Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip

No issue is messier than justifying claims to religious truth, except examining these justifications. I have resisted the urge to tackle this problem head-on for some time and I have asked myself why. The easiest answer concerns the difficulties of disentangling it from the complexities of a satisfactory justification, though I have discussed it more generally from an historical (“Premodern Authority”) and epistemological (Religion and Truth) perspective. But honesty compels me to offer another reason for my reluctance. I can think of no issue more freighted with a dangerous combination of vital importance and self-delusion than this one. I have been unwilling to address these sorts of declarations as knowledge claims, though it seems most persons have little trouble advancing them as such, including two recent academic offerings that exemplify the problems implicit in the effort. As in so many other knowledge issues though, the application of warrant to the question clarifies and resolves these seemingly intractable issues (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).

The topic concerns declarations about either the essential nature  (truth)  or will (moral goodness) of whatever persons mean by “God.” I have heard it said that such issues should be reserved for the expert theologians that have made this their life’s work, but I doubt that the subject of metaphysical truth and goodness is an issue experts can resolve (see “Expertise“). I do not question their knowledge about the history and practice of their own brand of faith or about comparative religions or the complex theological questions involved in some faith tradition. While grateful for their thoughtful contributions to theology, I disagree that the core questions of divine truth and goodness lend themselves to expert analysis because they cannot be summoned to the bar of dispassionate reasoning upon repetitive experience for examination. If expertise were sufficient to ensure theological truth, we would hardly suffer the multiplicity of religious traditions and sectarianism that is the sad picture of religion today, nor would we have to study the bloody history of conflict fought in defense of absolutist claims to truth. If you doubt that conclusion, consider the coalescence of paradigms as scientists dig ever deeper into their subject disciplines in contrast to the wild profusion of theories that guide, say, psychological practice. That vast intellectual difference grows exponentially greater when discussing theological truth and is multiplied yet again when seeking the moral directions that truth reveals. This conclusion produces the essential question though: if we cannot appeal to empiricism or expertise in questions of core religious knowledge, to what can we appeal? I intend to show that the first response that comes to people’s minds– that such questions are best answered by personal knowledge of God– must lead to hopeless contradiction. Avoiding the thought quagmire that inevitably follows requires us to clear away a few preliminaries to engage the issue intelligently.

One qualification will prove central to this effort and needs to be understood as a preamble to any further discussion of religious truth. No claim can be more universal than staking out some knowledge about divine nature or will. Many declarations are automatically understood as “true for me” but not necessarily “true for you.” Green is my favorite color. It need not be yours. I am bored by superhero movies. You need not feel entailed to that preference. When I claim to know something important about divinity, however, I face a higher bar, for whatever I say concerning that subject is not only true for me. By the nature of the subject of my declaration, we both know it applies to you in the same way. Should I think my God vengeful or the fount of mercy, in the clouds or beyond time, active in the world or constitutive of it, my truth must be yours as well, so my truth claims on this subject above all others must be taken as applying to all rather than only to myself (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge”). We call these kinds of truth and goodness claims correspondentist because by their very nature they correspond to a reality beyond the perceptual wall of my own mind. Religionists at this point might reflexively object on the grounds that their God is capable of private revelation for each believer. Why shouldn’t an omniscient God give to each what she needs before she is aware of needing it, that gift varying therefore with each bestowal? I love that idea. What I love far less is the irrational assumption that so often follows: that such revelation must therefore convey correspondence knowledge applicable to all listeners. It seems fine to believe that God speaks to your heart in language applicable to your needs, but wouldn’t that belief impose a vow of silence as a consequence?

A core claim of some religious beliefs is that God is both transcendent and immanent, meaning beyond and also within oneself. But a core claim of all correspondentist knowledge is that any such claim to knowledge must be able to be justified in a manner open to other persons’ access. And this poses a real problem for knowledge claims about God’s nature and will and also some limits on the methods one can choose to justify such claims. Before even considering any truth claim, we must seek its warrant. Transcendence implies an existence beyond the possibilities of correspondence knowledge, while immanence implies one below the threshold of public justification. These limitations only intensify the challenges to public consensus and the resultant temptation to impose it by will when it is resisted in defense of other private warrants.

This already difficult search for consensus is made much harder by the current intellectual climate. We hear in believers’ claims a mismatch allowing us to dismiss them as a kind of white noise equivalent to other meaningless expressions of taste like the best colors or best movies. To use the correct terminology, such an opinion is a coherence — meaning private — claim masquerading as a correspondentist one. Such declarations indicate a private preference that does not bind us to its putative truth. We make a similar kind of an error when amateurs judge a matter requiring expertise or when we prefer an experiential lesson to an empirically verified one, and so on. Indeed, the current confusion about warrant encourages both the careless expression of mismatched justifications and the apathy with which these expressions are greeted (see “Tangled Terms”). A typically nonsensical truth claim on the subject at hand might go something like this: “The God that I believe in would never condemn a soul to everlasting torment.” I mean to express no judgment on that issue, only to observe that by definition the God that you believe in must also be mine and everyone else’s unless you have a very limited concept of divinity. For this simple reason, every claim to knowledge of the divine therefore must be a public one. No one gets to diminish God to the span between her ears, though the concept of immanence seems to locate the source of such knowledge there and there only (the concept of transcendence implies a different problem for knowledge claims, for if the divinity is beyond the possibility of knowledge, what is there to say?). What is crystal clear in all of this difficulty is the fundamental nature of declaration and the requirements of warranting correspondence knowledge unless we can find a convincing reason to view such claims through a different lens and in doing so excuse claims to divine knowledge from the necessity of common warrant. I challenge those who proclaim the universality of their beliefs to resolve this issue, for the appetitive nature of belief must preclude it from any claim to public knowledge. The challenge to defenders of dogmatic authority is a different one: what underwrites the trust that makes your authority true and others’ trust in dissenting authority false?

This has been such a difficult problem that thinkers have tried to manage some means to avoid it. One way to do that is to change the meaning of “knowledge” so as to open the possibility of claiming it for theological truth. It might be possible if we can give an affirmative answer to this question: Is religious truth different in kind from other truths that reason must decide? Given the dominance of religious truth and goodness claims in all cultures over the centuries, it should prove unsurprising that a respectable case has been made that religious truths must be approached differently from the ordinary truths of reality. The most honored representative of this position was Al-Ghazali, a tenth century Arabic philosopher and apologist for Islam. He argued that our thinking about the divine cannot presume to follow the normal channels of rational thinking for the simple reason that God is a non-categorical object of thought fundamentally different from every other thing we can conceive of. By this reasoning, any effort to subject such claims to ordinary reason is doomed to distortion, and proof of that distortion must be the appearance of contradiction. Now we see shades of this position everywhere, from the Book of Job to the manifold expressions of gnosticism, from Mani to Kierkegaard to Kabbalah, all the way to Karen Armstrong’s recent The Case for God (2009). The essence of these presentations is that God cannot be captured by human conception, and that any claim to understanding either divine nature or the divine will for man must depend on revelation, intuition, and insight and so must remain private. But this fideistic approach must fail to produce public knowledge and so must also fail to capture discursive truths about divine nature or will. Even with these limitations or perhaps because of them, this position is very strongly supported in recent analytic theology. Speculation about God’s nature fragments upon the human incapacity to process conceptions of eternity, infinity, divine hiddenness, and the problem of evil, never mind thorny sectarian claims about the Trinity and the Incarnation. A fideist position acknowledges the impossibility of conceptualizing a numinous divinity. This is a perfectly respectable position that proves highly attractive to reason because it shuts off the multiple paradoxes that derive from further consideration.

But if history is any guide, this retreat from reason’s warrant produces an insoluble paradox of its own, for the private justifications that support private claims to reconcile these difficulties can provide no correspondentist warrant. Your conversion experience is profoundly your own. My trust in your integrity might move me to accept it, but the means must always be authority, particularly in second-generation adherents of religious belief, as ritual, dogma, and sacred texts stake their claim to the trust of adherents. This fundamentally changes the warrant and the means of verifying it: from the emulsion of judgment and desire that constitutes belief to the forfeiture of any capacity for judgment at all, which is the very definition of the trust upon which authority relies. And as night follows day, this institutionalized authority will at some point be challenged by others who have forfeited trust and reacquired their own moral autonomy, using it to value  their private revelations that tradition will see as heresy (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). Now this would prove entirely innocuous if the content of these declarations involved matters of taste or private preference. It’s O.K. if you don’t like green or do like superhero movies. And there’s the rub, for we all know that religious truth even if it is of some exotic kind is inseparable from religious morality that governs real choices in real human lives. (see “What Do We mean by ‘Morality’?). This issue may be obscured by the nature of faith, for the desire inherent in belief fuses its truth claims to its goodness claims in one alloyed declaration, which makes a private faith largely immune to doubt even when reason suggests that doubt is called for. Congregants face a different kind of issue, for the trust they place in their religious authorities removes the rational agency that might allow them to inspect the combined truth and moral stance of their churches. And since trust is a fragile vessel in which to carry moral truth, it can easily be shattered. Nothing could be more binding on all moral agents than the absolute moral imperative of religion, yet the nature of that warrant guarantees conflict among authorities and between believers and those who justify their morality on other grounds entirely. Historically, this has been avoided in monolithic cultures where God’s interpreters arbitrate all dispute, but that age is past. The inevitability of dispute must produce three results. First, authoritarians will find no means to reconcile their differences within their chosen mode of warrant. This guarantees continuing conflict. Second, the very presence of their disagreements must over time erode the trust that supports authority itself. That will eventually destroy its only justification. Finally, the surrender of agency that enshrines institutionalized religion will not allow congregants room to compromise with other sources of moral truth because these other sources require a retention of the preferential freedom that trust must surrender (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).

Congregants’ unwillingness to face this issue produced no end of conflict once authority was seriously challenged, reaching a cataclysmic level during the Protestant Reformation and resulting in a desperate search for replacement warrants that we call modernism. Less powerful means of justification, reason and closely examined experience, were advanced as adequate replacements for discredited authority (see Modernism’s Midwives”). The power of reason in particular had waxed and waned through the centuries, yet before the Reformation it had always been domesticated over time in service to authority. This effort in pursuit of religious knowledge had climaxed in the efforts of Thomas Aquinas and remained a force to be reckoned with in Christian apologetics. But even the great Aquinas insisted that reason bow to authority in instances of conflict between the two. “For although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.” Modernism rejected this traditional relationship and turned it on its head, locating the fount of truth in universal reason applied to individual experience. This thought revolution produced its own disturbing results. First, these new justifications were far less certain and far more open to self-criticism than authority had been. This produced an ongoing nostalgia that exists to this day and as its consequence a continuing dissatisfaction with modernist warrants as inferior replacements. Secondly, this substitution also required that the truth and goodness claims of religion be subject to the same kinds of analysis that warranted the rest of our claims, something congregants still find unpalatable (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Yet their revulsion allows them no opportunity to return to the dominance of authority in a world in which diverse religious authorities still demand obedience to divisive religious claims to knowledge, one in which authority continues to be viewed with deep suspicion. I sense that religionists are doubtful that modernist warrants can prove adequate to the task of justifying their claims. Perhaps they are motivated simply by nostalgia for a mode of warrant that once offered a level of certainty about all kinds of claims that now seems tragically naïve. This mulish and unnecessary bow to tradition at present endangers the very survival of religious morality (see Must Religion Retreat?). Persons now must find their own justifications for truth and goodness, and that quest has proved most difficult.

The modernist revolution would have been dizzying in the best of times, but then it would have been unnecessary in the best of times. Indeed, it was so awful that it could only have been undertaken in the worst. That search over two bloody centuries conducted in the midst of history’s most frantic intellectual scramble involved building the machinery to allow reason to take flight while falling off a cliff. For even more than finding truth, absolute religious authority had certified the means of choosing goodness for all who placed themselves under its guiding hand, meaning everyone in the West. Human beings are choice-making machines and so they require the means to make sense of their options about truth and the goods that possession of truth makes possible. As Western civilization fell apart over the century following the Protestant Reformation, some means to make sense of the social order was also required, along with the public goods and limitations that characterize such an order, for public goods are indubitably based on correspondentist justifications (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?). The process, highly reductive and self-critical, produced four clear correspondence proofs of judgment based on modernist warrants: empiricism,  expertise, competence, and undistilled experience. Given its dominance in prior history, it should not surprise that authority continued to exercise some degree of power as a fifth warrant. This ancient public justification was different from the rest in that it violated the axioms of modernist thinking, forcing a surrender of the individual agency that the other four warrants relied upon. From the eighteenth to the twentieth century, religious knowledge found itself subject to the relentless scrutiny of the new modernist proofs of judgment that also forced authority into the justificatory bind of opposition in the name of a resubmission of agency to traditional institutions. This stew of correspondence warrants was further complicated by a more recent knowledge revolution, postmodernism, that first arose from the gross dissatisfaction with modernist warrants, especially with the power of institutions, that reached critical mass around the turn of the twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents).

This disillusionment taints our own era, producing yet another attempt to justify claims to truth, goodness, and beauty without appealing to the uncertainty of modernist approaches or reverting to authoritarianism (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). This conundrum eventually cobbled together an entirely new kind of justification, the virtual circle (see “What is the Virtual Circle?”). The essence of this postmodernist justification is its independence from objective reality. Declarations are justified strictly by their conformity with others already accepted by the thinker as true. Because the virtual circle is a private means of warrant built upon an idiosyncratic set of personal truths, it is very poorly suited to knowledge claims about transcendental truth and goodness, though that hardly keeps persons from making them. This is why we see so many proprietary declarations about the nature of God today. Postmodernists see all “knowledge” as both private and personally warranted, a fine match for proclaiming God’s immanence but far less stable a platform to make public declarations of God’s nature or will. We will return to this problem later. Because of the peculiar nature of claims to religious truth, not to mention their centrality to moral reasoning, all of these competing modes of justification have produced more than their share of toxic contention and confusion. And that witches’ brew of warrant has produced a consequent impulse to seek correspondence justifications open to common assent (see Toward a Public Morality”).

As we peruse these proofs of judgment in that search, we find a near vacuum of defensible candidates. Empiricism, modern science, faces debilitating obstacles in addressing metaphysical truth and necessarily must remain mute in  questions of moral goodness (see What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?). This most powerful support available to correspondence truth claims therefore is disqualified as a means to test religious claims to knowledge, though some insist on trying to drive that square peg into that round hole (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). This is a particularly painful and ironic problem for a common culture: the only universally sanctioned source of truth in our times, science, is also singularly unable to indicate the good, which was religion’s specialty. We certainly see expertise in theology and ministry, but it applies to the earthly side of belief, not its essential truth, unless, of course, these experts choose to appeal to authority for their declarations. Now this is a complex business, particularly today. But the upshot in a multicultural world would require one religious authority to somehow provide more reliable authority than another, but of what would that consist? One argument may be more logical than another, one expert might offer better evidence, even one experience might be tested by a later one. But authority relies on the trust of its beneficiary, so how would a competing authority do anything but diminish it? This, of course, is precisely the issue for the thousands of competing truth claims of the many sects of the world’s religions (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”), a realization tragically delivered by the continuing religious bloodlust of religious extremism today.

So we are left with two candidates in our search for warranted correspondence religious knowledge: competence and undistilled experience. I must labor the meanings of these terms in light of the contemporary disarray that characterizes justification. Competence in correspondence terms signals a repeated but informal examination of diverse experience that yields somewhat reliable conclusions about their meanings, processes, and components. It resembles expertise in being repetitive and rational, seeking the essences of the experiences it examines, but those experiences are too variable to be subject to the stricter processes of true expertise. Call competence expertise in a minor key. Or call it somewhat more reliable undistilled experience. Most of our lives consists of discrete and unrepeatable moments involving nearly instantaneous responses to situations and rapid responses of preferential freedom. This is undistilled experience, our commonest means of justification. It relies on a logically suspect kind of prediction, summoning a likeness between a single past experience and some anticipated future one, which is obviously a rather tenuous connection, particularly because time alters circumstance in ways that cannot be reasoned out. If one considers both the most rigorous theological thinking and the kinds of daily occurrences that test or confirm one’s faith, the uses of these two justifications will become instantly clear. So we see theologians bringing their best thinking over time to what they hope are competent explanatory efforts and we see persons of faith offering their singular testimonies built upon being born again. These necessarily require competence from the former and an analysis of a singular, undistilled experience for the latter. Since competence is a far stronger public proof of judgment than undistilled experience, let us begin our search by examining its prospects to communicate religious truth.

But the goal of developing competence in the analysis of religious truth immediately runs up against some problems. The first is the issue of limiting and defining concepts that Rudolf Otto so clearly recognizes in The Idea of the Holy. This problem of specification is common to all correspondence truth claims involving conceptual knowledge (see Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”) and no problem is more clearly conceptual than the nature of metaphysical reality. How can you know what your senses cannot perceive? If one rejects the surrender to fideism in such matters, if she charges ahead to attempt, in Milton’s words, to justify God to man, she is left with attempting to express conceptual religious knowledge by reference to three terms pertinent to a competent articulation of any conceptual knowledge. These are nominalism, idealism, and conceptualism.

Nominalism considers only perceptual objects to be real. At its most extreme, it regards any effort at conceptualization to be delusional. But even if she acknowledges that she must at least think in concepts, the nominalist who wishes to find religious truth will still fall into the temptations of naturalism, a frame of reference that views any metaphysical or supernatural reality as an impossible imposition on material reality. When followers of Comte observed the pile of crutches left at Lourdes by putative beneficiaries of miraculous healings, they derisively inquired why there were also no wooden legs. Why heal the lame yet not grow back withered limbs? But as Anatole France observed, this would not silence them either, for they would simply seek a medical account for such a miracle and, failing in that, would consider it a mystery awaiting the explanation of science in the same way that spontaneous remission of cancers leaves oncologists scratching their heads and families offering thanks for miracles. One cannot recognize what she refuses to see. Popular atheists of the Harris and Hitchens stripe are even more rigid in their outlook than philosophical nominalists, for their metric is not merely the material, still less simple experience. Knowledge in their view can only be verified by empirical measures: only science can verify the existence of God. Now this scientism is plainly ridiculous, for its naturalist methodology must prove inadequate to the concept it seeks to examine. Perhaps nominalists have been carried away by the seemingly endless victories that empiricism has enjoyed over religionists, marked by religious authority’s retreat from its claims of its omniscience to its present defensive posture (see Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle”). The God-of-the-Gaps approach is a retrograde and hopeless enterprise in the face of a relentless determinism that forms the foundation not only of the scientific enterprise but of modernism in general. This stalemate may be broken by a rational approach that reveals two promising means of rebuttal. First, for all its claims, the new “cosmological atheism” must violate its own premises, for its standard requires that only scientific processes produce reliable truth. But even if correct, such a claim can never be an empirical one, for issues of value are never open to empirical analysis. Since it cannot limit variables of either metaphysical reality or after-death experience, its methodology of seeking material truth and immediate utility must fail to address theology. Nominalists would find the preceding sentence meaningless as they would the question of the value of their own techniques. All goodness claims are simply beyond the abilities that empiricism must use to work its wonders, one dependent on quantitative measurement and controlled variables and guarded hypotheses. These guardrails are the source of science’s enormous success. To push knowledge claims beyond their warrant is to engage in the kind of nonsense we’ve seen far too much of in the human sciences and the pseudo-sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences). Secondly, the very determinism that makes scientific thinking possible is violated by the making of the empirical argument, for the concession to free will it assumes is a fundamental violation of the empirical reliance on a deterministic reality that allows prediction and verification (see “ A Preface to the Determinism Problem). Things don’t argue and determined things don’t decide on arguments. Now these two objections do not themselves invalidate a nominalist approach, but they do prevent it from slamming the door on correspondentist religious claims. But refuting a thoroughgoing nominalism is far from judging any particular opposing proposition as true.

That point seems rather lost on believers who practice an idealism that sees perceptual reality as a mere shadow of a greater metaphysical realm. They derive perhaps too much satisfaction from the inability of nominalists to confront that realm. Whereas science argues that lack of proof constitutes disproof, religionists frequently argue the opposite. Nominalists point to modernism’s assault on religion’s claims to monopoly of truth. Idealists respond by observing the ubiquity of religious experience in all cultures. Humans seem to have an intimation of the divine and always have. Nominalists dismiss such a claim as a holdover from humanity’s childhood that we are outgrowing as we grow in knowledge. Idealists respond by emphasizing the power of faith to mold moral behavior, a subject a merely nominalist view cannot address. In the end, religious idealism often devolves into the kinds of pragmatic and coherentist warrants that nourish the virtual circle while nominalism trumpets its hollow headline: heaven is not to be found among the stars.

But occasionally, one side ventures into the other’s territory. This becomes a ludicrous operation regardless of who trespasses. While the human sciences may make valid and even useful observations about the sociology of belief, efforts to capture it through human sciences by thinkers like Jung or Campbell or, worse, to explain it away as Freud did have  embarrassed the empirical enterprise. But then this overreach into the mysteries of free will and the metaphysical has been a problem typical of human sciences more generally. But the ludicrous claims of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion or Dawkins’ The God Delusion on one side are matched ridiculous point by point by efforts like Darwin on Trial that attempt some faintly empirical defense of creationism. The religionist attempts to use the knowledge tools of modernism to push back against the march of empirical progress. These debacles prove that religion has as little to say to the scientific enterprise as science does to the moral one.

Let us praise a third and middle road between sterile naturalism and an airy mysticism. Conceptualism regards all ideas as having a real existence only in the minds that form them and tracks Kant’s theories of perception to claim an intersubjectivity in reasoning that allows us to find phenomenally reliable and universal knowledge in concepts that reason derives in experience. This is obviously shaky ground, for reason is fallible and experience fundamentally singular, but it at least conforms to the modernist quest, for it opens the debate to the same sort of universal reasoning that finds common ground in conceptions of logic and law. Though we face tough sledding in attempting to warrant religious knowledge by these means, if is to be found as a correspondence knowledge and justified as modernism demands by a preponderance of the evidence, our search must go this way (see The Tyranny of Rationality”). God, like goodness and truth, is a conceptual object of knowledge to human beings, though by definition that object is ontologically beyond conceptual limitations in reality., This paradox captures completely the problem of religious knowledge. If persons mean to make truth claims about a transcendent God, the only defensible correspondentist warrant for must be sought in conceptualism. Its approach neatly avoids the pitfalls that await the nominalist and the realist in this effort and offers us our only chance to claim competent correspondence knowledge of religious truth. But how can you conceptualize what perceptions cannot process and reason cannot capture?

As we zero in on the guardrails that limit and guide our understandings of religious knowledge, we find a conceptual competence that limits its ambitions about as good as it gets as we clear away the contending structures of religious idealists, the empirical dismissals of belief without data, and the sectarian expertise of the theodicists. We doubt religious authorities seeking our trust in part because they dispute others equally demanding and no less likely. And though we may be open to belief, we also recognize its source in our own desire, not only for truth but even more for its many hypothetical comforts. Our search for religious knowledge has so clouded the horizon of possibility that it leaves only the watery light of ordinary conceptual competence. We turn to that source with at least a shred of hope of enlightenment.

But before we begin, we must attempt to resolve the paradox that ineffability and the conceptual limitations of competence place in our path. While no nominalist understanding of God can begin the task of finding divine knowledge, and every appeal to immanence must end in private belief, we must question if conceptualism will help us at all. If God is indeed both a unique concept, a conclusion implicit in the meaning of the word, and if both immanence and transcendence deny even the possibility of a communicable knowledge of that concept in favor of the uniqueness of the conversion experience at one extreme of rarity and awe at the other, how is our competence in understanding or communicating that concept possible (see “Awe“)?

It can’t be, at least if two recent and well-respected attempts to warrant religious knowledge on strictly conceptual grounds of reasoned competence are representative of the overall effort. My recent readings have included two defenses of specifically Christian knowledge. The first is a collection of essays, In Defense of the Bible (2013), and the other Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (2015). The essays attempt to make a case for today’s reader to surrender her own rational agency to the authority of the Bible.  Plantinga’s book is a direct defense of Christian knowledge on rational grounds by the foremost Christian apologist in academia. These authors are to be commended for facing Otto’s issues with conceptualism squarely. They do not wish to justify their arguments by metaphor, mysticism, intuition, personal revelation, or insight. Nor do they ask readers to trust their authority. They take on the search of true theological knowledge by an appeal to modernist axioms of reasoning and experience, claiming a competence to present valid, rational affirmations. I admire their chutzpah, even more so because they are not content with making a generic conceptual argument for theism. No, they present full-on defenses of their own sectarian religious truths with all the particularity such arguments require. Sadly, they fail dismally in two distinct ways.

The first consists of a simple inability to warrant their claims by means of the reasoning they have committed themselves to. At times, their logic is so crude as to produce a suspicion of bad faith.  Plantinga, an emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame, offers repeated incorrect assertions about the history of epistemology, for  instance, challenging Hume’s rejection of a priori knowledge of reality without crediting the protracted philosophical discussion among his predecessors about why such knowledge is an impossibility. He seeks to “prove” that we do have a priori and analytic knowledge of God, something claimed by Descartes and gradually eroded by analysis before being so completely negated in Hume’s Enquiry that no theologian has proposed it in the same form since.  He asks with apparent incredulity, “Well, why should we think such knowledge to be impossible?” Every student of epistemology knows why, and we must assume Plantinga knows why as well. He commits even worse offenses of logic as he attempts to refute the argument that “Christian Belief is Arrogant” First, he distorts this objection to Christian belief: “It is arrogant or egotistical to endorse or believe a proposition you know others do not believe.” But that is not the issue, as he briefly acknowledges later in the same paragraph, when he phrases the problem quite differently: “’We believe that we know God and we are right; you believe that you know God and you are totally wrong.’” The charge of arrogance does not derive from religionists’ belief that they are right. Every belief is a form of attachment. By definition and in common usage, belief connotes desire. In the absence of real knowledge, it is hardly arrogant to form beliefs that extend beyond knowledge. The arrogance derives from the “you are totally wrong” claim. In cases in which knowledge is impossible to obtain, to reach into the unknown by way of belief is both natural and defensible (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?“). In these cases one might say something like this:  “I believe I am right, but I do not know.” It is rationally impermissible and arrogant to say, “I believe I am right and because of my beliefs I know that you are wrong.” The logical offense derives from claiming a correspondence knowledge you cannot possibly warrant on the basis of a belief you can only warrant by virtue of your desire that it be true.  Should you phrase it differently, no foul. “I believe, but do not know, that I am correct. I acknowledge that you believe differently and that your warrant is as moved by your desires as my belief is by mine. In the absence of knowledge, we both find it permissible to hold our beliefs so long as they do not violate our knowledge, but not to reject others as wrong.” Plantinga worsens his first affront to logic by giving an example that violates his premise. He says he believes it is wrong for him to lie to advance his career, though others disagree. “After serious and protracted thought, it still seems to me, maybe even more strongly, that lying about my colleagues to advance my career is wrong. In fact, it isn’t even within my power, after thinking the matter over, to give up the belief that behavior of that sort is wrong.” Plantinga shows once again his failure to grasp the difference between knowing and believing. In this case, he thinks this moral truth to be a correspondentist one, true for all. Not only is it wrong for him to lie, he also thinks it wrong for them to lie. He thinks his view right and those who disagree wrong and the more he rationally considers why, the more convinced he is of the truth of his judgment. He knows that lying is wrong regardless of why his colleagues might disagree. They are wrong to think it right. This moral principle is universal and rationally apprehensible to all. Plantinga could justify it to his coworkers who would have no stronger rational arguments to oppose it. Should they continue to think their view true, he would be justified in charging that their claim to knowledge on this subject was mistaken, for “false knowledge” is a contradiction. His claim about lying being wrong is analogous to claiming that child abuse is wrong: a moral claim that reason and experience can fully justify. It is entirely unlike defending a claim about the number of persons elected for salvation, for instance, which neither reason nor experience can ascertain. Perhaps his efforts to explain their error to his colleagues will result in their defending their own reasoning so well that he would be compelled to admit that their knowledge was correct and his judgment wrong. That would prove unlikely, though. The moral philosopher James Rachels observes that prohibitions against lying are cultural universals for reasons any child could explain to Plantinga’s colleagues. He could hardly argue that his Calvinism can claim a similar indubitability. His arrogance in this example and indeed in all of his epistemology lies in making the same claim about a belief which he could never justify in this way because the warrant his opponents offer is the same as his. He seeks to warrant his Calvinist belief as true knowledge because he believes it to be true. He wants it to be true. That is not enough.

The second problem in these efforts at rational defenses of religious knowledge is an even cruder bait-and-switch approach to warrant than Plantinga’s substitution of belief for knowledge. It consists of intentionally conflating two distinct definitions of knowledge, the correspondentist and the pragmatist. This too is an error frequently committed by defenders of faith. It consists of valuing some religious claims less for their truths about the next life than for their utility in this one, and it inevitably offers gauzy psychological theory or an ATM theology to make the argument. In Defense of the Bible contains an essay whose title seems promising. Douglas K. Blount’s “What Does It Mean to Say the Bible Is True?” even begins with a summary of the correspondence, coherence, and pragmatist notions of the term “true.” But Blount’s argument ignores these definitions and goes another way. He points out that since the Bible contains more than declarations, it cannot be judged by strictly correspondence truth tests, which he does not specify. But the argument itself is an odd one since it is only the declarations that can be judged true or false. The Bible is stuffed full of truth and goodness claims, which Blount well knows since he considers it the guarantor of all truth we can know. In any case he makes no effort to explore the nature of correspondence goodness or apply epistemological tests to Scripture. He hopes to offer the reader a convincing reason to surrender rational and moral agency, a necessary prelude to allowing trust in Biblical authority to take root, but he fails to mention the criteria for deciding to do something so contrary to contemporary thinking. Ignoring his sketch of terms relative to warranting correspondentist truth and morality, he lurches into a painful metaphorical effort to justify trust by other means. Since “true” may also be applied to carpenter’s tools and the work they do, he chooses to define the Bible’s truth in that sense, as a form of “excellence.”  That comparison immediately rings the alarm bells of utility: that the Bible may be useful to our own hypothetical interests that have no relation whatsoever to its truth (see ” A Problem with Sacred Texts“). Obviously, these are not always publicly defensible goods, for our private desires and experience colors what we actually prefer at any moment. Blount compounds the problem in the comparison by insisting that the hypothetical goods the Bible offers are universally useful. But to what ends?

I suggest that the excellence of such discourse amounts to something like fittingness to guide God’s people in righteous living…. If we take the Bible to be true, we trust it to guide our lives. We allow our lives to be influenced by it; we intend to listen where it speaks; we consider it normative; we look to it for comfort, encouragement, challenge, warning, guidance, and instruction. In short, we submit to the Bible and we place ourselves under its theological authority.

Blount then concludes, “And we are right to do so.” This is the essence of what he means by claiming that the Bible is true. To judge the truth or goodness of a declaration by its usefulness is the very essence of a postmodern warrant rooted in coherence called pragmatism that defines truth as the “cash value” of a belief’s use to an individual regardless of its actual truth or falsity. It allows each individual to decide that use for herself, so in that sense, it appeals to the contemporary reader, but consider what is required of her. She is being asked to use her rational agency to justify surrendering it to the authority of the Bible. Why? Because it serves her own ends, which Blount concedes to be “comfort” and “encouragement.”  This violates explicit Biblical exhortations to avoid just this appeal to hypotheticality in issues of divine authority (see “Divine Justice”). It severs the powerful linkage between the true and the good in religious morality, for it allows the individual to arbitrate the Bible’s truth and moral goodness by her own circumstantial estimation instead of accepting the composited structure that putatively strengthens both on the basis of a trust that must involve surrendering just this hypothetical capacity. It is clearly this alloy that prompts Blount’s exhortation. That being said, a consistent appeal to pragmatism would at least be an honest admission of the current reality of “Gospel of Wealth” and “theological therapy” that characterizes some contemporary religion. This might succeed so long as persons know what they are giving up to embrace a thoroughly pragmatic and hypothetical form of belief, not least of which is the power of authority itself, for even the slightest consideration will show authority to be incompatible with the self-interested pragmatism of the virtual circle. Many believers manage to avoid that thought, especially in the Protestant tradition of personal revelation, and they try to ignore the disjunction between a private belief and public authority. Blount certainly does, which makes his last sentence both patently false and logically offensive (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). We already know what it means to consider something true, so his extended exploration of what it means “if we take it to be true” does nothing to prove that it is true. He saves that for a last, completely unsubstantiated declaration.  His final judgment that “we are right to do so” is, of course, a correspondence truth claim, not a pragmatic one, and a claim his argument in no way justifies. This final truth claim attempts to straighten what his pragmatic appeal has made crooked, to persuade his reader into restoring Biblical inerrancy and divine truth, to somehow yoke its categorical emulsion of truth and goodness to the believer’s hypothetical desires, to find truth in comfort rather than the other way round, to lower Biblical inerrancy to personal preference while maintaining it to be still a divine command universally binding. If this were pointed out to him, Blount would be forced to admit this appeal to pragmatism must level the theological playing field. If Christians find the Bible true because it is useful, one could hardly blame Muslims for embracing the Quran for the same reason. But since the latter denies the truth claims of the former, we find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma concerning their actual truth. We may suppose that Blount, like Plantinga, would prefer to believe in the encouragements and comforts of his own faith, but why should anyone else? Blount utterly fails to establish a reason for moral agents to trust the truth of the Bible or his competence to justify it as knowledge.

Like Plantinga, he engages in a kind of sleight-of-hand, a magician’s trick that blurs process. For Plantinga, that trick involves equating his Calvinism to his rejection of self-aggrandizing lying, as though both convictions are equally self-evident to reason. For Blount, it is blurring a private reason for belief with a public appeal to trust. These errors are obvious enough that they force us to question the authors’ reasons for advancing them. Are they deceiving themselves as well as their readers? Are they aware of the deficiencies in their arguments? These questions are disturbing, for if these theologians are not aware of the flaws in their argument, we must suspect their competence even if we concede their honesty. The question we must ask of them as well as ourselves is whether conceptual competence is possible in this subject.

To be fair, traditional epistemology has long turned a blind eye to this problem. Most professional philosophy makes no distinction between a mature religious commitment and an unexamined idea. It calls both positions by the same name: belief. I struggle for language to articulate this difference because epistemology has not established standard terms to establish it.  The tradition dates to Plato’s Theaetetus, a dialogue in which Socrates searches for a convincing definition of “knowledge.” Though he concludes the conversation by defining it as “justified, true belief,” it is apparent that Plato is entirely unsatisfied with the definition and the connection of knowledge with belief. It is apparent from this dialogue and from the traditions that developed in response to it that the disconnect involves the process of ratiocination that must verify that initial declaration, whether thought or spoken: in other words, the process of warranting the truth of a declaration. An ellipses occurs that results in a false identification of two concepts because they are thought of by the same name in a continuing terminological confusion. Call my initial idea a “belief.” It is a conjecture, conceptual in nature, that speculates some relation to truth, goodness, or beauty. Until it is warranted in some way, this “belief” is nothing more than an untested sentence that could be false, fantastical, empirical, or anything in between. Before one examines it, it is merely a declarative sentence. This naive declaration has no weight of truth until it is buttressed by evidentiary support, the nature of that support still entirely open to the thinker’s consideration. Now this initial belief must be made distinct from the sturdier structure that emerges from the thinker’s efforts to warrant it that then drop into various terminological files based upon the nature of the warrant: fact, falsehood, theory, judgment, intuition, hypothesis, and so on. Each file is conceptually unified by the nature and reliability of the justification used to categorize it. This very quickly gets complex as the thinker brings unspoken axioms to bear upon her conceptual categories, but one such file into which examined truth claims are dropped has to be labeled “belief.”  But this conceptual file must be entirely different from the naive original thought that begins the ratiocinative effort, just as any other justificatory conclusion also must be. To call the examined “belief,” regardless of its justification, by the same name as the initial thought that inspired it seems a gross terminological mistake outweighed only by equating that original and unexamined contention with stronger kinds of verification that rational consideration must produce. I think Plantinga and Blount are guilty of confusing the two senses of “belief,” insufficiently defending the outcome by means better suited to the premise that initiates it. They defend that error by a second assumption: that untested “beliefs” are therefore the equal of the other categorical conclusions produced by examinations of warrant that the thinker may get to call by one name: knowledge. This is not to say that persons cannot choose to be blind to the distinction. Their preferential freedom allows them to use their own rational agency as they please. Two factors argue against ignoring the distinction between knowledge and belief that I have developed here. First, as William James observed, no one wishes to be made a fool of, to be seen as grossly wrong, to be ignorant. Perhaps this is as powerful for some persons as the other factor: truth has a compulsive quality that honest persons cannot ignore just as morality does. Once known, it cannot be unknown and proves difficult to ignore.

The distinction of the thought processes involved in the two senses of belief is complex. Fortunately, it can be illustrated by a simple example. I call it the Clue Problem in honor of the board game we are all familiar with, which has us using an inadequate data set to hazard a mental recreation of a murder. Now I could begin the game by intuiting that Colonel Mustard did the deed with the wrench in the library, and so I could level that charge publicly. This describes a naive belief given with no warrant. Before the first move of the game, I might feel entitled to profess almost any similar belief, all warranted by some “truth of the heart” or inchoate desire. My instincts might prove correct, though the odds are small.  Before the first move of the game, any belief must be as true as any other and also as false because any claim at that time is warrantless. As the game progresses, this first intuition is repeatedly examined.  If the evidence supporting my first guess is sparse or ambivalent or contended by other equally rational possibilities (Miss Plum in the kitchen with the revolver!), a dispassionate listener would be forced to question the rationality of making any declaration on that issue at all until the confusion is resolved. One might call that premature guess many things: a naive profession, a doxastic venture, a stab in the dark. Even if supported by a strong intuition of its truth, the limitations on advancing it are very few. For instance, the game does not permit one to guess there were two murderers or two murder weapons, and reason does not permit guessing two locations for the murder. But any single murderer, weapon, and room as a solution to the murder put forward in the first move is theoretically permissible, meaning it does not violate the rules of the game. They permit it to any player’s preferential freedom, but would even the accuser think such a random guess to be permitted to reason? Players would suspect that such a claim, no matter how strongly felt or loudly stated, could never be produced by knowledge but instead must be a pure and intuitive belief, meaning it is not rooted in a dispassionate and ratiocinative consideration but is rather a product of desire. This is ground zero for the issue of claiming religious truths as knowledge and gives us the tools to examine carefully the nuances of belief and knowledge. Is my early charge against Colonel Mustard simply a naive belief built upon my desire to win the game? I certainly want him to be the killer, but it seems clear that my desire to win has corrupted my judgment. To be clear, I can believe my own intuitive theory as a real possibility so long as I acknowledge it to be no more possible than any other. So why profess a belief that should move one to silence? If truth has compulsive force, so too does winning. Terminology matters here. It is permissible to freedom to believe in accusing Colonel Mustard in the first move of the game as that would not contradict what we know at that point and is allowed by the rules, but I hope it is clear that such a wild public charge would hardly be prudent and would probably prove untrue. It is not permissible to reason to propose as knowledge because at the moment it is made, it cannot be warranted. Whether it is permissible as a belief is such a difficult question that many persons fall back into Blount’s sort of appeal to hypothetical utility. Many religious beliefs are thus advanced, and we may expect serious contradictions in multiple public expressions of this naive kind of belief. It would make as little sense to argue over these claims as it would make to advance them in the first place, though either would be acceptable as a naive desire subject to further testing.  A much stronger case can be made for a guess made later in the game. After several moves, my beliefs become tested, though insufficiently. I am now approaching the belief-knowledge frontier, entering the continuum where beliefs can be confirmed or rejected. At this point, the analogy of religious belief to the game of Clue begins to fail because we have true knowledge of some elements of the game, but we have very little of the numinous truths of the divine. We know from the first move that a murder has been committed and that one of the six suspects did it with one of a limited number of weapons in a limited number of rooms. This knowledge is certain and a priori, which is what Plantinga falsely claims his knowledge of the divine to be. The fun of Clue lies in a kind of pseudo-rationality. We are forced to make declarations without sufficient knowledge to justify them. Of course, the stakes in the game are about as low as they can be, whereas in religious truth they could not possibly be higher.

Still, that is like the position we find ourselves in as we attempt to claim religious knowledge. If our claims are not self-contradictory in themselves, we may think them rational, especially if we believe them strongly and so have formed attachments to them from our childhood trust in parents and adult authorities. Our beliefs may be naive or mature, empty of justification or justified as fully as our limitations allow. Herein lie the real obstacles. When we discuss religious knowledge, we might think a creator logically entailed by the existence of creation and might derive further judgments from the nature of that creation. But logical entailment is a tricky business in a culture torn by conflicting root axioms about the nature of reason itself (see The Axioms of Moral Systems). What is logically entailed by the virtual circle of postmodernism might still be considered a private kind of knowledge not open to public defense, one reason why Blount’s appeal to the virtual circle is unlikely to increase the power of religious authority.  When we have eliminated all other possible culprits but one, we are justified in accusing the remaining suspect of the murder in the Clue game. We can never do that in religious belief, never pass through the belief/knowledge frontier, at least in this life. In discussing that frontier, we can define our location in it using three terms. Declarations are rationally permissible beliefs if what they express does not contradict our knowledge, that recognize the desire inherent in their nature. Declarations are logically entailed beliefs if their truth is reasonably required as a result of prior knowledge, with the proviso that “logic” has become a slippery term in contemporary culture. Finally, declarations supported by a preponderance of the evidence and reasoning capable of public defense can be called justified knowledge, always subject to revision prompted by better reasoning or evidence. Again, the current justificatory chaos will alter the meaning of these terms. The virtual circle may claim any belief, naive or mature, as true knowledge. That being said, the limitations on public warrants still apply, for the postmodernist must admit her God to be profoundly her own despite the irrationality of penning a divinity in the space between her ears.  With this three-position map of the belief/knowledge frontier in mind, we can return to the issue of claims to religious knowledge.

One may see both naive and mature beliefs in professions of religious truth, proof of which is that others have constructed different explanations using the same set of facts. Consider the five major world religions. Then consider the literally thousands of variations on these core institutional systems. It has been estimated that Christianity alone has spawned over ten thousand discrete variants, each justified by the reasoning and experience of its adherents and all heretical to some earlier authority. Barring self-contradiction, each can claim to be rational despite their often bitter disputes with each other. By Blount’s identification of “true” with “useful,” each and all can claim to be true despite their manifold cross claims and contradictions. Does this strike you as rationally justified or even permissible? So when Plantinga claims not only the Christian but even the Calvinist variant to be rationally justified and when he bases that argument on a very limited set of reinforcing interpretations of Biblical truth built on certain creative readings of certain orthodox variations of certain translations of texts, we can agree that his argument is not self-refuting without also agreeing that it is therefore justified, or entailed, or even permissible as public pronouncement. This obvious deficiency produces a strange argument in which he claims that a declaration may claim to be warranted if it is true. But, of course, its truth is what is in doubt, that doubt necessitating the examination of warrant. What prompts these kinds of absurd logical pretzels, and even more clearly what prompts any claim that the Bible or some religion’s teaching is inerrant divine truth cannot be publicly permissible. For the believer, these deeply flawed simulacra of rationality may carry some force because they are confirmed by an internal coherence, and no one can deny the trust or belief that enables them, but any objective appraisal finds something false and even offensive in the public pronouncements that nearly always follow when examined through the lens of warrant.

A clearer but no less contentious argument can be found in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998). Yet that clarity only plunges us into further justificatory tangles. Almost from the beginning, John Paul acknowledges the problem (which I emphasize with italics):

“The First Vatican Council teaches, then, that the truth attained by philosophy and the truth of Revelation are neither identical nor mutually exclusive. There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. With regard to the source, because we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known.”

Here we see a truly profound statement. The crux of it is that knowledge of God cannot be verified by natural reason. The question then becomes subtler: at what point must rationality fail and faith begin? For the Pope acknowledges that the two are complementary, not oppositional. We can judge that this position would not impugn the power of “natural reason” to find truths about the world. Catholicism seems to regard these as achievable even by atheists, their knowledge then completed by a complementary gift of faith that imparts necessary metaphysical truths achievable by no other means. We can find much to admire in this understanding, for it acknowledges the power of rational agency to know reality, something Protestantism with the centrality of fallen natures has difficulty reconciling to the accomplishments of empiricism and expertise. We even see a kind of frontier analogous to the knowledge/belief frontier discussed above. Had John Paul conceded that what he termed divine knowledge achieved by “divine faith” to be instead a mature belief, and had he acknowledged its equality with others of the same ilk, we could find nothing to quibble with, so long as he also specified that such faith must also be reconciled to true knowledge. But two problems would still remain.

The first is that equating what he calls the two kinds of knowledge fails to provide a means to reconcile conflict between their claims or even to clarify the limits of either kind. A fog veils the marker signifying the end point of rational knowledge, the point where the Hitchens of the world ought to stop claiming truth and the Plantingas begin. Where that boundary lies then depends on the second part of the quotation, which states that we can “know by divine faith.” It must be the content of that  kind of “knowledge” determines where the boundary lies and where, we might suppose, papal authority begins. This border problem has been made infamously clear by the trial of Galileo in the past and by Biblical literalists in the present. It strikes me as ominous that faith thus can alter knowledge– by which I mean true correspondence knowledge rather than a dubious “knowledge by faith.” This kind of a relationship between the two smacks of Plantinga’s equating of truth telling with religious belief and equates revelation with justified knowledge, elevating the former at the expense of the latter. This is the argument of creationism and climate change denial.

But as dangerous as this sort of a defense of revelation might seem at first glance, it is only is a calibration problem compared to the second and more historically formidable one.  Since knowledge of this “divine truth” is presumably available to all faiths, it also strikes warning bells that so much disagreement emerges, thus casting doubt on what is “divinely revealed” and begging for a repetition of the claims to privileged knowledge by the papacy being challenged by a priesthood of all believers of Protestantism with a subsequent renewal of strident sectarian conflict. So how can this “revelational knowledge” be compared with the more ordinary kind? We don’t see any wide disparity in regard to scientific paradigms, whose basis is far less certain and less accessible than the Pope claims revelation to be. Isn’t it more likely that this moving boundary between faith and reason is due to the content of faith altering the content of what is claimed to be known by reason, contrary to epistemological orthodoxy and the Pope’s claim? This is the epistemological problem of the Pope’s position, but the ontological one is even more troubling. The “how we know” issue introduces a mere wrinkle, but the “what we know” problem seems to contradict his central thesis that “knowledge by faith” is real knowledge of a truth, for nothing could be more certain than that the claimed truths of the world’s religions thus “known” varies wildly. If Catholic doctrine is true knowledge by faith and other religious doctrine false as the principle of non-contradiction (and the Pope’s own dogma) requires, then we are forced to ask what competence allows the pope to recognize one as true and the other as false. If not “natural reason” then what? If revelation is the source of divine knowledge, how is such “private knowledge” to be warranted to others unless transmuted into the authority of dogma and sacred texts? And if that is the means, how does John Paul explain the schisms that nearly destroyed the faith he defends, and after that produced the endless wrangling and bloodshed among the protesting enemies of the Roman Catholic religion? They too were inspired by divine revelation transmuted into the authority of the King James Bible and The Institutes of the Christian Religion and a thousand other declarations of conflicting orthodoxy. Where is there a foothold for reason in such disputes? Who can claim true correspondence knowledge in such a tempest of counter-claims? Without “natural reason” to arbitrate the claimed truths revealed by “divine faith,” what can settle such disputes?

We know the answer. The Pope who makes the claim is the same person who is endowed by his religion with infallibility on matters of doctrine. Unsurprisingly, the dogmatic claims of Catholicism are among the most articulated and the most ardently defended of all the Abrahamic faiths. It is clear that the “we” he is referring to is not the Catholic laity or the disinterested thinker but only the high clergy of the Pope’s own denomination. It is the “royal we,” the same authority responsible for the Crusades, the Counter-Reformation, the Index, and the Inquisition. And lest we think these merely to be ancient claims to absolute authority, let us remember Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864, still official Catholic policy. Authority relies on a grant of trust that in turn relies on a forfeiture of precisely the natural reason the Pope acknowledges as a reliable source of truth. We cannot escape the knowledge/belief dichotomy except by allocating its arbitration to some specially qualified authority whether in a person or a text, justified only by an institutional or personal trust. When we try surrendering it to authority, we find the irreconcilable challenge of other authority or conflicting private beliefs. When we endow even mature beliefs with a personal commitment, we again face conflict with authority, which our own agency entitles us to reject in favor of our own sanction, but equity forces us to give that same right to those who deeply dispute the desire that colors our beliefs in favor of their own.

It is customary at this point to either appeal to some supposed skeletal unity that unites all such claims in an effort to salvage some small sphere of religious knowledge or heap scorn on those who sincerely seek truth in this matter. I think both of these views are misguided.

The syncretist who seeks the common thread among the various tapestries of religious belief must finally admit to an ignorance of either the content of the major religions or the sordid histories of conflict that have characterized their formation. Certainly, some religions are aggressively syncretistic: Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed are revered in Hinduism as expressions of the many faces of Vishnu, but Hinduism’s openness to variations of belief inevitably must produce a coherentism of knowledge claims. When everyone is entitled by her religion to believe as she chooses, no correspondence knowledge claims emerge from the combined truth and goodness declarations all believers profess. A promiscuous syncretism that would expand such liberality to all religions, even those quite dogmatic in their conflicting truth claims such as Christianity and Islam, would only multiply the squishy ambiguities and end in a broad humanism inseparable from a general secular benevolence. That seems to be happening now.

And the secular humanist thinks that should be the end of it. The skeptic who regards this entire question as settled by modernism’s emphasis on determinism and the science it makes possible also misses the mark, for modernism champions a second means to test our truth and goodness claims, though admittedly it is imperfect. Religionists who have worked their way through this essay so far may find their own experience to be a sufficient proof of judgment for their knowledge claims about religion. They do not need academics to warrant the truth of their religious claims. Their lives do that. They may have been changed by a conversion experience that forever altered their perspective, or they may have grown more inwardly certain of the truth of their beliefs over time, or they may be less thoughtful and simply think of religion as having “worked for me.” Believers in these categories don’t particularly care about justification, except in a Biblical sense. They reject an empirical nominalism and a conceptual competence because they don’t think they need that kind of proof. They defend their beliefs from a pure position of religious idealism.

Yet this position imposes its special limitations on believers who seek to “spread the good news.” The particularity of undistilled experience makes it difficult to transfer in any situation, must less in one seeking to capture the divine essence and will. A general reliance on experience to support claims to religious knowledge will result in a transformation of that knowledge as experience changes. People who “grow in faith” also change what they see as the components of that faith. This is natural and expected, but also damaging to the reliability of any static knowledge claim offered along that lifelong journey. A conversion experience that anchors religious faith doesn’t necessarily suffer from that evolutionary issue, though it might be subject to the flaws of memory. The inescapable problem is that such an experience must also be ineffable, private, and personalized for all its profundity. It cannot possibly be conceptual, and attempts to render it so by resorting to metaphorical language must inevitably distort it (see “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”). It is subject to all the coherentist issues that hinder all of these kinds of truth claims, to which must be added the issues of conceptualizing the ineffable so as to make believers’ truth and goodness claims available to public knowledge. Some believers see religion in decidedly less exalted terms, finding comfort, even nostalgia, in its ritual and sense of support. This is just the kind of thing Freud objected to, but though his objections may raise suspicion, they do not of themselves invalidate any particular position. But to see belief as the instrumental means to warm the world is to endorse it for something other than its truth. Believers of this stripe exemplify Blount’s characterization of religion-as-useful, but such a pragmatist view of faith eliminates any possibility of claiming truth on its own behalf, and its hypotheticality dissolves the categoricality of its truth and goodness claims. That kind of goodness is purely instrumental to other and more earthbound ends. Pascal’s Wager suits the casino, not the chapel. Any logical consistency must begin with acknowldging that these personalized and practical uses of religion must also preclude any universal claims to knowledge of the divine nature and will. Even so, in today’s world this kind of experiential testimony is valued by traditional psychological practice and the postmodern worldview that has derived from it. When we hear these heartfelt stories of divine favoritism and psychic transformation, we feel ourselves journeying into the narrowing streams of private consciousness. Such displays carry a Freudian or even Jungian thrill of discovery into motivation and transference. We enter the private truths of the mini-narrative that postmodernists prize as the building block of deeper cultural truths. But all this burrowing into the privacy of experience can only reveal an experienced sense of immanence at best, one passed through a private filter. The sympathetic respondent may nod, “Yes, that is true for me as well” without stepping foot into the public domain or locating any means to test similarity. And that opens what seems to me the final word on this difficult subject.

I have tried to untangle the terms knowledge and belief in this essay. Plantinga, Blount, and John Paul II don’t do that or at least don’t do it sufficiently, and despite Plato’s dissatisfaction with his own efforts to clarify their meaning, the terms remain a logical skein too tangled for us to find a strong thread to pull on. The confusion in these terms’ meanings implies a false equivalency of meaning that continues to this day, and we have to ask why it is allowed to continue. I think the answer points to an idea these men hold in common, but it is an idea I wish strongly to dispute. They think the two terms to be interchangeable because they see both as warranted by the same essential source. Plato thought all truth the result of some intimation of the ideal revealed to the human mind. He found it proper that we be attached to that planted seed of truth. Regardless of what they say about human reason, it seems clear to me that Plantinga, Blount, and John Paul II feel the same. They see truth as a bestowal, a revelation. We have a moral duty to accept it, at least in part because it is, like faith, an unearned gift from the ultimate Authority. They think they know this truth because they believe it. This view accounts for their deep respect for the authority of tradition, Scripture, or dogma as the means of transmission of inerrant divine truth and, more importantly, moral goodness. This yearning that belief be truth is what confers certainty to their claims of knowledge and explains their deep reverence for authority or their own belief as warrant. Either their trust or their desire precludes doubt.

I think this effort utterly mistaken for the simple reason that it is claimed by so many who disagree so vociferously and argue so carelessly. But even if the sordid history of sectarianism were to be ignored, we would find adequate reason to deny authority the position of eminence it once held. History has demoted it. It is entirely incompatible with the modernism that arose solely in response to its failures. Modernism sees knowledge as judgment of truth requiring no special attachment. Rather the reverse, for the active and ratiocinative effort required to produce a judgment precludes any initial attachment to the issue under consideration in favor of a dispassionate analysis necessary to produce the 1:1 correspondence that marks a warranted declaration. Modernism has demonstrated the obstacles to such an effort though, one of the most debilitating of which is the desire for premature closure, the urge to settle the unease that arises from ignorance. Truth is always the means by which we choose the good, and that task, our deepest moral duty, rattles the nerves. The need to withhold judgment is also made painful by the tentativeness of nearly all our judgments and by the moral responsibility to adopt a general attachment to truth-seeking in general. We cannot withhold judgment indefinitely, for our preferential freedom cries out for moral direction (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe“). The necessity of judgment is particularly binding on our public declarations, those that depend on correspondence justification, hence the necessity of correspondence warrants.  Even mature beliefs are by virtue of the attachment we hold for them not knowledge. They are private shafts of desire shot into the dark unknown, the corona of uncertainty surrounding the complex of things we provisionally know to be true despite what might seem the clarifying flash of catharsis or conversion. They exist at the foggy frontier of knowledge, projecting possibility out into the void.

The problem of distinguishing religious belief from correspondence knowledge grows even more complex when we bring it into the current climate. Postmodernists for all their differences from admirers of premodern authority share with them a detestation of modernism and its stand on knowledge. Like traditionalists, they consider beliefs as foundational to knowledge, and in the case of the virtual circle, constitutive of it, though generally it is safe to say that either side rejects the specific beliefs of the other and the public truth of such beliefs. Traditionalists loudly demand a return to authority. Postmodernists utterly reject that and spin their webs of power relationships engaged in a relentless struggle of wills. All of this disagreement produces a dismal contention, for both sides are dearly attached to their beliefs. With no means to reconcile them in the public square, we dig in and fortify them to resist challenge with all the rigidity of the medieval castle or the fallout shelter (see “Belief in the Public Square”).

My own resolution after so long a period of thought and reading on the subject is to revere religious belief as a form of inner light and regard with suspicion all claims to correspondence knowledge that derive from it. I consider immanence only the intimation of the divine rather than knowledge of it, my ignorance ensured by the transcendence of God. I seek to direct my own beliefs by extending the provisional knowledge of the reality I know. I wish to make sense of the world. But that very effort cautions me to distrust the comfort and the lure of power that a claimed divine knowledge confers (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). I hope I have shown here why that distrust is warranted for all of us. The beliefs that strike me as true and descriptive of God and God’s will are not clearly stated propositions that can find correspondence warrant, nor can they be defended to others as divinely ordained and therefore beyond doubt. I mistrust my own yearnings for knowledge and the comfort it confers on this matter, not to mention the power it promises. Surely, I can settle many correspondence goodness issues by means of competent reasoning on moral issues, most of which were at one time the staples of categorical religious authority (see “Theology and the Commandments”).

For instance, I am willing to defend a moral system based on our common needs without recourse to divine command (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). I utterly reject the view that morality without religious authority must be impotent. Still, I consider core questions of theology to be, in William James’s words, live options that continue to demand serious if private consideration. On such matters, I stipulate that the correspondence evidence is so evenly balanced that the only recourse must be either embracing a pure faith or rejecting it (agnosticism invariably presents itself in action as atheism), an act both humbling and hopeful, for why should this be the human concern most closed to the reasoning that settles other central life questions? Why should the scales be so evenly balanced? Every other human hunger for the good moves us to active and rational choice. Why should core questions of theology instead move us to prayerful receptivity? This indeed is becoming a serious topic of study by analytic theology that finds the evidence of divine hiddenness both an argument for divinity and a clue of its nature.  Others surely disagree, for the world is overstuffed with claims of truth built on unearned theological privilege. But I plan to forego any further efforts to use correspondence proofs of judgment to negotiate this issue, having worried it as far as I am able, nor do I think to find any further disputation fruitful. I concede the anemic quality of such intuitions and the variability of the doxastic venture it warrants. My judgment can force no wedge between my religious beliefs and my own moral commitments because, like most of us today, I can easily shop around for religious declarations that appeal to my prior convictions and present desires. I derive little comfort from that truth, though it seems others feel it strongly supports their own view of things. Nevertheless, I firmly intend to avoid the error that mystics from Plotinus to Kierkegaard have fallen into: to claim deeply held but ambiguous yearnings as something greater or clearer, to confuse a heartfelt desire for God’s presence with knowledge of it. A powerful religious tradition recommends a humble receptivity to the numinous in a cultivation of awe; devotion to ritual, prayer, and service; and a continuing search for greater clarity (see “Awe“). In that spirit, I am moved to give the final word to the great theologian Augustine, whose simple credo I have adopted as my own: “If I understand, it is not God.”