Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"The will to believe"


“So, I take it you disagree with Pascal and William James then, when they talk about things like going to church and reading the Bible in order to gain faith?”

Several issues to sort out:

1.Pascal and James have very different positions. Pascal was a Christian. James was not. James was a religious pluralist.

James isn’t attempting to offer a model of Christian faith. Rather, James is offering a model of decision-making.

2.As everyone should know by now, James was opposing Clifford. Clifford made the famous or infamous statement that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Clifford’s developed position has rather more merit than this hyperbolic claim would suggest. Still, his position was open to criticism.

James makes the point that we often lack the luxury of inaction or the suspension of belief. That, in real life, we are frequently confronted with forced options. That we have to make momentous choices with inadequate information.

And he makes the further point that inaction can be just as consequential as action, even if you make the wrong choice. Both action and inaction carry a risk. You can do wrong by doing something, or doing nothing. Indecision is, itself, a decision to the contrary.

Let’s also keep him mind that his position is bound up with his pragmatic theory of the truth.

I happen to think there is some merit in his position. It’s responsive to a real world situation. It reflects the strengths and limitations of pragmatism.

In any event, it is not a model of Christian faith. Some professing Christian has exploited his essay as a way giving them permission to be Christians.

But it’s a mistake to equate his response to Clifford with saving faith, as Scripture defines it.

3.As to Pascal, he had a very dramatic conversion experience. No one was more concerned with urgency of having a living faith in the living God than Pascal. Unlike James, Pascal is in a position to speak from personal Christian experience.

But Pascal was also an Augustinian Catholic. He believed in the efficacy of the sacraments (ex opera operato) as a means of grace.

He is not suggesting that attending Mass is a substitute for faith. Rather, it is, for him, a belief-forming mechanism. A way of coming to faith.

That is not at all the same thing as make-believe or keeping up appearances. Rather, it’s a means to an end.

I don’t agree with his sacramentology, but in a broader sense he is correct to say that the best way and often the only way to acquire Christian experience is to situate yourself in a Christian environment.

The setting doesn’t guarantee the acquisition of faith, but absenting yourself from Christian influence will nearly guarantee the opposite.

4.Once again, one would have to be a pretty poor student of Scripture to suppose that doubt is automatically damnatory.

There are paradigm examples in Scripture of true believers who suffered from an element of doubt. Abraham in the OT, as well as the disciples in the NT.

There are, in addition, paradigm examples in Scripture of true believers who suffered a (temporary) crisis of faith (e.g. Job, Asaph, Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist).

5.Is doubting God a theological virtue? No. It’s a sin.

But Christians can sin. Christians are sinners. Not every sin is damnable. Not every sin is the unforgivable sin.

And there’s something worse than doubting. That is a façade of faith. To be an unbeliever on the inside, but a believer on the outside.

6.There are also occasions when doubt can be a good thing. A professing believer may be a nominal believer or immature believer.

He begins to entertain doubts about his religious upbringing. He may backslide.

But he may also pass through his crisis of faith and come out the other side in much better shape. Doubt can be instrumental to true faith, or to a well-founded faith.

“Besides, everything you wrote is missing the point. My point is that for a Christian operating with the assumption that Christianity is true, he or she does not want to entertain doubts. Doubts can lead to hell. Doubts can lead to the displeasure of God. So since Christians have this aversion against doubting, they also have a very difficult time truly investigating their faith. It's like there is this wall built up around their faith. They are afraid to entertain the very things that any (more or less) dispassionate investigation requires. And if that's the case, they cannot truly assess the truth claims of what they believe, unlike someone without those same fears.”

You’re simply repeating your original claim without addressing the counterarguments.

An unspoken and unsupported assumption of your contention is doxastic voluntarism, according to which the cognitive subject either allows himself to doubt or disallows doubt.

If that’s your operating assumption, then you need to defend it. If that’s not your operating assumption, then your argument doesn’t hang together.

An individual who consciously suppresses his doubts is already a doubter. He just won’t admit it to himself or others.

So your dilemma remains. Either he’s a doubter or he’s not. If he continues to believe in hell, then, to that extent, he is not a doubter. The fear of hell assumes a belief in hell.

If he continues to believe that faith is pleasing to God, then, to that extent, he is not a doubter. Believing that faith is pleasing to God assumes a belief in God.

It isn’t possible to please a nonexistent God. And to the degree that someone doubts the existence of God, he will doubt that faith is pleasing to God. Faith in what? Faith in God? But if God himself is an object of doubt instead of faith, then the fear of displeasing God is, itself, a dubious proposition.

You have yet to lay out a coherent position.

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    Nice try, but I just make statements and assertions. I don't have time for argumentation, I leave that to you and your little henchmen. I'll just keep refering you to the Outsider Test. That's my stock argument against the faith, I've gotten more milage out of that one than the Chevy I drove when I went to TEDS for a semester. Anyway, you know you're afraid of your doubts Steve. (Bela Lagosi voice)OOOOOHHhhhhh, Steve has doubts. All Christians are afraid to face the truth, WOOooooo (spooky wind sounds). You're just in self-denial. Someday you'll come to your senses....like me.