Religion: Major Contentions

Religion and Truth

  • Epistemological theories of coherence and correspondence are useful to reconcile conflicts in religious declarations.
  • Religious truth cannot rely on statements of fact since its claims are invariably about a metaphysical realm beyond perception.
  • Very few correspondence claims about religious truth can be defended, and the most specific declarations are invariably coherence claims that eventually harden into claims justified by trust in religious authority.
  • Every founder of every religion begins with a revelation or insight that claims metaphysical truth as a private possession.
  • A ubiquitous example is the conversion experience that reorders the believer’s spiritual reality; in epistemological terms, it reorients the coherence virtual circle in a radical catharsis that reforms it utterly.
  • All such conversions are both highly personalized and ineffable; both the desire implicit in their adoption by converts and their non-conceptual substance make them difficult to communicate.
  • This difficulty is magnified for the convert by the momentous nature of the revelation that prompts evangelism and tempts metaphorical and conceptual communication that must distort the conversion experience that has inspired it.
  • The tension is nearly always reconciled by converting the private belief into disciples’ personal trust, a recognition of his personal authority, inevitably leading to a failure of comprehension by his disciples.
  • This pattern is replicated in other pursuits, for instance, the initiation of scientists into the dominant paradigm of their discipline or of the “true believer” into a mass social movement.
  • Conceptualization and categorization always predominate when the founder dies and personal authority must be transmuted into institutional authority that must distort the original faith so as to make it comprehensible enough to adherents so that they surrender rational agency to trust, but the compensation for this distortion is that the religion may now claim public authority.
  • The trust that powers their adherence is axiomatically subject to revocation in the name of new convictions authorities deem as heretical or to challenges to trust from other religious authorities; in all cases, the revocation of trust is synonymous with the reactivation of rational agency to evaluate appeals to trust.
  • In contemporary life the surrender of trust, often in adolescence, nearly always ends in formulations of personal faiths, requiring a retention of rational agency that is axiomatically hostile to any future surrender to trust.
  • For social comity and public morality, it is important that believers not confuse trust with belief since the desire that moves belief is not convertible to authority.

The Fragility of Religious Authority

  • The Protestant Reformation produced an axiomatic rejection of religious authority as the ultimate guarantor of all truth, goodness, and beauty claims.
  • Over a century and a half of violent religious conflict, the premodernist axiom of trust in authority was dissolved, and modernist axioms of individual experience and universal reason were formed and warranted.
  • From its beginnings, modernism disdained claims to certainty and required rational sanction of persons’ interactions with institutional authority.
  • Religious authority survives more as nostalgia than as a viable public source of moral direction.
  • This eclipse has been accelerated by the hostility of postmodernism to traditional institutions in general and religious authority in particular.
  • Postmodern rejection of uses of power has affected all contemporary interpretations of institutional authority, but this influence has most clearly scrambled premodern conceptions of authority.
  • Premodern cultures relied upon corporate hierarchies that established and balanced customary mutual obligations of all parties, considering institutional authority to be formative of individual identity.
  • Modernism had to renegotiate this relationship for all correspondence truth claims, settling upon a universal reasoning faculty as a source of public consensus, at least in issues of goods of utility, even in the face of individuated experience; consequently, it viewed interactions with institutional authority as mutually informative.
  • This effort failed in part because moral and political theorists failed to grasp the axiomatic revolution as it began and so considered moral consensus to be beyond the capacity of moral reasoning; this admission was formalized as social contract theory.
  • A second contributing factor to modernism’s failure was the persistence of institutional authority — and religious authority particularly — to exercise its prerogatives even when confronted by modernist axioms that fundamentally refuted its right to do so; the hypocrisies that resulted gradually produced a complete rejection of institutional authority and the efficacy of universal reasoning, all branded as abuses of power.
  • These hypocrisies reached the crisis point at the beginning of the twentieth century, characterized by sustained moral conflict that continues today.
  • Religious authority continues to seek trust, but is unlikely to be granted it in Western cultures.
  • The collapse of institutional authority has diminished trust in personal authority also, producing an oscillation of trust and suspicion in familial relationships.
  • The cost to public moral consensus has been very high, for no moral appeal comparable to religious authority has emerged.
  • A major reason religious authority was so conducive to moral consensus was its emulsion of truth and goodness declarations wherein truth claims were warranted by divine goodness and moral claims by divine truth; this interlocking relationship proved highly conducive to trust and resistant to doubt.
  • This same emulsion necessarily characterizes religious belief, which frequently is mistaken for trust in contemporary religious practice but which can provide no public consensus.
  • The mistaken association of trust and belief was confused by the proliferation of sectarianism during the Protestant Reformation, during which private religious belief often was transmuted into orthodoxy over several generations and thereby appealed to trust and surrender of agency.
  • But the widespread sectarianism of the Reformation religious wars proposed too many competing authorities all appealing to the same divine command, which proved highly corrosive to all trust, and also threatening to belief.
  • Roman Catholicism from the time of Aquinas had considered religious authority irrefutable, and in the face of Reformation, Catholics doubled down on authority at the Council of Trent.
  • In the face of continued erosions of trust, Catholics gradually assumed a modernist approach to authority, though it was necessarily confused by a demand for trust in papal authority.
  • Martin Luther, who began the modernist march toward individual rational agency, eventually rejected reason itself as a source of truth and goodness in the face of the heretical chaos he had begun.
  • In seeking to trust the Bible alone as the source of divine authority, Protestantism set up an impossible conflict between belief and trust, for a “priesthood of all believers” unleashes the desires of the believer in conceptualizing Scripture, forcing the very individual preferences that Biblical narratives unfailingly condemn.
  • Plato presents the dilemma of interpreting divine command in his dialogue Euthyphro but is unable to resolve it.
  • Scripture explicitly condemns just the kind of individual interpretations of divine intent that Protestantism recommends, for example, in the Book of Job, which argues for complete submission to God’s authority.
  • The conflict is not one of truth but of agency, for if reason affirms authority, it does so on the basis of its own judgment rather than on a surrender to trust, and this sanction is far less stable and far more prone to revocation than trust.
  • Similarly, if believers mistake their commitments for trust, they will see no reason why their convictions should not be universalized; they will likely be intolerant of differing beliefs as well as distrustful of authorities that dispute their private convictions, and this extends today to secular beliefs as well.

Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?

  • Beliefs founded upon revelation, insight, or intuition must be distinguished from trust based on commandments, dogmas, traditions, or officials.
  • This distinction has a pedigree founded upon heresy, sectarianism, and reformation and is always founded on the epistemological conflict between an inner light and an external authority.
  • Religious beliefs are rarely advanced as mere opinions, but what is the justificatory difference?
  • Knowledge may be defined as “truth justified by a preponderance of evidence,” and must be publicly defensible according to modernist axioms of commitment.
  • Religious believers will find evidence less compelling than a passional commitment that projects their yearning.
  • Not only can we not know those convictions that we believe, but we also do not believe what we know because we have no need for a passional commitment to a truth we can justify.
  • As examples, consider the absurdity of “believing in” the inverse square law or the reluctance we bring to the knowledge that we will most certainly die; we refuse to believe it because we desire not to die.
  • As institutional authority has declined in the centuries since the Reformation, religious belief as a private possession of the moral agent has grown in tandem with modernist and postmodernist axioms of commitment, though believers seem rarely to recognize that theirs are commitments of belief rather than trust and of yearning rather than knowledge.
  • Since this axiomatic shift has largely gone unnoticed by believers, they still seek a means to invest their beliefs with the public moral power traditionally claimed by religious authority.
  • Because belief is a private possession of moral agency, most persons think it entirely open to preference, but this a serious error.
  • Beliefs, for example, cannot rationally contradict knowledge; the temptation to overlook this truth is most powerful at the frontier where knowledge fails us and desire allows us a broad discretion in directing our beliefs.
  • An example of such a frontier is the issue of the existence of a Creator: ontological and cosmological proofs of deity are opposed by the problem of evil and of divine hiddenness.
  • Once this frontier problem has been recognized, the temptation is always to move the border so as either to claim greater religious knowledge or to deny its possibility.
  • Any effort to erase uncertainty is ill-advised whether it be based on phenomenalism or scientism because it tempts a distortion of judgment, an acquiescence to desire even in ordinary operations of judgment that will distort even the simplest determinations of truth and goodness.
  • While the principle of non-contradiction is an acceptable arbiter of beliefs, it is inferior to the five proofs of correspondence to determine knowledge.
  • Believers claim the incorrigibility of authority with the latitude of the virtual circle but only for their own beliefs.
  • Beyond the frontiers of knowledge, we have no choice but to engage beliefs, and in religious matters the need to commit is particularly strong in the face of divine hiddenness.
  • Many professions of religious belief are motivated by considerations disconnected to their claimed truth: its comforts, promise of eternal rewards, or utility.
  • Fideism argues that religious truth is not amenable to reason but rather is realized through affronting it, but whether it extends beyond reason or is approached in defiance of it, all religious belief is at best a doxastic venture, meaning a commitment beyond what is clearly warranted.

Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing

  • Believers may claim innumerable ways to “prove” God’s existence to their own satisfaction, but only a correspondence definition will justify claims to knowledge of the divine.
  • Because belief is in part founded upon desire, it cannot form the basis of knowledge, though it properly can project knowledge into the unknown.
  • The biggest refutation of an active divinity is empirically justified determinism.
  • Our felt preferential freedom actively denies that determinism and can form one foundation for divine immanence.
  • A second postulate that supports felt freedom as proof of the divine is the predictability provided by a deterministic reality; it permits reason to predict future outcomes in pursuit of whatever it values.
  • A third postulate is the operation of natural freedom: the mind cannot help identifying possible preferences in reality even if it thinks that reality to be determined, which poses an antinomy.
  • Although these judgments appeal to intersubjective truth, they are countered by the immense complexity and mystery of physical reality that suggests a thoroughly transcendent creator.
  • While divine hiddenness is an obstacle to knowledge, when combined with the three intersubjective postulates of felt freedom, it becomes a spur to faith as doxastic venture.
  • The immense distance between the intimations of an immanent God appealing to faith and the complexities of external reality leave a vast space for the employment of belief: judgment tinged by desire.
  • This space is the subject of Karen Armstrong’s thoroughly documented The Case for God.
  • Her thesis is not only that reason will fail to locate the divine, but that it is an impediment to the search.
  • Her thesis is entirely fideist, that God must be sought in muthos rather than ratio.
  • Her argument resembles Kant’s investigation of telos in aesthetics and teleology, the thrust of which claims that reason operates best in hypothetical operations seeking utility and so reason must be resistant to non-conceptual and non-categorical considerations of the divine.
  • Armstrong’s conclusion is that ordinary reasoning in pursuit of utility must be affronted so as to allow divine immanence to appear; this can be done by imaginative alternatives to reason: contemplation, prayer, and commitments of will expressed in ritual and altruism.
  • Armstrong’s thesis rejects reason’s role in seeking God, but this also precludes any critical examination of what muthos reveals to preference, which is dangerous.
  • Her historical examination reveals that all doctrinal religions have fideist and rationalist wings.
  • Armstrong charges that Christianity has frequently been dominated by its rationalist extreme, particularly during its Hellenistic formation and the Scholastic reinterpretation of orthodox faith.
  • But Armstrong herself overcorrects in denying any knowledge of the creator from the creation and in valuing the hypothetical comfort of religious belief she claims to reject as purely speculative.
  • I argue for fideism as a consequence of theological reasoning rather than as an alternative to it.

The Problem of Metaphor in Religion

  • Language may be used analogically or discursively; these are exclusive categories.
  • Discursive language relies on facticity and perception to convey correspondence truth.
  • Analogical language necessarily relies on coherence and concepts and allows variance on declarations.
  • Every metaphor can roughly translate to three distinct truth claims; while none of the three captures the meaning of the metaphor discursively, the metaphor still intends to convey a knowable truth.
  • To interpret a metaphor involves a number of conceptual and categorical claims, any one of which might be defended on coherence grounds and the combination of which are difficult to defend on correspondence grounds.
  • Since the iron curtain of analogical versus discursive meaning cannot be bridged, figurative language inevitably conveys private connotations even in the simplest, most obvious metaphors.
  • This is not a problem for poetry, which never intends itself to be known discursively, but it is a disqualifying problem for theology, which somehow intends its ubiquitous metaphorical language to communicate correspondence truths about the divine, a necessary ambition because any definition of a divinity must be a universal one.
  • Even if believers or congregants let go of claims to discursive truth about the transcendent God in order to make analogical claims about an immanent God, they cannot do so with metaphorical language because they cannot complete the implied comparison.
  • To control a metaphor, the language maker must understand both sides of the comparison so as to emphasize and also limit the points of comparison between the two objects being related in the metaphor, but in religious language, the metaphor is employed precisely because the speaker cannot know one side and wishes to “climb up” to comprehension by employing the comparison.
  • Consumers of such language understandably blank out on the divine “higher part” of the metaphor and therefore literalize the accessible “human part” and think it discursive, but this asks for too much and violates the iron curtain dividing the two kinds of language.
  • Defenders of such language argue either its intent to be similar to poetry or that the metaphor is a result of revelation, but both defenses render the metaphor’s meaning ambiguous, and given the temptations of immanence, less than knowledge.

 The Latest Creationism Debate

  • The argument between Ken Ham and Bill Nye illustrates some of the epistemological confusions we have yet to work through in claiming religious knowledge.
  • In defending Biblical literalism, Mr. Ham defended a number of judgments against contemporary positions in science as outlined by Mr. Nye.
  • Since the argument in Mr. Ham’s view would depend on one’s definition of “knowledge” and “belief,” he argued that science is a belief system just as religion is, and therefore either religion could be defended on scientific grounds or science could only be defended as a belief.
  • Mr.Ham’s position relied upon two points: that scientists do not begin with fact but with pre-existing commitments to what counts as evidence and that one such commitment is to natural explanations for natural processes; Mr. Nye denied the similarity of scientific paradigms to religious beliefs.
  • While it is true that the paradigms and theories advanced by science could never be proved to certainty by empirical methods, it is also true that practitioners frequently abandon old theories when scientific methods reveal anomalies, and paradigm shifts require that old theories do not survive the scientific revolutions that overturn them; religionists, on the other hand, pride themselves on never abandoning their beliefs even in the face of refutation, so competing religious convictions proliferate rather than succeed each other.
  • Mr. Nye responded to Mr. Ham’s second point by observing the centrality of perception to scientific work, so miracles and metaphysics must remain invisible to scientific methodology.
  • An epistemological distinction between science and religion concerns different responses to claims justified by authority versus claims justified empirically: an assault on trust either must be rebuffed or taken seriously, and if the latter, will erode and ultimately destroy authority through diminution of trust; in contrast, science’s methods seek out falsifiability and anomaly and modify theories to account for them.
  • Science’s methodology is fundamentally truth-seeking and pragmatic whereas religion’s goal is always moral, and this difference of means to ends requires religion to seek terminal and categorical goods by means of premature closure, whereas science commits an act of severance in seeking truth first and once determined, uses this determination to seek only immediately useful hypothetical goods.
  • A final difference can be gleaned from their overall approach to their subject matter: both men were in awe of their field, but Mr. Ham was awed by the answers that religion provides and Mr. Nye by the questions science asks.

A Problem with Sacred Texts

  • Believers wish to see their sacred texts as authorities capable of sustaining their trust, but this is an epistemological impossibility unless the texts are as fully discursive as codes of law.
  • Belief and authority differ as to the source of axiomatic commitment: belief relies on future hopes, authority on past reliability.
  • Belief and authority’s claims also affect adherents differently: because belief is tinged with desire, it is invariably privately compelling whereas authority’s reliance on past performance allows it to claim public trust.
  • Beliefs must be stated as hypothetically responsive to desire, and so they are properly stated as if/then sentences in which the “if” statement posits the desire the “then” statement seeks to satisfy.
  • Religious authority’s claims are invariably stated as categoricals: imperative sentences that make no appeal to an agency the adherent has already surrendered in trust.
  • Because religious texts expect divine commands to be obeyed categorically, their imperatives must be clearly and discursively communicated to congregants, but given the limitations of our understanding of divine will, this clarity is invariably replaced by analogical language and uncertain declarations that require interpretation using rational agency foreclosing trust.
  • This interpretative effort is guaranteed to activate belief as readers attempt to discern divine will by the combination of their sincerity and their uncertainty unless believers surrender trust to some interpreter-as-authority and transform themselves thereby from believers to congregants.
  • If believers employ their own reasoning, the sacred text is reduced from categoricality to hypotheticality, from imperative and transcendent correspondence command to personalized immanence and coherence-driven opportunity as directed by the believer.
  • This result is necessitated by the predominantly narrative structure of sacred texts and by the wide variance of interpretation of their meanings.
  • In the case of the Bible, this is unfortunate since Bible stories invariably warn against just this sort of hypothetical interpretation as usurping God’s authority and disobeying God’s commands.
  • The transference of trust to belief is particularly damaging because believers insist that they are still acting in trust of an absolutist moral system instead of a “priesthood of all believers” in which every reader is his own pope.
  • Three examples of moral imperatives that fail as categorical commands and invite the employment of belief are the inevitable recourse to hypotheticality in Scriptural narratives, the existence of explicit contradictions of numerous categoricals in the New Testament, and the gross ambiguity of the Great Commandment.
  • Two millennia of exegesis have failed to resolve this categorical/hypothetical problem and have only multiplied the options available to believers.
  • This difficulty affords Christians the illusion of thinking their personalized and private religious commitments ought to inspire the trust of others who believe differently; this error results in fanaticism, authoritarianism, or agnosticism.
  • Though contemporary cultures admire private belief and conviction, they react with hostility to any imposition of others’ beliefs; they react even more negatively to the claims of universality that often accompany such imposition; and they react most negatively of all to religious authorities presuming to prescribe categorical imperatives.

C.S. Lewis, Religious Knowledge, and Belief

  • Repeated readings of Lewis’s religious essays reveal an overuse of metaphorical language employed as often to avoid discursive clarity as to inspire belief.
  • Lewis’s treatises for ordinary Christians often fail to consider serious debates by theologians and philosophers on the issues he raises, which sometimes allows a too-easy dismissal of difficulties with the positions Lewis defends.
  • On the other hand, Lewis deftly investigates vital issues that all believers, especially Christians, have to think through, among them enlightening observations on the Trinity.
  • Lewis is also one of the very few religious apologists who acknowledge the deficiencies of belief as compared to knowledge.
  • Lewis’s treatment of Occam’s Razor is particularly astute.
  • Lewis’s theology is not systematic but is instead Platonic, which tempts him to see intimations as knowledge, but even if he marks the knowledge/belief frontier with more certainty than is warranted, Lewis is still that rare apologist who recognizes that border at all.

Tao and the Myth of Religious Return

  • A number of important writers over the last generation have argued a common theme: that natural science is staging a coup against religious authority that, if successful, will destroy public morality.
  • This position concurs with a contemporaneous elegiac tone of modernist fiction after World War I, but it is more strident and more discursive.
  • The contention that religious authority is due a revival is demonstrably wrong for seven specific reasons.
  • First, no unified set of authorized commitments existed to be revived; what revivalists wish to resuscitate is the use of authority to guarantee them.
  • Second, the rise of modernist axioms best represented by empirical science was never an unprovoked challenge to faith but rather was made necessary by the abject failures of religious authority in the Protestant Reformation that demolished the axioms of premodernism and appealed for new axioms of commitment that natural science only gradually learned to provide.
  • Third, religious authoritarians point to the errors and hubris of early science as proof of their contentions, but true empirical science only matured at the end of the nineteenth century, and its practitioners today are more aware of its limited scope than non-specialists.
  • Fourth, organized religion has been all-too willing to emulate the modalities of the human sciences, which practices both encourage scientism and further erode religion’s claims to divine authority.
  • Fifth, religionists condemn the dehumanization of natural science and have warned of the threats that its discoveries pose to humane living, but with current perspectival lenses, we find the “Frankenstein thesis” has not produced the brave new world that religion predicted but instead has measurably improved lives.
  • Sixth, religionists warned of soulless bureaucracy and social indoctrination by efficiency experts guided by impersonalized science, but the incompetence of the human sciences has precluded that possibility.
  • Seventh, religionists have misidentified their chief enemy, which is not an empirical science that cannot take religion’s measure but rather the postmodern theorists who regard religious authority as capital offenders against personal autonomy and hold it culpable for many of the hypocrisies of contemporary life.
  • The axioms of modernity and postmodernity are highly resistant to religious authority, so the power of these cultural markers to resist its revival will continue to preclude its use for public morality.

Theocracy and the Commandments

  • One manifestation of the effort to revive Christian morality as a public moral system is the contention that Biblical law can ground public statutes.
  • The impossibility of that effort is clarified by a review of the axioms of commitment that power moral thinking in Western societies.
  • The founders of the U.S were axiomatically opposed to religious authority as a source of moral commitment, so it is reasonable to ask if proponents really seek to make the Judeo-Christian Scripture the basis for secular law.
  • If the commandments are the desideratum, we face the formal problem of their variance by sect.
  • A far more serious problem is that moral knowledge is independent of divine command and hostile to the trust it presumes.
  • Some commandments are patently unenforceable by positive law.
  • When taken seriously, it becomes clear that believers don’t want to install the literal commandments but instead wish to make religious authority the generalized foundation of positive law.
  • But this ambition is axiomatically dead on arrival as both modernists and postmodernists are certain to resist its desire to restore institutional religious authority as a foundation for positive law, and congregants in other religious traditions are likely to reject other sectarian authority in favor of their own commitments.
  • Further, even if we limit our consideration to Christian believers, we will find far too wide a variance of moral commitments nourished by private beliefs to expect a single corpus of law to be distilled, as was tragically demonstrated by the Protestant Reformation.
  • This awareness informed the founders’ insistence that secular law and religious belief be kept entirely separate.

 Divine Justice

  • Human conceptions of justice depend upon a calculation of “what is due,” but how can this judgment be applied to our considerations of divine justice?
  • Biblical narratives make clear that we must abandon this conception of justice in deference to God’s unknowable calculus of divine justice.
  • Both Old Testament assertions and theological analysis of Scripture confirm two contentions: first, that God’s justice must supersede human justice, second, that it is unknowable and therefore requires a surrender in trust.
  • Christians who wish to trust divine authority feel they are capable of this surrender, but that is impossible, for they must arbitrate its apparent contradictions and mysteries by the force of their belief, producing a concession to their desire.
  • This appropriation of judgment conforms with contemporary axioms of postmodern moral commitment and is difficult to avoid given the inscrutability of divine justice.
  • Scripture exacerbates the temptation to belief by framing divine justice as a demand for unthinking trust in narrative texts while also subtextually seeking reader’s rational sanction of God’s justice.
  • The subtextual appeal is often framed even more basely: not merely to our sense of justice but to our self-interest in defiance of even a human sense of justice.
  • This Old Testament subtextual appeal is further entangled with a New Testament equivalence between mercy and justice and with impossible complexities involving the nature of Christ’s atonement that assault even the most fundamental notions of what is due.
  • Believers and congregants will attempt to demonstrate or even prove God’s justice, but they cannot demonstrate its ontological existence when faced with the problem of evil.
  • Even framing the issue this way requires a resumption of moral agency and denies an engagement of trust, so the search for divine justice in Scripture is invariably corrosive of religious authority.
  • Honest religionists will end any discussion of divine justice by appealing to mystery and embracing a fideist acceptance, but beneath their resignation, they invariably find ways to believe that God is somehow just by human standards simply because “what is due” is central to any moral calculation.

Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip

  • The thesis of this essay is that the border between religious knowledge and belief is knowable and definable.
  • Knowledge of the divine must be closed to empiricism, expertise and authority, but may be open to competence or undistilled experience.
  • As competence is a more reliable warrant, it is worthwhile to investigate the claims of religious apologists who claim it, but even the most honored of these abjectly fails in his epistemological task.
  • If one investigates the truth claims of Alvin Plantinga, for instance, one finds what may charitably be called a confusion regarding religious knowledge.
  • If one investigates Douglas Blount’s explanation of “What Does it Mean to Say the Bible is True,” an even more fundamental epistemological error leaps out.
  • It seems most such appeals to modernist warrants built upon competence are disguised appeals to religious authority.
  • The same mistaken association characterizes John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio: what is proposed as a judgment appealing to reason is actually a veiled defense of religious authority’s right to discern divine will, which in Roman Catholic tradition attempts to move rational agency to trust by means of an appeal to reason, and although this is a necessary preface to any initial surrender, in a contemporary climate of axiomatic suspicion of institutional authority in general and religious authority in particular, it will fail.
  • Such claims of “knowledge by faith” are invariably either appeals to trust in authority as public knowledge or appeals to belief as private commitment made permissible by yearning, but neither of these can be warranted as knowledge of the divine, because Scripture, the putative interface between God and man, cannot be understood categorically and because revelation, the putative clarifier of our confusions, cannot be justified by authority.
  • This confusion is in part traceable to a longstanding epistemological confusion concerning the nature of belief.
  • Beliefs may be naïve or considered, but neither can pass the bar for knowledge.
  • The deficiencies of belief advanced as knowledge can be illustrated by the “Clue” problem.
  • Many beliefs face a low bar of permissibility because their concerns are purely private, but beliefs about the divine must pass a much higher bar since these must always be advanced as correspondence truths.
  • This higher standard is further challenged by the nature of beliefs concerning the divine, for cataphatic claims must challenge the numinous and ineffable, the entirely non-conceptual, nature of deity.
  • Efforts to bridge this knowledge gap by resorting to analogy, figurative language, or muthos only renders the result more ambiguous and uncertain.
  • A fideist approach to the problem is warranted but unenlightening.
  • This lacuna tempts believers to pragmatic and hypothetical positions that have nothing to do with the ontological issues that begin their investigation.
  • Both immanence and divine hiddenness tempt investigations into the nature of the divine, but while the investigation is an essential act of faith, it will not yield the knowledge it seeks, requiring as a consequence a commitment of permissible belief.

Must Religion Retreat?

  • Religious authority continues to view the modernism of the Enlightenment as an unprovoked attack on its power when in truth it was a desperate search to compensate for authority’s utter failure.
  • Religious authority’s longstanding view has warped the present battle between faith and reason, one in which faith insists on continuing the losing battle that began with Galileo.
  • Religion continues to attack science’s hubris for seeking answers long considered religion’s territory, but empiricism’s relentless march has reduced religion’s truth-seeking to a God-of-the Gaps modality.
  • This abject failure has been abetted by religious authority’s attempts to scientize belief according to typologies applied by the human sciences, which only further humiliates religion’s authority, and by the enormous success and prestige of science, which only further erodes religion’s case so long as religion pits its warrants against science’s discoveries and methods.
  • Rather than continue in this losing battle, religion would be better served by two concessions: first, to revel in the complexity and mystery of the reality science reveals as evidence of God’s transcendence as well as to marvel at the human mind that seems capable of discovering it, and, second, to examine the contingent determinism that lies at the heart of the empirical quest.
  • The great mystery of contingent determinism that makes science possible is that its practitioners reject it utterly in their formulation of paradigms, theories, and hypotheses, claiming a freedom to analyze components of reality that are themselves entirely contingently determined.
  • This antinomy felt human freedom in tandem with universal contingent determinism — is essential to empirical success, for without the former, science would be limited to description alone and without the latter, its predictive capability would be no more than magic or guesswork.
  • Religion can totally cede determinist reality to science while still making space for the most important of divine interventions: the voice of an immanent God guiding human preferential freedom.
  • This division of labor does allow religion to reclaim some moral influence, but its epistemological limits must necessarily constrain institutional authority because immanence can be at most a guide to belief.
  • Private belief advanced as public morality is a recipe for moral conflict.
  • Religious authority has been slow to recognize its own limitations in determining theological truth prior to seeking the goods that truth offers and also to see how incapable human reason is to unlock the divine mystery; unfortunately, empirical science is happy to point out these errors, producing further embarrassments.

Christianity is a Crooked Path

  • Today’s believers think the words of the New Testament to have been handed down directly by God’s hand, but even if they continue in that belief, a survey of pre-Reformation Christianity will reveal a wide diversity of very popular interpretations of those words, many directly confronting some of the foundations of contemporary faiths.
  • These interpretations were shaped by six general influences, often exercised in combination during eras of doctrinal disputes.
  • Trinitarian disputes sought to discursively establish the relations of the persons of the Trinity once the conception of the Trinity was bruited in the second century until the surrender to the mystery of the hypostatic union at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
  • Cultural influences included those in the Roman Empire, among them the divinity of the emperor as a man/god in the era of the first articulations of Jesus’ divinity, as well as Jewish persecutions, and the destruction of Israel in the year 70.
  • Other religions’ influence included the covenantal relationship of Jews to God in the Pauline church, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and the Great Schism of Christianity in 1053, all subsumed to the explosion of sectarianism in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.
  • Philosophic influences included Neoplatonist influences on the early development of the Hellenistic church and Aristotelian dominance of the Scholastics leading to the Renaissance, as well as Stoic influences congenial to self-denial and millennialism.
  • Biblical disputes began with oral transmission and eventual written canons of Scripture in the fourth century, but continued without cessation before climaxing in the “priesthood of all believers” doctrinal revolution of Luther (itself rooted in millennial influences on Paul embraced with Manichaean severity by Augustine before exploding in the widely printed pamphlets of the Augustinian priest Luther after 1517).
  • Governance disputes initially involved imitating Roman models of governance in conflict with localized or regional authorities; these disputes waxed and waned geographically and chronologically as other influences threatened centralized authority with several breaks from the Roman Church eventually splintering Christian authority, and given the brittle nature of institutional authority, these weakened trust until the final and near-total collapse of religious authority in the Reformation.

To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?

  • The title question must be adequately limited to preclude axiomatic confusions, so the first part of the analysis will carefully define the key terms in the question.
  • Adequately limiting even a carefully defined question will further require the admission by religionists that many moral commitments are fully available to universal reason and are justifiable as knowledge rather than permissible as religious belief, and in the interest of public morality, ought to be.
  • That leaves a key question: is religious belief necessary to make morality comprehensive and worthy of our endorsement?
  • A possibly disqualifying exclusion concerns the inevitability of desire in beliefs, which disqualify religious ones from public if not private consideration.
  • Uncompassedmoral beliefs accede to desire by recognizing that the metaphysical reality they affirm may be explained in many other ways according to other believers’ desires, but the remaining question concerns whether even uncompassed beliefs are somehow limited in rational permissibility.
  • Their permissibility requires they be “doxastic,” meaning unified, for if one limitation of belief is that it not contradict knowledge, a further limitation is that it not contradict other concurrent beliefs.
  • A more crippling limitation is that such speculative commitment be measured to its uncertainty, and yet we find precisely the opposite to be true in the tradition of Pascal, Kierkegaard, Newman, and James, indicating that whatever powers such conviction, it cannot be the likelihood of its truth.
  • Believers also face ontological difficulties in their composition of a deity worthy of their worship; a prerequisite of such a deity is that it has actual reality as demonstrated by Anselm, and this limits both the nature of a deity believers might worship and its powers in the actual reality it has created.
  • Contemporary believers will appeal to pragmatic or authoritative benefits of religious commitment, but their appeals must necessarily conflict with other of their beliefs, rendering them less than doxastic and therefore less than permissible to reason.
  • A final question on the nature of such commitments involves the question of hypothetical motives for commitment: it raises doubt about whether beliefs motivated by hypothetical interests could be said to be religious beliefs at all.
  • A qualifying religious belief would offer real and categorical benefits to believers that affirm human dignity, natural rights, and commitment to justice not as motivation to belief but as consequence.
  • A further benefit would be to define one duty of the moral bullseye that cannot be clarified otherwise: religious belief might impose a categorical duty to befriend individual acquaintances; as these interactions are definitionally private ones, it is rationally permissible that they be motivated by belief.
  • It is possible that the difficulty of the search for moral commitments motivated by religious belief and the extreme paucity of rationally permissible options is itself a spur to faith because this kind of an effort is so different from knowable moral duties that otherwise guide preferential freedom; the rebuff of reason in this effort reflects a thorough ineffability in a more generalized search for knowledge of the divine, and this numinous quality of divine hiddenness cannot help but to tempt religious faith in the absence of religious knowledge.

What Is the Christian’s Moral Duty?

  • Christianity is thought a demanding moral system specifying specific duties of congregants, but the antithesis is true, so Christians are forced to resolve their uncertainty by adopting other moral commitments that meet their private sense of non-contradiction, but which might clash with other interpretations of Christian essentials.
  • The central moral duties of Christianity are summarized in the two duties of the Great Commandment in the Gospel of Matthew: in the First Duty, Christians are commanded categorically to love God, and in the Second Duty, they are commanded categorically to love their neighbor as themselves; potential confusions in these duties are clarified by further definition (of “neighbor”), parable, instruction, and example.
  • But Christians cannot understand the first command so as to obey it, and their failure to understand God’s nature or will allows them the latitude to interpret the second largely as they wish.
  • Other moral systems inform us of that the nature of moral duty must be dependent on knowing what is required and being capable of doing it; completion of the duty relies on whether it is understood as categorical or hypothetical.
  • Both of the duties of the Great Commandment are clearly structured as categorical ones, requiring a surrender of rational agency in total trust to divine authority as the end goal of all preference, making trust a categorical moral imperative, but the nature of the first command makes this impossible.
  • Unless some interpretative authority is accepted, the believer must engage her rational agency to discern how to love a numinous and ineffable God, for as the history of Biblical exegesis demonstrates, no consensual means to accomplish this duty has been defined except in such a broad sense as to invite hypothetical employments of self-interest.
  • If an authority is trusted to define the first part of the command, the articulated God the authority establishes could be worshiped, but as the Reformation proved and subsequent history confirms, this level of trust is likely to be eroded not only by the varying Biblical portrayals of divine nature, will, and composition, but also by historical events that have replaced trust with individual rational and moral agency.
  • The core difficulty of the First Duty is that we do not know the duty we are to obey. The core problem of the Second Duty is that we know the duty but cannot obey it.
  • It is helpful that we already know what loving others and ourselves entails, so the first question of the Second Duty is whether Christian love is the same as natural love.
  • The Second Duty can be divided into separate commands: love ourselves and love all others in that same way.
  • Christianity teaches that we can know how to love by the example of Jesus, but this immediately causes difficulty in loving ourselves for Jesus seems not to have loved himself at all and sacrificed himself entirely in love of others; his example would seem to change the command to “love others instead of yourself” in acts of total self-sacrifice.
  • Jesus also sacrificed his own preferential agency to the part of himself that was God, which is a thought that assaults reason but that also challenges emulation since persons cannot surrender preferential agency as the defining quality of their being.
  • So we cannot think Jesus the model of love for self, but neither can we think Jesus the model for love of others, for the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ own example make clear that total self-sacrifice to the interests of others is the constant Christian duty, which is an impossible one to obey.
  • This interpretation of the Second Duty seems so utterly inimitable that Christian theologians have unanimously sought to amend it despite Jesus’ clear example.
  • Paul’s focus on a transformed heart axiomatically disputes the concept of an imposed duty, yet he is inconsistent in this moral approach; for instance, he categorically commands many things of early Christian communities, among them a total material communalism.
  • To oppose the Manichaean threat, Augustine had to defend materialism and self-interest and limit the Second Duty to espousing Christian fellowship, though he too is inconsistent and also prescribes material assistance as commanded, though in still other writings he confines the duty to a passive benevolence, a do-no-harm.
  • Further, in explicit violation of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees, Augustine stresses that we ought to act in beneficence only to those we happen to come across rather than to all, though he admits it a topic of “great difficulty.”
  • Thomas Aquinas further limited the Second Duty, allowing reason to dominate Scripture in claiming that persons ought to love themselves more than strangers and ought to activate their natural loves more readily than their Christian ones.
  • These attenuations of the Great Commandment advocated by Christianity’s greatest theologians not only confuse the issue of the Second Duty, they also dismantle the very nature of a categorical command by forcing the reasoning on duty on the moral agency of the believer, so what might be thought an actual duty can defensibly be reduced to a vague gesture of compassion or of empty empathy for the suffering of strangers.
  • Again, congregants may in trust obey a duty imposed by their religious authorities, but Roman Catholic encyclicals such as Deus Caritas Est also find ways either to abstract the duty or to lessen it.
  • In the face of these difficulties, Christians seeking to understand their duties still face five essential questions: how do we love a God we cannot know; if Jesus is not the model of Christian duty, what is; if Christian love is the invariant Christian duty, is it different in kind or degree from our ordinary conceptions of love; if Christianity alone cannot comprise a moral system, can it be hybridized with another system to produce one that remains true to some Christian ideal; if it can, what necessity of morality does Christianity add?
  • The other answers depend upon the first, and that question may be addressed not by starting with the evolving and multifaceted God of Scripture but with our own nature.
  • We know we are capable of choosing real goods, itself a miraculous felt freedom in a deterministic reality.
  • We also know that we can categorically conceptualize the common qualities of the good things we choose so as both to improve individual choices and better understand the nature of goodness just as we do of other concepts such as “love” or “justice.”
  • Truly good choosing produces an appreciation and a desire for goodness itself that cannot be gratified by the natural goods of choosing.
  • Just as the truths of concrete reality are hints of the numinous reality of the Creator, so too are the real goods of reality signs of the nature of the Creator’s goodness.
  • The parallel structure of the two duties of the Great Commandment is instructive, for it tells us that the concrete love of persons we know is a sign of the abstracted love we are commanded to show for a God we cannot know, and as we ascend in conceptually categorizing these goods, we rationally distill and refine their nature through experience; this possibly leads us to a numinous and ineffable desire for the Greatest Good that cannot be satisfied in this life.
  • Augustine calls our love of neighbor “a sort of cradle of our love for God,” and Aquinas describes this ascent as “a circular movement” from the concrete to the abstract, from things to concepts to God, who cannot be known in this life.
  • A moral search for truth and goodness therefore might in time produce a search for God whom Aquinas calls “essentially truth and goodness.
  • It is strikingly providential that yearning suffuses this search and that desire is inherent in religious belief.
  • If true, a surrender of trust to authority is a deep mistake for it necessitates forsaking the reasoning that categorical conceptions require and therefore forecloses on a propagation of faith.
  • If true, this belief potentially reactivates a view of Scripture as an interface between God and man requiring wonder and active commitment of belief to a document that cannot be taken discursively; this hypothesis would necessitate profound humility in the truth and goodness claims that such a commitment might produce.
  • Christian duty cannot require emulation of Christ’s total self-sacrifice but may require emulation of Christ’s beneficence to individual strangers.
  • But this limitation immediately suggests the need for a hyphenated moral commitment that addresses the stranger, both individually anonymous and as expressed in civil society, and given the nature of this far more impersonal commitment, this addition must be capable of public moral consensus.
  • Functional natural law theory is the perfect realization of this interpretation of the duties of the Great Commandment and to this understanding of Christian duty and it produces intriguing moral corollaries as well.
  • One corollary will produce separate spheres of love and justice in the moral bullseye.
  • A second corollary is that a “thirst for justice” is exactly the same kind of conceptual categorization, of dawning understanding and of endless pursuit, as “love of God,” and it is fitting that the modes of warranting and pursuing these greatest of natural and supernatural goods are complementary if not isomorphic.