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Library Learnings: Faith and reason: a responsible fideism


 

“There are times,” Peter Ellerton submits, “when invoking the first person [in one’s studied writing] is more meaningful and even more rigorous than not.” He, a lecturer in critical thinking at Australia’s University of Queensland, argues that writers should be “taking responsibility” for their “stances and reasoning.” It was theconversation.com that, in early March, reported his judgment, explaining that writers “should be able to use ‘I’ in an essay which offers their point of view.” In this way, they, as Ellerton puts it, preclude the “false impression of objectivity.” This is one of those times. 
 
Is there a God?
 
Off and on over much of a lifetime, I’ve wondered that. I’m now 77, and I’m still unsure. I want there to be. But, as C. Stephen Evans explains in his book, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense, “The fact that we want to believe in God does not show us that God is real….” [Throughout, the titles of books to be found in the SSUC Library are bold-faced.]
 
He goes on to tell of the famous Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno who “struggled to believe, and the ground of his struggle was his own need for God: ‘And if I believe in God, or at least believe that I believe in him, it is because, more than anything else, I want God to exist, and because his existence is revealed to me in my heart.’” 
 
But wishing won’t make it so. And, oh, how fickle the heart can be, right? If it’s facts you want, if it’s certainty you need, you’ll rely on your mind—on reason and reflection, study and scholarship, learning and knowledge. Which won’t get you there. Sorry.
 
Since forever, human beings have been posing their questions, and using brainpower to answer them. We even ask, and expect to settle existential questions: Why does the universe exist? Why is there anything at all? And we mortals, why do we exist? We’re born—why? We must die—why? Can there really be life after death? Why is there evil? If there are sure-fire answers, I don’t know them. Do you? (We’d not drive ourselves crazy if we heeded Meister Eckhart’s counsel: “Learn to live without a why.”)
 
And, always, there is this ultimate question: Is there a God? 
 
Evans devotes most of his 2015 book to a canvass of what he calls “natural signs for God”. He has the credentials for this work: with a Ph.D. from Yale, he is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Baylor University, and a professorial fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University; earlier, he served as a philosophy prof, and as dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College. 
 
“The natural signs,” he reckons, “point us beyond the world to a mystery.” He presents and elaborates five indicators: “the experience of cosmic wonder; the experience of purposive order; the sense of being morally accountable; the sense of human dignity and worth; and what I call the longing for transcendent joy.” He argues convincingly for each, and, from his premises, concludes that “God’s existence can be reasonably inferred.” But even he, after mounting his apology, cannot but admit that these signs for God “do not provide either knowledge or justified belief.” 
 
In a much earlier book, The Faith to Doubt, published in 1963, M. Holmes Hartshorne reached a similar conclusion: “…No one can doubt that men wish for a divine comforter, and may passionately believe that he exists; but that he exists in fact is quite a different matter. …Neither direct observation nor inference from any particular set of phenomena warrants the conclusion that God exists…. …The assertion that God exists cannot be established to be true because there is no possible empirical evidence to be had in support of it…[although] we can, of course, believe that he exists because that is within the power of our imagination….” 
 
Other writers keep echoing his notions: widely regarded as one of the most influential academic theologians in the world today, David Bently Hart, in his 2013 book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, affirms, “…whether there is a God or not, for truly rationally reflective persons…the question of God never ceases to pose itself anew, and the longing for God never wholly abates.” In his 2008 book, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak, chair of religion, philosophy, and public life at the American Enterprise Institute, believes, “…Our minds can form no adequate conception of Him…. …Humans cannot reach the biblical God…by way of reason alone….”
 
No, cerebration cannot forge a foolproof answer to the question of God. At least it hasn’t awarded me with blessed assurance. Something more is needed. It has a name: faith. 
 
It’s as Ronald Byars affirms in his book, Believer on Sunday, Atheist by Thursday: Is Faith Still Possible? Professor emeritus at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, he declares, “…faith does not depend on reasoned arguments,” and reports, “I don’t know anybody whose faith is the result of a well-made argument. To be intellectually persuaded that God ‘exists’ is not the same thing as having faith.” There is “someplace in us,” he posits, “that is accessed not by intellectual probing, but by trusting ‘the eyes of the heart’.” 
 
While scientific, analytical reasoning “may persuade the mind, it cannot be expected to affect the heart/soul/spirit…. …It is possible to ‘know’ some things quite apart from the scientific method.” Byars goes on to quote from French author Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s famous story, The Little Prince: “‘…one only sees well with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.’” Byars adds, “When we presume to resolve the question of God, for which the answer really matters, we are not in the realm of testable facts….”
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Different kinds of knowledge
 
In Faith Beyond Reason [see below], C. Stephen Evans reports that some languages—though not English—have different terms for different kinds of knowledge: “Kierkegaard’s Danish language is one of those that marks out this distinction by differentiating between videnskab (knowledge by propositions or facts) and kendskab (knowledge by personal acquaintance). …while Kierkegaard strongly denies that religious knowledge is identical with, or the outcome of scientific knowledge, he does affirm the reality of a type of experiential awareness of God.”
 
Evans’ book carries a subtitle: A Kierkegaardian Account. When it comes to Søren Kierkegaard, Evans is an authority, having curated the Hong Kierkegaard Library at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, and having served on the board of the Kierkegaard Research Centre in Copenhagen. The renowned 19th-century Danish Christian philosopher and theologian is considered to be a founder of existentialist thought.
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While he does not dwell on them as Evans does, Byars acknowledges that, “There are many arguments that intend to make the case for the ‘existence’ of God. None of them is airtight, just as none of the many arguments against the ‘existence’ of God is airtight….” So, faith is called for, but even he allows that, “When we try to explain it, we cannot help being very much aware that our explanations might not actually explain anything to…that part of ourselves that craves to know it all, uneasy with mystery.”
 
Is this why I questioned the Lutheran bromide, which I learned at my mother’s knee, “Faith alone”, and have felt it necessary to give thought to such questions as, Is there a God?
 
There seem to be a lot of people who dismiss such headwork. There is a school of thought, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports, that warrants faith is “in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason.” It appears to hold that “reason is unnecessary and inappropriate for the exercise and justification of religious belief.” It “claims that truths of a certain kind”—religious truths being the prime example—“can be grasped only by foregoing rational inquiry, and relying solely on faith.”
 
About this, the eminent contemporary American philosopher Alvin Plantinga is contemptuous: in searching for religious truths, such people “disparage and denigrate reason,” and, instead, embrace an “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone.”
 
This disesteemed philosophical doctrine has a name: fideism [pronounced, fē-dā-ism, fee-dei-zm]. It’s something that C. Stephen Evans is trying to rehabilitate.
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In a roundabout way
 
I am, I expect, a fideist. Of the kind, I hasten to add, that Evans champions—see below: in my thinking about God, I go as far as my all-too-human reason will take me, and if that’s not far enough, which it isn’t, I can only go farther on faith. What’s more, I’ve been a fideist, I suspect, at least since my mid-teens…though I didn’t know I was one until I was in my mid-70s. In fact, I’d never heard the word until then.
 
That’s true, even though fideism seems “to have entered the philosophical lexicon, by way of theology, in the late 19th century,” the Stanford Encyclopedia mentions. “Although of late-modern vintage, the term ‘fideism’ has since been applied retrospectively to thinkers at least as far back as the 2nd century CE.” Often, the early Christian author Tertullian [155-220 CE] is cited as a fideist, for example. 
 
I learned of fideism, belatedly, and in a roundabout way, when The Spong Group, the religion book discussion crew at Sherwood Park United Church, considered Lloyd Geering’s 2014 Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic. In it, he mentions how, “30 years ago an anonymous well-wisher sent me through the post a little book entitled The Faith to Doubt, by the American scholar Holmes Hartshorne. I found it an exciting text, and have treasured it ever since.”
 
Intrigued, I ferreted out, bought, and read a used copy—it’s long out of print—and, like Geering, found it heady: “The vitality and integrity of the intellectual life lie precisely in its ceaseless probing and questioning. It is choked to death by fixed and final answers.”
 
But who was this writer, M. Holmes Hartshorne? In searching for him online—he turned out to have been for 30 years an esteemed professor of theology and religion at Colgate University—I came upon an entry in self-proclaimed “agnostic atheist” Ken Pulliam’s blog entitled simply “Fideism”. In it, he introduced Hartshorne who, he was sure, chooses to believe in God, but “realizes it [his belief] is based on faith, and not reason.”
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In an earlier book of his, Faith Beyond Reason, Evans upholds what he calls “responsible fideism”. This 1988 book is one in Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company’s Reason & Religion series. Series editor Paul Helm explains Evans’ view “that genuine religious knowledge is grounded in faith beyond reason”; more, the author offers up “a critical analysis of the limits of reason that reason itself can recognize as sound.” 
 
Faith, in Evans’ view, “is warrantable where reason reaches its limits,” the Stanford Encyclopedia attests, all the while allowing, “one version of fideism seems unavoidable for the reflective believer.” Indeed, Evans’ take is, it adds, “One of the most carefully argued contemporary defences of fideism….” He distinguishes what he calls “’responsible’ forms of fideism from various irrationalistic alternatives.” Faith, he contends, “can appropriately take over where reason leaves matters of ultimate concern unresolved. Drawing on Kierkegaard’s thought, Evans contends that, while there are limits to reason, they are limits which it is reasonable for reason to acknowledge.” Faith “is ultimately compatible, in his view, with a duly self-critical intellect.” 
 
When it comes to religious truths…if that’s what they be…human reason cannot confirm them. “…if God is real,” Evans states, “then the nature of his reality cannot be regarded as subject to the limitations of my intellect. When human reason attempts to understand God, and think through such concepts as omnipotence and perfect goodness, it is operating outside its natural element.” If “reason insists that there is nothing that lies outside its power,” then it’s fooling itself. “…reason must recognize both its finitude and its own ‘damaged’ character—it must see that its tendency to reject the object of faith is due to a prideful, egotistic character that is in fact an impediment to truth.”
 
He sums up his argument in the last sentence he writes: “Faith enables human beings to move beyond the limitations of finite, fallen human reason.” It’s what enables Evans, in the other of his books, to affirm, “In the end, I can only offer my human testimony”: there is a God.  
 
And if you think otherwise? Well, Evans doesn’t care. On the third last page of Faith Beyond Reason, he writes, “…In any case, it is my life that is at stake, so why should I not follow what seems to me after careful reflection to be truth, even if others do not share my perspective?” 
 
Ken Fredrick