Theology: December 2010 Archives


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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.

Augustine on Free Choice

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Augustine gives an argument (City of God Book V chapter IX, among other places) that I've always had little patience with. Here is R.W. Dyson's translation of the City of God occurrence of it:

Moreover, even if a certain order of causes does exist in the mind of God, it does not follow that nothing is left to the free choice of our will. For our wills are themselves included in the order of the causes which is certain to God and contained within his foreknowledge. For the wills of men are causes of the deeds of men, and so He Who has foreseen the causes of all things cannot have been ignorant of our wills among those causes, since he foresaw them to be the causes of our deeds.

The reason I find such reasoning frustrating is because it comes across as if Augustine is trying to respond to the foreknowledge problem by saying that God foreknows our free choices, and if God knows our free choices, and God can't know something false, then they must be true. So foreknowdge of free choices actually establishes them as free rather than undermining it. The problem with such an argument is that it's question-begging. The opponent of foreknowledge will insist that God can't foreknow a free choice. So the very assumption of the argument is what the argument is trying to prove.

As I re-read the sections of City of God that I taught this semester in Dyson's translation (now that I've finally managed to get a copy), it occurred to me that Augustine might actually be doing something different in this text, something much less problematic. It looks to me as if what he's saying is that, even if there is this order of causes leading up to our wills, that's compatible with our choices being free, and then he gives a reason. The reason is that our wills are the causes of our actions. God's foreseeing of what we choose is God's foreseeing of our causing our actions. It's not God foreseeing our freedom that makes freedom compatible with foreknowledge, as the bad argument above has it. It's that God's foreseeing our freedom is God's foreseeing our own causing of our actions. Such causing is what explains our freedom.

Thus Augustine is making the Stoic point that our choices do happen even if there are causes of them that God can see ahead of time, and it's that they happen as choices that makes them free. Augustine does later distinguish his view from the Stoic position, but at this point he seems to be giving basically the same argument they give for compatibilism about being caused to do something and being free in doing it.

[Completely as an aside, what is going on with Dyson's capitalization in that passage? He capitalizes not just the personal pronoun but even the relative pronoun when it refers to God, but then he leaves even the personal pronoun in lower case in the very net clause. It's almost as bad as some Bible translations when trying to deal with psalms that don't clearly refer to just a messanic figure who thus to a Christian refers to Christ.]



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