Tag Archives: faith seeking understanding

Scattergories: “Theology,” Alex!

Thousands of you have done one or many of the following over the past few weeks, as I’ve been slaloming through the history of the “Faith & Reason” debate: email, text, direct message, instant message, Skype, Facebook update, tweet, hashtag, blog post, blog comment, FB Like, anonymous review, post rating, FourSquare check-in, P-to-P download, voicemail, snail mail, malware, Luv virus, brain connection, public address system, skywriting, punch in the kisser.

"Get to the point, dude!"

And as one, you have asked but a single question: “I thought you were looking for God, bro. Why are you talking about philosophy?”

As the great, late Catholic church historian Raymond Brown said: “One of the worst things you can do as a teacher is assume the audience is going to understand what you’re getting at.”

So here automatic for the people is a quick backgrounder on the problem: as always in theology, things are not as simple as they seem. Searching for God is like walking through a whiteout.

To answer the question “Does God exist?” we must first answer at least two others: “What do we mean by ‘God’?” and “How can we know that what we mean by ‘God’ exists?” It’s the second sub-question we’re attacking with all this blather about Faith & Reason.

Let’s broaden sub-question part deux and ask “How can we know anything about ‘God’?” One way is through faith, which is an inner conviction. Another way is through reason, or the use of our minds. Most believers and atheists actually rely on both for their response. The question naturally arises how — or even if — Faith and Reason relate.

Over the past 2,500 years, three basic positions have been taken:

  1. Mortal Enemies — likes cats and dogs, faith and reason can not even agree to disagree: one is right, the other wrong. Sadly, this is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalists don’t listen to reason. Atheists devoutly wish for The End of Faith.
  2. Incompatible — they are talking about different things. There is no real conflict because reason and faith are in different boxing rings. Varieties of this position include mysticism, which elevates faith into a realm of intuition beyond the senses, and so-called “negative” theologies like those of Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius. Unlike, say, Fundamentalists, incompatibilists tend to see religious language as approximate or metaphorical.
  3. Compatible — even when there appears to be a conflict, there isn’t. There is only misunderstanding. Faith can be both justified and enhanced by reason. Either we can observe natural phenomenon and induce God (Aquinas, Aristotle), or use reason alone to deduce truths about God (Anselm, Descartes). This approach is very Medieval and, later, characteristic of so-called “natural theology.”

For what it’s worth, The God Project Dot Net believes (1) and (3) are dead ends that lead to agita. But (2) has potential. Agreed?

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Pause Tape: Tertullian?

We were whizzing through our Very Brief History of Faith & Reason (Part I: From the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages) when an unexpected name came up (unexpected, that is, for moi): Tertullian. Specifically, this oddly modern-sounding statement: “I believe because it is absurd” (credo quia absurdum). Like a line from Alfred Jarry’s great Dada classic “Ubu Roi.” (Jarry quote: “You’re looking exceptionally ugly tonight, madame. Is that because we have company?”)

Tertullian Was There In Spirit

What do we here at The God Project Dot Net know about this Roman cat Tertullian? Hmm. Well, he’s Roman. A lawyer. Also a historian — his annals about something are quoted a lot in histories of the early church. He has some disputed quotes about the historical Jesus. (Or is that Tacitus?) He’s considered a so-called Church Father, which makes him beloved of Roman Catholics, professors, and nobody else. And?

… because it is absurd?” This phrase seems to open the cargo bay doors, Hal, to all manner of beliefs. I believe the dead walk by night because it is absurd. I believe Justin Bieber is a genius because it is absurd. I follow The God Project Dot Net because it speaks the Truth. (Hah – fooled ya!)

Turns out, as usual, popular academic culture’s caricature of Tertullian’s statement is too simple by half. There’s a thorough reference site called The Tertullian Project that shows the scope of this bro’s life and work. He was born about a century after Jesus’ death in North Africa to a captain in the Roman legion; well educated, he worked as a lawyer until he turned 40 and converted to Christianity.

Game on. He became an eloquent early Christian apologist — which, in the technical sense, doesn’t mean he was apologizing for the faith but presenting an Apologia, or reasoned legal defense against opponents. In fact, he wrote a work called The Apology that makes the famous statement: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (paraphrasing), meaning “If you Romans don’t kill us, you make us stronger.” Later, he took a hard line against the relevance of pagan philosophy — even brilliant pagan philosophy — to faith. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Which gets us to “… because it is absurd.” Other early apologists like Justin Martyr (actually a guy named Justin who was martyred so famously it became his name) — they argued strenuously that someone like Socrates can be seen as a kind of Christian prequel; and in this, described the line the great later theologians like Augustine and Aquinas would take. Not Tertullian. Faith was faith, the Truth supreme, quite beyond the understanding of the sharpest unbeliever.

But “… absurd“? Here’s the passage, from Tertullian’s “De Carne Christi” (“The Body of Christ”):

“The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (5:4)

Pause tape. Rewind. “I believe because it is absurd” — if you look again — is not actually in the quote. The famous “quote” is a famous mis-quote. But what does it mean?

In context, Tertullian was arguing against Marcion, who took hyper-rationality to an extreme, arguing in his Antitheses that because of the many, many rational contradictions in the Hebrew Bible and between it and the New Testament, Christians should utterly reject Judaism and its books. (He only liked Luke and parts of Paul.) Marcion and other Gnostics also believed it was “absurd” to think Christ could be an actual human being and a God. Tertullian is taking a stand against the absolute requirement for literal rationality in faith, and in fact his view is current Christian orthodoxy. Tertullian won.

In context, then, his statement means simply that cold rationality does not apply in the case of the revolutionary super-truth of Christ. In fact, the apparent absurdity of some of its truth claims — Jesus is God and man, God is three but one, Christians are Jews but not Jews — makes them more credible, in the way you’d expect a once-in-a-lifetime world-changing event to be qualitatively different from every other event.

Aristotle made a similar point in his Rhetoric: If something is widely believed, and is totally unlikely, its very unlikeliness makes it more likely to be true, since people have an inherent bias for likelihood. So in saying “It is certain, because impossible” about the Resurrection event, what Tertullian is saying, in effect, is: “A lot of people believe this thing, based on transcribed eyewitness testimony, and it’s so incredibly unlikely that it’s actually more rational to believe that it did happen.

Both our old friend Ziggy Freud and H. L. Mencken ridiculed Tertullian’s statement as showing how stupid Christians are. And again, we find it’s easier to ridicule a (misquoted) sentence than a complicated argument, especially one that alludes to Aristotle.

A Very Brief History of Faith & Reason from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages

We start with myth. This is story and as reasonable as stories are. Let’s say Greek philosophers begin to extract metaphysics from myths. Plato and Aristotle laid the rails for Jewish, Christian and Muslim reasoning about faith. Their approaches were different, although both used reason to arrive at the existence of a God, or Gods.

"I wonder ... Is faith reasonable?"

Plato held things in the world, including thoughts, to be representations of a more profound reality composed of Forms, which exist in the mind of God. He reasoned from the top down. Aristotle went the other way: bottom up. We observe many examples of things and create mental categories but these categories have no intrinsic reality. “Forms” don’t exist. God can be proved as a logically necessary first cause to account for what we observe.

Aristotle’s work was lost until about 1000 in the West, but Plato’s survived — thus, Neoplatonists like Plotinus, Dionysius, Augustine and Anselm. Because our world (matter) is a degraded, lesser version of the true reality embodied in the Forms, these people don’t believe any of us can really know God. It’s too far away from us. What we can see are shadows of reality such as human goodness and truth, which in turn point us toward perfect Goodness and Truth, which is God.

The Roman Christian apologist and lawyer Tertullian built on a passage in Paul to argue that Faith does not need Reason to justify it: “I believe because it is absurd.” Another Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, was more influential, pulling philosophy into the service of faith and sounding positively proto-Anselmian: “I believe in order that I may know.”

The great Augustine — most famous Neoplatonist ever — took the reasonable position that to the extent philosophy (logic, natural history, science) examines the Truth, it can not contradict theology, which does the same. There are not two realities, only one. However, Truth is not equally available to all and a Catholic church is needed to guide honest seekers.

Philosophers would generally call someone like Augustine a “compatibilist” — that is, believing that Reason and Faith are entirely compatible. Another extreme is represented by a very influential, originally misidentified 6th century poobah known as Pseudo-Dionysius. This guy felt that God was utterly, entirely other, that the best human reason can do is to make tentative, negative assertions about God, to know what It is not.

Then the Dark Ages. Then silence.

Is Faith Reasonable?

As I attacked the sweet, sweet powder at the summit of Big Mountain — daring Canada to the north, stalwart Idaho to the west, hauntingly prehistoric Glacier National Park with its wisely sleeping grizzlies to the east, and the Kalispell-Flathead valley laid out like a magic carpet behind me — I worried at a simple question with an impossible answer, namely: Is Faith Reasonable?

Ayn Rand: Reason > Faith

What got us going was the provocative Sam-I-Am Harris, whose best-selling The End of Faith was quite explicit in saying: Hell, no! Faith is an abdication of the mind, like a willful astral projection of thought. Modern atheists (like the super-serious Ayn Rand, left) find faith not only irrational but immorally so. “The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind,” Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

But we’d just spent some considerable time, as you may remember, with our old Benedictine friend Thomas Aquinas, who used his own genius-level reason to meticulously pick apart faith, and so embodied Anselm’s self-definition of faith seeking understanding. Faith came first for pre-moderns; understanding could not contradict the truth, which comes from God, and so it’s up to us to make it work.

As I see it now, those of us who are willing to accept there may be something worth calling God in this world can go two ways:

  1. Faith is mysterious, beyond words and explanations, more of a feeling, perhaps in the body; we may accept and commit to it but will never really be able to explain it
  2. Faith is difficult, and may seem irrational, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on finding logical reasons to believe — we may believe there is good evidence for God (argument from design), believe it’s useful to believe (pragmatists), think we can get at least part-way to God using logic and syllogisms (Aquinas), or convince ourselves God must exist (Descartes, Aristotle)

Put another way, people who think there is a God and have a reason for thinking this do so either because (1) God revealed Itself to her either through the church or scripture or personal experience; or (2) God became a necessary condition to help her understand what she saw and thought.

Put another another way: (1) God finds us; or (2) We find God. The second path is that of reason and faith.