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 a historical (“Premodern Authority”) and epistemological (“Religion and Truth”) perspective. But honesty compels me to offer another. 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 question whether the subject of metaphysical truth and goodness is the kind of issue that experts can address (see “Expertise“). I do not question their expertise about the history and practice of their own brand of faith or about the sociology of other faiths. While grateful for their historical and ethnological 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 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 sectarian claims to truth.  That conclusion produces the essential question though: if we cannot appeal to 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 discussion 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 find superhero movies boring. 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 speak correspondence truth 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 believe impose a vow of silence as a consequence?  A core claim of some but not all 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 declarations about God’s nature and will and also some limits on the methods I can choose to justify such claims. Before even considering any of the means open to us, we must match the claim to its warrant. Transcendence implies an existence beyond the possibilities of correspondence knowledge, while immanence implies one below the threshhold of public justification. These challenges only intensify the need for consensus.

This is not so easy in the current climate, though. Many declarations are ill-suited to their warrants, the mismatch allowing the listener to dismiss the claim as a kind of white noise. Should I say, for instance, “Pistachio ice cream is the best kind,” you will naturally dismiss my truth claim for the nonsense it is, since we know that such expressions of taste are meaningless to others. To use the correct terminology, such an opinion is a coherence, meaning private, claim masquerading as a correspondentist one. What I really mean is, “I like pistachio ice cream,” which is a private preference that binds you not at all. 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 private claim to divine knowledge therefore must also be a public one. No one gets to diminish divine knowledge 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 beyond that span, 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. Even claims of divine nature or will must serve as correspondence claims to truth and must be justified appropriately 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.

This question confronts the issue at a macroscopic scale: Is religious truth different in kind from other truths that reason must decide? This question derives a particular urgency when we consider that the most common justifications for moral claims binding on all persons absolutely have always been rooted in religious authority. 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 are of a different nature from the ordinary truths of our common reality. The most honored representative of this position was Ibn Rushd, a twelfth century Arabic philosopher known in the West as Averroes. Averroeism argues that our thinking about the divine cannot presume to follow the normal channels of rational thinking for the simple reason that God is a noncategorical 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 orthodoxies of Gnosticism, from Mani to Kierkegaard to Kaballah, 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. We may assume that such understandings cannot claim correspondence truth but instead must be privately asserted.

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 these private claims to knowledge 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 to do that 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 believers. And as night follows day, this authority will at some point be challenged by others valuing their own revelations, rituals, dogmas, and texts (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 is inseparable from religious morality. (see “What Do We mean by ‘Morality’?”). Nothing could be more binding on all moral agents than the absolute moral imperatives of religion, yet the nature of that warrant guarantees conflict among religionists and between religionists and those who justify their morality differently, and because other belief systems must also be warranted only by authority, the inevitability of dispute must produce two results. First, religionists will find no means to reconcile their differences within their 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 destroy it.

Religionists’ unwillingness to face this issue has led to 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 individual 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 for authority 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 common truth and goodness claims, something religionists 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 seems to me a mulish and unnecessary bow to tradition that endangers the very survival of religious morality (see “Must Religion Retreat?“).

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 choice-making machines require the means to make sense of their options about truth and the goods that possession of truth makes possible (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). 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 specific correspondence proofs of judgment based on modernist warrants: empiricism, rationalism, expertise, and undifferentiated experience. Given its dominance in prior history, it should not surprise that authority continued to exercise some degree of power for some persons. From the eighteenth to the twentieth century, religious knowledge found itself subject to the relentless scrutiny of these modernist proofs of judgment. This stew of correspondence warrants was further complicated by a more recent knowledge revolution, postmodernism, that first arose from the gross dissatisfaction modernist warrants produced around the turn of the twentieth century (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). This disillusionment taints our own era, producing yet another attempt to satisfactorily justify claims to truth, goodness, and beauty without appealing to the uncertainty of modernist approaches (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”), producing 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.

As we peruse these proofs of judgment in that search, we find a near vacuum of defensible candidates. Empiricism, modern science, faces formidable obstacles in addressing metaphysical truth and necessarily must remain mute in all questions of 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 trusted 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 more convincing, even one experience tested by a later one. But authority relies on the beliefs 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 the Reformation.

So we are left with two candidates in our search for warranted correspondence religious knowledge: reason and undifferentiated experience. I must labor the meanings of these terms in light of the contemporary disarray that characterizes justification. Reason in correspondence terms involves a universal faculty of induction or deduction comparable to but less rigorous than a geometric proof. Mathematics is its exemplar, for mathematical reasoning is the same wherever humans approach questions of quantity. Undifferentiated experience is our commonest means of justification, summoning a likeness between a single past experience and some predicted future one, which is obviously a rather tenuous and suspect connection. 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 intensely rationalist efforts and personal testimonies. Modernism has found these the favored warrants for religion’s claims to truth. Since reason is a far stronger proof of judgment than undifferentiated experience, let us begin our search with reason.

But this 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 (1917). 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? Such a perennial question has naturally produced a spectrum of responses. Those pertinent to theology are nominalism, realism, 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 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. Truth 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 they seek to test. Perhaps they have been carried away by the seemingly endless victories that empiricism has enjoyed over religionists, marked by religion’s retreat from its too-expansive claims concerning truth and goodness to its present defensive posture (see “Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle”). The God-of-the-Gaps approach by religionists is a rearguard 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 breached by a rational approach to the nominalist question that reveals two promising means of rebuttal. First, for all their claims to scientism, the new “cosmological atheists” must violate their own premises in arguing their case, for its essence is that only scientific processes produce reliable truth. But even if they are correct, such a claim can never be an empirical one, for issues of value are never open to the empirical analysis they champion. Why should truth have more value than self-delusion or falsity? Nominalists would find this question meaningless as they would the question of the value of their own techniques. All goodness claims are simply beyond the methodology that empiricism must use to work its wonders, one dependent on quantitative measurement and controlled variables and guarded hypotheses. These limitations are the sources of science’s enormous success. To push truth claims beyond their warrant is to engage in the kind of nonsense we’ve seen far too much of in the human sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”) and the pseudo-sciences. Secondly, the very determinism that makes scientific thinking possible is violated by the making of their argument, for the concession to free will such an argument 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. Of course, refuting a thoroughgoing nominalism is far from judging any particular opposing proposition as true.

That point seems rather lost on their religionist opponents who practice a realism that includes the non-material. They derive perhaps too much satisfaction from the inability of nominalists to confront the metaphysical. 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. Realists 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. Realists respond by emphasizing the power of faith to mold moral behavior, a subject a merely nominalist view cannot address. In the end, realism devolves into the kinds of personalized 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 explain it away such as those advanced by Freud have proved an embarrassment to the scientific enterprise, this overreach into the mysteries of free will and the metaphysical 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 (see “The Latest Creationism Debate”). 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 pure 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 true and common 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. Though we face tough sledding in attempting to warrant religious knowledge by these means, if is to be found as a correspondence truth 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 concept, which means that the only defensible correspondentist warrant for declarations concerning God must be sought in conceptualism. Religious truth claims certainly fit the Biblical description. Their way is narrow but possible, so long as we use our reason to gauge the evidence of things not seen. The conceptualist approach neatly avoids the pitfalls that await the nominalist and the realist in this effort and offers us our only chance to claim correspondence knowledge of religious truth.

Unfortunately, this effort also seems ill-fated, at least if two recent and well-respected attempts to warrant religious belief on strictly rational grounds are representative of the overall effort. My recent readings have included two defenses of specifically Christian warrant. 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 a general defense of Biblical inerrancy. 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 the issue of Averroeism squarely. They do not wish to justify their arguments by mysticism, intuition, revelation, or insight. Nor do they mean to appeal to authority. They take on modernism on its own terms, something most religionists are loath to try. I admire their chutzpah, for they are not content with making a generic rational 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 ways.

The first is 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 Kant’s rejection of a priori knowledge of experiential truths 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 knowledge of God, something claimed by nearly every early empirical philosopher before being definitively negated by David Hume. 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. Perhaps the saddest lapse in logic–or exercise in duplicity–occurs in the section attempting to refute the argument titled, “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. 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. It is morally permissible to say, “I believe I am right, but I do not know.” It is morally impermissible and logically 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 possess on the basis of a belief you can only warrant coherently, 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 identical to mine (meaning either experiential, derived from authority, or coherentist). In the absence of knowledge, we both find it permissible to hold our beliefs, but not in rejecting others as wrong.” But this is not his position. 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 he knows 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 does not seem to understand the difference between knowing and believing. In this case as he admits, 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 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. His subsequent efforts at rational argumentation are on the same sad level.

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. At its most egregious, this gets ridiculous. 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 correspondence, coherence, and pragmatist notions of the term “true.” But Blount seems unaffected by these definitions. His argument 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 and this applies to declarations of goodness as well as to those claiming truths. In any case he makes no effort to explore the nature of correspondence goodness (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). This tendency to warrant “the good”  by a single authoritative claim of “the true” is a predictable position of those who accept authority, yet it must prove suspect if the means of verification is rational, which is Blount’s stated intention. This central failure of authority is the source of its claims of infallibility and of its continuing failure, for one cannot logically defend choosing the morally best choice concurrently with deciding its truth. Choosing the good must always depend upon a prior determination of the true; we first determine the reality and then use that determination to frame options from which we choose preferences by whatever moral standards we emply. Otherwise the morality of the choice must always be dependent on the authority warranting both it and the truth claim associated with it. And this concurrence of truth and goodness gives the game away, for only a blind desire could move one to choose a good without first determining the truth that must structure its choice. This desire is belief’s signature.  But Blount ignores this issue entirely, and instead ventures even farther into the weeds. Despite his prior foray into discursive truth, he launches into a painful metaphorical effort. 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.” “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. Now 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, which makes the last sentence of Blount’s argument particularly 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 pragmatic and hypothetical argument in no way justifies. In any case, if Christians find the Bible true because it is useful, one could hardly blame Muslims for embracing the Qur’an 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. For all his initial concern with epistemology, Blount seems breezily unconcerned with this logical problem.

A more common mistake in both works invokes an issue relative to belief and knowledge. 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 should I guess that Colonel Mustard did the deed with the wrench in the library and that guess prove wrong, I could not be accused of making an irrational judgment (unless such a guess contradicted what was already in evidence). The fun of the game lies in a kind of pseudo-rationality. We are forced to make declarations without sufficient knowledge to justify them. Of course, that is exactly 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. Herein lies the real danger. If the evidence supporting those claims 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 forming any judgment on that issue at all. Rather, one would have reason to suspect that the claim is not one of judgment but of 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 requires us to examine carefully the nuances of belief and knowledge. Is my charge against Colonel Mustard a knowledge judgment or a belief built upon my desire to win the game? I certainly want him to be the killer, but did my desire to be the winner or to be the first to get it right corrupt my judgment? Terminology matters here. A belief may be said to be permissible if it does not violate other knowledge. In that case, it is not itself knowledge, though. It is permissible to accuse Colonel Mustard in the first move of the game as that would not contradict what we know at that point, but I hope it is clear that such a wild guess would hardly be prudent and would probably prove untrue. Many religious beliefs fall into that category, and we may expect serious contradictions in multiple expressions of this kind of beliefs. It would be equally permissible for me to accuse Miss Plum in my first move, at which point our mutually permissible beliefs would be both irreconciliable and unknowable. 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 private belief subject to further investigation. A much stronger case can be made for a conclusion that potentially moves a declaration into the category of judgment. This would involve a claim that is logically entailed, in which case not only is the statement permissible, it is also logically required by other sources of knowledge. When we begin our game, we judge one of the characters to be guilty of the murder. That knowledge is logically entailed by the rules of the game. When we discuss religious knowledge, we might consider 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. On the other hand, logical entailment is a feature of advanced mathematical theory and is considered an extremely strong and public proof of truth in that field. In that case, it might be better to term it the strongest of such judgments of truth. We call such declarations justified because they may be publicly warranted with strong correspondence proofs of judgment: empirical, logical, or expertise. 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. So we may span the distance between belief and knowledge with three terms. Declarations are permissible if they express beliefs that do not contradict knowledge. Declarations are logically entailed beliefs or judgments 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, a declaration supported by a preponderance of the evidence and reasoning capable of public defense can be justified as knowledge, always subject to revision prompted by better reasoning or evidence. With this three-level terminology in mind, we can return to the issue of claims to religious knowledge.

One may see just this situation in the issue 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 belief 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. 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 based 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. 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 rational. The disinterested reader learns very quickly that the real warrant for Plantinga and the various defenders of Biblical or dogmatic inerrancy is and always has been authority. For the believer, these deeply flawed simulacra of rationality may carry some force, but any objective appraisal finds something false and even offensive in the entire enterprise when examined through the lens of warrant (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”).

A much more honest admission can be found in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998). Yet that honesty plunges us into further justificatory tangles. Almost from the beginning, John Paul acknowledges the problem. “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 known by natural reason. The question then becomes subtler: at what point must rationality fail and faith begin? Implicit in this question is a necessary ignorance of the truth lying beyond reason; this fog veils the marker signifying the end point of rational knowledge. Where we think it lies then depends on the second part of the quotation, which states that we can “know by divine faith.” The content of that “knowledge” determines where the boundary lies. 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.” Since the same revelation is available to all Christians, it also strikes warning bells that so much disagreement emerges, thus casting doubt on what is “divinely revealed.” We don’t see this kind of 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 knowledge 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 faculty of discrimination 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?

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, would only multiply the squishy ambiguities and end in a broad humanism inseparable from a general secular benevolence.

And that is where the secular humanist thinks it should end. 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 inferior to reason. 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.

Yet this position imposes its special limitations on religionists who seek to “spread the good news.” The particularity of experience makes it difficult to transfer. 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 suffer from that evolutionary issue, though it might be subject to the flaws of memory, but such an experience must also be ineffable, private, and personalized for all its profundity. It is subject to all the coherentist issues that hinder correspondence truth claims, to which must be added the issues of conceptualizing the ineffable so as to make public truth and goodness claims. Some believers see religion in decidedly less exalted terms, finding comfort, even nostalgia, in its ritual and sense of support. Of course, this is just the kind of thing Freud objected to, but his objections do not render the belief itself false. But to see belief as the instrumental means to warm the world is to accept 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. That kind of goodness is purely instrumental to other and more earthbound ends. Pascal’s Wager suits the casino, not the chapel. Such personalized and practical uses of religion must also preclude any universal claims to knowledge of the divine nature and will. Such 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. The sympathetic respondent may nod, “Yes, that is true for me as well” without stepping foot into the public domain. And that opens what seems to me the final word on this difficult subject.

I have intentionally used the terms knowledge and belief interchangeably in this essay. Plantinga, Blount, and John Paul II do the same, and most people would see only pedantry at work in trying to separate the two terms. Even Plato is said to have defined knowledge as “justified, true belief,” though that characterization challenges the central thesis of the dialogue Theaetetus in which it is given, so perhaps Plato is playing his usual games with form and substance in defining knowledge in this way. Even so, what all four of these men have in common is something I wish to strongly 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. Truth is 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, God. They think they know this truth because they believe it. This view accounts for their deep respect for the authority of tradition, Scripture, and dogma as the means of transmission of divine truth from the only true Authority. This close relationship between belief and truth is what confers certainty to their claims of knowledge and explains their deep reverence for authority as its warrant.

I think this connection utterly mistaken for the simple reason that it is claimed by so many who disagree so vociferously. 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. Authority 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 correspondence to reality. 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 claim knowledge so as to complete the virtual circle and 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 believe it good to seek the truth, yet that belief should not tempt us to claim a truth we cannot warrant. The necessity of judgment is particularly binding on our public declarations, those that depend on correspondence justification, hence the necessity of correspondence warrants. Beliefs are by virtue of the attachment we hold for them not knowledge. They are private, integrated into the virtual circle, 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. The problem of definition 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. 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 everyone is dearly attached to her 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 the completion of 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 trumpeted to others as divinely ordained and therefore beyond doubt, for 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 reason, most of which were at one time the staples of religious authority (see “Theology and the Commandments”). For instance, I am willing to defend a universalist moral system based on our common needs without recourse to divine command (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). I utterly reject the view that a 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 striving for the good moves us to active and rational choice. Why should core questions of theology instead move us to prayerful receptivity? Others surely disagree, for the world is overstuffed with claims of truth built on 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 take Augustine’s words perhaps more literally than he did: “If I understand it, it is not God.”  Therefore, I am moved to give the final word to one who lived through those darkest days of contentious claims to divine knowledge that have so shaped our own. “The want of faith in the word and power of God within, and the neglect of hearing the still, small voice thereof, is the ground and cause of all ignorance, errors, darkness, and confusion among men, of all sects and sorts of religion upon the face of the whole earth.”

 

 

Advertisements