Defending Fideism

As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.

Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.

Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.

The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.

Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.

The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question.  This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.

Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.

Working Thesis

The thesis that I’ll be working on in the spring, I hope, will consider and argue for a singular idea (and this may not be its final form, but this is what I keep kicking around in my head):

When humans evaluate empirical data and rational arguments to make a religious commitment, they are only capable of doing so from a foundation of pre-formed desire (for what they believe is “good” or “true”), which is in turn shaped by experience and habit.

In other words, we are incapable of evaluating reason or evidence objectively, especially as it relates to reason or evidence about religious claims. The evaluation of such information is determined by what we believe is good or beautiful or true about the world. Theologically, I think this might mean that, in order for us to make a decision to become a Christian, something internal must be changed before we are capable of evaluating any information presented about Christian claims and affirm those claims on the basis of the arguments with which we are presented.

That internal change that is required to evaluate the information and make that faith decision is formed by a complex web of factors, including social and political contexts, individual experience, and the habits (or cultural/religious liturgies) in which we participate.

I’m going to attempt to prove this idea with a range of philosophical/theological ideas, and I’m hoping to also discuss the implications of the idea as well (i.e., How do we deal with this? How do our current cultural habits and practices [materialism, constant political news consumption, the ubiquity of porn, etc.] shape our lived reality?)

This idea is really intriguing to me. I had already been thinking about it internally for a while, when I was discussing with a friend of mine what my thesis would be about. Initially, I thought I would be doing working on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but I couldn’t nail down exactly what I wanted to write about. During the conversation, we began talking about life and why Kierkegaard is interesting to me, and he suggested that, instead of doing some extended survey on Kierkegaard’s work, I should use the thesis to attempt to prove an idea, specifically this idea.

When I returned to faith, I found that it was not solely arguments for the rationality of faith, nor could any amount of evidence have purely convinced me that Christianity was true. For me, I needed an internal shift, a new way of seeing the world. I was convinced by authors that wrote about the crucifixion as the true standard of beauty in the world, and the notion that there is an underlying goodness at the heart of reality. Those things are not provable, but when I began to internalize those ideas, making a new religious commitment to Christianity again seemed not only plausible, but right.

At Least, Even If

OK, my little system is AT LEAST, EVEN IF. I provide definitions for religious concepts in the form of axioms in a manner that is compatible with naturalism (falsifiable and provable). Even in the sciences, we must admit we don’t have a complete understanding of most concepts, so AT LEAST could be applied to natural concepts too (the Universe, gravity, etc.)

Basically, this is a ground floor which doubt can dip no further. It allows us to always feel intellectually honest about pursuing God, religious ritual, fellowship and even Jesus himself.

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial construct rooted in evolved neurologic features in humans. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace and empathy for others and is warranted.

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of mediation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

The Bible is AT LEAST a set of writings where a people group describes their experience with and understanding of God over thousands of years. EVN IF that is a comprehensive definition of God, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

Jesus is AT LEAST the idea of a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings; he was very likely a real person. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

My Guest Post for Preston Yancey – “Towards Faith, Hope, and Love”

Today I’m guest posting for a blogger named Preston Yancey! Check it out, and follow the link for the whole piece:

Like so many others whose faith suffered in their twenties, mine was birthed during my time at college – specifically at a Bible university. I graduated with a degree in theology, and in the meantime almost lost my faith entirely. Most of my ‘education,’ if you can call it that, consisted of attempted indoctrination. I was taught the tenets of my school’s particular denomination. In the majority of my classes, legitimate questions about the weakness of our denomination’s theological positions were squashed in favor of ‘keeping the faith.’ We wouldn’t want those with weaker faith to stumble, would we?

http://prestonyancey.com/blog/2013/11/anonymous

Overgrown (or Life after Deconstruction)

We are all in a state of becoming. All changing, all growing, all dying, all decaying. Bending, breaking, repairing, rotting.

There is no other reality but change. Stagnation, though perhaps perceived, does not exist.

front-cover-of-love-wins

Over the last couple of years, my faith has been in various states of crisis. It started with something small (namely, reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins). Up to that point, I had done very little questioning of my understanding of Christianity. I believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, hell was eternal conscious torment, and the Bible was inerrant (among other things).

Rob Bell, however, changed many of my assumptions. Poor exegesis of some biblical passages aside, I began to think, to question, to doubt.

What if hell isn’t real? What if I’ve misunderstood all along? What if God isn’t who I think God is? Have I simply accepted the story I’ve been given without hesitation?

Love Wins was the gentle push I needed to look over the edge of the cliff of my own certainty, my own satisfaction that my story was the ‘right’ one, that I had the answers. (Let me just say, I recognize my story is hardly novel. This type of encounter seems to be a common occurrence among young conservative evangelicals right now.)

how-not-to-speak-of-god

It was sometime after this point that I encountered the philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. If Rob Bell forced me to look over the edge of the cliff, Peter Rollins pushed me off. In fact, Peter Rollins’s theology – up through Insurrectionwas the focus of my senior thesis. I spent hours and hours of  my life consumed by his work. His first book, How (not) to Speak of God, helped move me past simply questioning some ‘secondary’ doctrines (at this point in my journey, I could still consider myself an evangelical) towards questioning my acceptance of orthodox Christianity completely. I became (in Rollins’s terms) an a/theist. In other words, the binary between atheism and theism broke for me. I gained a desire to lose any conception of ‘God’ which, according to Pete, functions as an idol – for ‘God’ is unable to be contained within any conception or idea (including that of the biblical writers).

The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection were the next two books that deeply impacted my faith and understanding of ‘God.’ Fidelity helped me view the Word not as contained within the biblical text, but as an Event that the Bible (among other things) pointed to. While the text itself was cracked, its broken nature does not make it incapable of conveying the divine Word. This is not the only thing Fidelity speaks to, but was the theme that most affected me.

Finally, Insurrection helped me walk through utter darkness. By using the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus as models for our own lives. Following Jesus’ cry – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – I underwent the experience of God-forsakenness. This kind of atheism (not an intellectual one, per se, but certainly one felt at the core of one’s being) was, and will always be an integral part of my faith journey. The way of the cross, in my own life, involved the loss of religious foundation. Just as Jesus loses all identity on the cross (e.g., social, economic, political, religious), so I gave up all of my assurance in ‘God’ and Christianity. ‘God’ was no longer the deus ex machina, the object that exists to make sense of the things that don’t. Though I don’t feel as though I’m in that place anymore, I agree with Pete that this is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. Resurrection then became for me a method of living post-Crucifixion. It was an acceptance of the inherent meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion. This Resurrection-life is not a rejection of the meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion experience, but its purpose is to allow humans to love in the midst of non-meaning.

What was I to do after this? After having existential crisis after existential crisis, I felt lost in a sea of non-meaning. Though Rollins’s call to create meaning via love in the midst of the utterly mundane is meant to help rob those things of their sting, something still felt missing. I tore down every bit of belief that I had – up to, and including, the belief in ‘God.’ Some days I felt like I could maybe affirm ‘God’s’ existence (What kind of existence, I wasn’t sure. Is God a person? An actual object? Love itself?), but other days, the notion of ‘God’ was ludicrous – like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

The problem, for me, was that this wasn’t enough. Not that love itself wasn’t enough, but that there was more. Something deep, something divine, that is a part of the very fabric of reality itself. No matter how hard I tried, I could never really shake the feeling, deep within me, that there is something beyond the physical. My doubts about their existence haven’t gone away (and probably won’t). But the fact is I cannot deny that ‘hum’ I feel deep within the core of my very existence. That feeling was not that everything is meaningless but that everything was full of meaning, and not simply because it has some kind of ‘personal meaning’ to me.

This is also not to mention that I don’t have any real desire to leave Christianity. In it, I find beauty, life, love, hope, justice, and mercy. And there seem to be deep truths within Christianity that resonate with my experience of Reality.

So, this is where I start. I have torn everything down. It is now time to rebuild. My desire is to rebuild a sustainable, hopeful, honest, broken, loving faith. One that is not based on guilt; one that is not simply a false creation-of-meaning in the midst of anti-supernaturalism. There is something to be said for the loss of the divine (Jesus did it!). But there is also something to be said for the existence of sacredness, the source of life as divine. In light of this, here are the five things that I affirm, on faith, about Christianity:

  1. The Crucifixion and the physical Resurrection of Jesus
  2. The Incarnation – that Jesus was and is the peasant-God
  3. The Trinity – that God exists as three separate, yet united, entities
  4. The Inspiration (but not inerrancy!) of Scripture
  5. The Atonement of humanity, by God, is at least our salvation from what would otherwise be a destructive system of violent sacrificial scapegoating

As far as the rest is concerned, I’m wide open or skeptical (or both). Some days, I will be plagued by doubt. Other days, I will be confident in the things I believe. In spite of this ebb and flow of doubt and ‘belief,’ my desire is to remain faithful to the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

Losing a Spring (Thoughts on Evolution)

If you’re at all familiar with Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, you’ll know that one of the metaphors he uses for our understanding and faith is a trampoline (as compared to a brick wall). He says that some people’s faith is formed like a brick wall, where each brick is a specific belief within one’s faith. However, he says the problem with this kind of faith is that, when a few bricks are lost, the wall comes crumbling down. This can be compared to a person who is a Christian and perhaps discovers that some doctrine within his or her faith is proven, beyond doubt, to be wrong. Let’s say, for example, that Mary wasn’t actually a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, and that he was actually conceived the way everyone else was. For many people, this would cause the collapse of their faith in the Truth of Christianity.

Bell argues that we need a different way of looking at faith. The trampoline metaphor – though it does have its flaws – may provide something useful. He says that if our faith is viewed more like a trampoline, where each spring is a doctrine, this changes things. If you lose a spring on a trampoline, for example, you hardly lose anything at all. Not only that, but you can still keep jumping. If your faith works like this, you become less likely to be shaken in your faith if something like the above situation happens. I’m not saying (and neither is Bell) that the virgin birth isn’t real. Actually, I believe in it. I’m just saying that if it was somehow proven not to have happened, I wouldn’t give up on Christianity, because I believe in its Truth as a whole.

One of those “doctrines” I’ve been thinking about lately is the concept of creationism versus evolution. I understand that Genesis records God creating the heavens and the earth, all the animals, people, and so forth. However, it is striking that the creation account is extremely similar to other ancient cultures’ creation myths. While it is not a replica, it is certainly similar. This begs the question of whether or not we should see the Genesis creation account as a literal retelling of events or as a way of understanding Israel’s origins.

I am by no means an expert on this. However, I have been doing quite a bit of reading lately online. If you’re interested and have time, check out some of these blog posts by other writers. They have some interesting things to say:

Tad Delay

Kurt Willems

Peter Enns

It should be noted that most biblical scholars and theologians in academia have already gotten past this question. Evolution isn’t just a “theory,” as many of us were taught in Sunday school and youth group. It’s so widely accepted as to be considered fact. If Evangelicalism at large is unable to accept something like this, it will continue to lose its viability in the present world.

I also want you to know I’m not saying that I think evolution and whatever other things we know about the origin of the universe or world happened on its own. I believe in a creator God that does things we don’t understand. Evolution, for me, is completely compatible with a truly biblical Christianity.

Would You Embrace Unknowing?

How often do we actually question our beliefs?

It seems to me that the general problem with most people is that they (including myself) can easily say, “I believe this but I could be wrong,” while still acting as if they know that they are absolutely correct in their assumptions. Honestly, if that were actually true, we wouldn’t be so sure of our beliefs.

I am not saying that skepticism about everything is the answer. I do not wish for people to simply reject all the systems with which they believe and decide to not believe in anything. That is impossible. We are all given a story when we are born.

For example, I am white, male, and from the south. The chances of me growing up in a Christian (read: Evangelical) family or community were pretty high. It may not be solely for this reason that I am a Christian – I understand that there are those born outside of traditions that willingly take part in them. What makes me think I can be arrogant enough to simply assume that those stories are “correct,” simply because I was born into Evangelicalism?

There are a multitude of ways to express Christianity. Think of Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Methodism; the list could go on and on. Simply because I operate with a certain hermeneutic of Scripture and interpretation of the Christian tradition, it doesn’t mean that I have Christianity “right.” For that matter, I’m coming to think maybe there isn’t a “right” way (in the sense that we think of labels like “right” and “wrong”) of being a Christian. And perhaps this even works outside of Christianity. Simply because I am a part of a tradition that has perpetuated a certain understanding about life, death, the afterlife, unbelief, heaven, hell, and so on, does not mean I can automatically assume my “rightness.”

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying this so that Christians will question their beliefs to the point of unbelief. I am simply asking for Christians to be willing to honestly question our beliefs. To put them on the chopping block, so to speak, with the willingness to give them up if they are shown to be unTruth (yes, Truth with a capital T). This is the only way we will be true believers. Otherwise, our faith is misguided. We are arrogant if we assume anything else.