Two Kinds of Faith

August 24, 2009 | 13 comments
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I recently read Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Terry Eagleton’s critique of the contributions to that debate by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (who he conflates via the memorable moniker “Ditchkins”). It’s less than I’d hoped for, but Chapter Three, “Faith and Reason,” raises issues and questions about that most basic of First Principles, faith.

Eagleton on Faith

In his characteristically irreverent style, Eagleton first describes what might be called the natural view of faith (he uses a different term), a belief in persons or objects held to exist in the natural world of space and time but for which we lack certain proof. He identifies this view with the stereotyped version of faith criticized by Dawkins and Hitchens:

There is probably no greater evidence of Ditchkins’s theological illiteracy than the fact that he appears to subscribe to what one might call the Yeti view of belief in God. I mean by this view that God is the sort of entity for which, like the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, or the lost city of Atlantis, the evidence we have so far is radically ambiguous, not to say downright dubious; and because we cannot thus demonstrate God’s existence in the reasonably straightforward way we can demonstrate the existence of necrophilia or Michael Jackson, we have to put up instead with something less than certainty, known as faith.

Labeling the foregoing view “a travesty of Christian faith,” Eagleton prefers what might be called the transcendental view of faith, a belief in God as a different sort of entity:

God differs from UFOs or the Yeti in not being even a possible object of cognition. In this sense he is more like the tooth fairy than Big Foot. For another thing, religious faith is not in the first place a matter of subscribing to the proposition that a Supreme Being exists, which is where almost all atheism and agnosticism goes awry. God does not “exist” as an entity in the world.

The question then arises: What is it that believers who hold the view that God does not exist as an entity in the world are affirming or communicating with their professions of faith? Eagleton describes this sort of faith as “for the most part performative rather than propositional,” an expression of commitment or trust rather than a statement of mental agreement.

Finally, at the risk of muddling up the two distinct views outlined above, but to illustrate that Eagleton’s view of the scope of faith goes well beyond religious questions, here is a perspective on faith Eagleton cites that some Mormons might find surprisingly meaningful.

The left-wing atheist Alain Badiou … grasps the point that the kind of truth involved in acts of faith is neither independent of propositional truth nor reducible to it. Faith for him consists in a tenacious loyalty to what he calls an “event” — an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history, and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context in which it occurs. Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world, breaking with an older dispensation and founding a radically new reality. Such momentous “truth events” come in various shapes and sizes, all the way from the resurrection of Jesus (in which Badiou does not believe for a moment) to the French Revolution, the moment of Cubism, Cantor’s set theory, Schoenberg’s atonal composition, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the militant politics of 1968.

The Mormon View of Faith

So where does the Mormon view of faith fall? I think for most Mormons, the natural view of faith is what springs to mind: that God is, in fact, “a possible object of cognition,” and that faith in God means faith in a personal God who exists in time and space and who cares deeply about human welfare and salvation. Furthermore, I think most Mormons would object to the “something less than certainty” qualifier, instead expressing testimony as a form of knowledge with a high degree of certainty rather than as a form of confident if uncertain belief or as primarily an expression of trust and commitment. This seems to be the context for the insistence on phrasing LDS testimonies using “I know that …” rather than “I believe that …” or “I have faith that …”

However, actually reading scriptures that discuss and define faith reveals more support for the transcendental view of faith that you might have thought. Hebrews 11:1 KJV declares, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 NIV renders it, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” clearer but misleading. Pondering the Greek interlinear version, the general sense seems to be that faith is for things hoped for but which lack visible evidence or proof. This runs somewhat against the natural view. The balance of Hebrews 11 gives scriptural examples of individuals whose faith empowered their righteous acts, underlining faith as a matter of conduct (and perhaps statements of faith as performatives) rather than of affirming propositions. The whole chapter is a contrast between the seen and the unseen, acts of faith being visible but objects of faith being hidden.

Then there is Colossians 1:15, which describes the Son as “the image of the invisible God,” then continues on in verse 16 to contrast created things both visible and invisible. It’s not clear whether “invisible” in this text is meant to imply visible but not seen or simply not capable of being seen. No doubt reams have been written on this point.

LDS scriptures are likewise more complex than is generally acknowledged. Alma 32:18 contrasts faith and knowledge: “If a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.” The subsequent explanation of how faith comes about in believers does not correspond to an acceptance of a set of faith propositions. Instead, something rather mysterious occurs, first “a desire to believe,” then “this desire work[s] in you,” then a sense of inner growth (“it beginneth to enlarge my soul”). The result of this process would presumably be baptism, a public act showing commitment to God and often to an organized church.

From Moses 1:11: “But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.” It’s hard to square the direct statement “my natural eyes could not have beheld” with the view that God is a potential object of visual cognition without creatively redefining some terms.

Finally, here are some quotes from the entry “Faith” in the True to the Faith booklet (identical text is posted under “Faith” at the gospel topics section at LDS.org): “Faith is a principle of action and power.” And: “Faith is much more than passive belief. We express our faith through action—by the way we live.” And: “We can exercise faith in Christ when we have an assurance that He exists, a correct idea of His character, and a knowledge that we are striving to live according to His will.” In terms of the foregoing discussion, that all sounds more performative than propositional.

It turns out that faith, from the LDS perspective, may be a richer concept and doctrine than we sometimes notice. No doubt similar and lengthier discussions have occurred in prior posts or articles — links welcome. I think the common LDS view resembles a strong form of the natural view (stressing certain knowledge over mere faith), but the relevant scriptures and even correlated LDS doctrinal summaries show some support for the more tempered natural view (faith is not equivalent to knowledge) and the transcendental view (faith as trust and commitment rather than as uncertain knowledge).

13 Responses to Two Kinds of Faith

  1. Dan on August 24, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    I like the NRSV translation of Hebrews 11:1 better.

    “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

    It is also closer to the Joseph Smith translation found in the footnotes of our LDS version of the KJV.

  2. JMax on August 24, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    I like the post, but I am a bit confused. Is this post about faith, or is it about the nature of God? Or are you using a discussion of the nature of God to illistrate the nature of faith?

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 24, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    But Paul also recounts how there have been hundreds of real witnesses to the reality of the resurrected Christ, including himself. Added to his vision must be the miraculous healing of his blindness by the branch president in Damascus. In his defense before King Agrippa, he makes it clear that this personal witness is the key event in his life that placed him on a course of committed faith thereafter. Mixed with all of the trials of his life as a missionary are the miracles he experiences that confirm his faith, including the earthquake that frees him from jail and his inspired guidance to the crew of the ship taking him to Rome when it founders in a storm. And his epistles confirm that his faith is also founded on the enlightenment that the Holy Ghost gives to him as he reads the scriptures after his conversion. He also points out to the saints the change in their own lives that has come about through exercising faith in Christ, transformed from being tossed about on the seas of uncertainty and converted into members of a new nation, becoming like Christ.

    Personally, I find it hard to conceive that someone can have a strong faith in God that transforms their behavior with only the vaguest concept of the person(s) they believe in. The theologians supporting the Open God hypothesis have argued that the distant, unfeeling God of the creeds has unjustly stolen from Christians the ability to feel a reciprocal emotional relationship with God, the very reconciliaiton that Christ’s Atonement sought to bring about.

  4. Mark D. on August 25, 2009 at 1:27 am

    I think the Mormon view of faith starts with what you might call the natural view, but then proceeds to faith as a principle of action, i.e. if you don’t act on your belief, it is not really faith at all.

    This whole God is not in the world thing is an irrelevant distraction. If anything believing that we are in a bubble created by God out of nothing is the sort of thing liable to weaken one’s faith, not strengthen it.

  5. Mark D. on August 25, 2009 at 1:28 am

    And of course, it has to be faith in or through Christ, or it is not really doctrinally significant faith at all.

  6. Comet on August 25, 2009 at 6:24 am

    I’m mixed up. Is this post about the nature of God or about the nature of faith? Not sure which way to go.

    Important to define terms at some point in the discussion. If by God one means a defined entity in time and space i.e. personage, for example the First Vision experience, which gets emphasized in Mormonism as a doctrinal distinction vis-a-vis other Christian groups, then the natural view would seem to be the reflexive mainstream Mormon view.

    But if by God one means divine or transcendent events or other impersonal features that don’t square with what we know about the limitations of being a person (i.e. creation, universe maintenance, responding to billions of prayers) then I think we’re talking about the order of reality, the organized universe, and/or those moments of transcendent surplus that Eagleton suggests. Which order is prior– the impersonal order of the cosmos=God or the personal (or embodied) order of an individual (or group)=God? Most religions seem to have a dual approach that embraces impersonal and personal conceptions of God; I’m thinking of Shankara and Ramanuja in the Vedanta tradition, in particular. But even in the Mormon tradition we retain a similar distinction: there exists an array of co-eternal realities, including elements, intelligence, “God” (that still remains undeveloped and unsystematized), not just one reality, namely, an embodied God.

    On faith, I think Eagleton and Badiou comments resonate strongly with Mormonism. I’m thinking of faith as revelation. Not just revelation of an already existing but previously unperceived reality, but revelation more akin to the anticipation of something entirely new or transcendent, a different order of things, a better way, potentially brought about by our acts of faith (particularly when joined and supported by others, especially divine beings).

  7. Dave on August 25, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Thanks for the comments. JMax and Comet, Eagleton sort of joined his discussion of two kinds of faith with a distinction between two ideas of God, so that’s how it came out in the post. I didn’t really plan it that way, and I’m sure one could talk about different approaches to faith separately from different views of the nature of God.

    Eagleton obviously prefers the transcendant approach to faith (although in an academic sort of way — it’s not clear he himself embraces it). But he also sees that as the default option, given that he seems to see natural faith as invalid, almost the equivalent of idol worship.

    In a practical sense, I’m not sure a person can exhibit transcendant faith or faith by action without also having an object of faith. It’s hard to grasp what a generalized faith is that could be the anchor or ground for faith in action (even when expressed as “faith in God”) unless the faithful person can attach some particularized content to the object of faith. The whole theological approach of defining God as a subject to which no category or property may be predicated runs counter to this basic need to know something about the God in which one has faith.

  8. Owen on August 25, 2009 at 10:23 am

    On the very last point Dave made in comment #7: I can see a sort of objectless “faith by action” in the socially ritualistic behavior of what a person less egalitarian than myself might refer to as the behavior of the mindless masses. Much of human behavior, including good, righteous acts, is done “just because”. People are conditioned to act in a certain way, and if that pattern of behavior happens to align, at least rhetorically, with “God”, then I see it as a sort of objectless faith. Even in the church there are plenty of people who “follow God” because that is a part of their image of being in line with membership in the society to which they are accustomed to belonging. Just like the socialites of the upper class have their code of conduct and set of rituals aimed at nothing more than differentiating themselves from the hoi polloi, people can “go to church” without having any conception of the true purpose. (Conversations about the importance of “going to church” often creep me out for this very reason–as if being seen in that pew were important. This was especially the case back in the Midwest where the conversant *somewhat* more frequently had no idea what their religion was about.).

  9. JMax on August 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Dave,

    Although I agree with your point that it’s easier to talk about faith in terms of an object of faith, I think Eagleton’s comments really are about the nature of God and not about faith per se. As I have read (and re-read) your post and Eagleton, I think he is using the word “faith” not in the sense of a belief in something not reliant upon a proof, but rather faith in the sense of belief in a being. Thus, he fundamentally is discussing the nature of God and what, in his view, is the only reasonable way to think about God.

    Eagleton is, I think, touching on a very fundamental idea that has been the subject of debate within the Church for over 100 years–is God a glorified man or is he something else entirely, something outside the realm of the material world, incomprehensible to our limited, earthly understanding. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young seemed to be very clear that our salvation depends on a proper understanding of God the Father. And they also both described God in ways that I think were consistent with the concept of God being a glorified man. (I am trying to put my hands on it now, but I recall a talk by Brigham Young that discussed God the Father’s lands, farms, etc. Brigham Young seems to have had a pretty anthropomorphic view of God.) Basically, I think Joseph and Brigham both taught that God is quite knowable, largely because he is so much like us. This view is very far from Eagleton’s view.

    But there are other voices as well. I think today within the Church we conceptualize God much differently than today than in the past. Many of us have intellecualized our views to the point that we have gotten much closer to Eagleton’s view.

  10. Mark D. on August 25, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Whatever the trend may be over the the past century or so, the doctrine of exaltation and the anthropomorphic view of God that it implies is far and away the most distinctive doctrine of Mormonism. If you take it away, what is left? We have prophets and you don’t?

  11. chanson on August 25, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Apologies in advance for writing a comment that is not about the subject of your post, but since you’re talking about Eagleton’s book on the “new atheists”, I thought you and your readers might be curious to see a “new atheist” response to the book (to get a different perspective).

    Please see this post.

    It ends sadly, too. Eagleton seems to lose himself in his metaphorical opponent.

    “Will Ditchkins read this book and experience an epiphany which puts the road to Damascus in the shade? To use no less than two theological terms by way of response: not a hope in hell.”

    I think it’s safe to say that no, Ditchkins will not read the book, Ditchkins will not experience an epiphany, and Ditchkins will not convert to Christianity. Well, unless Eagleton writes a sequel, and makes Ditchkins dance to whatever tune he wants to play. Heck, maybe someone will write some internet slash fiction with Ditchkins and Harry Potter, and Ditchkins will do all kinds of interesting things. Except, of course, that most of us will recognize that Ditchkins is not real.

  12. Dave on August 25, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Merci for the link, Chanson. The review is written by P.Z. Myers, so it’s no surprise the review is rather critical of Eagleton’s book. But I agree with most of the criticisms. I’m sure someone of Eagleton’s calibre who put her mind to it could write a much better response to “Ditchkins.”

  13. Kingsley on August 26, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    It won’t stop.

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