Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Solid faith despite uncertainty and doubts

So what do you do as a Christian when you're confronted with skepticism, doubts, and uncertainty not from other people, but from your own mind? The postmodern perspective has let people see that the complexity of life and Christianity doesn't really fit the small tidy filing cabinet filled that apparently contains "the truth" that people should believe. Doctrines and Christian ideas once safely treasured suddenly find themselves out in the messy world, where people ignore or trample on them. What do you do when the faith once based on believing those doctrines also finds itself out in the cold, struggling to survive?

Let me tell you of what I did, because it seems to have worked. It's quite simple really. I reestablished my Christianity not on dogma, but on principles. To base my Christianity on dogmas that I questioned was inherently unstable, so I based it instead on principles that withstood the tide of skepticism. So what were these principles? Let me investigate my own mind and hope it is coherent...

Given that I don't know everything, I need to figure out how to live with the relatively limited understanding I have. More important than my current knowledge is my approach and attitude to the knowledge I don't have. Postmodernism seems great at establishing a lack of certain knowledge, but I think we need to go beyond that to deal with that lack - a kind of post-postmodernism. This attitude in light of what I don't know, I think, is what wisdom is all about. If you found yourself lost in a place you had never been before, the most important thing for you is not where you should be, or where you are, but how you go about getting back to where you want to be. Wisdom is not about where you are, but about how you make progress. Similarly with knowledge, wisdom is not about what you know and what you do, but about how you learn and grow. Growing as a person seems to be not about accumulating life experience, but about becoming richer in wisdom, which makes our life experiences somehow better. For my Christianity, this helped me see that how we go about life in our relative ignorance of is far more important than what we know. This in itself somehow made my doubts and uncertainties seem in a strange way irrelevant. So wisdom, I think, is my first principle. And my second would be to grow in wisdom, for obvious reasons - a great wisdom is to seek more wisdom.

So given that I currently don't know most important facts in the world, and even if I did I wouldn't have the capacity to do nearly enough about them - I have to make a few working assumptions about how to live. They might not be the best, but I need to assume them or else I couldn't do anything - and that, I believe, is worse (because it seems to contradict the first two principles). So what principle can I use to guide my assumptions? I can't see that life would be particularly like living without it involving other people. So the on e such principle is that of community - that I should live in relationship with others.

Given that life involves other people, then, I consider as basic the idea that "I" could have been one of the other people, so I should treat as equals - and want as much good for them as I want for me (I know, sounds a lot like what Jesus taught). That, I think, is what love is about. Now I may not know the best way to act for the good of others, or my own good, but that's where wisdom comes in again.

I think life also somehow involves God, perhaps in a significant way. I don't know that with certainty, but I don't need to, because I can live according to the limited wisdom I currently have. Wisdom provides a way to live in the midst of uncertainty. I believe that God wants us to mature into experiencing life in better ways (by becoming wiser, more mature) , so I see no significant difference between a wise way to live if God exists, and a wise way to live if he does not. I seek to grow in wisdom, and I think that is both good and Godly. Because I believe God wants us to grow in wisdom as people, I don't think he will mind my uncertainty about whether he exists or not - that will all be cleared up in a few short decades anyway. And if God does indeed exist, I think he would want to help me grow in wisdom to become more like the person he'd want me to be (which I consider to be a sort of ideal "me").

So I suppose my Christianity is built upon not ideas or doctrines or theories, but upon a disposition towards wisdom. This disposition is about growing and developing in wisdom for the good of both myself, others around me, and maybe even God. That is what my heart is set on. That is what I am committed to. That is what my faith is all about. Uncertainties about doctrines don't really seem to shake that foundation. The philosophies and cultures I am exposed to can't seem to shake it. In fact, I've not come across anything that can shake it. It is basic. It is my foundation. But it wasn't always, and seeing Christians around me trying to balance their Christianity on their own wobbling doubts, I wonder: what do other people base their faith on?


era said...

Interesting, I’m not sure I followed all of it but I was a little concerned at points. Instead of disagreeing with you, I think I will instead ask some questions. I’m not sure what the difference between a dogma and a principle is, could you expand on that? And, I didn’t manage to tie down what you mean by “wisdom”. You almost seem to suggest that it is the lack of truth or knowledge or experience.

Reuben said...

Dogma: belief or doctrine held by a religion or any kind of organization to be authoritative, a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof.

Principle: A basic rule that guides or influences thought or action.

I see two key differences between them. 1) Dogmas rely on religious authority rather than sound reason, logic and philosophy, and 2) dogmas tend to be specific beliefs about things that have little application to our thought or action. That, at least, is how I think of them.

Regarding wisdom, perhaps I needed to make it clearer that I see wisdom not as a lack of knowledge, but as a kind of skill in how we go about thinking and living while lacking knowledge. Obviously, part of wisdom is realising our lack of perfect knowledge, but that's not what I'm emphasising by using the word "wisdom". Does that clarify?

era said...

I tend to look for the dogmas underlying any particular enterprise, especially when it is one I'm doing. Philosophy has its dogmas, as does science, and clearly religions do too. While this is partly a deviation from the popular usage of the word, it does make sense to use it to capture any rigid belief that cannot be justified. For instance, the dogma of science is that the world makes sense if studied scientifically, and if something does not make sense, it is your fault, not the worlds. What then are your dogmas?

I guess I see wisdom as being knowledge. By “knowledge” I mean something akin to knowing how to play the piano, rather than merely knowing the abstract theory of playing the piano. So I agree then that knowing what to do when you lack knowledge is wisdom, but only insofar as it is something you know. To say that wisdom in its entirety is just ‘knowing what to do when you lack knowledge’ is to leave a lot out. To me the significance of realising that you lack knowledge is the passion that it gives you in pursuing wisdom.

Reuben said...

I agree with you. I suppose my "principles" are dogmatic in the sense you are using it it. I was using different terms to emphasise the differences betweeen Christian dogmas and what I am talking about by "wisdom".

On that note, I completely agree that wisdom is a type of knowledge, a bit like a kind of "skill" as you've pointed out. Again, I was using different terms to try to distinguish what I was talking about. I did not mean that wisdom is ‘knowing what to do when you completely lack knowledge’. I meant that it's being skillful in how we think and act when we don't know all possible knowledge that could be relevant. I agree that awareness of lacking knowledge motivates us to pursue wisdom more. I think our different use of terms is confusing our communication somewhat here, as I think there are many commonalities between our views.

era said...

As always I completely agree with you, too :) Well I think I do, best to start out making sure of what we are talking about though. Words really are such poor tools for speaking truth. I'll think through the rest of what you said in due course and see if I can engage the argument rather than just define words.

Kerry said...

Hi Reuben,
Interesting. Principles, at a base level still appear to rely on dogma as era points out. Dogma is a truth statement. I understand you were speaking of Dogma in the religious- perhaps derogatory- sense, nevertheless dogma are in every case meant (whether they succeed or not) to convey reality, ie, truth.

Christian dogma as you rightly point out is often reliant "on religious authority rather than sound reason" but that doesn't make its acceptance wrong unless of course sound reason cannot be found for it. It more often means that people who take it on simple authority haven't thought through the issues for themselves, or are incapable of it or cannot as I suspect is most often the case find the inspiration within themsleves to do the work necessary to ascertain the veracity of a statement. We can all understand that children need to take things on the simple authority of their parents and when they have good reason to trust them this works well, but parents need to ensure their kids don't stay children also by encouraging them to think for themselves. Taking something on authority, religious or otherwise is not wrong in itself, it may simply be the humble salute of the finite to the infinite, the ignorant to the learned. Also it is well to recognize the importance of trust in the whole scenario, people come to an end of their ability to know usually far quicker than their need to know. It seems to me faith does not (as you say also) negate the need to think, but Christendom has so often misrepresented Christianity by being antagonistic toward reason and thinking- like welcome to church please leave your brain at the door! This is definitely a false view. "Come now let us reason together"(Isaiah 1:18) is God's invitation.
Often though, I agree, it is the shrug of the indolent and the excuse of the complacent, the immaturity of the child.
It is good to believe things based on sound reason,but can reason reach high enough?
With regard to your comment-"Postmodernism seems great at establishing a lack of certain knowledge..."
Given that postmodernism is the age of the skeptic we should also acknowledge the inconsistency of it's own premise. Something that establishes a certainty,(in this case postmodernism) is making a truth statement (dogma). So that the view that nothing can be known certainly (the main premise of postmodernism) becomes a self-refuting statement. If "a lack of certain knowledge" were established certainly (absolutely)it would be criticizing itself! This is why I believe in absolutes; no matter what is said- either in denial or affirmation any statement like the one quoted proves to a reasonable degree both the undeniability of absolutes and the certainty of knowledge.
"Many people who hold quite contradictory views can claim to have a divine revelation of truth - but they can't all be right." I have quoted this from one of your posts and I fully agree with this view. What you affirm here is the law of non-contradiction. Two opposing statements cannot both be right despite what the gods "Tolerance" and "Relativism" have brainwashed people into thinking. The problem is the philosophical climate of today ensures that whoever claims to know something of the truth is labelled as arrogant. That is why today there is virtually a plethora of opinions and an alarming lack of people who will stand up for the idea of absolutes, the accusation of arrogance and the look of incredulity on peoples faces goes a long way to make "dogma" very unpopular. Fortunately there is enough evidence in the world to say with reasonable assurance that certain knowledge does exist and may be known and there just so happens to be enough uncertainty in the world to ensure that faith and trust are not made redundant terms.

Reuben said...

Hi Kerry,

Thanks for taking time to visit my blog and comment.

I'm reasonably familiar with the ideas you've mentioned and the views generally behind them. I'll comment on just one.

The "postmodernism is self-refuting" argument doesn't really apply to the majority of postmodern thought, which I'd call "soft" postmodernism. Of course it is self-refuting to say "it is certain that there are no certainties". No one I know would claim such a silly thing. Rather, the more reasoned postmodern approach questions both the warrant (justification) for truth claims and the value of those claims.

Regarding warrant, it is not self-refuting to say "no one knows everything knowable", it is simply a well observed and rationally supported observation. Without getting too far into the philosophical ideas of epistemology, let's do a thought experiment. Let's say you can be certain that what your senses perceive is really true, we'll call that what you "know". To make sense of that knowledge, you form ideas. Those ideas can only be based on the data you know. But each person knows only a relatively small amount of all knowable truth, hence their ideas are based not on all knowable truth, but a subset of it It is therefore quite reasonable to observe that the ideas people hold may vary depending on what they know. In light of this, the only way someone could be absolutely certain of their ideas is if they knew all knowable truth and were totally rational to draw valid conclusions from those facts. This, according to postmoderns, is incorrect. The warrant of a particular belief or idea is seen to correlate to the data that the person bases it upon. Postmoderns do not rule out certainty based upon complete information, they simply points out that people do not have complete information and thus full certainty is not warranted. This, of course, does not rule out having confidence in ideas based on sound reasoning from limited information.

Secondly, for postmoderns the value of an idea is very important. Many may share our concern to discern what is true as best we can, and value learning about what is true, they simply understand their own limited resources to fully determine that truth. Some moderns place value on ideas that postmoderns simply don't value. Even if arguments to support the validity of those ideas are sound, they will still be rejected if alternative ideas are perceived to be more valuable. Hence modernist ideas are sometimes rejected by postmoderns not simply on the grounds of their warrant, but on the grounds of their value.

Now there is a brand of hard postmodernism that seems to hold that there is little value in discerning what is true to the best of our ability, and that it doesn't really matter what ideas people have. That, I think if I understand you correctly, is what you are criticizing - and rightly so in my opinion.

I think I agree with your ideas about taking things on authority - it is not necessarily a bad thing and it has a place.

Kerry said...

I've just re-read your original post "Solid faith despite uncertainty and doubts" I could well imagine that in todays world there is nowhere a more antagonistic and patronising attitude towards the supernatural than that of universities and other bastions of learning. And I can well imagine the "trampling" and "struggle to survive" that many go through. And to a degree this is great because genuine faith is, I am convinced, more than able to answer the severest critics. And it is nothing but healthy to reexamine what we believe and why we believe it. And I would hope the challenge of ideas could only refine and sharpen our own thoughts.

I admit the extreme postmodernist skeptic is not so difficult to ignore but there is a pervasive view in todays world that anyone who asserts an idea as the truth to a degree which rises above anything more than an opinion is very quickly shot down. In everyday life, like driving to work we have no absolute guarantee of even our cars' brakes working- but we have enough certainty to continue to drive. And I do believe there is enough certainty to warrant the Christian worldview is the most coherent, intelligible and philosophically sound worldview to live by and that it corresponds to reality better than any other just because it is the truth. The following is an excerpt from something written by L.T. Jeyachandaran which I hope you would feel relevant to the post. Sorry bout the length of it!
"Faith and reason are often held to be diametrically opposed to each other. The argument advanced for this opinion is that reason is applicable to the material world and, as God belongs to the world of spirit (or energy or pure consciousness according to the particular belief or world view), reason would not and should not be applicable to Him and to anything that concerns Him.

Pantheism categorises knowledge itself into two levels - the 'Para' or higher form of knowledge which is completely intuitive and pertains to Brahman and which does not follow the norms of logic and, the 'Apara' or lower form which applies to the material world to which logic is applicable. On the other hand, there are rationalists who hold that all of reality can be comprehended by science and reason and faith is superfluous as a faculty in the pursuit of knowledge. My endeavour, in this article, is to establish a realistic relationship between these two faculties.

In the previous article, we had concluded that the existence of God can be established with a high degree of probability. It is pertinent in this context to recognise the fact that a scientific law is also at best, a high probability conclusion. Why is it so? It is primarily because any scientific law makes preliminary assumptions which have no 'scientific' proof. I use the term 'proof' both in the sense of objective sensory proof (as in the case of a precipitate in a chemical experiment) as well that of a deductive logical conclusion. (I trust you remember the nature of the conclusions arrived at by deductive and inductive arguments; the former yields a certain conclusion and the latter a probable conclusion). For example, a scientist makes the assumption that we live in a rational universe as the conclusion of an inductive argument on the basis of observations made up to this point. One isolated observation which goes against a rational universe would put all our scientific laws in serious jeopardy. Similarly, the law of uniformity of cause and effect - the same cause would produce the same effect under the same conditions - is also a 'non-scientific' assumption (again on the basis of inductive logic) which lies behind all scientific laws. Any honest scientist would agree with this point of philosophy related to scientific discoveries. Thus scientific laws require a step of faith which bridges the gap between high probability (reached by scientific experiments and inductive conclusions) and certainty.

Now I would like you to imagine in your mind the extreme positions of faith and reason in a horizontal scale. On the left extreme, you have a point of pure faith, on the right extreme a point of pure reason. By pure faith, I mean a belief which has no rational or evidential basis. (The moment you allow for such bases, it would no longer be 'pure' faith). Pure faith is gullible and it results in credulity. It simply believes what is placed before it. I would like to give an example. A few years ago there was an unfortunate air crash of the Indian Airlines flight from Bombay to Ahmedabad. When it was approaching the Ahmedabad airport, the pilot saw some lights on the ground and mistook them for the lights on the runway. (This could be surmised on the basis of the evidence gathered from the cockpit voice recorder). Later it was established that the lights the pilot saw were those on a nearby power plant. Now the pilot sincerely believed those lights to be lights on the runway. But this unfounded belief resulted in this terrible disaster. We notice therefore that the sincere faith of the pilot was not able to avoid this awful consequence. Our common sense would tell us that this 'belief' had no factual basis. Very often people say, 'It does not matter what you believe as long as you sincerely believe it'. Now that is a position which really cannot be held with any degree of intellectual integrity. A person who sincerely believes what is not true is sincerely wrong! Reason and evidence provide the basis for faith to be reasonable.

Reason is also important (and useful) in eliminating superstition. You might have come across people who believe that if a cat crosses your path, you would meet with a mishap. You will notice that this belief has no basis at all in reason and that is what we call a superstition. If I sincerely believed such a kind of an entity without applying my mind to it to see whether there is any basis for this belief, I would be guilty of credulity. This is why pure faith (fideism) fails as an adequate test for truth. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who take a fideistic position (that faith alone is the criterion for truth) and therefore conclude that reason can have no place in the life of the Christians, at least where his 'spiritual' life is concerned.

At the other extreme, we have people who worship reason. It should be readily admitted that pure reason does provide certitude in conceptual matters, e.g., 2 + 2 = 4. But rationalism has other problems. Its first problem is that it has no empirical relatability. (Pure reason will tell me that 2 + 2 = 4 with absolute certainty, but will be helpless in commenting on the truth claim of the equation 2 horned rabbits + 2 horned rabbits = 4 horned rabbits. The moment reason attempts to analyse this equation, it goes beyond its own limits into the realm of empirical fact - whether horned rabbits exist or not - an area which is outside the purview of pure reason. Secondly, rationalists tell us, 'We can believe only what you can scientifically prove', or in other words, only what can be scientifically proved is true. But that very statement is in need of proof. They are guilty of committing the fallacy of petitio principii, more commonly known as 'begging the question'. Science, as already illustrated, depends upon certain assumptions in order to be able to propound any law. These assumptions are not (and cannot be) arrived at on the basis of reason alone. Without these assumptions - the reasonableness of the universe, the uniformity of cause and effect etc. - there can be no scientific enterprise. We also notice that these assumptions are in need of proof themselves which reason is not in a position to supply. This is why pure reason (rationalism) fails as an adequate test for truth. So we see that at either end of the scale, whether we hold to a position of pure faith or that of pure reason, we stand in need of the other faculty. Faith stands in need of reason in order to eliminate superstition. Reason stands in need of faith in order to achieve certainty."

Kerry said...

Me again,
I came across this today re. Postmodernity which I liked:
The Postmodern” by D.A. Carson

At last we know all truth is gray: no more
Faith’s raucous rhetoric, this blinding trap
Of absolutes, this brightly colored map
Of good and bad: our ocean has no shore.
Dogmatic truth is chimera: deplore
All arrogance: the massive gray will sap
The sparkling hues of bigotry, and cap
The rainbow, mask the sun, make dullness soar.
Yet tiny, fleeting hesitations lurk
Behind the storied billows of the cloud
Like sparkling, prism’d glory in the murk:
The freedom of the gray becomes a shroud.
Where nothing can be false, truth must away–
Not least the truth that all my world is gray.
–D.A. Carson, Published in First Things, (No. 93, May 1999), p. 51.
Someone once said that people fall between two extremes which are both tragic- The extreme skeptic is so concerned with filtering out all untruth that he is like someone with their mouth shut that refuses to eat for fear of poison and starves as a result, whereas the gullible person has his mouth so wide taking it all in that he chokes on it and suffers the same result! I believe the postmodern, in unhinging himself from absolutes has cut himself adrift in a sea of gray. To my mind it's a sort of agnosticism where nothing is firm to grip on like trying to grab an eel!