A popular Jewish blogger, whose blog I only recently started following, has a recurrent theme. In the midst of commentary on the news of the Jewish world and Israel mixed with some religious reflection and Torah commentary, this blogger enjoys bringing up modernity, challenges to faith in God, and his own skepticism.
He says more than once that all arguments for faith are invalid. Then he says, I believe anyway.
For example, in a post from 2006 which he titles “Demolishing Dumb Arguments” and which he regards as a classic from his own blog writing, this observant Jew sharply criticizes the argument from history that the Torah was given on Sinai. The argument is, admittedly, not a tight one, but is, I would argue, a matter of evidence and not proof (a distinction this blogger seems not to make): millions throughout history have believed their ancestors stood at Sinai, these millions go back to an original set of people who passed the memory down through the ages, and thus it must be true that a people experienced a revelation at Sinai.
In a later post he explains why he believes anyway. Belief is irrational, he says. He can’t help believing and doesn’t want to stop. But all arguments bolstering belief are invalid from the start. He relates this to some ideas from Hume.
Is faith irrational? Is it something other than faith if it has a reason?
The discussion of faith and reason has a long history, which I will not recount. The ages long discussion has two extremes:
(1) Fideism – faith is an irrational choice to believe and is antithetical to reason.
(2) Theological rationalism – faith is nothing more than reason’s conclusion.
There are a few distinctions that are helpful as we think about the relationship between faith and reason. I picked on up from C.S. Lewis and the other from William Lane Craig. Both of these distinctions are helpful and practical for real people, like you and me, for whom the questions of faith are a matter of importance:
–We should distinguish between reasons to believe and the reasons we actually believe. Once we have become firmly convinced of a belief we reach a “psychological exclusion of doubt,” which is to say that we can’t actually be argued out of our belief. This does not mean we won’t entertain dialogue about our belief (“not a logical exclusion of dispute”), but that we have personal and interior reasons for certainty which are not based purely on reason. Lewis discussed this in an essay called “On Obstinacy in Belief” which is included in the volume The World’s Last Night.
–Another way of making this distinction, which I found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith is between knowing and showing. We have one set of reasons we would say we know the content of our faith (they are personal and experiential) and another for how we might show the credibility of our faith (they are evidentiary and logical).
Personal and Experiential Faith
Saying it simply: religious believers have reasons “reason knows not of.” This is, at least in part, what the Jewish blogger was saying. His reasons for believing in Judaism are not about logical proofs. This far, I agree. But if this type of interior and subjective reason is all there is, we are in the realm of fideism.
Fideism is the idea that faith is never more than a blind leap. Apart from any evidence, we accept the content of our faith due to a variety of other sorts of causes. For Kierkegaard this was an inner realization of existence, thoroughly subjective, in which we confront in ourselves the inescapable ideas that have no rational justification. For Barth, this is a communication through ordinary means (the Bible, preaching) of the voice of God personally to us (an interior realization, subjective to us but objective because God is the one revealing truth to us) without rational justification.
One reason, in my opinion, that some people are drawn to fideism is that they are failing to understand the distinctions I listed above — between “reasons we actually believe” and “reasons to believe,” between knowing and showing. In Barth’s case, the inability to reason out faith is because God is unknowably transcendent. In Kierkegaard’s case, the inability to reason out faith is because of the limitations of knowledge and all we can know is subjective.
Lewis admits that the reasons religious believers actually believe have little to do with evidence. There is, in his phrase, an obstinacy in belief which psychologically excludes doubt.
Craig says this is the communication, mystically, of God’s Spirit in us. It is personal, relational, and experiential. Therefore, it is stronger than reason.
But this does not mean that evidence and showing reasons for faith is unimportant. For some people it is all-important, the only important thing.
Theological rationalism, which I will only briefly describe because I find it boring, is the idea that we build our beliefs on foundations which are self-evident and then add arguments based on logic to form an unassailable castle of truth.
A lot of religious people think that something like theological rationalism is true even though, if they examined their own souls they would find their reasons for belief are not rationalist.
Foundationalism or theological rationalism is something most who think deeply eventually discard. In spite of many noble attempts, no philosopher has made the be-all-end-all theory that proves everything or even the theory that “proves” anything. You can’t even prove that you exist.
Some people (fideists and relativists of various types including radical postmodernism and existentialism) embrace the subjective as all there is: we only know what we see and feel, but it is not real outside of ourselves.
Others, myself included, settle for a kind of realism (things outside myself are real and I am certain this is true) that has a lower threshold. We do not seek proof, which is impossible through reason. We seek only evidence and we critically choose to believe what seems to have sufficient evidence.
The key words for a moderated realism are: critical and coherent.
Our view of reality beyond ourselves has to be critical. We think we understand the motives and inner thoughts of another person, but then they surprise us and we have to critically reevaluate. We think we understand the stories of our past and our environment, but then we are challenged and we critically reevaluate. Knowledge is never final.
And the key thing we look for is not proof, but consistency. If I consistently get better gas mileage by accelerating moderately, then I don’t have to know all of the science to conclude: it is better for my bank account if I accelerate moderately (but I don’t because I enjoy speed). If we find that a certain way of understanding a person often matches their words and actions, we believe certain things about that person with reasonable knowledge (even though we cannot know them absolutely).
Reason as Evidence for Faith
The role that reason plays is not as the basis of our faith. And note that by faith I do not mean only faith in the Jewish or Christian ideas of God. Agnosticism and atheism are also a kind of faith.
Whatever the reasons we actually believe something (we would say we know it), it is a different matter to describe reasons to believe (showing).
And showing has value. We reinforce our beliefs with reasonable evidence. An atheist sees evil in the world and concludes there cannot be a good God. This is evidence that God either does not exist, does not act in the world, or is not good. I didn’t say it was sufficient evidence (for example, what is the basis for the idea of good or evil in the first place). But it is evidence.
Evidence firms up belief. This is what discussions of reasons for faith is always more interesting to believers than non-believers. If your synagogue or church has a “reasons to believe” lecture series, expect the believers to flock to it and for the neighborhood you advertise to to avoid it almost to a person. Atheists, similarly, buy Christopher Hitchens books like candy to reinforce their faith.
Augustine is credited with an idea that reason is “faith seeking understanding.” It turns out this is true for all sorts of people (not just Christians like Augustine). Our actual reasons for believing, as the Jewish blogger said, are not reasonable arguments.
But don’t say faith is without reason. This is going too far. If you admit that the world outside yourself is most likely real and act as if it is real, you get good results. And perhaps God is not fully knowable, but he mediates his presence to us in lower emanations that we can know. And faith feels like a leap in the dark, but we have actual reasons and showable reasons.