- The thesis of this essay is that the border between religious knowledge and belief is knowable and definable.
- Knowledge of the divine must be closed to empiricism, expertise and authority, but may be open to competence or undistilled for experience.
- As competence is a more reliable warrant, it is worthwhile to investigate the claims of religious apologists who claim it, but even the most honored of these abjectly fails in his epistemological task.
- If one investigates the truth claims of Alvin Plantinga, for instance, one finds what may charitably be called a confusion regarding religious knowledge.
- If one investigates Douglas Blount’s explanation of “What Does it Mean to Say the Bible is True,” an even more fundamental epistemological error leaps out.
- It seems most such appeals to modernist warrants built upon competence are disguised appeals to religious authority.
- The same mistaken association characterizes John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio: what is proposed as a judgment appealing to reason is actually a veiled defense of religious authority’s right to discern divine will, which in Roman Catholic tradition attempts to move rational agency to trust by means of an appeal to reason, and although this is a necessary preface to any initial surrender, in a contemporary climate of axiomatic suspicion of institutional authority in general and religious authority in particular, it will fail.
- Such claims of “knowledge by faith” are invariably either appeals to trust in authority as public knowledge or appeals to belief as private commitment made permissible by yearning, but neither of these can be warranted as knowledge of the divine because Scripture, the putative interface between God and man, cannot be understood categorically and because revelation, the putative clarifier of our confusions, cannot be justified by authority.
- This confusion is in part traceable to a longstanding epistemological confusion concerning the nature of belief.
- Beliefs may be naïve or considered, but neither can pass the bar for knowledge.
- The deficiencies of belief advanced as knowledge can be illustrated by the “Clue” problem.
- Many beliefs face a low bar of permissibility because their concerns are purely private, but beliefs about the divine must pass a much higher bar since these must always be advanced as correspondence truths.
- This higher standard is further challenged by the nature of beliefs concerning the divine, for cataphatic claims must challenge the numinous and ineffable, the entirely non-conceptual, nature of a transcendent deity.
- Efforts to bridge this knowledge gap by resorting to analogy, figurative language, or muthos only renders the result more ambiguous and uncertain.
- A fideist approach to the problem is warranted but unenlightening.
- This lacuna tempts believers to pragmatic and hypothetical positions that have nothing to do with the ontological issues that begin their investigation.
- Both immanence and divine hiddenness tempt investigations into the nature of the divine, but while the investigation is an essential act of faith, it will not yield the knowledge it seeks, requiring as a consequence a commitment of permissible belief.
My purpose in this essay is to deny that we can know God. This declaration seems simple, even obvious, until one engages all the means of disputing it. In such a debate, terms and techniques become fluid as authority pours out its prerogatives, human desire floods religious metaphor, and confirmation bias overflows the channels of reason. The task requires confronting and refuting some of the temptations persons fall into when they approach such a difficult subject. Though I will deny the possibility of knowing God, I certainly do not intend to argue against permissible spiritual beliefs, so the last part of my venture will be to define what I mean by “permissible” in this context.
The first hurdle concerns what we mean by claiming such knowledge. How can one know anything at all about the nature and will of the divine? How can such a declaration be tested and proved? We might begin by asking if such a claim would resemble more ordinary kinds of knowledge claims or if it differs from the way we approach the rest of our experience. The easiest claim to verify would rely on the ordinary perceptual and rational warrants we use in everyday life: the evidence of our perceptions as interpreted by our reasoning. But the casual processes of undistilled experience seem pretty unreliable for even the most ordinary kinds of knowledge claims (see “What Counts as Justification?”). We all know how often we are wrong about what our senses seem to be telling us, and both the importance and the difficulty of seeking a profound spiritual truth ought to move us to seek more reliable verification. We might improve our warrant if we could tighten our standards, perhaps by limiting the experience we are trying to process or attempting to replicate it. If applied conscientiously, this improved verifiability would yield very good results indeed, which is why it is the method for finding the most reliable knowledge we know: the scientific kind.
But this approach to divine knowledge is a dead end. Investigations of theological truth must be closed to empirical inquiry, for nothing about God is open to scientific investigation. The human sciences can make valid and even valuable conclusions about how persons practice their faith, its value to their societies, and its meaning to their lives. But there can be no science of God. The nominalist, materialist, quantifiable, and mathematical methods of the scientific enterprise simply cannot intersect a putative spiritual reality. When atheists of the Hitchens and Hawking stripe attempt to demolish religious values by revealing the impossibility of testing them, what they are saying is simply that science cannot confront them. That is reason neither to reject spiritual knowledge nor to accept it. If scientists wish to insist that absence of evidence indicates evidence of absence, favoring an extreme scientism, they will defeat themselves before they begin. For the central precondition of an empirical outlook is a deterministic reality that allows prediction and replication of observation and experiment. So scientists’ presumed freedom to make their case denies their most essential assumption (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). If even their own methodology cannot be confirmed by science’s axioms of commitment, no one should be surprised that some subjects must always be closed to empiricists’ inquiry. It is simply beyond their ken.
But if the question is closed to science, can it be open to less certain yet still quite ordinary pursuits of knowledge? One cannot fail to be impressed by the erudition of theologians and religious apologists, of exegetes and religious historians. Isn’t theirs a true religious knowledge? Let us call all such serious students of religion the subject’s experts. They share the qualities of expertise: serious study of limited and repetitive experiences less refined than the empirical process but far more open to analysis than undistilled experience (see “Expertise”). A philologist academic may know most everything there is to know about the language of the early Bible without knowing if what it says is true. We can admire the work of these scholars while still allowing that they cannot address the core question of their enterprise. No experts can.
That does not keep them from trying, though. While one cannot apply expertise to answer the question of God’s existence and nature, one can use it to sharpen the kinds of questions that are asked and thereby clarify what a satisfactory answer would look like if it could be found. Such a pursuit certainly would improve the quality of our own seeking, and would surely establish more reliable means to conduct the search. But asking the question well cannot produce its answer. The learned Egyptologist seeking the lost pharaoh’s tomb will still have to blast rock and sift sand like the most wide-eyed novice once he enters the Valley of the Kings. Still, he can reasonably claim to have somewhat narrowed the scope of the search. Call this lesser but broader capacity a competence. It is a capability open to more varied experience made somewhat more reliable by a sustained study. Consider the practice of medicine to demonstrate the difference between expertise and competence. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in hip replacement can surely claim expertise in her field, for every operation is similar enough to draw out commonalities in this surgery yet different enough for her to gain a very deep capability. The generalist who practices family medicine makes use of the expertise of specialists in many fields to develop her own general competence in the wide range of patient needs she serves, but their variety precludes a true expertise in any of them. Analytic theologians develop expertise in their field of study, certainly, and it allows them to apply competence to the core questions of theology. But that competence may be negatively influenced by their desire to make themselves something more and quite different from competent seekers, to be seen as authorities capable of commanding the trust of less capable thinkers. And this must be an overreach, provable by the conflicting core claims of religious authorities today whose range of declarations defy trust. If you are disposed to be deferential to religious authority, you must begin by recognizing that the epistemological workings of competence and authority operate upon entirely different principles of verification. Competence is a demonstrated proficiency in a fairly narrow range of knowledge and skills appealing to the sanction of those who consider it. By contrast, authority can be claimed in an illimitable variety of skills and knowledge without any necessity to demonstrate mastery because its warrant relies solely upon the trust of its adherents. All parents may claim authority over their children, but far fewer can claim competence in rearing them.
For the question at hand, we can easily see how trust inevitably will be challenged. Quelling doubt 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 practiced, even one experience tested by a later one. But authority relies solely 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 , a realization tragically delivered by the continuing religious bloodlust of the Reformation. Its twenty million deaths over eight generations forced adherents to first transfer, then doubt, and finally condemn religious authority in favor of their own valuations (see “Modernism’s Midwives”).
Leaving any claims to trust aside — which means abandoning any appeal to authority whatsoever — can we find thinkers so competent to find divine knowledge that we can endorse their conclusions?
The answer is a hard “no,” at least if two recent and well-respected attempts to warrant religious knowledge on strictly conceptual grounds of reasoned competence are representative. My 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). These essays attempt to make a case for today’s reader to surrender her own rational agency to the authority of the Bible, which in today’s climate is a very big ask (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Both books offer a direct defense of Christian knowledge on rational grounds by the foremost Christian apologists in academia. These authors are to be commended for facing the problems of competent theosophy 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 for true divine knowledge by an appeal to modernist axioms of universal 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 doctrines 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 without crediting the protracted philosophical discussion among his predecessors about obstacles we face in claiming it. 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 until Plantinga has. 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 is a theological flat-earther. Without confronting what has already doomed his argument, he champions an internal sensus divinitas that echoes Calvin echoing Plotinus plagiarizing Plato. Claiming an a priori knowledge of the divine not only ignores epistemological history, it also ignores the miserable combat of religious enthusiasts arguing for their own “knowledge” of divine will and command. If we do have a sense of the divine, it surely must be an attenuated one hardly up to the task Plantinga puts it to: justifying his own Calvinist theology.
Plantinga compounds his initial offenses as he attempts to refute the argument that “Christian Belief is Arrogant.” Please give particular attention to epistemological language, which I have italicized. First, he distorts an 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 (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”). By etymology 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. 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 demonstrable knowledge you cannot possibly warrant on the basis of a belief you can only warrant by virtue of your desire that it be true. This is what Plantinga calls his divine sense, the same sense that still motivates slaughter in the name of private religious conviction. He might have phrased his conviction more modestly without committing a logical foul. “I believe, but do not know, that I am correct. I accept 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.” The clear key to such a declaration is to define what is permissible to belief, something Plantinga fails even to attempt.
He 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 duty to be universally binding and therefore true for all. Not only is it wrong for him to lie, he also thinks it wrong for his colleagues to lie. He judges 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 compelling to all thinkers. 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: both are moral claims that reason and experience can fully justify to a dispassionate observer (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). The root of their power to convince anyone seriously considering them is their service to a fuller moral purpose ultimately tracing to a human right (see “Natural and Political Rights”). It is entirely unlike defending a claim about the number of persons elected for salvation, for instance, which neither reason nor experience can ascertain and which belief must supply according to what individuals’ private schemas of religious conviction or their trust in authority offers. Although his colleagues might desire to lie, Plantinga can convince them that this desire is harmful to their own long-term moral interests, something he could never demonstrate about their private religious convictions, nor could they say it of his (see “A Utility of Furthest Ends”). Perhaps his efforts to explain their error will result in their somehow 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 consists of 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 conflicting theories of knowledge: the correspondentist and the pragmatist. Epistemologists call a declaration a correspondentist one if it can be demonstrated by some clear relation to an external reality. Empirical science does this very well, and so does expertise and competence. Correspondentist truth claims are public ones. Because their basis in private perception and reasoning came under a sustained critique over the course of the last three centuries, some thinkers proposed a far simpler means of justifying our declarations: their immediate usefulness (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). This appeal to utility simplifies all claims to truth, goodness and beauty by linking them to the interests of the present moment while also privatizing them in service to persons’ hypothetical desires. It must be seen that the two warrants are different in kind, not degree. “True” means something entirely different to the pragmatist and the correspondentist. While empiricism is simply a refined experience in search of truth, pragmatism begins by slanting undistilled experience to procure the thinker’s desires. Like oil and water, the two schemas of knowledge acquisition cannot be mixed.
Yet this is just what happens all too often in matters of faith. It consists in valuing some religious declarations less for their truth 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 and pragmatist notions of the term “true.” But Blount’s argument ignores their incompatibility completely. 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 elicit 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 having no necessary relation to its truth. Obviously, these are not always publicly defensible goods, for our private desires and experience color what we actually prefer at any moment. Blount compounds the problem 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. His appeal to our own definition of “excellence” and his examples of its advantages are pure pragmatism which 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, among which Blount counts “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 all-important linkage of 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 surrendering in trust to the composited structure that putatively strengthens both truth and goodness and which is resistant to rational inspection. It requires a surrender of that capacity. The unconditional trust that the God of Scripture demands requires ignoring one’s own interests to focus upon an unquestioning and unreflective obedience to divine command. This is the trust relation that Blount wishes to nurture, but his concession to believers’ own desires must dissolve it. To be fair to him, Scripture very frequently seeks the same goal by the same means despite explicit instructions from its God to do otherwise. 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 reason for religious commitment. What this appeal damages most clearly is the power of the claimed authority of Scripture itself, for even the slightest consideration will show authority to be incompatible with the self-interested pragmatism of hypothetical self-interest. So while divine command need provide no incentive to commitment and therefore diverges from our pursuits in everyday experience, molding sacred duties to private intent will realign them with our normal scope of preferential freedom (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“). The price of that conversion to utility is high, though, for not only does it reduce thinking about God to what Kant called our practical reasoning, it also dissolves the authority that warrants the divine command in the first place, replacing the Biblical God with something much more personal, meaning different: a private God desired to meet private intention. Many believers manage to avoid that thought, especially in the Protestant tradition of personal revelation, as they try to ignore the disjunction between a privately animated 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 correspondentist 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 to restore 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 Qu’ran 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. If wreaking havoc on these ways of knowing weren’t enough, he also sabotages any surrender to authority.
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 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. Perhaps competent analytic theology can sharpen our questions, but four thousand years of effort has demonstrated that no thinker is competent to answer them.
As we turn with a sigh to the less reliable proofs of knowledge, we again turn to the most well-traveled path to comprehend the nature and will of a divinity: authority (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge”). History has been dominated by the power of religious authority to structure a putative knowledge of God’s relation to persons. So if it has been so successful in the past, why won’t authority work now to underwrite religious knowledge? Why does such a successful template for social order and metaphysical truth no longer elicit trust? The answer requires a very short historical detour.
Until the seventeenth century, all public truth and goodness was underwritten by divine command under the aegis of the deity’s regents, not only in Europe but throughout the world, who translated his will for their subjects (see “Premodern Authority”). The social orders not only accepted the power of princes and popes; they embraced it in a trust that forced the surrender of their own reasoning to a social order they trusted implicitly. This can be traced to the nature of authority that required persons to surrender their own capacity to judge truth and goodness to institutional authorities they thought more capable of judging than themselves. This abdication of agency proved especially potent in surrender to religious authority because of the peculiar emulsion of truth and goodness that characterizes all religious claims to truth, the notion that divine commands are true because they are good and are good because they are true.. Trust in these composited truth and goodness claims proved difficult to shake, but when it was shaken, it seemed the natural human response was to transfer trust to a competing authority rather than to re-appropriate it for one’s own uses. We can see that transfer fairly frequently in the legally static life of medieval Europe. All such challenges were justified by a clearer vision of divine truth that all sides could reconcile to their existing axioms of commitment. To take three such examples spread out over space, time, and type of opposition is to see the common fate of heresy, usurpation, and new modes of thought. If one investigates, for example, the heresy of Pelagianism, settled by Constantine in 323: the crowning of Charlemagne in 800; and the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy in 1310; one can observe this process of a competing appeal to the same trust that warranted change while maintaining the theoretically static pace of medieval life.
That all changed in 1517. To study the Reformation is to understand the erosions of trust that inevitably follow credible challenges to institutional authority. When Martin Luther claimed the primacy of his own reason to interpret Scripture over the traditional power of Catholic dogma, he began the inevitable breakdown of religious authority produced by the employment of reason in the absence of trust. To be “convicted by his own reason” was to champion his own agency. A century and a half of rabid spiritual competition finally eroded trust in religious authority completely away, in the process transforming persons from subjects (of other persons’ reason) to citizens (to apply their own judgment; see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). The unfinished story of this modern revolution concerns the question of whether citizens can replace the reliability of hybrid truth and goodness claims of religion with some reasoning consensus of even moderately equal power. It seems pretty certain that religious authority will not get a do-over after its dismal performance in the Reformation and its continuing struggle to maintain even a memory of its former power despite the pleas of the current generation of denominational nostalgists (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). Some congregants will dispute this conclusion either because they respect the dogma of their faith or have found an anchor in some sacred text of their own religious tradition. But when we examine either option dispassionately without the bias that Plantinga and Blount demonstrate in the defense of their own sects, we find insurmountable objections to claiming them as religious knowledge.
Rarely do adults grant a true trust to dogma, preferring to leaven categorical commands with their own hypothetical interests. It doesn’t help that the Reformation dilemma has never been resolved and likely won’t be now that a half-millennium of rejection has solidified it in our thinking (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Even today, religious authorities still frequently conflict, sometimes violently, with persons who do not trust any authority or do trust some competing one (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”) It should go without saying that employing violence is hardly the means to engender the trust that authorities cannot forego. In the spirit of taking persons where they are, some denominational authorities have campaigned to appeal to the rational agency of congregants so as to convince them to surrender that capacity in trust, as Blount and Plantinga try to do. But like these apologists, these efforts are also failures.
We see such an entreaty in the Roman Catholic faith, which traditionally grants its high clergy the institutional authority to resolve issues of religious knowledge for their congregants (with papal infallibility in matters of doctrine since 1871). We get some sense of the traditional force of authority by perusing Pope Leo XIII Providentissimus Deus (1893). It is sure to offend contemporary sensibilities with its high-handed condemnation of “the rationalists” who, “trusting in their turn to their own way of thinking, have rejected even the scraps and remnants of Christian belief which had been handed down to them.” Leo’s condemnation is built upon his misunderstanding of rationality. We cannot trust without forsaking our own reason and we cannot reason without forsaking trust. Leo’s encyclical is but the echo of failing authority’s hostility to its replacement warrant. It captures the epistemic confusions of the fin de siecle while anticipating the explosion of novelty that would replace it in the new century (see “The Victorian Rift“).
How different is the tone a century later! Rather than reject reason, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) blatantly appeals to its power, though ultimately with the same intent. Like Blount and Plantinga, John Paul encourages reason, but only when it endorses a surrender in trust to papal authority. This is the standard trope of today’s religious nostalgists who deeply mourn authority’s loss and yearn for its resuscitation and who sense the futility of demanding a submission of autonomy. Who among us is willing to surrender her own capacity to decide the truths of her own faith? We all recognize and remember the moment when what had been an unwavering reliance on a parent comes crashing down in the face of some anomaly or violation of trust. What Fides et Ratio seeks is to reverse the process so as to restore trust to the Holy Father, to give believers a reason to become congregants, to forswear their own seeking in favor of a childlike trust. This has been a challenge for adults throughout the long era of authority’s decline, but it has proved increasingly unlikely since World War I and institutional authority’s final collapse after centuries of decline. The cultural winds blow very hard against any kind of surrender today.
From the beginning, John Paul acknowledges the epistemological 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 restatement of a profound claim first advanced by Thomas Aquinas. The crux of it is that knowledge of God cannot be verified by natural reason. This leaves only two sources: revelation and religious authority. But navigating either source in the manner suggested by John Paul introduces a subtler question: at what point must interpretative latitude of revelation by reason stop and submission to authoritative interpretations begin? For the Pope acknowledges that they are complementary, not oppositional. We can judge that this position would not impugn the power of “natural reason” to find truths about the world once they are intuited. Catholicism seems to regard these as achievable even by atheists, their knowledge then completed through Catholic authority 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 Protestants like Blount and Plantinga have difficulty reconciling to the accomplishments of empiricism, expertise, and competence because they think human reason tainted by original sin. But even if we begin by accepting the semi-Pelagian capacity of persons to reason out at least some of their spiritual duties capably, we still face two issues with the Pope’s interpretation beyond a simple reversal of the traditional role of clergy and laity.
The first is that in equating what he calls the two sources of knowledge, reason and authority, he 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 Popes might hope to 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” that determines where the limits of our own reason ends and papal authority begins. Catholicism traditionally expected such conflicts would never arise: the congregant surrenders judgment to trust in cases of conflict. This border problem was made infamously clear by the trial of Galileo. It strikes me as ominous that the claim to “divine knowledge” thus can alter the more accessible kind — the kind of reasoning we see in empiricism, expertise, and competence and apply a thousand times a day to our own preferences (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). The suggested relationship equates revelation with justified knowledge, elevating the former at the expense of the latter. But if reason is competent to receive revelation, what limits its range of concerns? 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 has emerged, thus casting doubt on what is “divinely revealed” and begging for the claims of a privileged, papal knowledge to again be challenged by a priesthood of all believers, returning us to 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 divine revelation to be. Isn’t it more likely that this moving boundary between faith and reason is due to religious authority claiming the power to arbitrate the content of what can be known by universal reason, contrary to epistemological orthodoxy and the Pope’s claim? This is the epistemic 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, for nothing could be more certain than that the claimed truths of religious denominations thus “known” varies wildly. If Catholic doctrine is true knowledge by authority 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 so as to appeal to Catholics’ trust. 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 reformers and Catholicism? They too were inspired by divine revelation transmuted into the putative 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, and how can trust be engendered in the face of them? Who can claim 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. 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 dichotomy of agency except by allocating its arbitration to some specially qualified authority justified only by an institutional or personal trust. But if one accepts John Paul’s dual legitimacy, she must also accept the irreconcilable challenge of other authority or of our own convictions. Worse yet, equity forces us to give that same right to those who deeply dispute the truth claims of our authority or the borderline where our reason fails in favor of their own authorities or their own boundaries. And that will multiply and more sharply splinter claims to trust and so destroy it.
This argument applies in just the same sense to the authority of sacred texts, which face a further and even more crippling obstacle to trust. For no “word of God” is a clear set of injunctions resembling legal statutes. All are narrative, poetic, dramatic. All are clearly composed by different voices with different values. And despite the very clear commands that the Bible, for instance, advances in the name of a categorical obedience, these texts make clear the hypothetical rewards the faithful can expect for extending their trust (see ” A Problem with Sacred Texts“). But what values are they trusting when textual exegesis is so varied, muddled, and allegorical? Abraham, Noah, Job, Jesus, and Paul make clear that we are not to question God’s commands. Our duty is to obey just as theirs was. But as so many Biblical verses make clear, when we cannot understand what we are to do, how can we avoid exercising our own reason to discern our duty? Adam and Eve, Job’s chorus, Lot’s wife, Judas: all those who struggled to apply their own calculus to God’s authority are condemned. It is clear from the text that we are forbidden the use of our own best thinking to “know by faith” where our duty lies. Yet it is even more clear that Scripture cannot be read as a set of statutes, cannot be understood discursively, and cannot be lived without rational interrogation, all of which employ agency and so reduce trust, which inevitably produces its heresies, conversions, and apostasy to yet again come full circle back to John Paul’s pleas in Fides et Ratio. The entire miserable cycle played out in Martin Luther’s own life. He who began the Reformation “being convicted by reason,” ended it in surveying the carnage by claiming that “Reason is a whore.”
It has been difficult to avoid a certain word that now must be confronted as the final hope of religious knowledge. It is founded upon ordinary, undistilled experience, which is both the most unreliable way to find knowledge and the one most utilized by all of us, largely because the natural freedom that enables it is always easily tapped. Nearly all who profess a religious faith must agree that empirical, expert, competent, and authoritative means of securing religious knowledge must fail, and yet they continue defiantly proclaiming the truth of their own faith. They wish to believe in what their natural freedom has revealed as plausible options for commitment. Despite their claim to theological competence, their own beliefs were the foundation of the arguments made by both Plantinga and Blount. When you review either, you will find a transposition of the terms “know” and “believe.” This ought not surprise us, for neither Hebrew nor Greek clearly distinguished the difference in the terms’ meanings, and they have always carried similar connotations. But their etymology as well as their ordinary usages establish a key difference in the terms that affect religious beliefs especially. To know a thing is to possess sufficient warrant to utter a true judgment, less than certain but nonetheless justified by a preponderance of the evidence assessed by reason. In undistilled experience, we can claim to know a situation if we understand it sufficiently to first frame its nature in our minds and then choose whatever goods our judgment of its truth reveals. Note that knowledge inevitably precedes preferential choice, for we cannot choose capably if we confuse the options we are facing. This act of severance between knowing truth and choosing the goods it allows is a crucial aid to our securing the things we value because it allows us to understand what goods are actually possible in context (see “The Act of Severance”). But the emulsified truth and goodness claims of religious truth disallow an act of severance (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). And beliefs, whose etymology points to the desire that always motivates them, must violate the dispassionate ratiocinative process of judgment that ought to precede choosing the goods we value. But this is not possible if we cannot know the nature of the situation we face, first because the emulsified truth and goodness claims of divine commands must blur the act of severance and second because the beliefs we generate are always drenched in deep and sometimes ineffable desire. Defenders of religious belief are legion, at least in part because they have not been asked to isolate what parts of their beliefs they think to be knowledge. And just as trust in authority blinds us to anomaly unless it is forced to our attention, so too does the commitment to belief discourage interrogation of the degree of desire that motivates it.
To be fair, traditional epistemology has long turned a blind eye to this problem. Philosophy makes no distinction between a mature religious commitment and an unexamined gidea. 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 its truth. This lacunae results in a false identification of two concepts because they are thought of by the same name in a continuing terminological confusion.
Allow me to illustrate. 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 it into various terminological files based upon the nature of the warrant: fact, falsehood, fantasy, 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 mastered, it cannot be simply thrust aside and proves difficult to ignore.
Distinguishing 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, 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 possibly true as any other and as false because any claim at that time is warrantless. As the game progresses, I find myself repeatedly examining my initial belief. 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 venture, a stab in the dark. It is not entirely open to any conjecture. 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. So any single murderer, weapon, and room as a solution to the murder put forward in the first move is theoretically permissible to freedom meaning it does not violate the rules of the game and does not self-contradict. But would even the accuser think such a naive belief to be permissible to reason? Players would suspect that such a claim, no matter how strongly felt, could never be produced by knowledge but instead must be a purely preliminary belief, a product of desire to win the game. This is ground zero for the issue of claiming religious truths as knowledge and gives us the tools to examine carefully the nuances of the terms. Is my early charge against Colonel Mustard simply a naive belief built upon intuition? I certainly want him to be the killer, but it seems clear that my desire to win has corrupted my judgment. Should I guess the killer in the first move of the game, wouldn’t reason also force me to declare that any other person, weapon, or room allowed by the rules is as likely to be true? My reason allows me to believe my own intuitive theory is a real possibility so long as I acknowledge it to be no more possible than any other. So why profess a belief that might as well move one to silence? If truth has compulsive force, so too does winning. Terminology matters here, and this example helps us refine it. 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 certainly cannot be proposed as knowledge. Whether it is permissible to reason as a belief is such a difficult question that many persons fall back into Blount’s sort of appeal to hypothetical utility, which in this case would involve an effort to win before the game truly begins. Many religious beliefs are advanced with equal uncertainty, and we may expect serious contradictions in multiple public expressions of this naive kind of belief (see “Belief in the Public Square”). 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 exploring the mental frontier where belief transmutes to knowledge. We are forced to make declarations without sufficient warrant 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. While the question’s importance makes a doxastic venture more tempting to desire, it hardly makes it more acceptable to reason.
This conundrum 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 circumstances 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 “One Postmodern Sentence”). What is logically entailed by the virtual circle of private consistency might still be considered by postmodernists a private kind of knowledge not open to public defense, one reason why Blount’s appeal is unlikely to increase the power of religious authority (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). 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 know the truth by a preponderance of the evidence. 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 is suggested by our knowledge, recognize the desire inherent in their nature, and are internally consistent. Others will declare differing beliefs that are equally permissible. 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, only 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 will claim any coherent belief 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 premises. 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 knowledge may carry some force because they are confirmed by an internal coherence, and no one can deny the desire that enables them, but any objective appraisal finds something false and even offensive in public pronouncements of these private convictions.
Here is why. 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”). 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. 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 correspondence one. Such declarations indicate a private preference that does not bind us to its putative truth. 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 ambiguity is the fundamental nature of declaration and the requirements of warranting religious 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.
Appealing to permissible beliefs is further compounded by the nature of the investigation. God is imperceptible, a crippling objection not only to science but to any kind of reasoned examination. If we can’t perceive the object of our thinking, perhaps we can simply think on it in some disciplined way as an object of thought without having to engage it by sense data. But that route encounters insurmountable difficulties from the beginning. The long tradition of religious contemplation calls efforts to think abstractly about a creative being that is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and omnipresent as a cataphatic conceptual task, meaning it seeks to infer from these theoretical requirements of divinity others that might capture such a being’s nature. But this effort cannot succeed because God is not one of a class of beings. Nothing else resembles the divine. Our efforts to conceptualize even the most basic requirements for divinity bounce off our reason. We cannot understand infinity, eternity, or omnipresence because they are simply beyond human conceptual capacity, and it is only by categorizing experience that we can capture its meaning. This is a realization very aptly explored by Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. Nothing about God is open to our understanding in conceptual terms. We use words like “numinous” and “ineffable” to discuss both our naïve and our considered beliefs, which must always end in apophatic, meaning negative, descriptors. God is not material, not in time or space, not finite in power and scope. Human categorical reason is unable to process these negations because it has experienced nothing like them, nor can it extract positive capacities from them. As a concept, God is not knowable, and the desire that steers believers to think God is knowable must inevitably mold the ineffable into the deeply personal and the irrevocably private forms of the believer’s desires.
We have at least to consider the possibility that this unique object of our attention might conceivably be known by some alternative kind of knowing peculiar to the task. Can we talk about some other kind of knowledge of God? Given the dominance of institutional religious authority as the underwriter for all truth and moral claims for most of human history, it ought not surprise us that theorists have indeed argued that it is possible: that God can be known by different means from those by which we know other truths. This was a necessary incentive to promote trust in authority as well as mistrust of undistilled experience in the era of institutional authority’s dominance. But I intend to prove that these means do not produce real knowledge of God either.
The most time-honored approach is a kind of comparative language of ascent. Religious authority has always attempted to convey its claimed knowledge of the nature of the divine indirectly, by means of figurative language. We don’t know what God is, so perhaps we can logically capture what God is like. We can lump all of these efforts under the broad category of religious metaphor. Allah is like a father. Jesus is like the good shepherd. Enlightenment is like awakening from sleep. These portrayals of divinity seek to reach up beyond ordinary experience by using it as a launching pad for a venture into the unknown, showing similarities to the unknowable by reference to what we do know.
But this enterprise, though so common as to be the rule in sacred texts and revelational conversions, is doubly doomed from the outset. It is betrayed by difficulties at both ends of the comparison. Comparing God to a father seems straightforward enough, and the comparison seems to hold promise. Both are creative forces. The comparison seeks to emphasize the loving concern felt by both figures. But the anchor here must be what we do know, and something we know all too well is that not all fathers fit the imagery, that some are neglectful, abusive, or absent. But this is a relatively minor problem that can be resolved by having congregants consider the ideal father, the kind of Platonic parent that we may not have had but whom we all desire, though it is fair to ask if such a concept could possibly be a universal one. If we ignore this proviso, can the metaphor work? Sadly, no. For as every poet knows, a metaphor is only a good tool for conveying knowledge if both sides of the comparison are known, and religious apologists must confess that this is precisely what is missing for religious metaphors and indeed is the reason they are utilized in the first place. The reason is simple: if a comparison is exact, the two objects compared must be identical. Why compare a bachelor to an unmarried man when we are merely saying the same thing twice? So an apt metaphor must acknowledge that the likeness of its two terms is only partial. God must be like a father in some ways and unlike a father in others. Can anyone say which is which? When the faithful confront the infamous problem of evil or the ubiquitous belief in hell as eternal punishment, they also confront an insoluble problem for the comparison of God to a father. Using a metaphor only defers and complicates rather than resolves the problem of our own ignorance of the divine. It cannot resolve it (see “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”). While mystical religious experience always portrays the ineffable and numinous intimations of the divine as a kind of ascent, when we attempt to reach up from religious metaphors to a clearer conception of what the figures of speech attempt to illuminate, we are absolutely certain to fall back down, clutching desperately to the part of the comparison we do understand, making the figurative literal and so distorting the apophatic and non-conceptual nature of the Unknown we seek. The failure of metaphysical metaphor ends in the temptations of literality and utility, of the simplistic and the ordinary. While this failed ascent is so common as to be a universal experience, so too is the experience of awe that moves us to attempt it in the first place, for this lightest touch of the divine frequently moves our deepest spiritual quests (see “Awe”).
But even this mild encouragement moves mystics to try to retain that touch by some gnostic practice to produce some hidden route to God. 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 can be found by making the effort, as I have attempted to prove. The gnostic approach challenges the principle of non-contradiction that is the simplest test of reason, arguing that employing human reason to the divine must end in contradiction, paradox, or antinomy. 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 it also limits religious professions to uncompassed doxastic ventures that can neither seek nor find confirmation (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?“). If the belief is permissible, the only rational response is a pious silence.
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 the three Abrahamic faiths, 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 quite a feeble one. For these believers, their own conviction opens an intensely private path to the divine. 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 properly reject even the possibility of knowledge of God. They defend their beliefs from a pure position of religious idealism.
Yet this position imposes by its special limitations on believers who seek to “spread the good news.” I hope it is quite clear that the private agency that creates belief makes it difficult to transfer in any situation, much less in one seeking to capture the divine essence and will. A general reliance on pure belief will produce the very opposite of infallibility. 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 claim offered along that lifelong journey. 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. It is subject to all the coherentist issues of desire that question the truth of such experiences, to which must be added issues of conceptualizing the ineffable so as to make believers’ truth and goodness claims available to public appeal. 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 necessary for universal truth and goodness claims. Most jealous possessors of divine “knowledge” wouldn’t like surrendering the certainty and sense of control over fate that a confession of hypotheticality requires. Their kind of goodness is purely instrumental to other and more earthbound ends directed by personal desire and therefore sure to differ among even the most fervent believers from the deepest spirituality to the shallowest prosperity Gospel. Pascal’s Wager suits the casino, not the chapel. Any logical consistency must begin with acknowledging 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, egoistic privilege, and affronts to divine justice. Such displays attract us to 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 truth. 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 assumption these men hold in common, but it is an idea I wish strongly to dispute. They think knowledge and belief 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. They believe that we have a moral duty to accept it, at least in part because it, like faith, is an unearned gift from the ultimate Authority. They think they know truth because they believe it, so they can discern little difference between God’s gifts to our reasoning and to our desire. 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 gives a sense of certainty to their claims to knowledge and explains their deep reverence for their commitment. Either their trust for authority or the desire that binds their beliefs 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. Believers will often attempt to translate their private convictions into an appeal to the authority of a sacred text or religious leader, but this must prove an impossible translation of their own hypothetical and private desire into a forfeiture of the very agency that allows it in favor of a putative and categorical trust in some external source. These are different and incompatible kinds of commitments. What is happening is less surrender than composition. But even if one could both retain the desire that shapes belief and somehow surrender in trust to what belief creates — an impossible act of mental acrobatics — and 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 emerged 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 all too well, 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 an attachment to truth-seeking in general.
Even withal, we cannot avoid taking a position on these issues until we nail down reliable judgments — this is no mere game of Clue — because our preferential freedom cries out for moral direction (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe“). And while a private commitment only binds the believer, public morality can be neither privatized nor forestalled, which means it must stand on its own without reliance on religious faith. Even permissible beliefs are by virtue of the attachment we hold only 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 flashes of catharsis or conversion. They exist at the foggy frontier of knowledge, projecting possibility out into the void of what is unknown.
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 belief 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 axioms of commitment that shape the 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 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 “Cultural Consensus“).
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 phrase, 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 hope to find any knowledge in the future. I concede the anemic quality of my 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 realization, though it seems others feel it strongly supports their own view of things. Nevertheless, I firmly intend to avoid the error that mystics from Plato to Kierkegaard have fallen into: claiming deeply held but ambiguous yearnings as something greater or clearer, confusing a heartfelt desire for God’s presence with knowledge of it. A powerful religious tradition recommends two responses: a quest for permissible beliefs consistent with my knowledge yet conducive to my hopes combined with a humble receptivity to the numinous, an unthematic awareness intimated in moments of awe. As amorphous as this is, it is enough to inspire a devotion to ritual, prayer, and service; and a continuing search for greater clarity and entailment of my religious beliefs. 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.”