Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Advantages of History but None of its Risks

This appears to be the only picture of Van Harvey available. He's the one in the hat, I think.
The title of this piece is, I think, a pretty fair description of what faith, in the religious sense, gives a believer (I've paraphrased it from a better writer than me).

I've long been intrigued by faith, having failed to maintain it myself, and puzzled over the Catholic definition of 'certain' faith. There is always, it seems to me, a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of anyone's faith: it is based on historical events but it refuses to countenance their non-occurrence.

Weird Catholic leaning blog First Things recently posted a piece by Thomas Cothran (an attorney who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, so there) called Against Faith in Faith. He rails against a naive depiction of faith:
Confronted with inadequate evidence for the deeper truths of life, one must conjure up a commitment to ideas for which the subjective act of faith can be the only ground, and one must believe not only in the content of faith but in the faith-act itself. 
This is the faith described by Dennett, Dawkins and Harris, he says, and also professed, embarrassingly, by Christians too (well done for admitting that). Indeed, as I have discussed, William James defends a pragmatic faith against Clifford. Incidentally, for (another!) good discussion of James and Clifford, see this and this from Massimo Pigliucci.

But Cothran wants to draw a different picture of faith:
Far from posing a threat to one’s faith, knowledge reinforces it: the more reason one has to believe in God’s providence, the more readily the believer entrusts himself to God. 
But if one has more reason to believe, that is not faith, but reason. He then attempts to objectify his faith:
The knowledge of faith, rather than relying on the outmoded theories of knowledge where the mind merely represents external objects, is participatory; the act of contemplating the things of God partakes in God’s own Trinitarian activity. The knowledge of faith is not therefore “subjective” in the sense that it happens primarily in the believer, but is “objective” because the believer participates in the eternal activity of the object of faith; the believer’s subjective faith is therefore secondary and derivative.
I have no idea what phrases like "the act of contemplating the things of God partakes in God’s own Trinitarian activity" and "the believer participates in the eternal activity of the object of faith" mean, but Cothran appears to be trying to remove subjectivity from faith. Well, that would be nice, but baffling sentences do not by themselves give faith objectivity. Sadly, Cothran has more in the bank:
The tacit participatory metaphysics in which Christian faith becomes intelligible emphasizes that Christianity is not an abstract system or an existential human possibility, but the ontological union of God and man in time and history through the recapitulative activity of the incarnate Word of God.
Yikes. It's hard to believe someone wanting to make themselves understood put these words together like this. He ends by trying to set aside a faith that is different, I presume, from the faith attacked by Dennett, Dawkins and Harris:
One must attack (or defend) Christian faith where it may actually be found, not in the mind as an idea but as a form of life realized in the historical community established by Jesus Christ.
It's a No true Scotsman defence of faith. But, as he himself pointed out, the problem is that many profess the version of faith he dismisses, so any attack on that version is perfectly justifiable, and there is no 'must' about what is attacked or defended. In any case, his version of faith appears to be incomprehensibly post modern.

I'm currently reading Van Harvey's The Historian & the Believer, which, while exploring the tension between history and belief, includes a chapter on dialectical theology's attempts to set aside faith (in a similar fashion to Cothran) from the attack of the 'rational robots' of the enlightenment. In fact, I find Cothran's blurb reminiscent of Bultmann's, Barth's and Tillich's. Consider this analysis of Barth's view of faith, by Van Harvey:
Faith is...the realisation of the abysmal gulf separating man from God. It is the recognition of the "qualitative distinction between time and eternity." Consequently, faith is closely allied to, if it is not identical with, a recognition of the ambiguity and questionableness of life. (p.132)
I don't begin to understand this, but that, of course, may be my failing. Barth appears to accept the ambiguity that I find troubling, but it's not clear how that helps the situation. In discussing the tension between the historical reality of the resurrection and belief in it, Van Harvey quotes Bultmann as arguing that the Christian faith proclaims to man:
...that in what happened then, however it might have been, God has acted, and through this act of God the Word of divine judgement and forgiveness which now confronts him is authenticated. The meaning of that act of God is nothing other than the actual establishment of this Word - the proclamation of this Word itself. No historical science can control or confirm or reject this affirmation. For that this Word and this proclamation are God's acts stands on the other side of historical observation. (p.143)
Orrly? How convenient that one's beliefs lie "the other side of historical observation". Talking about Tillich's notion of absolute faith, Harvey says:
What seems remarkable about the description of absolute faith is its apparent formlessness, although Tillich, like Bultmann and the early Barth, understands it to be the way of talking about the cruciform structure of faith, the self-surrender and negation of everything finite which brings one into confrontation with the Absolute. (p.147)
(note that the goal appears to be transcendence from our poor finite existence to some absolute infinite, er, existence, or knowledge, perhaps)

Now, I don't begin to understand dialectical theology (as is surely plain), but in Harvey's analysis of Barth's defence of faith in the face of facts, I think he puts his finger on the issue that drives me mad about much apologetic writing: its special pleading (and I quote extensively from the book because I think it's worth it):
To say that Barth's view is an arbitrary one is to say, first of all, that he makes historical assertions on the basis of faith which he then claims no historian has the right to assess. He claims that the bodily resurrection is a guarantee that it was Jesus who appeared to the disciples and yet insists that no historian can, in the nature of the case, assess this claim. He insists that the resurrection was physical and appeals to the story of Thomas in the Fourth Gospel to prove it but deals with none of the numerous critical questions concerning the historical veracity of that Gospel or the function miracle stories have in it. He appeals to the forty-day tradition and the empty-tomb stories but in no way answers the many questions biblical critics have raised about these stories. Consequently, Barth uses the stories to argue for the historical nature of the events but concedes that the stories cannot, from a historical standpoint, stand any critical scrutiny. this leaves the believer in the position of accepting an argument the warrants of which are historical in type but which are, at the same time, confessed to be contradictory and "imaginative-poetic." It leaves the inquirer in the position of having to accept the claims of alleged eyewitnesses or risk the state of being a faithless man, Insofar as the believer wants to be historian, or the historian a believer, he has to surrender the autonomy of critical judgement. Barth, in effect, claims all the advantages of history but will assume none of its risks. (p.157-158)
Spot on, and I would say that many apologists and believers do the same - they are inconsistent in their application of critical judgement. Of course, we all are inconsistent, at times, but it is surely our duty in such weighty matters to eliminate such inconsistencies, and rule out subjective influence where we can.

To sum up, the faith claims of believers are a non-starter without the assumption of rules that they then go on to deny, because those rules threaten their faith. It's a vicious circle, and I don't think obscure redefinitions of faith break that circle, but simply twist it. Cothran's 'historical community' is confirmed by rules that rule out the events that spawned it.


  • Thomas says:
    10 August 2012 at 11:14

    This is what I call the argument from ignorance, in which one who lacks the requisite knowledge to understand an argument professes to find the argument so baffling that it cannot be cogent. The more one lacks the basic background knowledge, the more the fantastic the argument seems; and so the degree of ignorance correlates with the rhetorical power of the argument.

    So, for example, you can profess that "hard to believe someone wanting to make themselves understood put these words together like this," and so long as your readers share your unfamiliarity with philosophy and theology, you can get away with it.

    Now, anyone with basic familiarity with the history of thought will recognize what "participatory metaphysics" refers to. A glancing familiarity with Plato, Aristotle, or Plotinus will be sufficient. Nor will the language of "existential possibilities" be foreign to one familiar with modern philosophy or theology. A bit of Heidegger or Sartre will do.

    The language of ontological union pervades not only the Scriptures and the liturgy, but also sacramental theology and most accounts of soteriology. Whether it's St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Athanasius, or Aquinas, one doesn't have to look far.

    "Recapitulation" may be a bit more difficult, but given that it is the central concept of the first systematic theologian, St. Irenaeus, it's hardly obscure.

    Any brand of atheism that finds these to be "baffling" and concludes that the problem lies not in the reader's own inadequate philosophical background but in the theological arguments wields its own ignorance as a sword. It is strongest, therefore, when it avoids books, abhors the study of history, and occupies itself with something other than intellectual pursuits.

  • Mark Jones says:
    10 August 2012 at 19:51

    Well, thank you, Thomas, for responding - it's nice when folk make the effort, even if anonymous condescension is their style. I'm happy to concede that you are much more knowledgeable than I am, so hopefully that will satisfy your feeling of SIWOTI.

    I have some sympathy with what you say; for example, some theists scoff simple-mindedly at scientific explanations of the universe and human beings, wearing their ignorance like a badge of honour. Right wing tyros make ham-fisted attempts to counter climate science, because they don't like the political consequences that may arise from it. I wouldn't dare to pass judgement on these areas of science, unless I became qualified in them. So, surely, there are similarly difficult and arcane areas of theology that require us to study them before we can pronounce on them, with any confidence?

    Perhaps. The difficulty is to know what these areas are. Very few theologies are right. Maybe all of them are wrong. I have but one short life, so cannot study every last theology dreamt up by man. Perhaps you do have the time? You have studied, I hope, all non-Western theologies, or Mormon theology, or Scientology, to a level that allows you to dismiss them, in a way that an expert in those theologies could not accuse you of what you call the "argument from ignorance"? Or maybe you just ignore those other theologies, because you don't know anything about them? Well, good for you, and I would like to ignore much of the theology you mention too, since I'm ignorant of it. Sadly, Churches based on these theologies, understood by few, keep forcing their views on everyone else, so it turns out those of us who aren't interested in them are forced to take an interest. So much for free will, eh?

    But comments such as yours do pull me up short. I've long been an atheist but have for some time wanted, to be fair to deep thinking theists, to understand these recesses of theology which lie beyond the reach of most believers. To that end I've read Feser and Kenny on Aquinas, I've been studying philosophy (yes, Aristotle and Plato have featured, and even a little Plotinus). I'm no expert on Heidegger and Sartre, but have studied Sartre to a limited degree. Admittedly I'm only *aware* of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St Athanasius, but maybe they will forgive me. Well, probably they won't, obviously. As Terry Eagleton once wrote, maybe atheists should all understand the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace and Moltmann on hope, before they dare to offer an opinion on faith. And here I am reading Van Harvey to try to understand how theologians have tried to resolve the apparent tensions between modern historical method and faith. This is on top of being steeped in a Christian culture from birth and receiving non-stop Christian teaching from the age of three to eighteen. But as you have spotted, I'm *still* wielding a sword made of ignorance; when will my knowledge satisfy the doubting Thomases of this world, I'd like to know? I must be beyond help.

    So, in that case, perhaps it's better for my brand of ignorance wielding atheism to defer to the majority of philosophers who tell us that, in theology, there really is nothing to see here. Are they right, or do you have a good argument that there *is* something to see here? I don't doubt that the arcane language is doing some work (there is philosophy going on, that much is evident), but is the work referencing things that exists, like physics and biology, or is it referencing things that don't exist, like astrology and homeopathy? If you have answered this to your own satisfaction, maybe you could answer it to the satisfaction of others? You being so knowledgeable 'n' all.

    Incidentally, despite moaning about my ignorance, you didn't even bother to address the subject of my post, which is bad manners, imo.

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