Last month, Jacob over at BCC started an interesting series on the philosophy of religion, which I hope he continues at some point. Not being quite ready to spring $120 for a copy of the recommended book, I tracked down a library copy of a shorter and very readable introductory text, William L. Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction (Wadsworth, 2001, 3rd ed.). What I found most interesting in the book was the contrast between knowledge and faith. The discussion seems particularly relevant given how frequently the distinction between knowledge and faith is muddled or simply ignored in LDS discourse.
Knowledge and Reason
Like every similar book, this one devotes several early chapters to the three proofs or arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, and the teleological or design argument. It is possible that a person could find one of these arguments compelling and thus arrive at a belief in God on rational grounds alone. I suspect this happens rather infrequently, as none of the three seems to carry that degree of persuasiveness, at least modernly. While perhaps not compelling or even persuasive, the three arguments still merit study as a way to help a person clarify the basis for his or her own belief or disbelief.
A second avenue for arriving at rational belief is religious or mystical experience. Here’s how the author introduces this topic. I like the image of God leaving traces in the world.
Before Robinson Crusoe actually saw the man Friday, his justification for believing that some person other than himself existed on the island consisted in traces left by Friday, such as footprints. The believer who bases a belief in God solely on arguments for God’s existence, like the Cosmological and Design arguments, is in a position something like Crusoe’s before actually seeing Friday. Belief in God rests on a conviction that the world and the way things are interrelated in the world are traces of God’s activity, testifying to the existence of some sort of supreme being. Once Crusoe actually saw Friday, however, his grounds for believing that he was not alone on the island were not limited to traces left by Friday, they included a direct personal awareness of Friday himself. Analogously, religious and mystical experience is often viewed by those who undergo such experience as a direct, personal awareness of God himself, and, consequently, as exceptionally strong justification for the belief in God. (p. 55)
Rowe discusses Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus as an example of a nonmystical religous experience. Mormons likely think of Joseph’s First Vision. Mystical experiences are discussed as extrovertive (where ordinary objects in the world are transfigured or transformed to reveal a deeper or divine essence) or introvertive (where the mystic burrows down to the deepest corner of the self and finds something divine). We must distinguish, of course, between a personal experience as subjectively experienced and simply hearing or reading an account of someone else’s religious experience. Those are two separate cases. The first presents the basis for a justifiable claim to knowledge, whereas the second is better discussed as a basis for faith.
Rowe highlights two assumptions that shape the discussion about establishing rational belief by argument or by personal religious experience.
First, we have assumed that religious beliefs, like scientific and historical beliefs, should be judged in the court of reason; second, we have assumed that religious beliefs will find favor in the court of reason only if they are adequately supported by evidence in their favor. (p. 74)
There are grounds to reject these assumptions, in particular the idea that faith is and must be freely given assent rather than compelled assent. “[T]he very nature of religion requires that its beliefs rest on faith, not reason” (p. 75).
Faith and Belief
So if faith isn’t a compelling or persuasive argument based on reason and evidence or experience, what is it? Rowe offers two answers. One is from Thomas Aquinas, who saw faith falling somewhere between knowledge and opinion. Faith must, like knowledge but unlike mere opinion, carry a degree of certainty regarding its object. “But in order that the act of faith be a free act, it is necessary that the intellect not be compelled by conclusive evidence that yields knowledge” (p. 75). Aquinas held that some religious claims could be established by reason (God exists; God is good) but that many others could not and must be believed on faith, although reason could nevertheless offer probable rather than conclusive arguments to support those other beliefs.
Rowe discusses a second approach to faith, that of William James, at some length. Critics argued that religious belief is not justified unless there is reliable sufficient evidence for the claim or belief. James responded by arguing that when an issue is “intellectually undecidable” (no compelling argument either way) and presents “live options” (a pressing and nontrivial choice between two or more subjectively plausible options) people were justified in freely choosing their beliefs. Some people do not regard religious questions as intellectually undecidable. Those who do are essentially holding that the question of truth versus falsity is not a sufficient basis for choosing or holding religious beliefs. James offers additional pragmatic reasons for choosing belief, while at the same time regarding atheism and agnosticism as live options for those so inclined.
If religious knowledge and religious faith are two contrasting concepts, where does Mormonism’s view of faith fall? I think Mormon discourse tends to express faith but does so using a vocabulary of knowledge. Maybe this is characteristic of all Christian denominations. In any case, it seems to create some tension for Mormons who are particularly sensitive and who place themselves on the faith side of a faith-knowledge distinction. The problem is that some Mormons and even some leaders seem to regard expressions of faith (as opposed to knowledge; mere faith) as actually constituting expressions of doubt, and who even go on to regard an expressions of doubt as something of a sin.
I think this is more of a cultural problem than a doctrinal one, a problem of how we speak rather than of what we believe or what the doctrine is. Here are a few discussions of faith pulled from LDS sources that show both views. Some quotations clearly put LDS faith on the faith side of a faith/knowledge distinction, while others see faith and knowledge on the same continuum or speak of testimony in terms of knowledge rather than faith.
From True to the Faith:
The Apostle Paul taught that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Alma made a similar statement: “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21).
Also from True to the Faith:
You can nurture the gift of faith by praying to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ. … You can strengthen your faith by keeping the commandments. … You can also develop your faith by studying the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.
From LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, article “Faith,” by Robert L. Millet:
[F]aith is intimately connected with hope: to have true faith in Jesus Christ is to have hope in Christ. … No one can attain unto faith without also having hope. We need not speak of faith as something one either has in its fulness or does not have. Gaining faith is a process.
Also from LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, article “Faith”:
Some have supposed that faith and knowledge are on opposite ends of a continuum — that once they have knowledge, they no longer need faith. Actually, faith and knowledge build upon one another. A certain degree of knowledge is necessary in order to exercise faith, even “a particle of faith” (Alma 32:27). Then, after one has begun to develop faith, new and added knowledge comes — new insights, new perspectives, new feelings, new desires. There is a sense in which one might speak, as Alma did to the Zoramites, of one’s faith being replaced by knowledge whenever a testimony of a particular principle has been obtained (Alma 32:34; Ether 3:19). In reality, however, faith has not disappeared but instead has been added upon.
From Elder Bednar’s most recent General Conference talk:
As is evidenced in Peter’s reply and the Savior’s instruction, a testimony is personal knowledge of spiritual truth obtained by revelation. A testimony is a gift from God and is available to all of His children. Any honest seeker of truth can obtain a testimony by exercising the necessary “particle of faith” in Jesus Christ to “experiment upon” (Alma 32:27) and “try the virtue of the word” (Alma 31:5), to yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), and to awaken unto God (see Alma 5:7).