Faith: A Brief Defence
In G.K. Chesterton’s book, “Orthodoxy”, he speaks of a type of madness which can inhabit one’s mind. He compares it to a circle which is simultaneously infinite and quite small. A madman might think everyone he meets is a government agent. Of course they will deny it, because that’s exactly what an agent would do. Or, maybe a madman thinks he is Jesus. Surely he will be rejected and disbelieved...wasn’t Jesus also?
One of Chesterton's most famous lines is, “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason, he is someone who has lost everything except his reason!” As anyone who has a family member or friend wading hip-deep in conspiracy theories recognizes, arguing with them is like punching at the wind. Every jab has a response which is coherent in its small, circular insanity, and yet utterly unconvincing to those who witness the world with clearer vision.
The puzzle is, how do we exit these circles of insanity? What would one say to a person suffering from a deep solipsistic conviction who therefore believes they alone exist? Chesterton gives us an answer. If you haven't read it, you really should. Here we will put it simply: to leave the circle it takes Faith and not just reason.
Reformed epistemologists talk about “properly basic beliefs”. For them, these may include truth like one’s own existence, the existence of other minds, and even the existence of God. To them, these are so readily apparent to a healthy and properly functioning mind, they can be immediately seen for the truths they are.
Other philosophical traditions call such apparent truths, “seemings” or, “first principles”. Regular people, when told that some people debate whether or not other minds exist, squint their eyes and wonder what kind of moron would deny such a reality. Maybe that philosopher’s mind doesn’t exist?
I contend that whatever is going on which gives ordinary people and philosophers alike a clear and unassailable witness of the truth, is Faith. When I say with certainty that A=A and non-A ≠ A, I am correct, and it doesn’t require an argument. Even if it did, I couldn't possibly make an argument to prove those statements without first assuming them. Even the use of words relies on the fact that words have definitions and the definitions = the word, thereby assuming the first statement’s truth.
As soon as someone sees and understands “A=A”, it is seen as true. Logic is a means to get to truth, but here the truth is readily presented. It is not that logic is subordinated, or worse violated, by this process.
Only with this as the context do I believe the matter of faith should be addressed. Too often faith is described in flowery and vague language. Atheists in particular have a keen sense for when Christians don’t really know what they are talking about. Whenever faith versus reason comes up, they smell blood in the water. I don’t say this to bash other Christians nor to exalt my own understanding. After all, I only learned this by opening up an $11 Catechism I bought on Amazon. Here is how I would describe faith (yes, using flowers in my example, but I will try not to be vague):
If the possession of truth is like having a beautiful garden, reason is like planting things as seeds and then watering, tending, trimming, and arranging, until things as they grow and build on themselves to become beautiful. Faith is like having full grown plants transplanted directly into the garden.
Would the first gardener deny the second garden is beautiful simply because they didn’t go through the process of cultivating the plants? Worse yet, would he deny they could both be growing the same type of plants, just because one was slowly tended and the other transplanted? Of course not! Both arrived at the same beautiful garden and successfully reached their end.
Maybe the first gardener watches the second one receive their delivery of full grown plants and scoffs. “I don’t just receive plants, I grow them myself!” But does he? That gardener was given seeds. If he had chosen not to accept the gift of seeds, he could grow nothing.
Sure, the seeds given to the garden of reason might be small. A=A is small, the knowledge that other minds exist is small, and the principle of sufficient reason is small, too. And yet, with proper care the Church acknowledges that mankind can, in fact, come to the knowledge of God’s existence using reason alone. At that point, reason doesn’t stop, any more than a gardener stops gardening because they have some blooms. Instead, the possibility of transplanting new and beautiful plants begins. This leads to revelation- the giving of truth by He who is Truth.
Objection: The doctrine of the Trinity is a “revealed truth”. Would you say there is rational evidence to believe the Trinity, or not? If you say that there is not, you have proved my point that there is indeed a conflict between faith and reason. If you say there is enough rational evidence to believe this doctrine, then your position collapses into reason and hence faith becomes unnecessary.
Answer: I might ask how are you defining “rational evidence”. If you define it as “anything that can make holding a position sufficiently justifiable”, then you have defined it far too broadly. It would encompass both faith and reason. Therefore, your dilemma would not be addressing the question of faith at all. In fact, you may be smuggling your conclusion into your first premise. You assume from the onset that only reason can give someone justification for belief, and lo and behold, that becomes your conclusion as well.
Maybe you are not defining “rational evidence” so broadly. Here I will assume that rational means “that which uses reason”. In this case, I offer my initial example, A=A. This is not arrived at by reason, but rather assumed by reason so the rational process can get off the ground. If this is what you mean by, “a conflict between faith and reason”, then I ask you, where is the conflict? Instead, it seems at the core of reality there is a cooperation of the two, both the rational and that which is seen to be true using a properly functioning intellect- which happens to be my definition of Faith.
Answer: Your dilemma offers two categories, rational and not-rational. It is true that faith is not reason. This however does not mean it is Ir-rational, or in violation of what is rational. If you could prove a revealed doctrine is irrational, that would be a problem for the theist. However, simply saying that faith is not the same as reason is an obvious fact, which has no bearing on the discussion of whether of not both ought to be used in pursuit of truth.
Objection: Putting simple truths like the principle of identity or non-contradiction in the same category as doctrines like the Trinity or the Incarnation seems to be an arbitrary grouping. Yes, you can defend the first truths, but that doesn’t entail that you are doing anything to defend the second. Either defend those “revealed truths”, or prove they belong in the same category as those obvious first principles.
Answer: My argument is from within Classical theism. If no God existed, then truths would be arbitrary or subjective, because no non-contingent being could ground them. Further, if such a reality could exist, truths could go out of existence when whatever contingent being went out of existence. In such a reality, neither of us have any warrant to reasonably believe the truth of almost anything, nor a good reason to assume our reason is aimed towards truth in the first place.
Descartes found that only by recognizing the existence of God can one pull themselves out of systematic skepticism- and the ensuing shrinking circles of insanity found in solipsism. If you want an argument from outside of theism and inside an atheist worldview for faith, I can’t do it. The interesting part is, neither could I give you a compelling argument for reason!
If, however, we grant Classical theism, the odds of revelation now appear quite high. Given the classic attributes entailed by philosophical reflection on His non-contingency, absolute actuality, unbounded existence, and universal causality, we can conclude intelligence, will, goodness, and love, just to name a few qualities.
If God intentionally and lovingly created creatures that were capable and interested in knowing truths about Himself, would it be too big of a leap to assume He would tell them? Wouldn’t God, who created the desire in mankind to know Him, also make Himself known to His creation?
Once in algebra class, my high school teacher shocked us students by telling us that, while there were rules and precise steps which had to be learned to factor polynomials, to begin we had to guess a number to start factoring with. But how do we guess it? All of math had thus far seemed so rational and structured, but here it broke with the norm. To proceed we simply choose a number?
While I am sure that some mathematician has a formula to make this unnecessary, nevertheless, this illustrates how there are times when our reason reaches a limit. To go on, it must take a kind of leap. This leap is, as my catechism puts it, “By no means a blind impulse of the mind”. Some students were better and others worse at choosing a number. The very fact one could become good at such a task means there was a truth their minds were approximating. The students will know for sure as they continue to advance logically through the problem.
With the Trinity, one is asked to make a leap. That leap is not a guess about the Trinity but rather to trust what they have seen and recognized as true. Faith is choosing and using the truth so that one can further understand reality. In this case, such revelation absolutely belongs with those other truths. Each is a sliver of the truth Himself, God. Each is grounded in God as the fullness of being and thus grounded in Truth. Each is chosen and used for the further investigation of reality, not by a blind impulse of the mind, but rather by trusting the witness of our truth-seeking facilities, which are ordered towards truth proximately, and God ultimately.
Objection: If what you say were true, then everyone would agree. No one disagrees that A=A, but billions of people disagree that Jesus is God...or any other so called “revealed truths”.
Answer: I would say that as soon as the terms are understood in the following statement, the truth is readily apparent: “The sum of the internal angles of a dodecagon is five times that of the sum of its external angles.” Now walk down the street and ask people whether that is true or false.
Truth is not determined by vote. Even if it were, the vast majority of people who ever lived would certainly believe in some sort of faith, as an extension of their near unanimous belief in God.
Answer: Simply put, what makes you think God would automatically and universally give identical and irresistibly persuasive revelations of Himself to every person? There are many truths people don’t share universally, and yet that has no bearing on their truth value.
Answer: The Christian answer is an Incarnational one, where the sacrament of Baptism installs eyes of faith which can witness God directly. Not only is the Christian notion of faith embedded in theism, but also in Christian doctrine. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it may not function in a non-Christian worldview coherently. That however, does nothing to disprove faith because it is fully coherent inside its native context, and that context has independent reasons for its validity. This could be explained in a different apologetic context.
Do you have other objections you would like addressed? Email me! I would be happy to respond.