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Friday, October 20, 2006

Notes on Dilemmas of Faith

I was reading an article on line about the Bhagavad Gita which clearly saw the Gita as teaching nothing that could not be independently worked out by reason apart from it. That the doctrine is worked out for Arjuna by an avatar is only based on the fact that at the time, life was pretty messed up and that it is only in such times that God takes on human form. Revelation is merely hygenic not novel in the Gita. So basicly tha Gita is another classical statement of the perreniel philosophy. The article in commenting on this contrasted it with "orthodox Christianity" which teaches that beliefs are to be accepted because absurd and just because the Church teaches it.

This struck me as another example of the same false dilemma many atheists (and non-believers in the perrenial philosophy) often use to object to Christianity; either something is wholey established by reason or it is purely postivistic, having no rational bearing. As anyone who has looked at the judeo-christian tradition can attest, the judeo-christian tradition is neither. The contents of the judeo-christian tradition are not wholey derived from reason, but neither have the no rational bearing. The tradition has logical consistancy and some explanatory value with respect to the facts and is this open to criticism in the light or reason and learning. For some critics, granting the point makes little difference, however one would have thought the real bite of the dilemma. If the judeo-christian traditon is accessible to intellectual investigation and appreciation, in what sense is it necessarily arbitrary and anti-intellectual?

One might think that it must be because it unavoidably turns on accepting something on the basis of faith and testimony and that we could never reasonably accept anything as true on such a basis. Now it seems clear that accepting something on the basis of testimony and because one has decided to put one's faith in a witness could never produce belifs with the authority of pure or scientific reasoning. But the rationality of accepting faith is not theoretical rationality, is it? In fact, the decision to accept a belief based on the authority of a witness is a case like a moral dilemma. In a moral dilemma, one confronts at least a prima facie conflict of duites (or rights, or virtues, or values, or contracts etc.) such that it seems impossible to satisfy one obligation without violating another. In the case of moral dilemmas, the presumption is that the duties, where they apply, apply categorically. In a dilemma of faith, one is confronted with hypothetical duites (or . . . etc.) that do not actually conflict because which one applies depnds on whether the witness is speaking truly or not. However since we don't know whether to believe the witness of not we do not know if we would be actually upholding on duty or violating another one by believing in the witness and acting on that belief. But like a moral dilemma, a faith dilemma may only be apparent and there may be an option which is possible moral but not necessarily immoral if things turn out to be otherwise that attested to.

In the judeo-christian tradition, revelation is not merely hygenic in conserving forgotten truth but is intrusive and announces new states of affairs that would not have been known otherwise. Revelation is heraldic and kyregmatic and prophetic, not conservative. The question is whether to trust the prophets. They often come with insignia that testifies to their authority but these insignia presuppose priorly accepted prophecy and so on. Sometimes the prophets command us to do things that are prima facie morally wrong such as sacrifice our first born son, or wipe out an entire race, or stone homosexuals and adulterers, or tolerate slavery, or hold truths that are prima facie impossible to prove as true or coherent. Of course, if God the ideal observer truly requires these things then he sees the rational and moral grounds for doing so even if we don't but if the prophet is channeling a half-digested falafel, it would be rash to act on it.

Still as some hard cases of moral dilemmas prove to work out upon further clarification of concepts, further information, and/or creative alternatives, it seems possible that a faith dilemma could also be worked through and that a kind of certainty can be reached about the practical satisfactoriness of the decision either to believe and trust or not in alleged revelation. In the case of the judeo-christian tradition, or any particular expression of it, the fact that the claims it makes are open to further intellectual criticism is one of the factors that makes possible the rational assessment of a decision of trust. Further, just as there may be no straight forward calculus for settling moral dilemmas and thus a need for character and discernment to see through them, a similar demand on judgement is called for in the case of faith dilemmas. This also suggests a need for community social interaction in such decision making.

Reason can at least rebut scepticism about any of the foundations of the possibility of successful decision making in the case of faith dilemmas, even if it cannot always or ever refute such scepticism, whether that be scepticism about a theistic metaphysic that makes revelation possible, or scepticism about the possibility of a value judgement that is not fully explicable. Reason can play a role as we have noted in assessing the various candidates for being such a revelation. The decision to believe is something that speaks to the end of human flourishing or worth, scepticism about which may be rebuted by reason. And so it seems that rational decisions to trust are possible and that we even have the rational right to make them if they are and that this right is part of the body of rights that ought to be preserved in modern society by the state. So given the fresh spate of works by certain distinguished professors about belief in God as a delusion, the end of faith, and so on, we couldn't really imagine the force of such arguments as delegitimizing the full citizenship of religious believers qua being such.

I think that this is where the judeo-christian argument for a secular public sphere meets the dictum for statecraft as soulcraft. The public square refuses on the one hand to promote any one religion over another but on the other hand it promotes and elevates the right to religious belief in a criticizable faith as a necessary feature of a modern rational democracy. Because its in the painful reflection that goes on in making such decisions that contributes to the development of virtue in citizens. The spread of this right concommittedly with the spread of democratic principles and institutions points to the prosperity of the impact of the judeo-christian tradition throughout the world, since only the judeo-christian tradition among all the religions (including Islam) makes the claim for the possibility of a more than hygenic but still non-superstitious revelation and thus formulates the right to religious belief in this specific sense. That is about as theocratic as we need to get.