Christian Faith is not Belief, nor Certainty

A young Christian wrote an e-mail expressing concern about doubt. I thought I would share what I wrote to them, in case it is helpful to others:

I wonder whether you may not have understood the “faith” referred to in the New Testament primarily in terms of holding the right beliefs. If you consider Paul’s use of Abraham as the primary example of faith, what Christian doctrines did Abraham believe in? Trinity? No. Jesus? Not an option at that point either. Most of the “fundamentals of the faith” were not known to him. His faith is clearly his trust in God – which did not preclude moments of despair and even some bargaining with God (apparently successfully!)

I sincerely believe that, if there is something that God wants humanity to know, upon which our salvation depends, that will have been made VERY clear. And conversely, if something is really ambiguous, I don’t have the impression that God is one who plays tricks on human beings, setting us up to fail and then laughing when we do. That isn’t to say that the things about which we cannot be certain aren’t important and aren’t worth pondering, exploring, and drawing conclusions about. My point is that I cannot believe that God judges people for doing precisely that.

Many think of faith and doubt as opposites, because they think of faith as believing without evidence or even despite evidence to the contrary. Christian faith, I believe, is about orienting one’s life around God. And doubt can have a positive role in such a life – indeed, it is essential. It shows that you are taking the topic in question, and God, very seriously. To simply believe because you are already sure you are right is something that people do in all religions, with incompatibly different beliefs. And so that attitude itself must be wrong, since it stands in the way of examining beliefs and changing one’s mind when the evidence compels us to do so.

Doubt is taking God seriously, and taking life seriously. If it seems incompatible with faith, then perhaps you need to begin to have doubts about your view of faith! :-)

  • Mary

    “To simply believe because you are already sure you are right is something that people do in all religions, with incompatibly different beliefs. And so that attitude itself must be wrong, since it stands in the way of examining beliefs and changing one’s mind when the evidence compels us to do so.”

    I agree and I would add that no true spiritual growth can happen without asking the hard questions. If you just accept what someone tells you then it really isn’t your faith to begin with. Whether you change your mind or decide to accept it, at least you have made your faith yours, which makes it far more precious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/one.pagan Oné R. Pagán

    Dr. McGrath, I just wanted to thak you for your post… I truly needed these words today…

  • http://www.facebook.com/TarinaJoyLove Tarina Joy Love

    I believe that doubt strengthens- not weakens- ones faith. You are not following blindly but become secure in your experiences. (Hopefully, also, while helping others.)

    That is why bad times can provide good lessons. The hardest moment in my life that affirmed my beliefs the most was when I was angry at God- despite my prior trials in life, I had never been actually angry at Him. I could accept the fact that “life is not fair” but once the facts became illogical, that I could not reason with…

    I still cycle between the last two stages of grief for this change in my life, but having something in my life that did not have a clear cause-and-effect occurrence has been my biggest personal lesson in life.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Yes. If someone doesn’t doubt or question, is it because they think their faith is so fragile that it would fall apart under examination?

    Also I like your point about “faith” not being about believing the correct information, but about trusting God.

  • abelard

    I used to be a fundamentalist Christian. I believed the “fundamentals” on the basis of the authority of those who knew more than I did. But believing on the authority of others is second hand and not good enough for one who wants to be autonomous. So I went to seminary and learned Greek and Hebrew and the historical background of biblical literature. Fundamentalism is incompatible with a reasoned examination of evidence. All liberal or progressive Christians would agree with this judgment. However, once made it puts one in a dilemma. What does one believe. I too went through a phase where I tried to turn a negative into a positive. I think it was Brunner who said “If doubt is denied at the door, he comes through the window.” But doubt can take the legs out from under one. I do not know whether God exists. I do not know how one could know that. Yet oddly, most of the time I behave as if God existed and my existence is not unknown to God. I find that I have a small faint hope mixed with great uncertainty.

  • Tim Sams

    Often God shows up in our lives in ways we can’t explain but we believe are true. It presents an epidemiological crisis when we then start to unpack that event, we find that the tools we normally use in life to determine truth don’t always have enough information to help us verify that experience. Then we doubt. And like you said, that is completely healthy.

    I would add also that a key ingredient of faith has to be trust. Sometimes trust is easy–especially after that “God-event”. But other times it’s hard like when you have little evidence to believe and your suffering.

    I think our faith is a mixture of trust together with experience and information. At times I have to focus trust, and to be honest those have been the richest times of my walk with God. Reminds me of disciple Thomas and how Jesus it was more blessed for those who believed without seeing. That blessing is real in my experience (I might add that I experienced several years of atheism in my 25 year walk with God).

    All of this is most definitely not to say glibly that one always needs to simply trust to get through doubt. I am saying that sometimes that is the case. And that can be sour news for someone going through a dark night of the soul.

  • arcseconds

    Me, I try to doubt six absolutely certain things before breakfast…

    • PorlockJunior

      A winner! I shall try to do this. And I shall certainly steal the quote — OK, with attribution.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        I love it too!

      • arcseconds

        You (and James) are most welcome to it :]

        I’ve got plenty of kilometerage out of other people’s quips before, so it would be hypocritical of me to deny you the same.

        attribution isn’t necessary, but would be nice if you remember :]

  • Nick Gotts

    I don’t have the impression that God is one who plays tricks on human
    beings, setting us up to fail and then laughing when we do.

    Seems to me that both life in general, and much of the Bible, indicate that if there is a god, that’s exactly what it’s like.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I suspect your view of god or gods is more like that of conservative theism. If I held that sort of viewpoint, I might say the same, as many religious believers have down the centuries.

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

        I’m a conservative Christian theist, and I don’t have that viewpoint, while also finding much of value in the post you presented on faith and doubt. Perhaps I’m an aberration.

      • Nick Gotts

        I’ve spent as much time talking with liberal and progressive religious believers, with whom I regularly cooperate on political issues, as with conservative theists. But this world does not look in the least like the product of a benevolent creator. All the responses I’ve ever seen to the problem of evil come down either to making excuses for God, or (this is more common with the progressives), to obfuscation or “it’s a mystery”. Not good enough.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, the nature of God is about as big a mystery as there can be. But when I consider alternatives to a universe like our, one more like the Biblical Eden is thought by many to be, it seems dull and unappealing. Whether one rejects any sort of God because of the problem of evil, or maintains belief in some sort of God or other despite the problem of evil, life doesn’t cease to leave us with mysteries.

          • Nick Gotts

            when I consider alternatives to a universe like our, one more like the Biblical Eden is thought by many to be, it seems dull and unappealing.

            Do you think the child being raped and tortured, or the rabid animal, would find the alternative of a universe without suffering “dull and unappealing”?

            Well, the nature of God is about as big a mystery as there can be.

            No, it’s really not. There’s a simple hypothesis that dissolves all the specific mysteries raised by assuming the existence of a benevolent creator*, who nevertheless permits the most horrific suffering, and does not make its own existence or wishes clear: that that creator is purely a figment of collective human imagination and wish-fulfillment. On the “Dawkins vs Denialism” thread, you rightly castigate mythicists as denialists, and say:

            Denialism is not the exploration of new models, much less the pursuing of ways to account for new data and observations. It is the insistence on the accuracy and superiority of models that do not fit the evidence.

            That’s exactly what believers in a benevolent creator are doing. They have to either wave their hands and come up with a feeble tu quoque, like you, or invent all kinds of complex excuses for God not intervening to save the innocent torture victim, not making it clear that it exists and what it wants us to do (but allowing different people to be utterly convinced of wildly contradictory versions of the latter), wanting to be worshipped…

            As for “some sort of God”**, that’s typical squishy-Christian*** vagueness. Unless you have a reasonably clear idea what God is like and what it wants of us, it’s an irrelevance to our lives even if it exists. And once you start saying things such as “God is love”, or that it wants us to be nice to each other, you’re back to the problem of evil.

            *The “problem of good” similarly makes the existence of a malevolent creator implausible. The deity of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Church of God, the Utterly Indifferent” admittedly avoids both – but of course hardly anyone would be interested in attending such a church.

            **Pedantically, that surely should be “some sort of god”. “God” functions in English as a proper noun, which is why I don’t follow some atheists in refusing to use the upper-case “G”, any more than I do for Gandalf. But if you’re talking about hypothetical deities in general, the word is no longer functioning as a proper noun.

            ***As opposed to crunchy Christians such as Ken Ham, Jorge Bergoglio, Martin Luther etc., who are convinced they know pretty much what God is like, and are generally willing to tell both non-believers, and believers in a slightly different God, that they are wrong. Of course, it’s really a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              It sounds to me as though the only concept of God you are familiar with is that of theistic and anthropomorphic Christianity. You seem to have accepted the dubious claim that that is somehow the default or the only stance, with anything else being a departure from it.

              • Nick Gotts

                What exactly in what I have said justifies those claims? I am acquainted with deism, with pantheistic beliefs, with a range of non-Christian religions, and with non-realist approaches – although I admit the adherents of the latter appear to me to be just atheists who like to pretend to be religious believers. If there is a specific concept of God that you think I’m not familiar with, why don’t you tell me what it is? But so far as Christianity is concerned, surely the default is the theistic and anthropomorphic concept: God as a person, who intervenes in the world, and specifically a benevolent creator. Have not the vast majority of Christian theologians, leaders and ordinary believers over the last two millennia held some such belief?

                As for you, do you believe in a benevolent creator or don’t you? Or don’t you know? What do you think God is like? What do you think it wants from us, if anything? If you can’t or won’t answer such questions, why do you call yourself a Christian? Of course, you’re under no obligation to answer such questions, but if you prefer not to, others apart from me are bound to wonder why.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  The sort of God that you seemed to be discussing was the sort that one would expect to intervene in human affairs in order to rectify injustices and prevent atrocities. And that certainly is a popular view. But as you mentioned, there are others. Saying to a Deist, for instance, that there is no God because there is rape and torture would not be a persuasive argument. And that was my point – you seemed to be making a point about popular anthropomorphic theism, but you spoke as though it were generically relevant to all concepts of God.

                  I think that God is the ultimate reality and thus by definition defies any attempt to describe or comprehend. But inasmuch as it seems to me to be appropriate to use human language symbolically and speak, rather than to remain silent, I use language that seems to me an appropriate pointer towards transcendence. Love, for instance, is one of the most transcendent human experiences. And so it would be odd to never use such language when seeking symbols of ultimate transcendence.

                  • Nick Gotts

                    That’s a non-answer. What is “the ultimate reality” like? In what sense is it “ultimate”? One meaning of that word is “furthest away”, but presumably you don’t mean that. Another is “last in time”. Is that what you mean? Why should “ultimate reality” defy any attempt to describe or comprehend it? I certainly don’t recognise that as a definitional feature of “ultimate reality”. Insofar as I can give any sense to the phrase at all, I would apply it either to the entities of fundamental physics – quantum fields, so far as we know at present – or to the purely abstract ones of mathematics, such as integers, sets, or categories. Both of those are describable and comprehensible. (Yes, I know you can find quotations from eminent physicists saying quantum mechanics is not understandable, but they mostly come from the early days of the theory, when its counter-intuitive aspects were new and startling. That the entities it describes are describable follows from the fact that it describes them, and that they are at least partially comprehensible, from our ability to manipulate them and incrementally increase our understanding of them.) Why is “love” appropriate language to use about your “ultimate reality”, given that there’s no evidence that anything other than ourselves, each other, and some of our domestic animals can love us, and is “hate” or “indifference” any less appropriate? Is “the ultimate reality” capable of love, hate, or for that matter, indifference? What does “transcendence” mean? Anything more than “intense experience”?

                    To go back to your critique of mythicism, you say somewhere in it (I read all the posts you collected under that topic) that mythicists are under an obligation to put forward a positive account of how an original cult of a non-earthly Jesus could have lead to the evidence we actually have, so that its explanatory power can be compared with that of the hypothesis that there was a real, earthly Jesus. You’re right. Don’t you have an equivalent obligation to put forward a positive account of this “ultimate reality” which it is impossible to describe or comprehend, but of which it is nonetheless appropriate to speak in terms of love, so it can be compared with the alternative hypothesis that you’re simply talking nonsense? If not, why not?

                    As for what I was saying about God in the early part of this discussion, I wasn’t claiming that the existence of suffering and evil is an argument against the existence of any god – clearly it isn’t. I started by querying the following:

                    I don’t have the impression that God is one who plays tricks on human beings, setting us up to fail and then laughing when we do.

                    In the following words:

                    Seems to me that both life in general, and much of the Bible, indicate that if there is a god, that’s exactly what it’s like.

                    IOW, I’m saying if there is a god, neither life in general nor the Bible indicate that we have any reason to trust it. The same applies, of course, to your “ultimate reality”. I know of no reason to suppose that ultimate reality is in any sense good or benevolent. Can you provide one?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I would suggest that the reason my answer seems like a non-answer to you is because you have defined ultimate reality in a manner that in fact denies ultimacy to it. The universe remains mysterious to us in many respects, and so even if the universe is the ultimate reality, there is mystery and awe and wonder and much that eludes our grasp. If the ultimate is a multiverse, even more so. And if the ultimate transcends even these, then our ability to comprehend or even imagine is by definition limited, at least in the present.

                      How can one talk of such things other than in symbols and poetry? You seem to want me to somehow become a comparable reality to the ultimate, observe it, and then describe it to you in mundane prose. Would you kindly tell me how that is to be accomplished?

                      One of the texts that the students in my Faith, Doubt, and Reason class read is Candide by Voltaire. Have you read it? It seems to me to do an excellent job both of poking fun at certain strands of philosophical theology, and pointing out the important aspects of existence that one needs to focus on in a discussion like this one. The character of the sufi mystic and of the old woman give voice to important points towards the end – but I don’t want to use that as an illustration if it isn’t going to be meaningful.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, it seems like a non-answer because it’s just word-salad. You can’t say what you mean by “ultimate”, you can’t say what you mean by “transcendence”, you can’t say why “ultimate reality” “by definition defies any attempt to describe or comprehend it”, nor why, since you believe it does, you persist in talking about it. Nor have you even attempted to say why it makes any sort of sense to trust (or distrust) it, or talk about it in terms of love (or hate, or indifference). Those terms only make sense if “ultimate reality” is some sort of agent (as more doctrinally orthodox Christians believe), but there’s no reason at all to believe that, and the only agents we know anything about are outcomes of billions of years of natural processes, and depend on these processes for their agency.

                      How can one talk of such things other than in symbols and poetry?

                      What things? The concept of a multiverse has arisen as an apparent consequence of quantum mechanics as applied to the very early universe. It’s at the speculative edge of mathematical physics, but that’s the appropriate language in which to talk about it, since that’s where the concept arose.

                      Certainly there is much about reality that remains mysterious. But we understand a lot more about it than our ancestors a few centuries ago, and we’ve achieved that not through mushy waffle like yours, nor through mysticism, Sufi or otherwise, but through rational investigation.

                      I read Candide about 30 years ago, but I don’t remember much of it.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I don’t accept your apparent premise that one has to choose between science and mysticism, between accepting everything that evidence compels us to and close examination reveals on the one hand, and poetry on the other. Some of us believe that there is room for both, and that our lives are richer for not letting go of either.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I have nothing against poetry, although I admit I don’t read much of it these days. I don’t see anything poetic in babbling about “ultimate reality”, or pretending reality loves us. As for mysticism, I suppose it can be a harmless hobby if you happen to like that sort of thing, but it tells us nothing about “ultimate reality” at all.

                    • http://profiles.google.com/jalehtoran Jaleh Toran

                      King Lear, Bach’s Mass in B minor, the Blue Mosque are all “mushy” attempts to convey the nature of “ultimate reality,” and these ways are as valid as rational investigation.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, they’re not: King Lear can certainly inform us about human relationships, and Bach’s Mass and the Blue Mosque appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities, but they tell us nothing about “ultimate reality” at all

                    • http://profiles.google.com/jalehtoran Jaleh Toran

                      The entire point of King Lear is to tell us something about reality, “ultimate” or not. Ditto for Bach’s Mass and for the mosque. Art is not simply a hodgepodge of shapes on a frame that you nail on the wall because it’s pretty and complements the wallpaper. What might make you uncomfortable with art is that it is subjective. Lear, the Mass, and the mosque offer three different ways of interpreting reality. That they are subjective does not make them false or relegate them to the “aesthetic” ghetto.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Of course King Lear tells us something about reality: do you suppose, or suppose I suppose, that human relationships are not part of reality? I’m not in the least uncomfortable with art, or with subjectivity, but they tell us nothing about “ultimate reality”. Art, subjectivity, human relationships, have all arisen out of natural processes taking billions of years, and involving almost innumerable contingent occurrences. Life might never have arisen in this solar system, it might have remained forever bacterial, it might have been wiped out by a supernova, the (non-avian) dinosaurs might not have been wiped out by a meteorite. In any of these cases, human beings would never have existed; in the first two at least, subjectivity would not have existed, at least in this solar system and in the other two, human subjectivity would not have done so. We have, first because it has been naturally selected for, second due to our shared cultural history, a great deal of intuition or tacit knowledge about human relationships and each others’ aesthetic sensibilities: that’s what makes art possible. There is no reason whatever to suppose we have any useful intuition about “ultimate reality” which either art or mysticism could tap into; indeed, many of the findings of science – which really does seem to allow us to understand more and more fundamental features of reality – are grossly counter-intuitive, and the further science has progressed, by and large, the more counter-intuitive its findings have become.

                    • http://profiles.google.com/jalehtoran Jaleh Toran

                      I agree that we are physical beings, and I agree that mystical and aesthetic experiences are a result of physical evolution and physical processes. Our capacity for “rational investigation” is similarly a result of physical evolution and physical processes. Physicality in no way invalidates creation, discovery, or experience. .

                      I don’t believe that “ultimate reality” is objective. I see it as a purely subjective experience, and, as such, arts can tap into it for certain people. My subjective “ultimate reality” is tied to human connections and the arts. I have an intense experience when I listen to the Mass in B minor (or walk through the Blue Mosque, or watch Lear, etc. etc). I’m not sure what this experience is, but it is mine, and it creates meaning.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      If “ultimate reality” is not objective, then there’s no sense in calling it “ultimate reality” rather than “intense experience” – it’s just misleading. But apart from that, as far as I can tell, you and I agree. I don’t think James McGrath does: unlike you, he doesn’t put “ultimate reality” in scare-quotes, and seems to think it loves us – but his propensity for word-salad makes it hard to tell.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I suspect that you do not dismiss all poetic and other non-literal language as “word salad” and so I wonder whether the issue is my ineptitude as a user of words in symbolic fashion or something else. I do not see why someone who emphasizes that all language about the ultimate is symbolic needs to put all such language in scare quotes. Nor do I agree that, if someone has an intense experience that seems to them to be a pointer towards transcendence, that simply substituting “intense experience” for “ultimate reality” will do justice to that experience as experience.

                      I don’t think that I spoke about ultimate reality “loving” us. If I did, I would be the first to point out that such language is anthropomorphism. I suspect that what I said was in fact about love as a pointer to and symbol of ultimate reality. Love is all about self-transcendence, and so I do not see how one could talk about the one without the other.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I suspect that you do not dismiss all poetic and other non-literal language as “word salad” and so I wonder whether the issue is my ineptitude as a user of words in symbolic fashion or something else.

                      I don’t know whether you are inept, or deliberately obscurantist, or whether (as I suspect), you yourself have no real idea what you are trying to say. There’s certainly been nothing poetic about it.

                      if someone has an intense experience that seems to them to be a pointer towards transcendence, that simply substituting “intense experience” for “ultimate reality” will do justice to that experience as experience.

                      How about substituting “intense experience that seems to them to be a pointer towards transcendence”? Then we know we are talking about their experience. You seem either unable or unwilling to distinguish between what the experience seems to them to point to, and what if anything it actually points to. It may seem to someone suffering from paranoia that their experience points to the CIA/Communists/vampires/aliens persecuting them, and this may be an extremely intense experience, but that does not imply that they are actually being persecuted, or even that the object of their intense feeling actually exists.

                      I don’t think that I spoke about ultimate reality “loving” us.

                      OK, you didn’t use those precise words, but I think any honest person must concede that my attribution of that belief to you is reasonable. You have said that Christian faith, which as far as I can tell you are in favour of, is “trust in God”; and later you defined “God” as “ultimate reality” (not further defined), and also appeared to concede that it made no sense to talk about trusting something unless you believed in it. So, as far as I can tell (getting at your meaning really is like trying to nail jelly to a wall), you believe there is an “ultimate reality” that is worthy of trust. Now that must mean, surely, that you believe this ultimate reality is beneficent, that it means well by us and can be confidently called upon for help. What else could it possibly mean? Unless you are just saying you’re confident that gravity, electromagnetism etc. will continue to operate as heretofore – but that seems hardly worth all the fuss, and indeed, in that sense I have as much “Christian faith” as you.

                      I suspect that what I said was in fact about love as a pointer to and symbol of ultimate reality.

                      Which is simply gobbledegook.

                      Love is all about self-transcendence

                      No, it isn’t. I know what “love” means, although it’s a word with a wide range of meanings, some of which (“I love a really full red wine”) clearly have nothing to do with “self-transcendence”, whatever that means. Assuming you’re talking about loving other people, do you mean unselfishness? Yes, that’s an element of loving other people, but it’s certainly not the whole of it – wanting to be with them, enjoying shared activities, pride in their achievements are also important aspects of human love. Do you mean feeling that you are part of a larger whole? That can be part of hate as well as of love – again, I refer to the example of a fascist rally. Do you mean loss of the sense of personal identity? There are drugs that in sufficient doses will bring that about fairly reliably, and for some people, music or gazing at the night sky will do it, but it doesn’t seem to be a necessary, or even usual, feature of human love.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Again, you seem to either be making this more complicated than it is, or you think that our subjective experience tells us nothing about reality and is not itself worthy of consideration in the pondering of reality. It is possible to approach love in the manner that you describe, taking each element and reducing it to its constituent parts or its underlying chemical basis. I personally don’t think that such analysis is incompatible with experiencing being in love, or writing poetry about it that never mentions chemistry once. I don’t think that a symphony cannot be beautiful, just because we can analyse it in terms of vibrations and frequencies.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      No, I’m not making it more complicated than it is, nor denying the reality of subjective experience, simply advocating that we bear in mind that what someone thinks an experience is telling them about the reality beyond that experience, may not be correct – as my example of paranoia surely made clear enough to anyone not determined not to understand what I’m saying. Also, it’s very annoying that you keep attributing to me attitudes I don’t hold, without the slightest evidence. Where have I said anything that denies the possibility of finding a symphony beautiful, or being in love, or writing poetry that does not refer to chemistry? For that matter, where have I even referred to chemistry at all before now?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You referred to chemistry when you mentioned drugs that can provide an experience of loss of personal identity. Perhaps you could clarify your point – and exactly what it is you are disagreeing with me about, if you don’t disagree with me in the ways that I thought you did. I’m likewise finding it hard to grasp exactly what your stance is, and so would appreciate your clarifications, and apologize for whatever ways I may have misrepresented you.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Mostly, I’m trying to get you to say what you actually believe, what you mean by certain terms (God, ultimate reality, Reality-with-a-capital-R, Being-with-a-capital-B, trust, love, transcendence…), and am finding it extremely difficult, because you appear to me to be systematically evasive in these regards. In my last comment I was complaining about you apparently thinking that I deny the existence of emotions, aesthetic responses, etc., when I have said absolutely nothing that should suggest anything of the kind. I’m an atheist and a metaphysical naturalist neither of which in any way implies that I am or aspire to be a Vulcan. I don’t believe there are any “layers and levels of significance” which are to us as we are to our brain cells, nor do I believe mystical experience are any evidence at all of the existence of such layers and levels, or of any kind of god. All they are evidence of is human psychological propensities to interpret some experiences as indicating the existence of such things. It’s logically possible that such things exist, but if private experiences were accepted as evidence of them, we would also have to accept that the experiences of a person suffering paranoia are evidence that aliens really are giving them messages through the shower head, or whatever other delusion they hold.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I do not think that being a Vulcan is the same thing as being a reductionist.

                      And as long as you are talking about things existing or not existing, with religious experience as evidence for them or not, we are not on the same page. I am talking about the character of the totality of existence, and how we ponder and relate to that totality, and not about the existence or otherwise of entities within that totality.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      What do you mean by “the character of the totality of existence”? What is the range of possible characters it could have?

                    • http://profiles.google.com/jalehtoran Jaleh Toran

                      We are sense-bound creatures. Anger, love, hate, pain, pleasure, every other emotion/sensation is purely subjective, tied to the physicality of the person experiencing it, and is real for the person experiencing it. The same is true for an experience that “points towards transcendence,” as Mr. McGrath put it. I didn’t want to limit myself to “intense experience,” as that could include any number of other experiences that do not take me to the same place; the misery of a very bad sore throat, for instance, is more intense, but not the same experience. The specific experience I’m talking about is my own personal Idaho, not a place on a map, or a place that anyone else can visit. It’s real enough for me; I make zero claims for its reality outside of my own sensations.

                      lol I’m no philosopher!

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Of course subjective experience is real. But it simply doesn’t follow that because someone thinks they are experiencing ultimate reality, or something that “points to” it, that the ultimate reality they think their experience is of, or points to, actually exists. You don’t need to be a philosopher to grasp that simple point – but I suspect you may need to be a theologian to avoid doing so.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I wonder whether you aren’t talking about human beings experiencing the totality of ultimate reality, which I was certainly not claiming and I don’t think anyone who has had a profound spiritual experience would claim. I am talking about experiencing reality in such a way that one finds that it includes indications of transcendence, of meaning, of significance. It is finding that one’s own experience is not adequately summed up by a description of the physical processes in the brain, and acknowledging that, just as if we were a brain cell we would not be aware of those layers and levels of significance that transcend us when one puts the whole together, there may be layers which transcend us and what we perceive from our own level and standpoint.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      I wonder whether you aren’t talking about human beings experiencing the totality of ultimate reality

                      No, not least because I don’t know what you mean by “ultimate reality”, because you have been unable or unwilling to say. How, if at all, is “ultimate reality” different from plain reality? If it’s the same, why not drop the “ultimate”?

                      I am talking about experiencing reality in such a way that one finds that it includes indications of transcendence, of meaning, of significance.

                      What do you mean by saying “one finds that it includes indications of transcendence”? First, is the “it” here referring to the experience, or to something else? Second, does the quoted clause imply that the person “experiencing reality in such a way” is perceiving something that is objectively the case? It’s well-known that people experience feelings of intense significance, in dreams or drug-induced states for example, that we have no reason to believe correspond to anything outside their own minds. To return to the phenomenon of being in love, it’s quite possible to be in love, but to be quite wrong about what the object of one’s love is really like – or even about their existence: there have been a number of recent cases in which people have been fooled into falling in love online, with “someone” who is merely the fictional creation of a trickster. Now we know that in most cases the love object is real, and in at least some of those, at least something like the lover believes they are. We don’t have any such knowledge in the case of “ultimate reality”, or your “layers and levels of significance”.

                      It is finding that one’s own experience is not adequately summed up by a description of the physical processes in the brain

                      Well of course it isn’t: a description of an experience is quite different from a description of physical processes in the brain. But then, a description of the steps in an algorithm for computing the millionth prime number is quite different from a description of the physical processes in a computer running that algorithm.

                      acknowledging that, just as if we were a brain cell we would not be aware of those layers and levels of significance that transcend us when one puts the whole together, there may be layers which transcend us and what we perceive from our own level and standpoint.

                      There may be – in the sense that it’s logically possible there are – but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there are. Nor that we should trust them if there were: I regularly kill off tens of thousands of my brain cells by drinking alcohol. And if there were such layers, again there’s absolutely no reason to believe we as individuals could perceive them, any more than a brain cell can perceive the person it’s part of.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Isn’t the idea that alcohol kills brain cells a myth?

                      If we imagine two cells in a human body speaking to one another, one might say, “There is nothing more to existence than just us cells. We are born, we die, and it is all meaningless.” Another cell says to the first, “I sometimes think maybe we are all part of one big cell, that there are levels of meaning and significance to our interaction that our beyond our comprehension.” On the one hand, the viewpoint of the latter is pure “cellulomorphism.” A cell has no idea what it is like to be a human being. But on the other hand, hasn’t the latter cell intuited something that is true about its existence which the first cell had missed?

                      But at any rate, if ultimate reality means that which represents the highest layer of transcendence, and if that is the universe, then the term does not becoming meaningless or useless. I am pretty sure that you don’t dispute the existence of the universe. If you differ from those who might self-identify as pantheists because you find mysticism to be mere “word salad” it isn’t clear that you are doing anything more than indicating a personal preference regarding when you consider symbolic language appropriate and when you do not.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      The fact that cells are part of the human body in no way makes it even marginally more likely that we are part of some larger entity in a similar way. We have a reasonable idea how multi-cellular organisms function, and how and why multi-cellularity arose under selective forces: it has arisen multiple times; it has obvious advantages in allowing cells to specialise in different functions – particularly if the cells are clones and so genetically near-identical; and in the case of animals, we have nice intermediates in the form of choanoflagellates, which are facultatively colonial eukaryotes, and resemble the cells of the simplest animals, sponges. We know of no process that could have given rise to the kind of super-organism you seem to be proposing, nor do we have the faintest idea how they would function.

                      if ultimate reality means that which represents the highest layer of transcendence

                      You still haven’t said what you mean by either of these terms.

                      and if that is the universe, then the term does not becoming meaningless or useless.

                      What would “transcendence” mean in that case? (For that matter, what is it supposed to mean in any case?) And what possible sense would it make to say that you “trust” the universe? Trust it to do what? It would make no more sense than pointing to a rock or a dog turd and saying you trust that.

                      If you differ from those who might self-identify as pantheists because
                      you find mysticism to be mere “word salad” it isn’t clear that you are
                      doing anything more than indicating a personal preference regarding when
                      you consider symbolic language appropriate and when you do not.

                      Mystics typically believe they can somehow tap into some “higher truth” about reality through non-rational processes. I don’t believe they can. As I’ve said, I’m an atheist and metaphysical naturalist. So is anyone who believes what I believe about the nature of reality, because that’s what those words mean. They could “self-identify” as pantheists, Catholics or Wahhabis, but they are atheists and metaphysical naturalists simply as a matter of fact.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You are free to claim that, and Richard Dawkins and others have made similar claims. But the simple fact is that those who reject supernaturalism and speak of God do not find the language that you propose as a substitute or equivalent adequate to our vision of reality.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      But you (and all the others of similar views I have encountered) appear quite unable to say what this vision is. My impression is that you are mostly atheists or agnostics (in the most common modern sense, someone unsure whether they believe in a supernatural god) who like pretending to be Christians; that your practices are parasitic on those of Christians who do actually give some cognitive content to their professions of faith and doubt. You’ve referred to “poetic” language a number of times, but language such as “ultimate reality”, “ground of Being”, “transcendence” is not poetic: poetic language is, overwhelmingly, concrete, specific and vivid, while the language you use most readily is abstrac

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Sorry – I accidentally clicked “submit”…

                      …abstract, vague and drab. There’s nothing wrong with abstraction*, but it should be coupled with clarity and precision, as in logic and mathematics, not a hand-waving: “This is serious stuff, we’re describing the totality of reality, but whatever reality’s actually like, this word will do”.

                      *I’m using “abstraction” here to contrast with “concreteness”, a different sense from that of “abstract” in “abstract painting”, where it’s contrasted with “representational”.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Well, I may be lacking in poetic skill. But your view that liberal Christian views are parasitic on those of other Christians seems to me to ignore the fact that educated Christians and those within the Christian mystical tradition have been emphasizing the ineffable character of God for as long as we can trace things. Perhaps your point is that mystics use language differently than some within the same tradition do? If so, that’s true, and again, it has a long history behind it, and should not be surprising, since the choice when it comes to the transcendent is to use language symbolically or to remain silent. Anyone who speaks about the ultimate is by definition constrained to use language in a non-literal manner. And so it could be argued that fundamentalist religion is parasitic on mysticism rather than vice versa. People have life-changing religious experiences, and when they speak about them, they emphasize that their language does not do justice to the experience. The penchant for those who come along later is to take the language and try to turn it into a set of dogmas, to domesticate it.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      those within the Christian mystical tradition have been emphasizing the ineffable character of God for as long as we can trace things.

                      They haven’t been saying:

                      the existence of God is a non-issue for me

                      - or if they have, they have meant they haven’t the slightest doubt because [they think] they’ve met the guy personally.

                      it could be argued that fundamentalist religion is parasitic on mysticism rather than vice versa.

                      I said nothing about fundamentalism: there’s a lot of space between your approach and fundamentalism, for believers who still actually believe something fairly specific and definitely supernatural. Obviously fundamentalists, and non-realists, and everyone in between are all struggling to find ways to cope with the scientific and historical work that has made the assumptions of pre-Enlightenment Christianity impossible for anyone to hold (even those knowing nothing of such work get a version of Christianity that has been irrevocably changed by its existence). In the long run, I don’t think any approaches will succeed, unless economic or environmental disaster gives the more literalist versions a boost; but I certainly don’t think your kind of Christianity could possibly support a church for long on its own.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I don’t know that it ought to be on its own – the existence of universities doesn’t make kindergartens obsolete. The trouble is that there seem to be many who are not only happy to remain in kindergarten forever, but actually think that that is what it means to be a Christian.

                      But yes, it is a fair point that there are a range of views. And in a church in which that range is represented, it is less likely that fundamentalism will predominate, and there is more hope that people will move around and change their viewpoints over the course of their lives in a healthy sort of way.

                    • http://profiles.google.com/jalehtoran Jaleh Toran

                      I agree, which is why I said that “I make zero claims for its reality outside of my own sensations.” On a bad day, I make zero claims for any reality outside of my own sensations lol.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Incidentally, some people have intense experiences when taking part in a fascist rally, worshipping or being worshipped as, “The Leader”; or in torturing an unwilling victim to death. There’s nothing good about intense experience as such.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Indeed, it is the danger of such idolatrous faith in the less than ultimate, as in oneself or one’s nation, that is a key part of Tillich’s argument for why our lives ought to be oriented around the ultimate and nothing less.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      But this is just worthless babble: advising me that my life “ought to be oriented around the ultimate” tells me nothing at all unless you can characterise “the ultimate”, and produce some reason to believe it exists.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I don’t see how anyone can deny that there is a reality that ultimately exists. Whether it is the universe, the multiverse, or something that transcends either one or both, it seems to me that you are either using terminology in a manner I’m not picking up on, or at some point you indicated that you are a skeptic about reality itself and I failed to pick up on it.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      Of course reality exists – reality is whatever exists. But that’s not what you say Tillich said: you say he said “our lives ought to be oriented around the ultimate and nothing less”. That’s worthless babble, because it doesn’t give us the slightest idea what we ought to do, or what this “ultimate” is supposed to be. Nor do I believe that by “the ultimate” you have just been meaning “whatever exists” – if that’s what you did mean, then you could have said so, but in what possible sense could you be advocating trust in whatever exists? Glenn Beck exists. Are you advocating trust in Glenn Beck?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I suspect that it will not be at all hard for you to understand that Glenn Beck is less than ultimate (and that is probably the mildest criticism I’ve ever made of him!). To focus on the ultimate is to allow one’s focus to move from the clearly non-ultimate focuses such as talk show hosts, political parties, nation, or even species, and recognize that there is more to existence than that. It is to follow the trail as far as we can see even with the assisted eye, and acknowledge if it transcends what we can see and what we comprehend.

                      When Tillich talks about God, he is not talking about “a being” that is just one more entity that might or might not exist. He is talking about Being itself. That’s why the existence of God is a non-issue for me. There is no doubt that there is a Reality that precedes me and transcends me and brought me into existence. The only questions are the attributes of Reality, and those are very much open for discussion.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      When Tillich talks about God, he is not talking about “a being” that is just one more entity that might or might not exist. He is talking about Being itself.

                      “Being itself” is just hooey: there are things that exist; there’s no need at all to posit a quality or category of “Being” with a capital “B”. To put it in terms of philosophical logic, existence is not a predicate, any more than it’s an entity.

                      That’s why the existence of God is a non-issue for me.

                      That doesn’t follow, because “Being itself” doesn’t make any sense.

                      There is no doubt that there is a Reality that precedes me and transcends me and brought me into existence.

                      “Reality” doesn’t need an initial capital letter if you are using the word in its normal sense – i.e., whatever exists: it isn’t a proper noun. If you’re not using it in that sense, it would be useful if you would tell me so, and specify what you do mean by it. Again, you appear to deploy systematic ambiguity: “brought me into existence” suggests, but doesn’t quite say, that “Reality” brought you into existence intentionally. Is that what you meant, or not?

                      The only questions are the attributes of Reality, and those are very much open for discussion.

                      Indeed, but whether it makes any sense for you to identify reality with God, as you appear to do (assuming that “Reality” and “ultimate reality” just mean “reality”), depends on what you believe those attributes are, and specifically, given what you have said about Christian faith, whether they are such that it makes sense to trust reality. Suppose for a moment nothing exists outside the spacetime in which we find ourselves, and that there are no “layers and levels of significance” in which we are but as mere brain cells within that spacetime. Would you then think it appropriate to identify reality with God? Because if so, the most convinced metaphysical naturalist “believes in God” in your terminology, and you’ve succeeded in emptying the term of all significance.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      There is indeed the phenomenon of religious naturalism (exemplified for instance in pantheism, radically emergent theism, and many strands of Process Thought and/or panentheism). Although you said that you are talking about the wide array of varieties of religion, you once again seem to be excluding things and narrowing your focus to other forms of religious expression than my own.

                      The terminology religious naturalism uses is not emptied of all significance simply because you say it is.

                    • Nick Gotts

                      The terminology religious naturalism uses is not emptied of all significance simply because you say it is.

                      So, are you now saying you are a “religious naturalist” – that is, as most Christians would understand it, an atheist? But that wasn’t the term I said you’d emptied of all significance: that was “God”. If you identify “God” with reality, whatever reality is, then the term “God” becomes redundant, hence emptied of all significance.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If the term God seemed redundant to religious naturalists, they would presumably stop using it. That they do not should give one pause. I strongly disagree with Richard Dawkins’ view that pantheism, for instance, is merely “sexed-up atheism” – and I have always wondered why, even if he was right, one would prefer the non-sexed-up version over the sexed-up version! :-)

                    • Nick Gotts

                      How many legs does a dog have, if you call the tail a leg?

                    • Nick Gotts

                      To focus on the ultimate is to allow one’s focus to move from the
                      clearly non-ultimate focuses such as talk show hosts, political parties,
                      nation, or even species, and recognize that there is more to existence
                      than that.

                      Is there, or has there ever been, anyone who doesn’t recognize that there is more to existence than human beings? I’ve personally never met anyone who denies the existence of dogs, dust or diamonds.

  • spiritedcrone

    Amen to doubt! Thanks James.

  • Rosemary

    I don’t understand the logic of having doubts about the very thing one says one believes in. Either you believe something or you doubt it but I doubt it is possible to believe in opposites. Such a division would surely lead to torment or a form of pernicious second-guessing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It sounds like you are talking about “believing something.” In the Bible, faith is trust in God, not belief that propositions are true.

      • Nick Gotts

        But it makes no sense at all to trust in something you don’t believe in. Of course the Bible writers and editors assumed the existence of God, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in that existence. I assume the existence of my wife, and trust in her, but both of these imply, as is true, that I believe she exists. Would it make sense to say you trust in leprechauns (assuming you don’t believe in them)?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          OK, but that hardly gets at the issue I’m addressing, of focusing on what one believes to be the case or not to be the case vs. focusing on relating to that reality – whether the ultimate reality or one’s spouse – fully expecting that one’s thinking and beliefs about the other may and even should change over the course of one’s life.

        • rmwilliamsjr

          re:

          I assume the existence of my wife, and trust in her, but both of these imply, as is true, that I believe she exists.

          -=-=-=-=-=-

          nonsense, you are deeply confusing knowledge belief, and assuming.

          you have good evidence that your wife exists. you are justified in thinking she exists by that evidence, this means you know she exists, not just a simple belief and certainly not an assumption for which there is inadequate evidence.

          we do not have adequate evidence to know God exists, we believe, not in spite of evidence to the contrary(defeaters) but in the face of insufficient evidence to call our belief knowledge.

          we assume the 5th postulate when doing euclidean geometry, we need it but there is no evidence that it is true. in fact, we now know it is false in at least 2 other geometric systems. yet learning plane geometry needs the postulate, it is therefore assumed to be true.

          • Nick Gotts

            Of course I know she exists, but that implies that I believe it: You can’t know something without believing it. While the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” may be insufficient in certain cases, it certainly gives a necessary condition of knowledge. Your geometric example uses a completely different sense of “assuming” from that in which the Biblical authors assumed God’s existence. They weren’t saying to themselves: “OK, for the sake of argument, let’s see what we can derive from the axiom of God’s existence, and alternatively, from the axiom of his non-existence”. They confidently believed that God did exist – so confidently that they didn’t feel the need to argue about it. For that matter, Euclid assumed the fifth postulate in the same way, as did all mathematicians for another couple of millennia.

            • Nick Gotts

              Self-correction: on reflection, what I said about the 5th postulate is not accurate, as there were repeated attempts to derive it from the other postulates, probably because its mention of what happens (or doesn’t) if lines are infinitely prolonged made it less “intuitively obvious” than the rest. But Euclid and his successors certainly believed the postulate was true: only in the 19th century was it realised that you could change it; and this involved showing that if Euclidean geometry is consistent, then spherical and hyperbolic geometry are as well.