A Proposal To Reboot the Process
I wonder if we should start over again. We are “getting nowhere slowly,” as you put it. Now you should know that used to do a lot of sailing, which has been defined as the fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at great expense, so I’m not entirely opposed to going nowhere slowly. But it’s a matter of context, and I think both you and I would rather do that out on the water with a cool breeze than in an online debate.
Anyway, I thought the purpose of our debate was to clarify the definition of faith, especially whether faith could in any circumstances at all be reasonable. I refer back to our email exchange prior to opening the debate. We had some initial discussion in which I disagreed with your definition of faith. You defended it, naturally enough. When I suggested we debate here, then, I wrote,
I suggest we focus our debate on the word “faith:” what it means, what it means specifically with respect to Christian belief, whether it implies a disconnect from facts or evidence, whether or not it’s (at least potentially) justifiable as an approach to knowledge, etc.
This sounds great. I would be very happy to be involved.
So I took it that we were focusing our debate “on the word ‘faith:’ what it means, …” I think you took that as our topic, too, but in a somewhat different sense than I did. I’ll try now to explain what has motivated me to go the direction that I have with it.
In your first post you said that faith and reason are in tension, that it’s widely held that faith is unreasonable, and that faith is disconnected from verifiable evidence. I took those, perhaps incorrectly, as being statements representing your understanding of what faith is by definition. Clearly you positioned faith as a form of belief that is not testable by evidence.
You also raised questions along the way about what sort of evidence the Christian can offer for our faith. That seems premature to me, for it comes across as the following: given that faith is a form of belief that is disconnected from evidence, what evidence do you have for your faith?
That’s not the whole story of the debate so far, obviously, but it’s a major piece of it. I trust you can see now why I would want to be assured that when we each use the word “faith,” we know what we (and the other) mean by it. As you continue reading here I hope you’ll also see why I would propose that Christian faith is not (or at least not typically or normatively) what you take “faith” always to be.
But first I need to try again to clear away some underbrush. You have said just now that,
Tom keeps making a different argument than the one mentioned just above, namely that the propositional sense of faith isn’t the one most relevant to Christianity. I keep saying it is relevant, deeply relevant.
This is more than confusing, because quite simply I haven’t made that argument, much less kept on making it. Rather I have said that there is no particularly useful distinction to be made, in practice, between faith as a propositional attitude and faith as a relational attitude. I can’t have relational faith in person X unless I have believe propositionally that y is true of X. I can make that propositional/relational distinction conceptually, but it’s meaningless in actual practice.
I’ll explain by way of illustration. My faith in God as a person is my faith that God is in fact the infinite Trinitarian creator being who has revealed himself through his acts in history, and especially in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those are propositional beliefs, and since I take it that they are true and justified (for they are evidentially based), I would go so far as to label them as knowledge.
Now of course there is a side of faith (a most significant aspect of it) that goes beyond those items of knowledge, though not without evidence. For example, I know that God has been faithful to keep his promises to his people for generations upon generations. Given that knowledge, when I face a difficult situation–for example, the news today that I have a torn tendon in my foot, for the second time this year–I can have faith, or trust (the two are absolutely synonymous in this context) that he has not abandoned me, and that he will work this for my good. But this is not evidence-free fantasizing. It’s a reasoned conviction that God will be who I already know God is.
(If you thought my definition, “biblical faith is trust based on knowledge” meant just relational trust, I hope by now it’s clear that I had no intention of communicating that, and the word “trust” does not entail it, either.)
Now you might ask me, “what is this evidence that you claim you have for this faith?” Given your definition, though, that is tantamount to, “what is this evidence that you claim that you have for your evidence-free beliefs?” It’s rather hard to start offering you my answer when the question implies that your contrary answer is the only one that’s possible. Given your position on faith, it seems to me the better part of wisdom to start with the question, “can faith have evidence supporting it?” before proceeding to, “what evidence is there for my faith?” (And as you’ll see below, I am indeed going to suggest that we start over again, with something like that as our question, so that we do in fact start at the right place.)
You say you are a philosopher. You say it with appropriate caution. You say that, being a philosopher, you have sided with the philosophers’ definition of faith. I say in response, if the philosophers had all defined faith as being incompatible with evidence, then you might have a leg to stand on there, but they simply have not.
Further I say that if philosophers say that Christianity involves a faith that is incompatible with evidence, just because they believe faith is by definition incompatible with evidence, that position runs up hard against contrary evidence itself. (Perhaps it is a statement of faith? No, but I couldn’t resist asking.) Large numbers of Christians (theologians included, I assure you) hold that their Christian faith accords with evidence. Throughout the Bible, appeals to belief are coupled with encouragements and admonitions to observe and consider evidence. If faith as it is exemplified in the Bible is evidence-based, then it could hardly be accurate to conclude that faith is never evidence-based. Philosophers may say that it is; those philosophers are wrong.
I began this long article by suggesting we start over again. I was going to keep this short, and simply suggest we reboot our discussion by narrowing it down to a proposition to debate, for example:
Proposed: that faith is by definition a form of belief that is essentially and necessarily disconnected from (inaccessible, unsupported by… you choose your preferred term) evidence.
I was going to suggest that in the beginning, as I said. I went ahead and responded to some of your recent points instead. Now I am going to ask you to consider that resolution as the focus of our discussion. If there is some other topic you wish to discuss, by all means present your counter-proposal. I would ask that it be consistent with what we discussed in the preparatory email exchange, and that it not be overly broad. I find that when a topic covers too much territory, it’s really hard to avoid getting nowhere slowly.