Category Archives: Faith Seeking Understanding

Reimagining the Past

Augustine’s litany of woe near the end of his endless masterpiece has a careful purpose — it’s the City of Man opposed to his City of God. All those poisons and hailstorms and treachery and legal issues he lists that beset us in life are not simply an invitation to suicide: they’re solid marketing for something else:

“From this hell upon earth [i.e., our lives!] there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord.” (XXI: Ch 22)

Early Christians were in the odd position of having to make actual life seem worse than a disease because what they were preaching was better than a cure. Once Easter happened (or was thought to have happened), everything had to be filtered through it.

Early Christians were something like a wife who suddenly suspects her husband is having an affair … frantically sifting through a shared past, reinterpreting formerly idle events (weight loss, new haircut, smile) as sinister proof of a crime. For the early believers to think God himself came down to Earth to fix things then — ergo, case closed, doh! — things down here must be a lot worse than we thought!

Augustine’s City of God is the spouse’s witch hunt. Again and again, in a devastating, systematic way, he piles fact upon fact into a carapace of undeniable power with a single apologetic aim: to demonstrate not just the superiority but the absolute existential necessity for dying in Christ to be raised up again in the Kingdom of God.

A couple examples:

  • Original Sin — Jews didn’t make a big deal out of Adam and Eve. Genesis was a story of origins, from which we move on. To justify Christ’s coming to save us, Augustine had to reinterpret Genesis as an absolutely fatal diagnosis.
  • Jewish Law — A lot of the Hebrew Bible, of course, is concerned with the Law, and Jewish theology is Law-based, from Mishna to Talmud. What is Law? A set of rules about how to live in this world now, right? Early Christians were not so concerned about now as they were with later (post-Salvation). So they ejected most of the Law.
  • Platonism — Augustine was a Platonist, which is to Apocalypticism as a marathon is to a sprint. Platonists aren’t dualists: they respect this world as basically okay. But it’s nothing nearly so perfect as the ideal, supernatural realm — i.e., the City of God.

The theme here is:

Life in the Kingdom of God = Good

Life on Earth = Bad

Christians are notoriously challenged by three things: sex, getting along with one another, and feeling guilt-free.

Thanks to Augustine, we’re never entirely comfortable right here, right now.

What Is Faith?

This little word “faith” troubles believers and unbelievers alike. Some say it’s trusting in fairy tales; others, submitting to authority.

Our brother from another mother, Augustine, has a lovely definition tucked deep inside his City of God:

“But the peace which is peculiar to ourselves we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with Him by sight. But the peace which we enjoy in this life … is rather the solace of our misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity.”

Why?

“Our very righteousness … is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues.”

We are constantly fighting a losing battle.

So what is faith?

It’s like this: You are the Vikings and you’re in the Super Bowl. Now imagine, as the game starts, you KNOW you are going to win. You relax. Peace, right?

That’s an analogy to the kind of peace Augustine claims is known in this life by those who have faith.

The journey itself may be arduous, of course. But if you KNOW it’s going to end well, it’s easier. So faith is not the same as believing a fact. It’s more like time travel.

A Very Brief History of Faith & Reason from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages

We start with myth. This is story and as reasonable as stories are. Let’s say Greek philosophers begin to extract metaphysics from myths. Plato and Aristotle laid the rails for Jewish, Christian and Muslim reasoning about faith. Their approaches were different, although both used reason to arrive at the existence of a God, or Gods.

"I wonder ... Is faith reasonable?"

Plato held things in the world, including thoughts, to be representations of a more profound reality composed of Forms, which exist in the mind of God. He reasoned from the top down. Aristotle went the other way: bottom up. We observe many examples of things and create mental categories but these categories have no intrinsic reality. “Forms” don’t exist. God can be proved as a logically necessary first cause to account for what we observe.

Aristotle’s work was lost until about 1000 in the West, but Plato’s survived — thus, Neoplatonists like Plotinus, Dionysius, Augustine and Anselm. Because our world (matter) is a degraded, lesser version of the true reality embodied in the Forms, these people don’t believe any of us can really know God. It’s too far away from us. What we can see are shadows of reality such as human goodness and truth, which in turn point us toward perfect Goodness and Truth, which is God.

The Roman Christian apologist and lawyer Tertullian built on a passage in Paul to argue that Faith does not need Reason to justify it: “I believe because it is absurd.” Another Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, was more influential, pulling philosophy into the service of faith and sounding positively proto-Anselmian: “I believe in order that I may know.”

The great Augustine — most famous Neoplatonist ever — took the reasonable position that to the extent philosophy (logic, natural history, science) examines the Truth, it can not contradict theology, which does the same. There are not two realities, only one. However, Truth is not equally available to all and a Catholic church is needed to guide honest seekers.

Philosophers would generally call someone like Augustine a “compatibilist” — that is, believing that Reason and Faith are entirely compatible. Another extreme is represented by a very influential, originally misidentified 6th century poobah known as Pseudo-Dionysius. This guy felt that God was utterly, entirely other, that the best human reason can do is to make tentative, negative assertions about God, to know what It is not.

Then the Dark Ages. Then silence.

Is Faith Reasonable?

As I attacked the sweet, sweet powder at the summit of Big Mountain — daring Canada to the north, stalwart Idaho to the west, hauntingly prehistoric Glacier National Park with its wisely sleeping grizzlies to the east, and the Kalispell-Flathead valley laid out like a magic carpet behind me — I worried at a simple question with an impossible answer, namely: Is Faith Reasonable?

Ayn Rand: Reason > Faith

What got us going was the provocative Sam-I-Am Harris, whose best-selling The End of Faith was quite explicit in saying: Hell, no! Faith is an abdication of the mind, like a willful astral projection of thought. Modern atheists (like the super-serious Ayn Rand, left) find faith not only irrational but immorally so. “The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind,” Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

But we’d just spent some considerable time, as you may remember, with our old Benedictine friend Thomas Aquinas, who used his own genius-level reason to meticulously pick apart faith, and so embodied Anselm’s self-definition of faith seeking understanding. Faith came first for pre-moderns; understanding could not contradict the truth, which comes from God, and so it’s up to us to make it work.

As I see it now, those of us who are willing to accept there may be something worth calling God in this world can go two ways:

  1. Faith is mysterious, beyond words and explanations, more of a feeling, perhaps in the body; we may accept and commit to it but will never really be able to explain it
  2. Faith is difficult, and may seem irrational, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on finding logical reasons to believe — we may believe there is good evidence for God (argument from design), believe it’s useful to believe (pragmatists), think we can get at least part-way to God using logic and syllogisms (Aquinas), or convince ourselves God must exist (Descartes, Aristotle)

Put another way, people who think there is a God and have a reason for thinking this do so either because (1) God revealed Itself to her either through the church or scripture or personal experience; or (2) God became a necessary condition to help her understand what she saw and thought.

Put another another way: (1) God finds us; or (2) We find God. The second path is that of reason and faith.

20 Arguments for God

We were going to talk about Sigmund “Ziggy” Freud‘s great howl of derision directed at belief in God, “The Future of an Illusion,” but, well, it’s Sunday. Our infantile, neurotic belief in Something just will not let us disrespect Maybe-It today.

So to balance out last Thursday’s well-received “20 Arguments for Atheism,” here is Professor Peter Kreeft‘s assembly of counter-balancing arguments for the existence of God. A number of these have appeared before in The God Project Dot Net, of course. The first five you’ll recognize as Aquinas’ “Five Ways,” and #10 as Anselm’s ontological proof.

  1. Change — everything changes, and every change is caused by something else; there must be something that caused the first change
  2. Existence — everything that exists was caused by something else; something must have existed first without a cause
  3. Death — usually called “contingency,” but “death” is more dramatic: since everything dies or stops, given enough time there would be nothing at all, unless there is something that is eternal
  4. Degrees of Perfection — comparative scales of qualities like goodness, beauty, wisdom, heat imply a “perfect” something
  5. Design — there is too much natural order in the universe to be accounted for by self-ordering or chance
  6. Miracles — there are enough historical accounts of miracles occurring to make it likely some actually did
  7. Time — if there was no creator, there was no moment of creation and so no first moment in time; therefore, the past is infinite, which is a logical impossibility (the “Kalaam” argument)
  8. Timeless Truths — certain concepts such as numbers and mathematics appear to be eternal and unchanging, implying the existence of an eternal mind to contain them
  9. Descartes’ “Idea of God” — every idea has a cause; even atheists know what the idea of God means; so, this idea must point to something that is real
  10. Ontological argument — the existence of God is self-evident from Its definition as the being that “lacks no conceivable perfection,” including existence

And 10 arguments from human psychology:

  1. Common Consent — God is very likely to exist because most people for most of human history have thought It did
  2. Religious Experience — it’s difficult to believe that so many otherwise sane people who claim religious experience were all deluded
  3. Desire — “No one has ever discovered a single case of an innate desire for a nonexistent object”
  4. Natural Moral Law — assuming moral laws are just as real and consistent as physical laws, what created them?
  5. Conscience — most people respect their conscience; but it can’t be relative or it would have no meaning; so respecting conscience implies eternal standards
  6. Saints — “If there are saints [and a multitude of wannabes] there is a saint-maker”
  7. Beauty — some forms of beauty in nature, art and the works of Amy Adams are so awe-inspiring as to imply a supernatural source
  8. Search for Meaning — as Viktor Frankl said, our greatest truth appears to be a search for meaning in our lives, which implies we have a purpose
  9. Love — love seems to see intrinsic value in things that can not be accounted for by materialism
  10. Pascal’s Wager — in a paragraph of his “Pensees” headed “Infinity–Nothing,” Pascal argued that it is more logical to believe than not to believe because you lose nothing but (potentially) gain everything

A Note: I’ve found it helps not to reject these arguments without mulling on them a bit. Rational belief is neither easy nor intuitive. Personally, having thought about #3 above (“Desire”) for a day or two, I like it very much.

Clarifying the Obvious

Happy Monday, Seekers!

Snowstorm

The God Project Dot Net World HQ

Let’s start with a clarification. By calling this a Clarification – as opposed, say, to a Correction – I’m trying to imply without saying it out loud that what follows is a point that, in my infectious enthusiasm for the Truth, I may have passed over too lightly on my way to yet more brilliant observations. I’m implying, had I only stopped for breath in my recitation of mind-blowing truths, I might have expounded a tad more on a certain item for those of you in the back row who were tweeting at the time.

So here I am about to clarify the obvious for the people. (By the way, this is one theory about why Anselm’s reply to Gaunilo is so disappointing: he left out the parts of his “Proof” he considered obvious, not realizing that Gaunilo wasn’t getting it.)

Yet I just learned this last night, while walking my dog through a snowdrift so intimidating it scared even her, a Bernese mountain dog: Kant himself created the phrase “ontological argument” to describe these Proofs of Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz, et al. And Kant did not know Anselm’s argument directly: he argued against Descartes. Clear? Good.

Now we were talking about Anselm’s Credo of “Faith seeking understanding.” He’s a believer trying to show that faith is compatible with reason. He’s not a modern dude trying to convince a busload of atheists there is a God. That’s a totally different Project.

Here’s the thing, again: Anselm defines God as That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Thought (TTWNGCBT) … and proceeds to show how those who have TTWNGCBT in their minds can not fail to see that It exists. In the form of a dialogue, it might go:

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it.

ANSELM: Can you fail to see that It exists?

FOOL: Actually, yes.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

FOOL: Got it. Wow. Really amazing. Still doesn’t exist, bro.

ANSELM: Imagine God.

It’s a strange argument. Anselm is saying if we really, truly have TTWNGCBT playing on the small screen of our minds then … we can see It MUST exist. We can’t imagine an imaginary God, if we are imagining God.

The Fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” She can imagine whatever she wants, there still ain’t no God. Anselm says: “Imagine God.” This is not the scientific method. Gaunilo and Kant saw it as absurd – a way to conjure up anything we want, like some computer-animated fantasy.

But Anselm isn’t conjuring up just Anything, is he? He’s making claims about Everything: that is, God. There’s an ultimacy in this God that’s complete: It is anything and everything. The Source of all, unchanging, entire, outside of time and space, the perfection of perfections, love and truth Itself.

Another way to put his argument – one less offensive to us moderns – is: “If we think about the concept of ‘Perfection’ long enough, we will realize that we are thinking about something that is, in some way, real.”

We’ll see when we get to Augustine, Platonists like Anselm were fond of looking at the good things in our world and imagining the better things to which they seem to point. We could argue this is pure mysticism, meditating ourselves into a subjective state of believing things no one else can see. Anselm would not agree. He would say: anyone who meditates on this topic ends up in the same place: it is not subjective. It is true.

Augustine describes a similar maybe-mystical experience in Book VII of “The Confessions.” Can we wait?

* Highly Recommended: Medieval arguments for the existence of God are described with greater eloquence and authority by Prof. Thomas Williams in this incredible audio course. Grade: 5 snowballs out of 5!

Saving Private Anselm

Let us always bear in mind the sacred Rule of the Corporate Brainstorm (SRCB):
“There are no stupid ideas, only stupid people.”

The Situation

Prove This!

Our friend King Kong said the type of argument Anselm used can not prove the existence of God. In fact, he proved it could not prove the existence of God. Proofs of the unprovability of proofs only begin to hint at how hard it is to read Kant. But we suffer here at The God Project Dot Net so that you, dear lurker, can enjoy your weekend.

Unless you are in Minneapolis. Last night we went to our prom-themed corporate holiday party, complete with balloons, boutonnieres and a band that’s supposedly blowing up. Coolness abounds; the band sounds like the Ramones. Everything sounds like something else to me, as everyone looks like someone, only younger, which can mean only one thing: I am over forty. (Random aside: Kant was over fifty when he started writing what we still read today.)

So I’m at this pseudo-prom surrounded by dancing Scandinavians and I’m wondering how I got to be here, after 20 years in the Center of the Known World. And POP!: I realize my angle on living is Anselmian. Listen to this, over the band:

“I do not seek to understand in order to have faith but I have faith in order to understand. For I believe even this: I shall not understand unless I have faith.”

This is Anselm’s infamous Credo: “Faith seeking understanding,” also in the “Proslogion.” It’s not a Fundie-type statement: he’s just saying he (1) makes a commitment, (2) proceeds, and (3) understands all the nit-picky details later, if ever.

Isn’t this incredibly human? Isn’t Anselm just Keeping It Real? Why am I in Minneapolis, after all? My wife did the P.T. Barnum hard-sell for years, true, but it came down to a day when I thought: “Let’s do this.” Rational? Not in a way that would impress King Kong. It was a leap into the mystic void based on little more than a feeling, part-reason, and faith in our little family’s nuclear adaptability.

And now that I’m writing out loud, seems to me like exactly those decisions based on cold, hard reason that have turned out to bite me in the balloon. I mention one: my rational goal, for so many years, was to own an apartment in Manhattan. Sound thinking. The height of rationality, right? I got one. Want to buy it from me? Please?

Anselm said: “It is quite possible to think of something whose nonexistence cannot be thought of.” Tell that to an atheist. But the truth is, Anselm himself did such a thing: thought of something whose nonexistence cannot be thought of. Had an undeniable conviction of Truth based on some hard evidence … and something else.

What? Augustine has a similar experience in “The Confessions.” We’ll get there, little gorillas. We’ll get there together.

Peace.