Saturday, 9 May 2009

Crucifixion or Freedom?

I’m grateful to Useful Idiot  for pointing out the Roman Catholic definition of faith, of which, despite being baptised RC, I was unaware! I blame my parents.

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.

And further:

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."31 "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."
Para 157

It’s a very puzzling concept as stated, and needs a little unpacking. Not all Christians seem to observe this definition; for example, as I’ve discussed, Anglican priest John Polkinghorne bases his faith on what he considers to be good evidence and Monsignor Rodney Strange holds the (perhaps heretical) belief that *doubt* is linked to faith.

Para 150 seems most analogous to Polkinghorne’s position and, as such, is vulnerable to the same argument I used against him. If a god has revealed the whole truth to one then ‘faith’ is simply following the *reasonable* course of action – why that should be rewarded with an eternity in heaven is obscure. To be fair, perhaps it’s a reward for the searching, the openness to the idea of god? But we all know many people who have searched long and hard for the divinely revealed truth. I was a theist and searched for it, but didn’t find it. I know of ex-theists who haven’t found it. Many a theist appear not to have found it! 

‘Free assent to the whole truth’ is required, invoking, I suppose, the theist’s favourite explanans, free will. Why would anyone say ‘no’ to faith if god has revealed the truth to one? Insanity would appear to be the only answer to that, or perhaps a healthy dislike of all the do-gooders one would have to spend eternity with.

Perhaps the divinely revealed truth isn’t quite as straightforward, or argument-ending, as I’m assuming? This brings us to Para 157; it starts off well – ‘Faith is certain.’ Good. That’s settled it. Founded on the very word of god blah blah... fair enough. Understand that. Then a very odd sentence:

To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, 

This seems to be suggesting there *is* something obscure about divinely revealed truth.

but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."

But this straightaway contradicts this impression. "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives." (quoting St Thomas Aquinas) is plain; once one has been exposed to the divinely revealed truth bathed in divine light one will have no doubt. It’s *better* than natural reason.

So Catholic faith raises a number of questions:

  • The evidence is overwhelming that we are prisoners of our own, sometimes flawed, perceptions, yet Catholics ask us to believe that in this one case, our perceptions can be trusted *absolutely*, presumably because god is all-powerful, supernatural etc. This is an *extraordinary* claim, but could be backed up by *extraordinary* evidence. Unfortunately it isn’t. The weight of evidence suggests no divinely revealed truth is being regularly revealed to good, honest folk; contrarily, various incompatible beliefs are being revealed to people around the world, almost as if these ideas came from... inside their heads. Where is the extraordinary evidence for divinely revealed truth?
  • If one grants there is divinely revealed truth, why would anyone *not* freely assent to it? I’ve never met anyone who said, ‘Yeah, I saw the divinely revealed truth, bathed in divine light – it was incontrovertibly the whole truth. But I said no, not interested. I’m a contrary bastard.’
  • Why the reward for assenting to faith if the truth is certain? This is equivalent to the question in Life of Brian; ‘Crucifixion or freedom?’ It is literally a no-brainer, and hardly something that a god should be rewarding.

Compared to the ‘faith overcoming doubt’ definition of Hebrews 11.1, the Catholic definition seems *even more* logic defying. It does, however, explain why many theists are so confident in their faith. Phenomenal experiences can be very powerful and believable (well, what else do we have!), and the fact that phenomena themselves are, in fact, rather ethereal is not apparent to any of us. How could someone distinguish between a brainstorm apparently revealing the divinely revealed truth and the actual divinely revealed truth (if there were such a thing)? Well one couldn’t, so one would be tempted to accept it. A great exercise of will and reason would be needed to disabuse oneself of the notion, in fact.

Not that, to be honest, I’ve actually met anyone who has admitted such a thing; in so many words, anyway :-).


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