyond Modernism.  Next post looks at how.

The Cheese stands alone!

 

Recently a friend was discussing her interpretation of a biblical passage.

“Yes,” I said, “that position originates with Augustine.”

“Ah, excuse me?” she replied, “I don’t remember mentioning Augustine.  We’re talking about what I know from what I read in the Bible.”

Her view of interpretation is different from the “you-may-need-to-interpret-but-I-just-read-what’s-there” view.  Instead of claiming not to interpret, she was claiming to interpret independently of other, past sources: to interpret the Bible directly, on the basis of her skills and knowledge alone.

This raises several points.   First, this method of interpretation consists in being maximally open to the Bible’s content.  Second, by assuming that we should (and can) interpret from our present situation and knowledge alone, it equates openness with being unbiased by past views and unprejudiced by false beliefs.  Third, it arrives at its goal (of getting the best possible interpretation) by basing interpretations not on mere biases or beliefs, but on true knowledge.

Now openness to biblical texts is important.  But is this degree of openness—or openness achieved in this way—possible?

I think not.

Let’s start by re-considering the above conversation.  How did my friend acquire her knowledge of the Bible?  Well, from her Christian family, her pastor, and her Bible college professors.  And how did they get their knowledge?  And how did their sources get their knowledge?  And how did. . . ?

New understandings are possible.  Yet they always stand in relationship to (and have been informed by) past views.  Thus no view is ever independent of the course of its development.  Stated another way, knowledge itself has a history.  And being ignorant of that history does not mean that we are unaffected by it.

Rather, as historical beings humans have a deep and unbreakable relationship with the past.  Humans are contingent beings: our way of perceiving and understanding the world is conditioned by the world itself.  As such we cannot escape—or be unaffected by—our gender, race, ethnic background, or upbringing.

So seen, it is not only unfavourable to be unprejudiced, it is impossible!  Aspiring to such “absolute” openness is desiring neutrality and detachment from our world and our history.  For Christians, this amounts to disparaging both the necessity and “goodness” of God’s creation, and our own nature as creatures within it.

In short, it is by our attachment to the world that we know and understand anything at all.

In fact, our English word “prejudice” comes from the French préjugé légitime—legitimate prejudgements.  Prejudgements are the result of being in the world—existing in specific ways and situations.  They are legitimate because everyone has them: we need them in order to get by (and even survive) in these specific ways and situations.

So the goal is not to be unprejudiced, but to know our prejudgements, their origins, and  their limitations.  In other words, adapting our prejudgements as we receive new nformation (about ourselves, others, the world, and possibly God) from a variety of sources.

As contingent beings we always run the risk of founding our understandings on false beliefs.  But we cannot swap (mere) belief for (true) knowledge.  This is neither possible—humans cannot be like God, knowing all things truly—nor desirable.  For even as our beliefs are formed through our attachment to this world, so they also anchor us to this world: they centre us on the only locale where humans may encounter God.

And who is this God?

We come a step closer to knowing by contrasting the biblical picture of God with this ideal of unbiased, unprejudiced, neutrality.  The Christian God is far from neutral.  God is clearly presented as being for us before ever being against us, and as constantly seeking relationship with humanity.  And God’s motivation for performing God’s greatest act, sending Jesus?  “For God so loved the world . . .”