Friday, June 04, 2004

The many flavors of fideism

Fideism is a common phenomenon in Christendom. And it is generally used as a term of abuse. Hence, it is important for us to define our terms and sort out the varieties and various motives giving rise to fideism.

I. Exposition:

In the nature of the case, fideism tends to be anti-intellectual. Hence, it is somewhat elusive of definition, for it amounts to a rather fuzzy, nugatory position. In general, fideism opposes faith to reason, and places faith above reason. But this is so vague that it could mean almost anything, so let us break the question down into different answers given by different schools of fideism.

1. Pragmatic fideism.

Many believers are too unsophisticated to know how to answer objections to the faith. They become flustered and intimidated when confronted with such objections. A class case is the Christian college student who comes out of a reflexive and unreflective Christian environment, and is suddenly thrown into a social environment hostile to his hereditary and unquestioning faith.

Having no ready-made answers or mental discipline, one reaction is to retreat into the citadel of his fideistic will-power. He has faith in faith. The act of faith becomes a self-validating exercise.

This form of fideism is basically a defense mechanism or default-setting, in the absence of a positive counteroffensive.

2. Dogmatic fideism.

Many believers are committed to a theological tradition or another which assigns a large role to mystery. God is believed to be almost ineffable. We know not what he is, but what he is not. Or else, it is said that the relation between various articles of the faith presents the mind with evident and irreconcilable antinomies. So these teachings must be held in a state of tension, affirming them separately without attempting to relate them. Indeed, any effort at harmonization is deemed to be downright impious.

So (2) has a theological basis, unlike (1). Yet someone raised in (2) will fall back very easily on (1).

3. Liberal fideism.

Some professing believers have divided intellectual loyalties. They believe that precritical faith is simply incredible. But they still wish to retain a foot in the church.

So they compartmentalize faith and reason and devise insulating strategies to safe-guard a little corner for faith. They redefine the scope of faith, relegating it to the confines of an airtight, climate-controlled hothouse where it can flourish on its own, shielded from direct and deadly contact with the outside elements.

Traditional terms and categories are retained, but redefined, as a code language, with a different set of truth-conditions.

These range along the left-hand of the theological continuum from mediating theologians—who continue to honor some remnants of traditional orthodoxy—to Christian-coated infidels—who don’t believe in God at all.

II. Evaluation


i) One problem with this maneuver is that those who resort to it the most are least equipped to shoulder the burden. They repair to faith because their faith has been shaken by reason, or what appears to be reason. So they’re making more demands on their faith at the very time in which their faith is overtaxed. To fall back on faith during a crisis of faith is like trying to clamber one's way out of a gravel pit.

ii) Faith without reason is only as strong as we happen to feel at any given moment. And our feelings are calibrated to our physical and emotional well-being. Putting faith in faith is a form of self-cannibalism that repays ever-diminishing returns. It places a boulder on the wobbly shoulders of a weak-kneed believer who is least able to bear up under the personal pressure.

A few ounces of solid reason are worth a ton of will-power. Uncovering the rational foundations of faith lays a solid foundation for intellectual security, not insecurity. Paving over the fault-lines does not forestall an earthquake. If you suffer from intellectual doubts and impediments to faith, then the best remedy is to answer your doubts and remove your impediments.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have the answers to everything. But, again, one benefit of knowing why you believe is that it helps you to discriminate between what answers you can and cannot live without by teaching you what questions are important and answerable.

iii) Often, too, the proper object of faith is lost sight of in fideism. Faith is not self-referential. Faith does not supply its own object. This is not, or ought not to be, a question of my will-power, of my will to believe—as if faith were a mirror or human monument. Faith is not about me and my will, but about God and God’s will.

iv) A beleaguered believer needs to remind himself that, in the church, different members have different gifts and callings. The fact that he may not feel cut out to do apologetics doesn’t mean that he should turn against sanctified reason. Rather, it means that he should delegate the task of defending the faith to a fellow believer who does have a vocation in apologetics.

v) At the same time, it is easy for a Christian to sell himself short. He may have more intellectual aptitude that he is aware of.

vi) It is often said that Scripture assumes rather than proves the existence of God. But this is a half-truth. It is true that Scripture never treats the existence of God as an open question. God is the foundation for everything else.

On the other hand, most of Scripture is addressed to the community of faith, so there is rarely occasion even to raise the issue. When, however, the Bible is addressed the unbeliever, as in Isaiah’s indictment of idolatry (Isa 40-48), or Paul’s speech before the Areopagus, it does make a case for faith.



i) This argument is only as good as the argument for the theological tradition that underwrites it. So it only pushes the problem back a step. Why believe that God is ineffable? Why believe in dialectical theology?

ii) "Faith" means more than one thing. "Faith" can mean conviction, a conviction founded on trustworthy testimony or self-evident intuition.

Or faith can mean "taking on faith" something you don’t know to be true. You hope it’s true, and you act as thought it’s true.

Now certainly there are cases in Scripture where a believer simply takes God’s word for it, without any corroborative evidence, or even in the teeth of apparently contrary evidence.

So you might say that he’s taking something on faith, and yet he’s not taking everything on faith. He believes in the promise of God because he knows that God has given him this promise.

iii) It is licit to invoke mystery as a result of exegesis; it is illicit to invoke mystery as an exegetical short-cut.

iv) One of the problems with dogmatic fideism is that it lacks a principled criterion for telling when and when not to apply the harmonistic principle. For example, universalism, conditional immortality, and everlasting punishment have all found proponents who cite Scripture in defense of their doctrine.

Yet conservative churches otherwise amenable to irreconcilable tensions in theology are quick to reconcile the Biblical data to the exclusion of one or more rival views on the afterlife.

v) These churches almost make it an article of faith that certain articles of faith are paradoxical. But the Bible itself never says that. This is, at most, a subjective impression that some readers receive when they study Scripture and do systematic theology.

And this impression is often generated by certain preconceived notions they bring to the study of Scripture, such as the one-over-many relation, or relation between time and eternity, or conditions of moral incumbency.

Yet we should never canonize our extra-canonical preconceptions, according them a dogmatic status, and then appeal to that as justification to disdain apologetics. Ironically, to do so is—itself—a tacit appeal to rationalism in defense of fideism.

vi) The conventional terms of the debate tend to prejudice our expectations and options. When you talk about the relation between faith and reason, this treats faith as one thing and reason as another. But, of course, that is one of the very points at issue.

Is this the best way to frame the contrast? Could we not recast the issue as a contrast between divine and human reason? And even though finite reason is naturally subordinate to infinite reason, there is, in this, a reasonable, and not unreasonable, submission of lower reason to higher reason.

vii) There is also the question of whether we have a right to divide the spoils of God’s kingdom, ceding the high ground of reason to the Devil while we reserve the low road of faith for ourselves. Does the devil really have a monopoly on reason? Doesn’t Scripture present infidelity as irrational—even insane?

viii) It is frequently felt that reason is a threat to faith. And it often works out that way, does it not? But if reason can incline to infidelity, ignorance can incline to heresy. So fideism is as much a threat to the faith as unbridled reason.


i) Liberal fideism is a transparent exercise in damage control, and one wonders just who the liberal fideist thinks he’s kidding. He isn’t fooling the outright atheist; he isn’t fooling the conservative. Is he fooling himself? If so, this evinces an unhealthy and insatiable appetite for self-delusion. But oftentimes the exercise is so calculated that it’s hard to think there isn’t an element of willful deception as well. It is, however, psychologically possible to be both a deceiver and self-deceived, to varying degrees.

ii) There is a basic duplicity to liberal fideism. On the one hand, it seems to demote reason, holding reason in low esteem. On the other hand, this is a last-ditch maneuver. It really believes that reason got the better of the argument, that science or philosophy or higher criticism has invalidated precritical faith. Hence, the resort to faith, which appears to promote faith over reason, really assumes a very low view of faith and a very high view of reason. So the paeans to pious faith and existential authenticity are a fairly conspicuous and clumsy charade.

iii) The Christian faith claims to be both true and obligatory because it is a revealed religion, predicated on certain historic events, reflecting the direct intervention of God in time and space. But unless the Christian faith is true on these grounds, it cannot be validated on any other grounds; and unless it is credible on these grounds, it cannot be rendered credible on any other grounds.

iv) Liberal fideism often lays stress on non-cognitive knowledge, on an ineffable, existential encounter with God. But this surrogate is false on two grounds:

a) In this life, we know Christ by description, and not by acquaintance. As John often explains, authentic faith is a matter of knowing and doing the truth. We enter into a personal relationship with Christ by exercising faith in propositions about the person and work of Christ.

b) Unless God is, in some measure, an object of reason, there is no cause for supposing that an existential encounter, however defined, is an encounter with God rather than an undigested apple dumpling.

Another duplicitous feature of fideism, and this is something it shares in common with its principled and liberal forms alike, is that the astute fideist devotes a lot of time and ingenuity to devising a sophisticated case for fideism. But why come up subtle arguments to prove that there’s no need of proof? Why not spend the same time devising subtle arguments to make a positive case for faith?

Instead of rendering a rational justification for the subject of faith—the believer—why not render a rational justification for the object of faith—God and God’s word?


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