The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Monday, April 30, 2007

Truth, Rationality, Faith

A good friend struggling with some doubts emailed me recently and I expressed some thoughts I'd been wanting to express for awhile. Forthwith:

"I've begun to feel that either I go back to what I know or I go forward and lose my faith....I'm wondering if it's wise to seek knowledge particularly in matters of faith."

Seeking knowledge in matters of faith *is* the way of integrity in light of the false dilemma of going back or losing faith. There are no “scholars” who deny that Jesus walked on water in virtue what might constitute their status as scholars. Whether it’s rational to believe that Jesus walked on water is simply a matter of whether it’s rational to believe that there is a God and that the Apostles are to be trusted in their reports (granting that the Gospels are Apostolic reports). If there is a God then walking on water is nothing special, so if you think there’s a God it’s just a matter of whether the Gospels record the Apostles reports and whether they are to be trusted. If the reports we have are fairly accurate, then I think it’s clear that they are to be trusted. Since here is no good reason to doubt the accuracy of the reports, there’s no very good reason to doubt that Jesus walked on water. Like Lewis said, if there’s a God, then miracles are possible; if the Apostles are not liars, then miracles are actual.

My guess is that a lot of what’s going on here is that you are moving to a reasonable form of Christianity which is quite different from the Fundamentalist version you were trained in, and, sadly, the Fundamentalist arguments against the reasonable positions lacked intellectual integrity and so it was just stated that such positions were “heretical” or “implicitly atheistic” so that the untrained mind would simply be *scared* away from those positions (lacking any good rational argument against them). I take this to be the great tragedy of Fundamentalism. It has created more un-necessary self-professed unbelievers than I care to recall. Again and again I’ve seen it. The argument against evolution is:

1. Evolution is Godless.
2. We should not be Godless.
3. Thus, we should not accept evolution.

Premise 1 is not typically given any support. It is an axiom of fundamentalism. But then you come to see that the empirical evidence supports some kind of evolution including common ancestry and the argument gets stood on its head:

1. Evolution is Godless.
2. I believe in evolution.
3. Thus, I am Godless.

The same pattern is tragically instanced with Dancing, Rock Music, and a host of other things simply disapproved of by Fundamentalists.

And it certainly doesn’t help that many people take the even *worse* option of giving lip service to doctrinal propositions while draining them of any real meaning. The kind of fall from faith described above, while tragically unnecessary, at least has a patina of integrity.

The goal, as ever, is to hold center, to avoid the extremes of excess and defect, to follow the evidence where it leads and not accept the axioms of any system but that of Reason. This, I firmly believe, leads to a reasonable faith. A belief that God is behind the universe and in it in the work of Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy Spirit. These are the axioms of Christianity and I think they are reasonable. Beyond that there is a lot of room for details to adjust.

As far as the nature of Truth, it’s no good questioning that or putting it in scare quotes. It always comes back, it’s unavoidable. That which is, is, and that which is not, is not. No getting away from that. However, what many people who emphasize the objectivity of Truth have failed to emphasize is our *access* to truth in evidence and the *degree* to which we can apprehend it. This is why my work has focused on probability and evidence. You can affirm that Truth Itself is absolute and objective, but still hold that our access to it is subjective and tenuous. Rationality, though, consists in following the evidence as we encounter it and proportioning our degree of certainty to the strength of the evidence. This will leave us uncertain about nearly everything since incontrovertible evidence is very rare. However, as information comes in, we can adjust our rational confidence up and down accordingly. This is the path of rationality.

However, because of the all-important doctrine of the Transcendental Unity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty we can often come to see the truth in virtue of its Beauty and Goodness which is why Lewis and Tolkein are so valuable.


At Monday, April 30, 2007 7:21:00 PM, Blogger MikeZ said...

"1. Evolution is Godless.
2. We should not be Godless.
3. Thus, we should not accept evolution."

I don't accept (1). As I see it, one of the jobs of Science is to find out how God did it. So far, the weight of evidence seems to support evolution (in the short term), and the Big Bang (in the long term).

It's certainly true that evolution and the Bible are incompatible, but then, the Bible is not a scientific account. As Galileo said, "the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go".

For a good account of evolution by a real scientist, see Dobzhansky, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution". (He was Russian Orthodox.)

At Monday, April 30, 2007 7:32:00 PM, Blogger Trent_Dougherty said...

Right, I was just giving the argument that the Fundamentalists give.


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