living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

On Ultimate Reality and Historical Factuality

with 20 comments

The following is a (slightly edited) excerpt from a letter I recently wrote in which I attempted to explain why I’ve found Paul Tillich to be so helpful in my own life of faith. [begin]

His [Tillich’s] significance in my own life has been great. Perhaps his greatest impact has been with regard to my perennial anxiety born of a conflict between my faith and my rationality. For all of my life I have lived in a place of deep faith. I would often put it to others as, “I can’t not believe.” At the same time, however, I’m a natural skeptic. I find it easy to entertain the notion that many of the historical underpinnings of my faith are not nearly so historical as I’ve been raised to believe. I’m sure you can see how this might raise some issues for me. Especially since I’ve since gone on to do some fairly rigorous—and not terribly affirming—study in this area.

So here is the problem that continued to develop: The meaning of my life, something unconditionally held (my faith), was apparently attached, in some sense, to conditionally held historical arguments. In light of this I was in a state of constant and near crippling anxiety. I was forced into a place where the meaning of my life could very well come completely unglued if the weight of various arguments shifted. It was terrible. I would lie awake many nights groping for some way to shore up arguments that were not as strong as I wanted them to be. And my skeptical self hated my faithful self for this. There was a split in my person. My rational faculties were being opposed to my passion. I was disintegrated. I can recall numerous nights that ended with me lifting my sleeping son from his crib, holding his warm body close to my chest and repeating, “this is real, this is real, this is real.” This love… real.

Tillich saved me from this place. His approach is essentially Augustinian in the sense that God is encountered at our personal intersection as a finite beings with infinity. In other words, it is in our very depths that we meet God. In this way we simply cannot meet God by opposing our various faculties (e.g. faith and reason, as it is usually framed). No, a dynamic and vibrant faith is an integrated faith. Faith is not a separate faculty that can be opposed to others, but instead it is the “depth dimension” possessed by each (e.g. rational [desire to know ultimate reality], aesthetic [desire for ultimate meaning], moral [unconditional seriousness of the moral demand], etc.).

On this account faith is not “believing stuff on limited evidence,” but rather it is one’s being apprehended by the divine. It is unconditionally felt. And here’s the important bit, no discovery about external reality possesses the power to destroy one’s faith (which gives a more helpful meaning to the “I can’t not believe” remark above).

To take an extreme example, one could conclude that the historical evidence provides very little grounds for supposing that Jesus physically rose from the dead, yet because one’s ultimate concern is encountered in the gospel of Jesus, Jesus would not lose an ounce of significance in one’s life of faith because of it. I have not concluded this, but it doesn’t frighten me to entertain the notion, and that’s not really the point. The point is, Jesus could have been “just” fully human (whatever that means), or a total fabrication and remain a perfectly adequate vehicle for my faith. It is not the factual veracity of a historical nature that is essential to faith, but the degree to which the symbol (in this case Jesus) maps Reality (big “R”). That is the point. And, oddly enough, it affords a higher place to Jesus as expressing Ultimate Reality than a mere assent to the factuality of some historical event. Because of this, the meaning of my life is no longer tied to tentative historical arguments as it once was (though I remain interested in them). I am now free to get on with the business of stumbling after the vision of the Good I see in Christ. To put it simply, I am free to follow Jesus because I love him, not because I am historically certain.

The beauty of this understanding of faith is the way it frees the faithful not only from the fear of biblical studies (a problem common in contemporary evangelicalism), but also the way it frees them from the fear of modern science. And those are but two particular instances of a general possibility, the possibility of encountering the world from our best stance at all levels of our person. As I see it, Tillich’s understanding of faith has the power to render useless the whole fear-driven anti-intellectual apparatus that presently exists within much of contemporary Christianity. What might our communities look like if we were no longer driven by fear, but instead drawn forward in Christ’s love?


Written by Alex

August 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Theology

Tagged with , ,

20 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The claims _your_ Tillich (I dare not comment on Tillich himself) espouses are tantamount to:
    (a) A redefinition of “faith”.
    (b) A proposed normative mechanism for obtaining faith.

    Re: (a), faith is redefined as either (i) “ultimate concern” or (ii) “apprehension by the divine”. I take (i) to mean something quite like “to really care a lot about” and I take (ii) to be fairly self-explanatory. (i) is agnostic about the object of ultimate concern (e.g., one may care heaps about UFOs and Loch Ness monsters without being ontologically committed to them) and (ii) begs the question that there is a divine who apprehends.

    Re: (b). The proposed normative mechanism is to feel it unconditionally. This phrase is ambiguous, but I infer from the rest of the text that some affective response to some stimulus is involved, after which one’s “faith” is more or less unfalsifiable. This is an irrationalist position, of course. Not quite belief by fiat (though talk of “concern” smacks of this), but certainly also not belief contingent upon much if any reasoning.

    My accusations were twofold. Either this is atheism or it is fideist. Perhaps atheism is too strong; let’s say agnosticism. (a)(i) is, as I have submitted, agnostic. (a)(ii) and (b) is fideist.

    Your turn to tell me why I’ve totally misread your Tillich. By the way, I just discovered about 10 minutes ago that I’m not the only person who’s accused Tillich of atheism. That’s not to say I’m right, but it weakly suggests I’m not insane.

    Jonathan Jong

    August 3, 2010 at 10:27 pm

  2. Interesting.

    First of all re: (a). Tillich is a theologian. It’s his job to give analyses of such things as faith. A re-definition presupposes some normative definition. I’ve not yet encountered such a thing, so I’m not sure I see his work as controversial in this sense. But perhaps you didn’t intend to insinuate as much.

    Here’s what I see to be interesting. in (i) and (ii) I (quite unwittingly, I admit) express (and you point out) the subjective and objective poles of faith. Here we have the subjective concern of the individual and the ultimate itself towards which the concern is directed and from which it flows. Indeed, for Tillich in the act of faith this subject/object distinction is overcome (see page 11-13 of your copy of Dynamics of Faith).

    So no, Tillich’s “ultimate concern” is not adequately captured by your “to really care a lot about.” What you say about UFO’s etc, misunderstands the nature of Tillich’s “faith.” They all fail a handy criterion for evaluating true and false ultimacy. The only concern worthy of ultimacy is that which possesses the ability to transcend the subject-object scheme; UFO’s and Scottish monsters lack this characteristic. They are all objects which subjects can be ontologically committed to or not.

    As for question begging. I’ll grant that. I was being imprecise. But then I’ll say that we can simply replace “divine” with “ultimate.”

    So then, (b):
    I’m not going to have much to say about a mechanism at this point. I will only offer this: Some part of coming to an awareness of one’s faith has to do with contemplation of existence. A realization of the depth dimension of our rational, aesthetic, and moral endeavors, their connection with ultimate truth, ultimate meaning, and ultimate seriousness. It is in this metaphor of depth where our finite grasping and the unconditional meet. And yes, it is also here where we completely outrun each of the faculties just mentioned, including reason. It is in this sense, and only this sense, that Tillich’s faith is fideist (which is not really fideist at all in any traditional sense). You may recall me arguing something rather similar to this in the past. The further we take our rationality from the infinite depths towards finite reality, the less fideist we become.

    Finally, regarding Tillich’s atheism, those who didn’t much care for him, or who lacked either real interest or intellectual power tended to interpret him uncharitably. And of course this was very easy, what with Tillich’s paradigm resetting claim that “God does not exist,” which really amounted to a protest against conceiving of God as existing as one being in the universe of existing beings (born from his desire to speak of God grounding being). For Tillich to speak of the existence of God he needed to do some pretty severe throat clearing, but in the end he does allow for the existence of God. Existence is just not used in his technical sense (the intersection of being and nonbeing within the life process), but rather in a metaphorical sense.


    August 4, 2010 at 1:56 am

  3. Ah, I see. So it’s just nonsense, then.

    If you’re going to claim that God is some bizarre, sui generis type of “thing”, which does not correspond to any of our usual metaphysical categories, you’re going to have to tell me why we have to come up with a whole new metaphysical category at all. It’s all well and good to say that God is not the kind of thing one can be ontologically committed to, but then, what kind of thing is God? And I’m OK with you saying, well, God is some sort of fluffy vague thing, neither event nor object, etc. Then it’s time to give up theology. Whereof one cannot speak, one should remain silent.

    Re: redefinition of faith. There are family resemblances between definitions of terms. “Cat” might refer to domestic cats alone or big cats also. To use “cat” to refer to “Harry Potter” is an unhelpful use of the word. To then sneak it into an argument is just dodgy.

    All this talk of “realization of the depth dimension” is fluffy. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, but what is it a metaphor for? Or perhaps, like Carnap, you expect it to use metaphor like a knock on the head which provokes me to invent meaning on the spot. Fail.

    I’ll grant that God is not an object alongside other finite objects, but I submit that our epistemic attitude towards God is much like our epistemic attitude towards other objects. Pace you, pace Tillich, pace Eagleton. Those who pretend that their belief in God is somehow not like their belief in tables, chairs, goats, lions, their wives, and their children are either kidding themselves or lying. Or they’re right, and the rest of us are constitutionally unable to follow. That is, they’re gnostics.

    Metaphorical existence, eh? Sounds like atheism to me.

    Jonathan Jong

    August 4, 2010 at 2:31 am

  4. Jon,
    Over on the fb version of this conversation you said:

    “Good point, Levi, about idolatry. Let’s replace money [Levi had pointed out that faith in money constitutes idolatry] with “Blarflewarp”. Or “Oggleboogle”. Faith as ultimate concern can be faith in a slew of things that don’t exist, or things that we have no reas…on to believe exists. So, faith _as_ ultimate concern is agnostic about existence. Neo-Tillichians who are unhappy with this bring up “metaphorical existence” which, like metaphorical X isn’t quite X, is it?”

    i) No. As I said above faith as ultimate concern cannot be about any object which fails to transcend the subject object distinction. Any attempt to make some object, or imagined object in which we can stand in relation to as subject the center of of our faith is idolatry.

    ii) “faith _as_ ultimate concern is agnostic about existence”
    This assertion only makes sense if you are trying to make faith into a purely rational disposition towards existing things which we can be committed to (or not) on the basis of varying degrees of evidence. Tillich calls this disposition “belief.” For him, it’s an intellectualistic distortion of faith. Tillich calls faith is a “centered act,” meaning it involves the whole person (rational, affective, and volitional). To pull one dimension out and oppose it to the others distorts the true (as he sees it) dynamics of faith. So to speak of faith being agnostic towards existence doesn’t really make sense of faith as ultimate concern.

    iii) Speaking of God as existing metaphorically is not appealed to because of what you have said above. God “exists” metaphorically to preserve God’s ultimacy. If God exists in the same sense creation exists, God would be one existing thing among others, a point you have denied along with me.


    August 4, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  5. Blaflewarp has, among its properties, the property of “transcending the subject object distinction”, is omnipotent, omniscience, omnnibenevolent, made of metal, walks through walls, speaks fluent Dutch, grants wishes, turns into a werewolf during full moons, and lays eggs with puppies in them.

    I love Blaflewarp. I desire to be like Blaflewarp. My live my life in light of Blaflewarp. That is, I have faith in Blaflewarp.

    What’s the problem now?

    Jonathan Jong

    August 4, 2010 at 9:03 pm

  6. Baflewarp is also a contradiction. A reality which transcends the subject object distinction cannot be any of the things you mention since they all presuppose the objectivity of Baflewarp. Ockham may have been fine with that, but Tillich is not.

    For example, on this account God is not omnipotent in the sense that God possesses the power to do all things he could do but presently is not (as an existing being would). Instead, God is the power of being. God’s power is in us and we are in God’s power (subject/object transcendence).

    All the classical terms you mention are analogical terms. When we forget/deny this we run into all sorts of problems: God’s power in the problem of evil, divine foreknowledge and human freedom, omnibenevolence and the problem of evil, the euthyphro dilemma, etc. As for the more silly suggestions, a reality beyond the subject object scheme can hardly be thought to be made of stuff, or to move from place to place, let alone walk, and nevermind walk through other things.

    The final list of commitments are interesting as they cause us as Christians to ask what we mean when we speak of loving God, be like God, etc. Do we love God in the same sense that we love existing people? Or might the parallel call to love others suggest instead that it is in the process of loving others that we live in God’s love, both learning to love God’s reality and to be brought into the reality of God’s love. All this sounds very different if God lives in us and we live in God (subject object transcendence). It is certainly a more integrated way to view things than to view the dual call to love God and others as two separate commands made by God as an existing object commanding us from outside ourselves. Perhaps this also makes sense of the insight that it is impossible to love God and fail to love others. The two commands ultimately become biconditional.


    August 5, 2010 at 9:40 pm

  7. In which case, it’s nonsense. Or at least it is to the unenlightened brutes like myself. And I can’t believe in nonsense – again, because I’m an unenlightened Philistine – so I can’t believe in this God who “transcends the object subject distinction”. Game over.

    Jonathan Jong

    August 5, 2010 at 10:02 pm

  8. (Except the latter part. All that is marvellous.)

    Jonathan Jong

    August 5, 2010 at 10:03 pm

  9. Let me be clear about what “it” is that is nonsense. It’s the “reality which transcends the subject object distinction”. Either I cannot conceive of such a reality (because I’m an unenlightened Philistine) or people who claim to be able to are kidding themselves or people who claim to be able to are fooling the rest of us. OR it’s atheism plain and simple, it’s not a God out there in reality, who can be beheld, but a God within, a part of us, a figment of our imaginations. It is Anselm’s “that which exists in the mind but not in reality also”, the God who turns out not to be that greater than which none can be conceived.

    Jonathan Jong

    August 5, 2010 at 10:35 pm

  10. To take an extreme example, one could conclude that the historical evidence provides very little grounds for supposing that Jesus physically rose from the dead, yet because one’s ultimate concern is encountered in the gospel of Jesus, Jesus would not lose an ounce of significance in one’s life of faith because of it.

    To take this leap certainly would seem to move you outside the conventional boundaries of Christianity. Not that this is at all relevant to whether you’re right or wrong: you might be right, they might be wrong.

    I think my question would be why are entertaining the possibility that this leap might be necessary. You don’t need to entertain the possibility that a miracle – a highly irrational and unlikely event putatively interposed upon this world by a level of reality superseding it – might actually be a metaphor. It’s empirically bullet proof on the basis of the presupposition that it was a miracle. And BTW, an atheist could believe it if they felt inclined to* – yes, mull that one over, you’ll see I’m right (it’s another irrefutable angle on my Square Meets Sphere thesis).

    Basically, evidence of the tangible “Exhibit A” form is not really a problem I think you need concern yourself with inre things of miraculous nature. Rival testimony is a little bit more of an issue, I suppose, but at the end of the day, Jews will think this, Christians will think that, and neither be in position to conclude the argument; they might be right, you might be wrong &c.

    * Perhaps Jon’s being purposefully incendiary with the accusations of atheism, but I don’t recall their being a disclaimer on my card about it being alright to believe in a fluffy airy fairy supreme being, just not the sharp, hard, angular and possibly bearded brand of supreme being.


    August 6, 2010 at 7:53 pm

  11. Jon,
    What if we draw from the latter part, which you found to be marvelous, and propose that God is a reality in whom we live and which lives in us. And further that this reality is characterized by, at a minimum, the self-giving love of Christ variously characterized by the gospel authors. Can you understand that in any suitably adequate sense? I can’t imagine it would be any more difficult to conceive of this than it may be to entertain the classical categories of omnipresence, omniscience, etc.

    In one of our chats you said: “i see theism as the doctrine that there exists a being we might call ‘God.’ Qua doctrine, it is to be _believed_ in the usual sense. It can be phrased propositionally

    From this I can see how what I am doing here is bothering you, for I am arguing that there is nothing at all “usual” about belief as it regards God. But why should that bother us? God is not a “usual” reality. Sure we can phrase our belief propositionally, but upon anything more than the most superficial of examinations, it turns out that language—geared as it is to deal in finite reality—cannot bear the same meaning with regard to God as it does with regard to finite reality. For example “I believe there is a loving God” can not be understood in the same sense as “I believe there is a loving Ethiopian.” We grasp the latter in a straightforward sense because the language is constructed to map that sort of finite reality. However, we simply cannot expect these same finite terms to map an infinite reality in a like manner. They can do so only by analogy.

    You later say: “if a form of theism requires us to overhaul our rational and linguistic practices, it better (a) tell us why we must do so, and (b) provide a new set of rules

    “Overhaul” seems to be a bit strong seeing as how a recognition of the analogical nature of theological affirmations and the impossibility of having positive knowledge of God goes all the way back to Clement of Alexandria. The reason this stance is taken relates to the doctrine of creation. If God is the creator of all being and existence, then speaking of the “being of God,” or the “existence of God” only makes sense as an analogical attempt to speak of a reality that is beyond us. The finite categories of both our language and our mental structure necessitate this situation.

    Does this mean we must stop speaking of God? Only if by “speaking of God” we mean insisting that our language is capable of grasping God’s reality “in the usual sense.” If we don’t insist on this, then we carry on speaking, but with the recognition that our language signifies not the reality itself but the depths that both underpin and outstrip language in it’s rational, semantic, and perlocutionary dimensions.

    We do not mean less, on this scheme, but more.

    Also, see Gilead 178-9


    August 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    • Coming back to this old debate…

      My accusation is precisely that this stuff talking about God’s “existence” as metaphorical (or analogical or whatever) is precisely meaning less (and not more), despite claims to the contrary.

      Christians always hide behind the finitude of language or rationality or whatever, but you know what?: tough. This is what we have. Perhaps our epistemic tools cannot get at truth, but if so, so be it. We’re both sick of me quoting Wittgenstein, so I won’t.

      Jonathan Jong

      September 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      • Though I appreciate your accusation, I do believe that—to the extent you continue to theologize—you are making a fundamental error in your attempts. If you expect your finite language as finite language to grasp the infinite reality of God in the usual manner of natural reason, it seems to me you are doing nothing other than trying to “drag God out of heaven,” as it were.

        I really don’t see this as a case of “hiding behind” anything at all. To invoke mystery in the face of a reality that is essentially mysterious amounts, in my book, to calling a spade a spade. It seem to me that it is only those who insist their language maps God who must be skewered by Wittgenstein. For those who build into their own God talk the negation of their God talk, Wittgenstein has no power. And if we cannot tolerate living between the yes and the no of dialectical theologizing we succumb to either idol worship or atheism.


        September 11, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      • New post on this soon.


        September 17, 2010 at 11:17 am

  12. Damien,
    “my question would be why are [you] entertaining the possibility that this leap might be necessary.”

    I’m not sure “leap” is the right word for what’s going on here. It’s really more of an analysis than some new manner of tossing one’s self. As for the “necessity” of what I’ve said above, I can’t quite see how that frame works out either. Tillich’s point (and I’m inclined to agree with him) is that faith is much larger than belief in some set of external facts on the basis of limited evidence. To use faith as a sort of mental gap filler is not only bad theology, it’s dangerous.

    What’s important for me is the reality I’ve seen in Christ and in those who follow his radical example. Having just watched the film which bears his name, I think for example of Óscar Romero. Were I to somehow discover that the resurrection stories were fictive, would Romero’s life poured out in solidarity with the people of El Salvador be any less reflective of what my faith tells me is ultimately real? Would his conversion to the crucified Christ become suddenly folly? Would the faith that drove him be then in error? Maybe. But I can’t help but be grasped by that same reality that grasped him. I can’t help but be challenged by it, be convicted by it.

    Speaking for myself, it’s all to easy to armchair historicize and philosophize about things I don’t, or can’t, know. What’s not easy, what’s damn near impossible, is to live into the love I know to be real in Christ. Failing that, everything else misses the point entirely. And honestly, I’m afraid I do this habitually.

    Point is, as Tillich says, faith is a centered act. It involves the whole person. To the extent any one of our faculties is elevated to a place of ultimate validity over and against other dimensions of ourselves (as with mental gap filler varieties), faith is distorted, corrupt, even dangerous.


    August 16, 2010 at 4:53 am

  13. During the months in which my faith unraveled, one thing that began to bug me is that my theology was not falsifiable in the least. (This was not for the same reasons that the sort of faith you describe seems to be unfalsifiable, but I think the result is similar.) It seems to me that a faith which is not falsifiable, and which therefore frees one from fear of any discoveries about external reality such as biblical studies or modern science, is problematic. It will never be falsified, sure. But it stands among infinite possible accounts which are internally consistent, might be subjectively found beautiful or holy or whatever, and can never be falsified. So it’s not falsifiable – but it’s sure not likely, either.


    August 27, 2011 at 7:39 am

  14. Hi Ivan,
    I feel your concern. Falsifiability is an important tool in our truth finding arsenal, even if, as Popper himself insisted, it cannot be the be all and end all. We ought to be wary of folks who place a lot of existential weight on believing in things that are in principle falsifiable, yet who also go to great lengths to keep that from happening.

    I think the point I would want to make, however, is that contrary to popular sentiment faith is not a species of belief (at least in the popular cognitive sense of the word). Faith, I’d want to say, is more holistic than that. It’s much closer to ‘setting the heart upon,’ or, in Tillich’s terms, “ultimate concern.” As ultimate concern, the ‘object’ of faith transcends the subject object relation in which falsification operates. This does two things. 1) it makes talk of falsification with respect to the object of faith a category mistake and 2) it makes it impossible for us to comprehend the object of faith.

    I don’t find 1) to be problematic, personally. If the object of faith is a god who may or may not exist within the set of all existing things, I tend to think we are not properly appreciating what is entailed by ultimacy. 2) can initially sound problematic, however, since that which is completely incomprehensible cannot be a matter of our concern at all. Tillich’s way through this problem is via “symbols.” Symbols are concrete bits of being that in some sense become transparent to the ultimate. We are grasped through them and faith is created. But here risk is ever present, for unlike the ultimate, our symbols can fail. They can be emphasized wrongly, or they can become demonic by claiming ultimacy for themselves (think nationalism) rather than retaining their mediating function of transparency.

    Thus, in a sense, falsification finds a foothold once more on the risky ground of the symbolic. Of course this is not on the level of the truth of doctrines, or of physical/historical theories, nor is it on the level of ultimacy (for that is both eternally beyond as well as present to all of us) yet it does seem to me that a criterion of the truth of symbols might be their ability to either give birth to the newness of being truth and life, as opposed to those that bring about non-being, suppression, and lies.


    August 27, 2011 at 10:07 am

  15. Hi Ivan,

    Welcome to the club. Let’s suppose that faith is not falsifiable. More clearly, let’s suppose that S’s faith that p does not depend on whether or not evidence could be presented contrary to p (“con-p” evidence) which, were S to consider con-p, S should give up her faith that p. It follows that Scott could have faith that, say, Wal-Mart was founded to systematically overthrow democracy, and if anyone were to point out that no one has any (good) reason whatsoever to believe that, or that Wal-Mart is useful in promoting capitalism, which is thought to be closely conceptually related to democracy, Scott could continue believing as he does.

    But that, of course, depends on treating faith as a species of belief. (I made an argument that faith is not a species of belief very recently, and I now partially reject my argument, but here it is anyway: If faith is like belief insofar as beliefs, in order to be any good, require sufficient reasons relevant to the truth of that which is believed–in other words, epistemic reasons– then we must demand that faith be falsifiable. Alex thinks faith is not like belief for reasons deeper than the ones I offer in the blog post I just linked to, and you think faith should be falsifiable or else be subject to an irrelevance objection easily posed to coherence theories of truth. As we’d probably all agree, if faith that p depends upon having sufficient epistemic reason to make it probable for us that p is true, then we can’t have faith that p because there are not sufficient epistemic reasons to believe that p.

    Notice the terminological switch at the end of my last sentence. I started by talking about faith and concluded by talking about belief. If faith is a factive mental attitude, then it is a species of belief, so anything that can be said about belief can be said about faith, just like anything that can be said about cars can be said about Ford cars. Or faith is not a factive mental attitude, that is, not a species of belief. Greg the epistemologist finds that suggestion deeply troubling, but Greg the practical theologian finds it perfectly acceptable. It’s simply a matter of fact that Christian life and practice does not depend, indeed probably doesn’t depend at all, upon the truth or falsity of the claims contained in Christian dogma. Just about anyone you meet at church couldn’t give you any good reason to believe that Jesus ever lived, that there’s a God, etc. And their lack of good epistemic reasons to believe those claims doesn’t impact their life of faith in the slightest.

    As a matter of practice, faith is non-factive. But should it be as a matter of theory? If so, something like what Alex says in terminology which I simply don’t understand (though I’ve tried, and though he hates it that I don’t get it) is probably necessary to sustain it.

    Again, welcome to the club.


    Greg Stoutenburg

    August 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

  16. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for your time and thoughts. On the one hand, I definitely do not see Christian faith as identical with intellectual or factive belief. Taking the New Testament as a coherent whole, it seems to me that faith is very largely a matter of action. And in addition, I’ve found Kierkegaard’s ideas about faith involving choice, or consisting largely of choice, to be very plausible and useful. But when we’re considering Christian faith in particular, and seeking to be faithful to the biblical witness, I don’t see how we can get away from factive belief altogether. (This is my first shot at articulating this, so please bear with me, and help me refine it.) The Bible presents Christianity as true, factually true. There are messages of “thus saith the Lord,” and this is the Lord who “created the heavens and the earth,” and is the “one true God.” Jesus spoke constantly about His Father in heaven, and about future rewards and punishments. And we’re told that Jesus died and rose, and Paul says that if this is not true, then our faith is worthless and we are of all men most pitiable. These things might entail unique sorts of claims, but it seems to me that they definitely do entail claims, and factive ones at that. So I would not equate faith with intellectual/factive/propositional belief, but I do think that biblical Christian faith involves that sort of belief.


    August 28, 2011 at 11:51 pm

  17. Hi Ivan,
    Apologies to the very late response here. I’ve really been focusing on starting the whole PhD. gig. But I’d like to address what you said here, if only as a reflection on my personal experience.

    You mentioned “being faithful to the biblical witness.” I’m very interested in this. In fact, I was so interested that I was never satisfied with the answers I received about what was going on in these ancient texts. I embarked on several years of personal study (ongoing) to seek to understand the terms on which these texts ought to be taken. In the process, my understanding of what it meant to be faithful to the Bible changed a great deal. Much of what my church community had insisted was portrayed as “factually true” was found to be much more plausibly written in a very different idiom. I also realized that my community and I had been trying to read Scripture through the categories of a relatively recent reactionary movement, namely, the modernist assumptions of the fundamentalists as they fought with the liberals and their modernist assumptions.

    The result of all this study has been the attempt to find a new way. I know there has been a form of life mediated to me through the Christian tradition that has called, confronted, and saved (in the sense of liberated me from anxiety) me. But for me at least, faith and belief in the facts of history and doctrine have been forever separated. The facts of history and doctrine continue to mediate a world of meanings, and necessarily so, but their function in the structure of faith can only ever be symbolic for me. That is, for them to be valid for faith, they must point through themselves to something beyond. For faith as ultimate concern is concerned with the Ultimate, and the Ultimate must infinitely transcend existence along with the language and categories we use to think and speak. If it doesn’t, then our faith is not faith in the Ultimate, but an unconditional devotion to something conditioned.

    As for Paul, he may be right that their faith was useless if Jesus had not risen, but I doubt it. I think his faith likely transcended the 1st century imagery he used to express it (1 Cor. 13).

    So Faith, I’d want to say, is a higher than belief. It includes belief, but it should not be identified with it, at least not with belief as we usually speak of the term. Yet I think there is a point where faith and belief (as well as will and emotion) converge. This we might think of as a holistic ultimate belief, choice and feeling about our status of being in the world. This raises for us the question of to be or not to be in us. Here is the domain of faith.

    So in sum, I understand the sentiment you are expressing and I think you are getting at an essential point, but I tend to think the way that conversation has been structured is unworkable. It leads to either the attempt to silence our questioning minds, or the jettisoning of dubious beliefs as well as faith. We need to find a better way.


    September 27, 2011 at 9:51 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: