Friday, May 27, 2011

Faith: Neither Innate Nor Decision - Part 1

Most peculiar notions of faith prevail in religious circles in our current age. At one time, these ideas would have been largely seen as confined to the more Charismatic (including Pentecostal) wings of Christendom; although in hindsight, corrupted understandings of faith take residence in many “traditions” of Christianity, including the Evangelical. From a historical perspective, one could blame the spirit of Kirkegaardianism and Albert Finney for modern introduction of these notions; although their existence has always existed as part and parcel of human nature. Nor are these conceptions restricted to the religious but permeate secular society; particularly of the bottom 80% of the elite / commoner divide.

A recent Holy Post posting in the National Post (“Faith is innate – not a decision”) by a self-proclaimed agnostic Lucy Leiderman ( exemplifies this sentiment; endemic and pandemic to the times. The writer claims that though reared “in an atheist household”; she “feel[s] need to have faith” while others “just do not feel faith in their heart”. For, Lucy deems faith to be some specialized faculty or gnosis; which the atheist are innately deprived. As she notes later in her article, an atheist “did not understand it [faith] because he had no innate capacity to feel it [faith].”

This conception of faith permeates the thinking of the postmodern ‘theologian’ Donald Miller, who in his book “Blue Like Jazz”, which has weaseled its way into mainstream Evangelical Churches, equates faith to penguin “radar” or instinct.

I believe in God, and as I said before it feels so much more like something is causing me to believe than that I am stirring up belief. In fact, I would even say that when I started in faith I didn’t want to believe; my intellect wanted to disbelieve, but my soul, that deeper instinct, could no more stop believing in God than Tony could, on a dime, stop being in love with his wife. There are things you choose to believe, and the beliefs that choose you.”

Pentecostal and Charismatic circles are infamous for associating faith with the psychological appropriation of it; of ‘inculcating’ the pouring of the Spirit which is oft equated with that “presence of God” feeling and an ecstatic spiritual high or fix.  These practices lend themselves to well-documented pastoral problems; as when this specialized instinct disappears in the ‘dark night of the soul’ or when those psychological faculties grow cold and senseless.

The secularist realm has taken notice of this cultural phenomenon; best summed by the news comedian Steve Colbert in his coining of the word truthiness to denote the ascertaining of the truth “from the gut” intuition regardless of evidence, reason, intellectual inspection or facts. It manifested itself in an article concerning cohabitation in U.S. Today. While the preponderance of sociological studies showed erotic relations governed by the spirit of cohabitation to be detrimental to the survivability and success of such arrangements, the plurality of society will reject such findings because the gut feelings of most say otherwise. It is truth by survey. Something is true because I or sufficient numbers of persons believe it to be so.

Even Christians of yore struggled with the nature of spiritual faith. Biographies of Puritans, Calvinists or would-be Christians, having a more hyper-Calvinist conception of the Sovereignty of God; would often fall into doubt over their salvation or even fail to  come to Christ; because they saw the futility of faith unless they were one of the Called. They would await some special psychological prompting or spiritual anointing before actually living by faith.

And I speak not from some lofty theological perch. For, in my deep and enduring spiritual imprisonment, I seemed to have fallen for every possible misconception of the nature of faith that could ever be held.

The common thread throughout this odd notion of faith is that it requires a specialized faculty, pietism or gnosis. When speaking of pietism, it is not with academic precision or from historical definition; but rather as a generic description of a spirituality that is introspective and inward-looking, lacking external anchor. Historically, such spirituality would involve seeking personal holiness including inspection of the motives and motions of heart and mind. The fellow travelers, both virtuous and vile, in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” were those elements that Bunyan found in his psyche along his faith journey which he either had to repudiate or inculcate. However, in modern times, this pietism has transformed increasingly into being blindly guided by the motions of the heart and mind without inspection of the validity of those innate promptings. Some of this error is derived from bad theology; the belief that one’s native nature is replaced by the new nature upon conversion; rather than that the new nature is being added unto the old. In the former understanding, one presumes that whatever emanates out of one’s heart is by default, good. In the latter, the process of sanctification involves electing to being guided increasingly by that new nature over the old.

And when speaking of gnosis, it refers not to the historical heresy by the fuller term Gnosticism which had a full theology associated with that term. Rather, similar in spirit to Gnosticism, gnosis is meant here as being guided by an esoteric, intuitive appropriation of spiritual truths; without reference to Scriptures or validating such intuitions against Scriptural consistency. It is not to deny the scripturally affirmed contention that God speaks in inner promptings. However, especially for those who have undergone the gamut of spiritual warfare, the question arises ‘How does one know that the prompting one experiences, comes from God?’ And the Scriptural reply is to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1) and to “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) But in testing those spirits; whether manifested in those without or within; against what should be the measure?

Assertions that faith constitutes a specialized faculty; a sixth sense; that the atheists are innately denied; lacks Scriptural substantiation and rational coherence.  From Scriptural perspective, it makes mockery of its commands.  Injunctions to “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) are cruel jokes if some are constitutionally denied the capacity to give their trust at all.  Indeed, in that “trust in the Lord” and “lean on your own understanding” are utilized in the same sentence as if interchangeable actions of mind and will; there appears no differentiating psychological quantum leap required in order to trust in the Divine.  There is nothing in the Biblical definition of “faith [as] confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1) that connotes some special gift; from the standpoint of a psychological faculty. 

Furthermore, I would suggest that all people have faith; even the most obdurate of atheists. Contrary to atheist self-proclamations of sole use of reason and denigration of people of faith; the atheist lives their own lives on the basis of inordinate amounts of faith. One could not satisfactorily ruminate through all evidence and reason before utilizing all the modern devices at one’s disposal or even in application of the basis laws of physics. Few investigate the veracity of published scientific studies, before accepting the findings; verifying the conceptual definitions, the validity of the methodology, the impartiality in the selection of test subjects or objects for study, and the reasonableness of the interpretation of the data outcomes. Much is accepted on the basis of faith in the intellectual integrity and acumen of the researchers and the scientific methodologies that are put in place to ensure accuracy of conclusions. (It is largely misplaced faith.) Otherwise, mankind would be in a perpetual state of studying and verifying; and not living. Faith is absolute necessary in order to operate in the world. 

The atheist’s very atheism often finds its foundation on a faith; that of a materialist axiom. When many atheists discount the existence of God, they cite lack of evidence. However, their definition of evidence often requires a selective and preclusive class of proof; only the material; only that which can be sensed and/or measured. There are even eliminative materialists that would classify consciousness and subjective experience (qualia), history and the conceptual as mere delusions.

Materialism is an axiom of philosophy. And an axiom is but a secular equivalent of an Article of Faith. This axiom, this presupposition is supposedly self-evident truth. However, is this tenet of materialism so self-evident? Can it not be disabused? The actual existence of Christ is often denied for lack of material evidence. (To be fair, some even doubt the existence of Socrates.) By such criteria, the existence of our ancestry through whom we descend must be discounted because we lack actual material record of them; or that such material evidence cannot be crosschecked against their identity. Some deny the reality of subjective experience as delusion, though deliberate types of thought processes can produce physiological responses in other parts of the body? If gravity’s existence can only be inferred by its consequences to other objects, why should the subjective experience be denied its reality when it too produces physiological consequence? And so on… Thus, materialist presumptions cannot be maintained as mere fact. Thus, atheism built on this axiomatic foundation is but a faith.

Even the scientific method requires faith in an axiom. The discovery of a physical process or law is determined by the observation of a relatively small number of iterations of a process over a limited geographical and temporal range. The presumption that this process is universal throughout the cosmos and immutable throughout time is premised on the axiom of uniformitarianism. However, uniformitarianism cannot be proven true; for in order to prove it, mankind must have the omniscient capacity to demonstrate that any law is applicable universally and immutable through testing in all possible situations throughout the cosmos. Uniformitarianism might be an entirely reasonable assumption; an intelligent faith, so to speak. Nevertheless, it requires a faith. Thus, the only difference between the secular and the religious lies in the objects of their faith.

So what is faith? In seeing that there exists no difference between the religious and common conceptions of it; is it not to believe an assertion, promise, injunction and/or advice to the extent that one conducts one’s behaviour and life on the basis of its truth, virtue and benefit? One drives a car ultimately on faith. One turns the steering wheel clockwise and counterclockwise, in the (almost unconscious) belief that the design and workmanship will ensure the vehicle will turn right and left. Similar, Christian belief requires conducting one’s life in accordance to the assertions, promises, edicts and principles of God and His Christ.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

It presupposes that the assertions are true, the promises will be fulfilled and the edicts and principles are virtuous by virtue that they are beneficial; whether immediately and directly to the person(s) involved or in an obscure fashion to the Kingdom of God and the beneficiaries of that Kingdom.  One cannot honestly claim to believe in Christ if one fails to live in such accordance; anymore than a Communist state can be declared faithful to its namesake if wide scale private enterprise is practiced.

The definition of faith which requires a special instinct, pietistic sensation or gnosis; the one that prevails in this current age; requires the mediator of subjectivism in order to believe and to act on that belief. This understanding is most famously popularized from Søren Kierkegaard; the 19th Century religious Danish philosopher, whose meandering of thought posited that a fact or assertion is true only if an individual can subjectively appropriate it; through the senses, reason, feelings or some ‘special faculty or gnosis’. This definition of truth invariably leads to relativism and ultimately and logically, philosophical nihilism (‘there is no genuine truth’). Thus one does not believe a truth assertion and act upon it, such as the precepts of the Word of God, unless one can ‘feel’ its merit; however ‘feel’ is defined. That could mean apprehend it rationally, sense the weight of its truth, feel ecstatically glad over it, a correspondence of this "truth’ with one’s instincts or motions of one’s heart, or with voices that one hears etc.

By placing the subjective as mediator; as priest; as final authority and arbiter of reality; it actually places the subjective as one’s god and pillar. It is on one’s rational capabilities, instincts and feelings, pietistic motions of the heart or gnosis upon which one truly believes and relies.

Placing reliance on the subjective capacity to appropriate the objective truth rather than leaning directly on objective truth without the mediator of the subjective, is ultimately unsafe. The difference is a subtle distinction, which involves introspection of our subjective states of mind.

When truth is subjective; when our subjective faculties become the arbiter of truth (whether as discoverer or fabricator or it); we are on the stepping stones of misplaced pride; misplaced because we are ignorant of the fickleness and fragility of our subjective faculties. Whereas, when we acknowledge an objective truth as “out there”; we acknowledge our legitimate humble relationship to objective reality and our shortcomings in ascertaining its totality. We acknowledge that how we think and feel about objective reality doesn’t alter its existence and veracity.

‘Subjective truth’ may evoke a conviction that one is the fountain of all truth or that there exists no truth because of inability to subjectively find it. This conviction produces a different psychological response to one who separates objective truth from his capacity to apprehend it. An arrogant certainty results, even in the one who pontificates a lack of objective truth (philosophical skepticism). And in that skeptic type, that person will do whatsoever he or she darn pleases in that arrogance; having inured themselves to any truth claims. If one believes that the rise and fall of civilization is predicated on the relative merits of ideas, attitudes and conduct over others, a prevalence of this certainty of untruth in a given society forebodes civilization’s destruction, (and prior to that, efforts to prevent that dissolution by authoritarian and totalitarian means). This matter extends well beyond the realm of spirituality.

One may be weaned from this dependence of the subjective faculties onto firmer external foundations. However, there exists abundant instances in Christianity when, in the battle for allegiance between God and His Word and a particular subjective faculty, the individual elected the latter and lost his faith; often without full consciousness of the psychological dynamics. The most famous case (amongst Evangelical circles) that comes to mind is in the person of Charles Templeton. A contemporary of Billy Graham; and purportedly his intellectual superior; his perceived superior gifts made his prospects in the pantheon of American preachers burnish brighter than Graham. However, because his reason and sensibilities could neither fathom nor square basic existential conundrums with his image of how God should be; he fell from the faith.

Perhaps speculative (as one cannot truly get inside the heart and mind of another); the best explanation, based on the nature of his reported struggle; may be found in that Templeton had never truly believed Christ. Rather, reason was Templeton’s true god; in whom he had ultimate trust. So long as the aspects of the Gospel that he had hitherto encountered corresponded with his reason, faith and reason appeared to walk hand in hand; his ‘faith’ appearing intact. However, when faith and reason diverged with irreconcilable differences; Templeton’s greater allegiance to the latter inevitably led him to sue for divorce from the former. When a subjective faculty acts as final arbiter, it becomes the ultimate god and guide.

This is not a call for blindly believing and obeying the God of Scriptures without substantiating the veracity of its claims in those aspects where such can be measured. The Bible actually screams out that a would-be seeker impartially test its propositions against objective reality; whether externally and/or psychologically. “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). However, in placing reason as final arbiter, one is forever subject to falsification claims when an argument presents itself for which one’s rational faculties may simply lack a ready answer; rather than there not being an ultimate answer. (I would suggest a similar same flaw in asserting that scientific hypothesis is necessarily disproven by falsification.) Divine assertions are often counterintuitive; almost as if God enjoyed playing mind games with humanity. However, if God exists and were He as omniscient as both definition of God entails and that Scriptures proclaim; if “[His] ways are higher than your ways and [His] thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9); then it should stand to reason that He would entertain ideas, ethics and an ethos innately and radically different to our own. This does not furnish proof God’s existence. However, many fall for the subjectivist fallacy that just because a representation of God’s attribute fails to correspond to our preconceived biases, God cannot exist.

Besides, mankind is awfully bound to the conventional wisdoms and sensitivities of his culture and age; a fact well concealed in an age which believes “history is bunk” and subscribes to the Western and modernist hubris of the prevailing progressivist mythology that our mores are superior to all others; in this or any age. Those cultural sensitivities by which we judge the merits of a representation of God may be more an indictment of our failures of imagination and reason. For instance, we live in an age with a wimpy appreciation of the need for justice; of such concern for the welfare of perpetrators; that the threat to the survival of the community is neglected.

Unlike Charles Templeton’s rational objections to the faith, we don’t exactly dwell in an age of reason. There exists ironic lack of critical thinking even in those adherents exalting the principles of the Enlightenment and self-proclaiming themselves as children of Reason; when in fact, in the exaltation of and appeal to credentialism and expertise; they have merely switched their allegiance to a different set of priesthoods. Nevertheless, the dangerous principles inherent when subjective faculties form the determinant of our faith remains true; whether that is the gut instinct of “truthiness”, emotions and affections or of gnosis.

There are heard rumblings from the more Charismatic wing of Christendom, of increasing perversities of thought and practice; of the existentialist faith of the Prosperity Gospel which believes that good worldly entitlements shall be received from the Great Kazoo merely through believing they will; of the hubris of false prophets who claim to being more privy to the hidden purposes of God including the specific time of the Last Coming, than Christ Himself; or of services whose leaders conjure excitations more of a sensual nature than a spiritual; or manifestations of the “Spirit” who direct humans to act with the dignity of writhing snakes, dogs and hyenas.  When gnosis prevails over and unchecked against the external anchor of the Word of God; insurrection, moral travesties, tyranny and annihilation can ensue to those who are guided or follow those who are guided by their intuitions, visions and voices.

How common in song lyrics is variations of the theme “it feels so right it can't be wrong”. Yet in matters of love and eros; the pandemic dissolution of intimate relationships, especially when including those beyond official count, puts lie to the validity of that attitude. Finally culminating in the Financial Panic of 2008, the last twenty-five years of financial history has been a compressed age of crisis, mania and panic; with two housing boom/busts and 3 market crashes in North America and a sprinkling of other potential crisis. The fickleness of psyche governs investment decisions; decimating the intellectual respectability of such economic nostrums such as the Efficient-market hypothesis. Historical recollection is so short nowadays, that it is now journalism that repeats itself.

And in the fallenness, frailty and fallibility of the human psyche, reliance on the subjective is dangerous; not only in a spiritual sense but throughout all realms of human endeavour. And the key aspect highlighted here in man’s fallenness, is the frailty and fragility of the human psyche. How does one maintain one’s integrity in one of those psychiatric wards of the Soviet Gulag or their equivalents around the world; where prisoners, injected with pharmaceuticals, are foisted into surreal and alternative subjective universes? Under the regime of dementia or Alzheimer’s, psychological distress and psychosis or spiritual warfare; all which put pressure on or produce detrimental effects on the subjective faculties; how does one keep acting in honourable and virtuous ways or even from the standpoint of spirituality, in believing?

In lieu of such fragility of the subjective, it would seem that our wills must fasten themselves to an objective external anchor; an objective truth which remains true regardless of whether one feels or apprehends it. For one who seeks God and His Christ, the only logical candidate is to appeal to His Word directly; bypassing the mediators of subjectivity to the greatest extent possible; especially those deemed most unreliable like instinctual “radar”. For just as national political constitutions were written to circumscribe the capricious rule of monarchs and governors and place “immovable” objective standards upon their conduct; Scriptures acts as an objective standard to circumscribe the caprice of subjectivity. In that Scriptures themselves must be subject to the subjectivity of interpretation in order to ascertain semantic meaning, total human escape from the subjective faculties is an elusive dream. Interpretation must scale over the human propensity to dishonest disingenuity to sidestep Scriptural assertions which challenge self-interest and self-image; the sinful attitudes and conscious/subconscious biases which skew and slant plain renderings of passages; competing non-Christian dogmas and idols that preclude the adoption of Scriptural doctrines; let alone innocent errors in understanding, made in good faith.

That one needs to believe the Gospel and receive the Counselor who guides us into all truth becomes evident when those without faith go astray in interpretation; giving worldly meaning to spiritual truths, taking literally that which was meant as allegory, allegorizing that which was meant to be taken literally, counting as inconsistency and contradiction that which was meant as paradox and generally failing to appreciate the subtle and complex brilliance of the mind of God, etc.

Returning to the general gist of this article, the world and inevitably Christianity; in its interplay with the larger society; an interplay which invariably infects the kosher purity of Christianity and threatens always to corrupt and destroy; has been long subject to the ravages to the soul that Subjectivism inflicts. The consequence of lawlessness of society and loss of political cohesion remains one facet of this silent killer. However, relevant to the subject at hand; it is the threat that a subjectivist conception of faith has to Christian salvation that concerns.  The spiritual neophyte, like a suckling child or newlywed bride, might have need for the constant cuddly comfort of the ‘presence of God’ and the Divine hug. The human need to feel vibrant and escape from the ennui of the mundaneness of life ever lurks in the subterranean regions of the soul. And certainly, a pendular return to the cold formalistic religion of the theologians against which the Pietists first overreacted; is not being recommended. However, the fullness of Christ; an untruncated Christianity; requires a faith that is both intellectually true and experientially real; that involves the legs of both mind and heart. The faith of the Subjectivist has foundations built on the fickleness of shifting sands. The subjective faculties represent a competing god and priest to God and His Christ. And in the trials of life, if a person does not finally rest their faith on right and solid foundations, they may very well lose their soul.

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