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).