|This appears to be the only picture of Van Harvey available. He's the one in the hat, I think.|
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.
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.