by Tim Widowfield
Accommodating the unaccommodatable
I was taken aback when I saw that the pingback on my previous post, Miracles and Historical Method, was from the Doctor of Whoville. Since we know McGrath doesn’t read Vridar, somebody must have told him about it.
I kid. We love the good doctor. Salt of the earth and all that. So what’s happening over on the Matrix? Sure, he’s peddling his latest book, but the subtitle is “What Does History Have to Do with Faith?” so I guess the pingback is legit. In yesterday’s post, Demolishing and Reconstructing the Burial of Jesus (and Christianity Itself), McG asks: “What, in short, should Christianity look like in the aftermath of historical study?”
This subject marginally interests me. I’m curious about religions and what people believe, but the ways in which people accommodate ancient superstition with modern reality makes me uncomfortable. Not that there’s anything wrong with accommodation, it’s just that the part of my life where I tried to salvage the good parts of Christianity in light of — well, in light of reality — is over. The mental gymnastics involved just weren’t worth the effort. It felt too much like keeping two sets of ledgers: one set of books with cooked numbers that add up to God and another set that actually make sense.
Honk if you’re a skeptic
The paragraph that linked to my post reads as follows:
For me personally, being a Christian in light of historical criticism and other scholarly approaches means accepting a high degree of Christian agnosticism. There are things that we simply cannot know, and so we must learn to embrace doubt, not necessarily as an end, but at the very least as a means to exploring our faith and living it. It is crucial to move away from dogmatic certainty to humble service.
But as we know, doubt is a very corrosive substance. It dissolves the wall of faith and lets us hear our true, inner voice. I think of the father of the demoniac who cried: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Christianity has long held that its faith is different, in that its savior character was and is an actor in human history. Its heroes and gods did not exist in some distant, fairy-tale past. No, they are tangible, present, real, “with us.” The crisis of faith for a Christian is especially traumatic, not only because it changes our view of the invisible supernatural world, but because it changes everything — how we think we know about the past, the present, and the future. It changes how we view ourselves in relationship to the world. Are we the apple of God’s eye, or just a tiny speck on a rock that’s hurtling through space?
When I was finally honest with myself and looked at the universe the way it really is, the idea of “exploring our faith” was the last thing on my mind. My faith lay motionless, blown apart like the corpse of great Tiamat. I didn’t want to investigate that corpse; I wanted to create a new world.
Very few exceptions?
McGrath continues with some unsupportable conclusions.
In doing so, we can continue to find meaning and inspiration in the traditions and stories of our faith. Everyone tells stories, and everyone has faith, with perhaps a very few exceptions. But most atheists, like most religious people, find ways of persuading themselves that life is worth living, [in the hope] that making the world a better place for future generations is worthwhile. None of that can be proven using scientific, historical, or any academic tools. It is a faith, a conviction. [emphasis mine]
It’s hard to know where to start, but I suppose some definitions are in order. In the actual post, he links to some pedantic piffle. If you’re really interested, you can go over to the Matrix and follow his links. Suffice it to say that the words “belief” and “faith” in English cover very broad scopes, and very often confused thinkers will use the loosest possible definitions of the words as the camel’s nose in the tent. McGrath links to a blog post in which the author says his “minimal definition” of faith is “assent to a proposition that is conceviably [sic] false.” (Randal Rauser, PhD)
First, if you didn’t already know, “minimal definition” is a specific conceptual term. It refers to the shortest, most concise description of a word to which the majority of speakers of a given language within a specific domain would agree. But note the inherent problems with this strategy. It’s one thing to ask what “democracy” means within the framework of political discourse. It’s a far different thing to ask what the minimal definition of “faith” is within the domain of the English language. I just took out my trusty old Compact OED to see how many main-heading definitions the word “faith” has. If you’re interested in how many I found, it’s 14.
Trust is a must or your game is a bust*
Within the broad spectrum of the word “faith,” I suppose one common theme comes through (at least in the OED), and that’s the matter of trust. That is to say, when we trust an individual or a system of beliefs we say we have “faith” in it. On the other hand, within the theological realm there is some very specific baggage that comes with “faith.” We’re often talking about articles of faith — viz., the minimum number of things you must believe. It isn’t about assenting to a proposition; it’s about reciting a credo.
When I say I believe in evolution, I don’t have faith in it. Science doesn’t require faith. If I were more careful with my language I would say, “I assent to the proposition of evolution.” And if evidence came along that disproved it, I would withhold my assent. Religious faith does not work that way. In the religious realm faith often requires “belief in the authenticity of divine revelation.” It is the blind, unquestioning acceptance of divine truth, not the conditional assent to a logical proposition.
Rauser’s minimal definition fails not only because the scope is undefined and far too broad, but because it is a distinction without a difference. All propositions are conceivably false. He isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know. It is therefore utterly useless.
The question is whether we hold to those beliefs (which could be false) because of evidence and logic or because we are convinced they are required for salvation. A distinctive feature of religious faith is the way we cling to beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. If I “have faith” in my friend Frank to come pick me up at 5:00 PM, but he never shows up, my faith is shaken. I’m disappointed in Frank. On the other hand, if I “have faith” in God to answer prayer, but my wishes don’t come true, then surely “God works in mysterious ways.” My faith is not shaken.
So clearly we’re talking about different kinds of faith and belief. Believing in the Son of God is different from believing that it will rain tomorrow. One is a postulate that we cannot and will not deny. The other is a forecast based on probability.
In short, atheists, rational materialists, freethinkers (whatever label you prefer) do not have the kind of faith McGrath is talking about. He is projecting his worldview on others. This is the trap of “walking a mile in another man’s shoes.” Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.
* A famous quote from Hall-of-Fame bowler, Billy Welu.