Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Opposed To Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

Disambiguating Faith: Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Opposed To Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust September 12, 2009

David appeals to MacIntyre to raise a really interesting question:

What is your assessment of faith as the starting point of tradition constituted inquiry as understood by MacIntyre? This is accepting the standards of argument, explanation, justification internal to and partially constitutive of the extended argument that constitutes what MacIntyre calls a tradition. In this case, such faith is NOT meant simply to preserve your tradition (particularly not as currently constituted). The view is that one isn’t really part of a tradition unless one is engaged in questioning and improving the assumptions, standards and positions of the tradition by entering the ongoing conflicts and debates within the tradition. On this conception the whole point of this “faith” is testing it to see if its claims to truth can be rationally vindicated. Now, MacIntyre has a view of rational vindication that is controversial; I just point out here that his view of rational vindication is that it is more and other than defending the claims of a tradition according to terms of rational justification acceptable to it. MacIntyre claims that one tradition can defend its claims according to its terms such that its claims are shown to be vindicated over the claims of a rival tradition on the terms of rational justification of that rival tradition.

I’ll note here that engaging in such tradition constituted inquiry entails taking up at some point or other a position of faith in some other senses that you object to – in particular, it requires one to believe on authority without full rational vindication of those claims to authority. But it requires this as a precondition to putting those claims of authority to the question to see if they are rationally vindicatable. You might argue that one can put those claims to the question without taking up a position of provisional trust, but is doing so any more objectionable than accepting beliefs on intuition then testing them to see if they are rationally vindicatable?

Do you have epistemological objections to MacIntyre’s basic account? Or are you fine with his view of justification, but hold that no believer’s claims ever are (or could be?) rationally vindicated in this way.

And then in a brief clarification of the above:

One clarification: My question in the last line is ambiguous. What I meant to ask was whether you thought the faith of any RELIGIOUS believer never is (or never could be) rationally vindicated in the way I’ve outlined.

I think the process that you outline is how all thinking happens.  None of us think in vacuums, we are all prepared for independent thought by first being initiated both implicitly and explicitly into numerous interlocking traditions bequeathed to us by our culture as our overall tradition.  Those of us in liberal societies have the advantage of being shaped not only by different sub-traditions but by competing, antagonistic traditions and counter-cultures which destabilize our overall tradition and individuals’ understandings of it in a radical way.  The Enlightenment and the Middle Ages do battle probably within every Western soul in one way or another, so far are the reaches of both our rationalist and fideist traditions.

(And, yes, I consider the Middle Ages fideistic even though the word is anachronistic—the Scholastics’ deference to authority and their willingness to posit a God who had mysteries beyond our comprehension and who could radically alter the universe by his omnipotence to the complete frustration of reason were tactics to perpetuate a subordination of reason to faith.  The Enlightenment’s major achievement was to overthrow this kind of God and these authoritarian attitudes and clear the way for investigation that could get somewhere and get somewhere new.  I exposit the argument for this thesis of Blumenberg’s in my contribution to the new collection, Rethinking Secularism: Philosophy and the Prophecy of a Secular Age.)

But, back to the main questions of David’s comment:  I think that we all think from within traditions.  And that in contemporary liberal societies we have an incredible advantage in assessing multiple competing traditions because we live within multiple ones at once.  Until I was 21 I understood myself as only a devout Christian but there were so many competing frameworks in place so that when I began to investigate the foundations of my faith, I could genuinely move within alternative traditions.  They were already a part of me, even though I was explicitly centering my identity and prioritizing my thought around the Christian tradition.  That ability to alternate between perspectives—what happens when I shift my center to my secular, rationalist influences?  what happens when I shift to a Calvinist view of the world?  what happens when I shift to my low church Armenian view of the world?  what happens when I adopt post-modern/anti-realist/deconstructive priorities?  I could shift between authorities and frameworks and test them by seeing how they thrived or withered when tested within each other.  I could take each one and see how relatively satisfying they accounted for the whole of my experience, from all my rational notions of what evidence or logic required from theories, etc.

And, yes, in adopting different perspectives you at least provisionally adopt authorities.  Even a lifelong atheist enters hypothetically into the authority of the Bible as part of assessing it.  When an atheist says, “If this book were true, the implications of it are that God would be genocidal and deeply immoral,” he is adopting the authority of the text provisionally, saying what if it were an authority, what would be the implications about reality?  That may be only a provisional thought-experiment.  There may be richer epistemic possibilities for really living within the viewpoint.  So, to a certain extent, actually keeping on the glasses of a different system of thought, standing from its vantage point and seeing what kind of perspective it offers in a range of matters—even ones not seemingly related to the central issues—can provide a quantitatively more thorough investigation of the worth of a claimed source of authoritative theories.  But even without really trying on being a Christian, one can hypothetically and provisionally adopt the ideas and investigate their implications.

There are problems though.  Faith traditions in their origins and in their fundamental natures resist intermixing with other traditions (unless they have some built-in way for accommodating them into their own order).  Religions are forced to accommodate secularism, when given free reign they try to infuse and delimit all other aspects of life.  They are themselves the principles of traditionalism that aid social cohesion and serve as the primary vehicle for tradition transmission across generations. We must be able, as you say, to work within our tradition’s resources to criticize it.  We cannot work from without all traditions.  Closed societies limit the resources for critiquing their traditions because they shut out as much as possible the influence of competing developed outlooks.  In increasingly liberal societies there are increasingly multiple possibilities for alternating between traditions to assess them and criticize (or vindicate) them better.

The problem with faith is that it requires more than just rational provisional trust in authorities, but instead it goes so far as to be a volitional commitment to authoritative beliefs and/or institutions who have, by virtue of their assumed religious authority itself, the ability to put an absolute brake on one’s own reason and ability to demand explanations. The stronger the nature of religious faith the more it binds you to ancient superstitions, to irrational beliefs which must be accepted by volitional commitment in the face of even overwhelming counter-evidence, and to habits of final deference to traditional authorities.  Even as there is indeed genuine room to reimagine the tradition’s received symbols, religious faith allows authoritative texts and/or living authorities who can squelch a debate or otherwise decide it without a full rational justification.

If faith is interpreted as entirely provisional and open to change, then it’s not faith we’re discussing but simply rational, changeable trust.  Faith, to have any significant meaning distinct from trust on this score has to signify the commitment to believe the propositions or at minimum to maintain allegiance to the mythic symbols, rituals, and institutions of the traditions or the word is meaningless.  And insofar as there are authoritarian sources (be they sacred texts, living prophets, a complicated thousands of years old tradition) which can put a brake on one’s reasoning, they are agents of irrationalism that close the avenues of inquiry off.  Insofar as they are provisional and open to rejection of key “faith tenets” like the divinity of Christ or even, at the extreme end, the possible rejection of Christ as a valuable non-literal symbol, then they are traditions but not ones demanding faith anymore.

So, in short, faith in its essence is the principle of ossification of tradition and the volitional binding of trust and personal commitment even against reason and evidence.  It is the element of a tradition which rejects flirting with competing traditions outright as a form of betrayal.  It is a tradition’s closed-minded aspect.  Insofar as genuine provisionality is accepted, there are traditional authorities but they are subject to fair game criticism as much as anyone else and the exploration of other traditions can become not only a betrayal of faith and tradition but welcomed as the reinvigoration and constructive evolution of one’s tradition.  That liberal outlook is wholly at odds with the spirit of authoritarianism that goes with “sacred texts” and “sacred institutions” which pretend almost invariably to unchanging, eternal, superiorly enlightened truth while only actually propping up centuries outdated notions out of stubborn pride and fear of change.  A religious person who can either learn to see through secular eyes hypothetically to compare perspectives or who is lucky enough, as I was, to actually be raised also with secular traditions which naturally compete with their religious ones can eventually lessen their volitional faith commitment, reveal it to be provisional in practice after all, and actually leave or drastically alter their faith.  But faith itself is the belief habit which resists and explicitly rejects the real possibility of such transformation.  Under pressure faith learns to allow you to flirt with doubt and other traditions if your reason simply must, but you certainly are not to seriously entertain running away with it!

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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