Friday, November 30, 2007

The Universality of Faith

In a recent posting, I responded to scientist Paul Davies' New York Times op-ed piece of November 24 entitled, "Taking Science on Faith." In my posting, I noted that all inquirers - whether in religion or science, etc. - accept as true certain basic beliefs about the nature of reality and that these basic beliefs cannot themselves be proven as true. Rather, I noted that such basic beliefs "must be held as true - taken on faith - in order to make it possible for rational inquiry to begin and proceed in the first place." In other words, there's a sense in which all forms of inquiry - including science - are "faith based" in this broadly defined meaning of that term.

Not everyone, of course, agrees, and the critical responses to Davies' article range from the civil to the disrespectful.

In the debates between science and religion, I think we too often restrict the meaning of “faith” to a narrowly defined understanding of “religion” as “blind faith,” i.e., something which is divorced from the realities of everyday living (which are open to public scrutiny). And sometimes both critics and proponents too narrowly restrict the meaning of "faith" to the intellectual acceptance of the truth of certain propositions or ideas.

By contrast, I think that the 20th Century religious thinker and social theorist H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) does a much better job. Rather than staying mired in the aporias of current debates over narrow (and sometimes highly prejudicial) definitions, Niebuhr helps us reframe the discussion in terms of a much broader context. He does this by describing faith as a genuinely and universally human phenomenon with implicitly religious dimensions.

Niebuhr defines faith as “the attitude and action of confidence in, and fidelity to, certain realities as the source of value and the objects of loyalty” [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1960), p. 16]. And in an earlier work, here’s what Niebuhr wrote about faith so defined:

“As long as a man lives he must believe in something for the sake of which he lives; without belief in something that makes life worth living man cannot exist. If, as Tolstoi points out in his Confession, man does not see the temporality and futility of the finite he will believe in the finite as worth living for; if he can no longer have faith in the value of the finite he will believe in the infinite or else die. Man as a practical, living being never exists without a god or gods; some things there are to which he must cling as the sources and goals of his activity, the centers of value. As a rule men are polytheists, referring now to this and now to that valued being as the source of life’s meaning. Sometimes they live for Jesus’ God, sometimes for country and sometimes for Yale. [And I think Niebuhr would agree that we could add that others live for the pursuit of scientific inquiry.] For the most part they make gods out of themselves or out of the work of their own hands, living for their own glory as persons and as communities. In any case the faith that life is worth living and the definite reference of life’s meaning to specific beings or values is as inescapable a part of human existence as the activity of reason. It is no less true that man is a believing animal in this sense than the he is a rational animal. Without such faith men might exist, but not as selves. Being selves they as surely have something for which to live as selves as being rational they have objects to understand” [The Meaning of Revelation (MacMillan, 1941), pp. 77-78].

For Niebuhr, then, the question “Does science rely on faith?” is not the most basic question. The most basic question is: “Does living as a human being in the world require faith?” His answer is “yes,” because for Niebuhr, faith is not merely a religious phenomenon - it is a human phenomenon which has religious implications.

Here’s another way to put it:

“For Niebuhr, the theological question is not ‘Does a god exist?’ or ‘Ought there to be a god?’ but ‘What being or beings have the value of deity?’” [Victor Anderson, Pragmatic Theology: Negotiating the Intersections of an American Philosophy of Religion and Public Theology (SUNY, 1998), p. 87].

From Niebuhr’s perspective, whatever serves as the center(s) of value for my life - whether it’s Jesus Christ, Guinness stout, scientific method, a significant other, Marxism, capitalism, etc. - this (or some combination of these) is my “god” and thus gives expression to my faith.

In his posthumously published The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy, Niebuhr further develops this understanding of faith by making a distinction between two forms of faith: faith as trust versus faith as distrust. "Faith as trust or distrust accompanies all our encounters with others and qualifies all our responses," he argues [The Responsible Self (Harper & Row, 1963), p. 118]. And he continues:

"Faith is the attitude of the self in its existence toward all the existences that surround it, as begins to be relied upon or to be suspected. It is the attitude that appears in all the wariness and confidence of life as it moves about among the living. It is fundamentally trust or distrust in being itself. Such faith is an ingredient in all knowing, as the reliance present in such knowing on the constancy of the processes observed in nature and as reliance also on the fellow men who report their observations. It is present in its negative form of distrust in all the inquiries we make about the group actions of our national or religious friends and allies. Such faith is never the antithesis of knowledge but its accompaniment; though in some instances there is preponderance of faith over knowledge, and in others preponderance of knowledge over faith, as may be evident in the form of a statement. 'I believe you' is a statement of faith though it contains an element of knowledge or acknowledgment. 'Many of you are members of Glasgow University' is a statement of fact, but is said with some confidence in what I have been told and seen" [The Responsible Self, p. 118; emphasis added].

If I am reading Niebuhr rightly, then faith as trust is the necessary prerequisite to intellectually accepting the truth of propositions about reality, while faith as distrust is the necessary prerequisite for intellectually rejecting those propositions. If that is true, and if Niebuhr is right that faith so understood is a universally human phenomenon, then critics who reject faith per se are, in reality, not rejecting faith per se. Rather, they are rejecting a particular and narrow definition of faith (and, ironically, they are doing so on the basis of faith - in this case, faith as distrust). So if Niebuhr is right, it matters not what the particular object(s) of faith may be (whether explicitly theological, atheological, or even anti-theological). For simply by virtue of being human, the critics of faith live and conduct inquiry just as much in reliance upon the attitude and action of faith as religious persons do.

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