Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Faith and Belief are Brothers

While I appreciate some of what Fr. Jake says in his recent post on faith and belief, I'm afraid he's guilty of eliding over some of the difficult spots. Well, and one major misstatement that throws the whole thing crucially awry.

At one point he says, "Christianity is not built on intellectual ideas. It is about having a relationship with the living God." Well, I don't know about intellectual ideas, for as a mental holist I doubt the existence of non- intellectual ideas. But one would think it obvious that Christianity is about relationship with the living Christ. And this opens up all of the problems that talking about God allows one to sweep under the rug.

When we are talking about Christ, we aren't just talking about a theological abstraction, but also talking about Jesus. And about Jesus, one cannot hide behind the unknowability and indefinability of the divine. Jesus was (and is) a man, a human being, and thus can be talked about just like any other man. Faith in Jesus and belief about Jesus are quite inseparable, particularly when talking to the unbaptized.

And speaking of faith, I must also disagree that "faith has an absolute quality that belief does not." Actually, I'd say that it's the other way around. Beliefs themselves, being propositions, tend to be cast as absolutely true/false statements. In fact, that's part of the problem with them: they tend to cast matters into categories more rigidly than is often reasonable. Faith, on the other hand, beig like unto trust, is present in degrees.

Let me illustrate this by turning to that very modern divinity: Science. Natural science is something that modern educated people, as a rule, have some degree of faith in, often a very high degree. And a great deal of school science curriculum is devoted to instilling this faith, by presenting the mechanisms of scientific inquiry and building confidence that these methods do indeed work. The thing is that the degree of this trust varies, and ought to. On the level of ordinary, low-energy physics, Newtonian mechanics has earned an extremely high level of trust. Certainly on big enough or small enough scales relativistic and quantum effects intrude, but they do not invalidate the Newtonian framework that is indeed part of those other theories. Other scientific conclusions inspire similar high trust, but others are more dubious. A knowledgable and sophisticated observer understands, for instance, that cosmology is at present highly speculative, that the underlying forces of evolutions are poorly understood, that biology has a very long way to go, and that economics is close to voodoo. This is not to say that any of these fields is groundless nonsense, but simply reflects a judgement that not all pronouncements should be taken with the same seriousness.

Part of the reason I used science here is that there is a tendency of late to pit faith in science against faith in the traditions of the church. Here we come into some curious contradictions. Anyone can, for example, deduce scientifically that people are "fallen"-- that is to say, that they are wont to violate their own moral codes, much less some absolute morality. What is curious is that the other side of the human nature coin-- that people are intrinsically good-- is not so observable. Indeed, the very statement borders on the metaphysical. Yet it is this statement that most people will ratify, and the other that many will essentially deny. More commonly, statements about human nature have to be couched statistically, bringing in that dangerous word "normal". To a statistician, "normal" has a definite, objective meaning; but "normal" in that sense does not imply a meaningful distinction. It's simply a kind of 80-20 rule, with no implication that for non-statistical reasons 80 and 20 are the right numbers. Outside of statistics, of course, "normal" carries a ton of value judgments, easily prompting fallacious conclusions.

Theology being a kind of science, it is subject to the same reservations on confidence-- whatever the pope or the church fathers would say. But the traditional formula is that faith in Jesus leads to faith in the Church. If faith must be absolute in general, then this faith also must be absolute-- at least, so says an Orthodox Catholic. It is a sure thing that Fr. Jake has no such absolute faith, but it is equally sure that, to some degree, he has some faith in the church. And that is indeed the Protestant problem: that one must rely on the church to some degree for one's faith, but that the church as we see it does not merit the kind of total faith that can be placed in God (and therefore, in Jesus). And that leasds to the same issues about faith in the church's other teachings. Part of the problematic nature of Christianity is that we simply are not provided with the kind of absolute roadmap to Christian living that would obviate thought, and therefore the holding of beliefs. Theology is unavoidably necessary, at least for us adults; at the very least, we have to work out how to act morally, because we are not given rules that do not need interpretation.

That's why I think making this particular faith vs. belief distinction is a mistake: it is precisely at this level that they aren't separable.

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