Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Faith: Virtue or Vice?

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
Martin Luther

That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which appears to our eyes to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black. For we must undoubtingly believe, that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of the Orthodox Church His Spouse, by which Spirit we are governed and directed to Salvation, is the same.
St Ignatius Loyola

Faith: virtue or vice?

The value of faith is something I have taken for granted most of my life. Only three things last forever faith, hope and love and faith more than anything else in the evangelical worldview is understood as the key to one’s salvation. Yet like so many things faith comes at a price and that price is reason.

Can faith and reason coexist? Growing up this question did not concern me much. Instead I focused on the value of faith and grooming it in any and all possible ways. I knew the truth of Christ’s work in his life, death and resurrection. I knew that it was by grace we were saved through faith and so I sought to mature my faith and to trust the God I believed in with my whole heart. In my pursuit of maturity I studied the bible constantly and soon I studied theology, then history and then I examined other religions and philosophy. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned as I studied was how little I knew. With each book I read and each class I took I found more and more ideas, events and people that I simply never knew existed. Soon my faith began to shake because as I looked at so many other systems of belief and thought I had to try and find a way to justify why I held the beliefs I did while rejecting the ones I learned about. The longer I tried to do this the more I found faith unhelpful in justify itself. Faith couldn’t provide any answers rather it simply told me to stop asking questions and just believe what I was taught oh so long ago as a child. So in my effort to justify and save my faith I turned to another source to do it and that was reason. I began to question more critically the things I had been taught in order to measure them fairly and equally over and against other systems of belief and prove to myself that my faith was in fact the true one. Instead as I did this I came to find that there were just as many holes in my own belief system as those of the other religions, sects and philosophies I was studying. As I placed my own faith under the microscope I had to laugh as I began to see that all along I had been using reason in order to show the shortcomings and inadequacies of other faiths and yet I had never bothered to place my own faith under that same microscope. As I have been willing to place more and more of my own Christian beliefs under the examination of unattached reason I have found them to be filled with numerous shortcomings and inadequacies of their own. This process has taken years but the further I move from the faith of my childhood the harder it becomes to understand how such a faulty system could hold such great sway over me.

Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola were giants in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. As I read their words I cannot but be saddened in the sheer foolishness of their ideas. Their words seem to be built upon fear and arrogance as much as anything else. But in a way they were wise for truly the best way to defend any system of thought is to say it demands faith in order to be correctly followed. Faith is not meant to be questioned, studied or examined rather it is meant to be followed blindly, which is great for those in charge. Few things are as abhorrent to me as blind faith. Far more often then not it produces the fruit of ignorance, apathy and hate. The attraction of blind faith is of course it provides you the reassurance that you are safe and that you know everything you need to know. Basically it “frees” you to not ask difficult questions about the world around you further it encourages you to be lazy. One of the things I have found the most valuable about philosophy is the work ethic it instills in those who would pursue it. Truth may be the goal of both the prophet and the philosopher but it is the philosopher who works hard in pursuit of it while the prophet sits around waiting for it to drop from the sky. The prophet accepts the truth to be whatever he is told whereas the philosopher takes what he is told and questions it, examines it and then decides. The key to the philosopher’s pursuit of truth is disinterest. Disinterest is not the same as uninterest rather it means the philosopher comes at questions of truth without predetermined answers. The philosopher accepts the fact that the truth may turn out to be unsavory but does not let that hinder his quest or persuade him to use simpler, faster and yes inadequate means to finding the truth such as revelation. The divine game of telephone that is revelation is not enough for the philosopher. Even if the sky itself parts and God speaks telling the philosopher what is true the philosopher would still have to question what he was told because the truth of an idea should not be determined by who is speaking but by the validity of the idea itself. If God spoke to me I honestly hope I would remain “faithful” enough to the honest pursuit of truth that I would make sure to openly question what I was told. “Because I said so” may be an answer that a child is willing to accept for a time but it does not take long even for a child to see the inadequacy of such an answer. Faith is saying okay while reason is asking why.

Can faith be reasonable? I don’t know it seems to me like the answer is no. If faith could be obtained through the use of reason then it would no longer be faith. As I read the words of Luther and Ignatius I can see why so many people have died throughout history in the name of religion it is because faith demands unquestioned obedience and so few were brave enough or more likely so few were diligent enough to scrutinize the faith they were handed. The beauty of faith for Luther and Ignatius was that it made their belief system impenetrable to critique from the inside but it also made them equally useless from the outside. To an unbiased or unconnected seeker there is no way to pick one system over the other for both reject reason and demand blind faith and as seen before blind faith cannot justify itself to those on the outside genuinely seeking the truth. Faith is useless to the honest seeker.

Faith comes with a dark side one that more often then not is manipulated by those who see it and hidden from those do not know it exists. Faith seeks to trap those under it from seeing its other side. It demands that what is white must be seen as black simply because someone else says it is. Now if that doesn’t raise a red flag then I do not know what else can. The words of Luther and Ignatius are clear, faith demands blind obedience above all else and that is truly disheartening. So then if faith is a virtue then reason must be a vice and so I say give me the vice of reason, give me the sin of doubt, give me the depravity of inquiry, give me the wickedness of study and give me the corruption of thought because these vices work hard to discover the truth and are not satisfied with the answer which is provided by faith, “because I said so.” So thank you Luther and Ignatius for showing so clearly the true virtue of faith.


  1. I would tend to disagree, though my argument may not be as clear as yours. I would state that discernment serves as a companion to faith in Christianity. While we are required to act on faith, several passages in the Bible clearly teach on the need to discern what truth is. Now I don’t necessarily agree with the Living Word ideals that state that the Bible means something different to everyone. However, through Sola Scriptura, God has placed a significant tool of truth into the hands of people. Even though fallen man has used this to divide the protestant church into several different denominations based on different interpretations, this truth has remained constant since the Bible was authorized (Council of Trent?).

    Though I consider myself to be much more versed in political science, I don’t believe the two are far off. I will use the U.S. as an example. If we have full faith in the government, and believe that all they do is for the good of the people, we will live generally blissful lives not having to worry about the small things. On the other side, if we worry about everything the government does, and since we have little or no individual power to change anything, we will be overwhelmed by the world around us. In many ways this relates to how I think faith and discernment act as companions in Christianity. The answer is part faith and part reason. Since humans have little intellectual capability to understand more than a few small concepts, we rely on faith to ensure that we do not become overwhelmed by the world. As I know politics, you know religious history. As I know music, you know art. The examples are endless but they all point in the same direction. Without the ability to know all, we must reside the fact that to live happy, peaceful lives, we must have faith.

    Good topic though… you should visit my site…. http://dpmansdo.wordpress.com/ and comment on my crazy ramblings as well… Hope all is well.

    David M

  2. Good to hear from you Dave. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I guess I’ll just jump right in and say your argument, while clear provides no help against my main critique of faith which is that faith is unable to validate itself to those on the outside looking in. Your desire for discernment to be the companion of faith is a good thing but it only works within the Christian tradition because it provides no way to authenticate the faith itself. Your use of discernment begins only after you have already made all your faith claims such as the divine authorship of Christian scriptures, Sola Scriptura and the truth of Christianity itself. Discernment was not used to make those decisions rather faith was.

    You are correct that we cannot know everything but as I noted in my passage one of the best parts about learning is you come to see how little you know. And while we can’t know everything we should not allow that to be a reason to stop learning, which is what faith would have us do. You began your use of discernment only after already assuming that Christianity and its scriptures are true but why? Have you read the Koran and examined Islam? Have you read any Hindu writings like the Upanishads? Or any Buddhist writings like the Pali Tipitaka? I can tell you honestly that while I have read some of the Korean I have not read any Buddhist or Hindu writings outside of some general surveys on world religions, though I hope to at some point. And because of that I know that I do not know much about them yet your faith/discernment would have me reject these systems outright without knowing anything about them and in fact encouraging me not to bother learning anything about them. Even your comment that humans have little intellectual capability to understand more than a few small concepts is one based first upon your faith and its view of humanity, not upon reason. No your argument provides little help to those sitting on the outside of Christianity, or any faith, trying to determine what is true.

    Once faith is given priority to reason there becomes no way to judge between different faiths. Each system merely needs to say it is a matter of faith and they have successfully insolated themselves from any and all reasonable critiques and for me that just isn’t good enough. And the funny thing is that most faiths will use reason to break down and expose the weaknesses of other faiths but once reason is pointed in their direction they quickly attack it as inadequate for understanding matters of faith.

  3. On a side note, you talk about the bible as if it is the word of God that clearly states his will and has been freely given to all people throughout time and yet it has not. Just as you and I have had little exposure to Eastern texts or Muslim texts so too many have had no exposure to the bible. Does God really want everyone to know his will? Further if the bible is God’s word is that really the best he can do? You mentioned the fact that there are several different denominations. In fact the World Christian Encyclopedia lists that there are over 38,000 different Christian denominations. 38,000! How valuable is God’s word if it leads to this much division? How clear is it? And how valuable has our faith/discernment been? Buddhism has 5 or 6 schools, Islam 2 to 4 divisions and Judaism has 3 or 4 branches. Yet Christianity sits with 38,000 different groups all claiming to have some “true” understanding of God’s will and his word. None of this affects the original point about faith but it is amazing to see how poorly God has done in making his will clearly available to humanity if indeed the Christian bible is his will.

    You never said what you thought about Luther and Ignatius’ ideas. Just curious because if people as important to Christian history as Luther and Ignatius have been wrong about these types of issues then what “faith” should I have that modern Christians are any closer to the truth?

    I know we won’t be agreeing on this stuff so please know that I love you buddy because that is by far more important then any disagreements over issues like this. I will look into your blog for I know we both can get going on our different topics and have a lot of good things to say. Thanks again for sharing your ideas, they do matter to me.

  4. I believe that the pursuit of academic knowledge is important to Christianity. However, in my opinion, as you state that the Bible is not widespread, I would argue that there is the rare person (1%) that can pursue any type of academic training to be able to not only learn the different texts, but to also discern their true meanings. I don’t believe that God uses only scripture to detail his love to people who it can not reach. Yet, as you argue that I have not been exposed to eastern texts so I can not fully know the truth, I would argue that your definition of truth relying on each different worldview is faulty. Now, I am not arrogant enough to believe that there may not be some truths to those texts for how to live a good life. My argument, however, focuses more on how faith is not necessarily a Christian only concept. As you said that our faith tells us to automatically discredit others, you can’t exactly be a Muslim/Buddist -Christian. There are several differences that make you have to choose one or the other. There has to be faith in any religion in order for it to take effect. In order to foster a better understanding of our faith, it is good to understand both sides. I have had friends from several different backgrounds that I have discussed many different viewpoints with. However, repeating my first argument, I have little intellectual capability to know/study everything in relationship to this field. Faith, from my understanding, is an intrinsic human trait. It is necessary to live life. Whether that be religion, government, or even friendship. Unless you are of the same train of thought as Russo, who believed humans were generally unsocial and that faith was irrelevant, I tend to have a more Burkean view of humanity. That we are social and must rely on others.

    As for Martin and Loyola, I would mention that I am woefully weak in this area of Church history. But, if you remember, the Catholic Church at this point believed that only priests should have the ability to teach/read the word. In order to gain support for his beliefs, blind faith was not a radical enough idea to turn people away from his other, more important, issues. It seems like a simple case of rephrasing Catholic traditions to fit a more learned approach. Remember, few people during Luther’s time could read or write. So he needed to show them that they could learn without scaring them away.

    Anywho.. I should get back to my studies… look forward to your reply…


  5. I'm on my way to pick you up. Can you find the references for each of these quotes (Luther and Ignatius) please? Loyola's quote sounds exactly as Loyola has been taught to me (yes, through unabashedly biased lenses). Luther's quote is harder to place. I'd love to know the context of both statements.

    See you in a few. Sorry I'm late. Thought I'd read your blog first.


  6. Dave,

    I just wanted to let you know I am going to respond to you but I just got my work visa for going to Korea and I am running all over the place trying to get my stuff together. But soon. Thanks for the patience.


    Loyola's comment comes from his Spiritual Exercies. I have it listed as his 13th Rule but I have not double checked that so it may be off.

    Luther's comment comes from his Table Talks (1569) It is under the section called "Of Baptism" and number 353 in that section. He is yelling at the Anabaptists for not baptising children. The full quote is,

    "The anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they receive also faith."

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  8. So let me know what you think Mike. Context always helps but in this case I don't think it changes much. It still show Luther's negitive view of reason. It may even enhance it. Basically I don't think the context gets him off the hook. :)

  9. Zach - been meaning to jump in and comment, but I've been swamped at work. So I'm taking the easy way out and pointing you instead to an earlier post of mine:
    I have read the Koran, and the Upanishads, and the Gita and the Dhammapada and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I've also read the Bible (cover to cover) and the Apocrypha. Additionally, I've read atheist treatises and research into man's inherent (ie, biological) religiosity. And what I've learned is that anyone who tries to argue anything based on "faith" or "reason" is probably wrong.
    I think the key here is experience. You have to experience all these things for yourself, to "know" the truth of them. If they are false - in other words, if they are not true to life experience - then they should be discarded. These things so often boil down into arguments of reason or faith precisely because humans are incapable of really describing, really explaining, a true spiritual experience. Paul calls it divine mystery; the Buddhists say you are within a state "free from grasping and conceptual elaboration." In the end, we are all seeking the same thing, and, in a way, finding the same thing. But it cannot be expressed.
    Call it a wussy pluralist answer if you must, but I stand by it. :-)

  10. Kelly,

    I must say quite emphatically there is absolutely nothing “wussy” about your answer. Your post was beautifully written, well thought out and simply moving. I know I will be thinking it over for quite awhile. The thing I believe you and I agree on wholeheartedly is that while we can never know everything that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Similarly there is no virtue that I see greater value in then that of doubt. Your essay shows quite superbly the value doubt plays in all religions, philosophies and systems of thought/life.

    Now I do know that reason does not and can not solve all mysteries. I spent most of my life figuring out all the problems with reason so as to defend my faith. It is often still weird to hear myself defending reason over faith. But I have changed. I believe the true difference between faith and reason is not that one solves all the mysteries of life but rather when it comes to their weaknesses reason remains self-aware of them while faith is self-deluded. And when I speak of faith I am speaking most harshly against the kind that both encourages and affirms laziness. Truth must be sought for, worked for and struggled for it does not fall out of the sky.

    Experience is and always will be something you cannot take away from any person and it is probably more than anything what determines ones beliefs, including mine. My post is the product of my experiences as much as my thoughts.

    You come to the table with far more knowledge and yes experience than I do and so I seek to listen to you more then to speak. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Dave,

    First and foremost for clarity I never argued that you could not know the truth simply because you had not been exposed to Eastern texts. Rather the point was that it is interesting that you are sure that you yourself know the truth and they do not when you have no real knowledge of what they believe. That simply does not work for me. You say you are not arrogant enough to say that those texts may not contain some truth concerning how to live a good life but the fact remains that you are “arrogant” enough to know that they do not contain the real “truth” of God/life even though, again, you have never bothered to read those texts yourself and as such have no real idea of what those text say or what those people believe. That fact alone points out several issues related to faith and particularly Christian faith that I find problematic. The most important problem being that more often than not faith encourages laziness. So to be repetitive the value of the philosopher over the prophet is that the philosopher works hard in order to know the truth (even if he never finds it) whereas the prophet simply waits for it to drop out of the sky and never even bothers to examine it.

    As far as your belief that “faith” is needed in every aspect of life I completely disagree with that mostly because I believe you are not using the term faith the same way that I am. Faith as I am discussing it is not a part of family relationships or government or those types of things. It is a specifically religious concept that while shared by multiple religions (certainly not all) is particularly important to the Christian religion; yes all 38,000 denominations, sects and divisions of it. Religious faith is built upon an unquestioned superiority of one agent (God/gods) over the other (people) whereas friendships, family, government systems, etc do not set themselves up this way. Your faith in your friends is not the same as your faith in God. Religious faith (lazy faith) is not need in the rest of your life.

  12. This is a lot of fun. Love all the thoughts everyone