Faith

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"Faith, to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things for bad reasons, and when they have good reasons they immediately rely on the good reasons." -- Sam Harris on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday a few weeks ago

On one level, this is complete nonsense. My faith is not my giving anyone permission to believe things. If I have faith, that's trust in God, not permission for others to believe things. I'm not sure why Harris thinks it has to do with your attitude toward others' beliefs. No one really believes that, and I would include Harris in that.

But what he's saying reflects a common attitude toward what faith is. Perhaps he's even right that in most contexts the English word turns out to mean something to do with believing things without good reasons (which isn't the same as believing things for bad reasons, I would insist). That's at least how many people have used the term since Kierkegaard's corruption of the concept of faith.

This is not, however, how faith has historically been thought of. Augustine saw it as a kind of knowledge, just not one based in the usual sources. Its grounding comes from God and his role in giving us the faith. Thomas Aquinas distinguished it from knowledge but saw it as equally well-grounded as knowledge, just from a different source. Both of them, in fact, took the Bible to be God's word, and thus they took it to be a reliable source to get the information God wanted to convey. God is, in fact, the most reliable source of any information, and thus believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs. Those who don't accept the Bible as God's word would not accept that conclusion, but what they say follows from accepting that about the Bible. The Bible itself takes faith to be simply trust in God and what God says, and it does not treat faith as some irrational acceptance of things we probably shouldn't believe.

There are plenty of debates about whether religious beliefs can be justified or warranted and how they could be if they can. I certainly have my views on that. But there's a problem before you even get to that point. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what a lot of religious people mean when they talk about faith and what most people mean when they talk about faith. Several recent Bible translations pick up on this and use only terms of the belief-family and trust-family for the biblical words usually translated into the faith-family of English words. I think there's something to that. But might this not be a fight worth having? Sometimes it's worth giving up a term because of the confusion about what it might mean. Do we want to give up on the faith-family of terms?

We probably don't need the term, but if we give up on it there's at least one unfortunate consequence. People will completely misunderstand much of the tradition, including Bible translations that use it in the traditional way. So I'm not ready to give up on it. It's a bit of work to explain ourselves when we use the term, and it will take work to convince those who are out of touch on this point that they actually need to do that, but it's work worth engaging in, in my view.

11 Comments

If you think Kierkegaard treats faith as believing without good reasons (or for bad reasons), then you have a poor interpretation of Kierkegaard. For SK, there are good reasons to have faith, but (a) those reasons aren't accessible from a third-person point of view and (b) those reasons (given their inaccessibility from a 3rd-person point of view) can never be sufficient to justify the sort of commitment that the person of faith has to those who do not also trust in the authority of the object of belief.

I don't have any interpretation of Kierkegaard, actually. I've never read a word of him. Friends of mine who are fans have done a pretty poor job of convincing me that there's anything worth my time in his corpus. I could see their excitement about it, but everything they told me they were excited by didn't sound to me as if it was worth the effort.

But what I stated as the corruption of the concept of faith since Kierkegaard is (1) easily observable in people who have such an understanding now and (2) widely held to be his view by people who have read him. My general point is untouched if he happened to hold a more nuanced view. It's the state of the concept of faith now that I'm complaining about, and numerous and diverse people whom I respect who have read Kierkegaard trace it back to him.

Your take on Kierkegaard has him anticipating some key points in the last few decades of the epistemology of religious belief. I'd be a little surprised if he really did that with virtually none of the contributors to that field recognizing it and giving him any credit for it.

Hi there! You’re right about the first conjunct of the Harris quote but the second conjunct sounds interesting. Do people rely on good reasons rather than faith when they think they have good reasons, and why?

Aquinas certainly thought that natural theology was not sufficient to get him where he wanted without dragging in revelation, so I don’t think Aquinas would have been shocked if one talked of a ‘leap of faith' being required. I know you prefer the Bible to any other text claiming to be divine revelation but do you have reasons for your preference? If you do, where does faith come in? I’m intrigued by your assessment over how widely the belief is shared that believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs; I think most people on this planet accept that, even though most people on this planet don't accept the Bible as God's word.

There's a difference between the usual notion of a leap of faith (seen as either irrational or non-rational) and what Aquinas thought of faith as doing. He saw scripture as given by God, and he thought it to be self-evidencing in some sense. The fact that God infallibly gave it grounds the epistemic status of those reading it in a way that those reading another purported scripture with equal evidence would not. So he took there to be some kind of unseen ground to its veracity, metaphysically grounding its infallibility but not giving any internalistically epistemological grounding. But Aquinas was an externalist about epistemology, so he didn't take that to mean faith is irrational or non-rational, and he didn't see natural theology as superior in epistemic status to faith. If was just a different method. He called it scientia, but it wasn't based on some empiricist notion of science being better than other sources of information.

As for the question about my own scriptural preference, I do think there are reasons to prefer the Christian Bible to other purported revelations. See here for some reasons. I could say more, but I have to be somewhere shortly.

OK, but if Aquinas didn’t see natural theology as superior in epistemic status to faith, then why would he bother with a natural theology project at all? Perhaps he had too much free time in his hands, but if it was no blow that his project didn’t seamlessly deliver the religion he’d like it to, then how would it be significant if natural theology alone could do the trick?

Aquinas’ project sounds like resolving to follow the argument as long as it takes us where we already know we want to be, but not otherwise. There’s a whiff of sour grapes about it - 'if philosophy cannot unveil the hidden veracity of my favourite religion then so much the worse for philosophy; I'm switching back to religious faith' - compounded by the fact that different people may want to be in different places: I guess there’s nothing to stop anyone from invoking ‘invisible’ grounds or grounds ‘only visible to believers’ for their favourite beliefs, whether these beliefs are consistent with Aquinas’ own or inconsistent with them; which either doesn’t get us very far or gets us too far.

So, I find it interesting that you think there are ‘reasons’ to prefer the Christian revelation to alternatives. As if there’s a meta-project which can deliver a layered sandwich of faith and philosophy, say, 'rationally' pinpointing the direction in which to take an ‘irrational' or non-rational leap of faith. It still looks like we can all get to go wherever we want to, but I admit I have not read the post you link to yet.

C. Stephen Evans in Faith Beyond Reason interprets Kierkegaard in a way that fits well with the contemporary developments in religious epistemology. Evans acknowledges that some of the things Kierkegaard says can be taken as expressing an irrational fideism (Evans distinguishes various types of fideism), but Evans sees the bulk of Kierkegaard's thought as being complementary to recent developments (e.g. Reformed Epistemology).

I am not saying Evans is right about Kierkegaard, but I think he is a very good philosopher and one of his main areas of study is Kierkegaard.

You can believe in two sources of information and think them both good and use both of them. That sounds like a sufficient reason to use natural theology. There's also the fact that some people wouldn't accept faith, since it's an individual thing. Faith, for Aquinas, doesn't serve as a source for those who don't have it. So natural theology shows that belief in God can be grounded in reason to those who don't have faith.

Aquinas would insist that something you think is true by faith, if contradicted by reason, is not genuinely shown by faith. He doesn't see faith as a way to get what reason seems to contradict. He sees it as an additional source of information that won't genuinely contradict reason. There are things not knowable by reason (e.g. the Trinity), but he can use reason to defend the consistency of those, even if he can't use it to show them. He would argue that the Trinity is not logically contradictory by using reason. But he'd admit that you can't know its truth by reason.

The argument isn't as simplistic as just believing it by faith, either. Faith includes trust in God's word, but he'd also say that there are reasons to trust it, even if those don't approach the level of natural theology. There is the testimony thing, in trusting people you have reason to believe are reliable. The use of empirical sources of information can be something short of infallible while still providing some epistemic support, and he was well aware of that, even if he wouldn't describe it in such terms.

I have been reading a book by JP Moreland and Klaus Issler that argue that 'faith' should be replaced with 'God-confidence' (though still respecting the word 'faith' in traditions that respect this sense) in public discourse just because of the misconceptions you speak of. This doesn't seem problematic to me.

If we're going to get rid of faith-language, why concoct something new like that? Why not just go with trust-language?

I think they would be OK with that too. And perhaps reliance-language as well. The point is to refer to what you talk about in your second paragraph and avoid what you talk about in your third.

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