In my ethics classes, we are currently in the middle of a unit called “Does ethics have anything to do with God?” Since many of my students on the Catholic college campus where I teach are products of twelve years of Catholic parochial school education, this is a question that they have never encountered, let alone addressed seriously. I take delight in introducing them to the possibility that a serious commitment to the moral life need have nothing to do with belief in God; indeed, it is possible that even if you are a theist, it is best not to suppose that moral standards are imposed by the God that you believe in.
I recently had an exteded exchange in the comment section on this blog that I suspect will continue. The commenter identified himself as an atheist; his first comment included the following:
- It takes far more courage to embrace the world for what it actually entails . . . and what it entails is not divine in any sense. It takes courage to admit we have no ultimate purpose outside of what we make for ourselves. It takes courage to face the fact that we only have a short time . . . and we will be snuffed out of existence like the millions of humans that preceded us . . . that death IS the end.
He continued by noting that, in his estimation, I am right on the brink of taking the advisable leap into atheism.
- You are so close . . . losing the epistemological failure of faith does not mean you have to lose your sense of awe and wonderment. For me, knowing that my death is the absolute end is freeing. It allows me to drink in all I can. To love my family with all I have. To accept my failures as normal – learn from them and move along. To treat others with kindness.
The subsequent conversation ranged widely, covering topics including whether atheism is a claim to belief or knowledge, what progressive Christians believe, how broad the tent of Christianity actually is, the nature of evidence, some of my many reasons why I am a person of faith, and so on. At times my conversation partner expressed a certain amount of frustration, wondering why I would bother with the baggage of Christianity when everything I was expressing as important to me is available without the baggage. In a later comment he asked
- Why do you even bother with Christianity? You like the good bits – and good for you because there are some good things there. But by declaring yourself a Christian you get all the bad bits too. The misogyny, the bigotry – all the baggage Christian history carries with it. You sound like a humanist to me – so why add the supernatural trappings? What is it about Christianity that compels you? Inquiring minds want to know!
I expressed to the commenter on a couple of occasions my appreciation of the opportunity to discuss sanely and at length important matters that often lead directly to snarky comments and disdain. This conversation was far more fruitful than any I can recall having with anyone who significantly disagrees with me from the other end of the spectrum. And it provided me with a new opportunity to think carefully about why exactly I am a person of Christian faith and am not an atheist.
Fortuitously, a noted thinker from more than four centuries years ago will be showing up in my ethics classes this week; his thought provides me with new ideas about my own situation. Blaise Pascal was one of the great mathematicians of the Scientific Revolution who, on November 23, 1654, had a powerful encounter with something greater than himself that changed his life. Pascal’s encounter has come to be known as his “Night of Fire.” He wrote a description of his experience down on a piece of parchment and sewed into his coat, where it was found after his death eight years later.
Pascal became a committed apologist for the Christian faith; because he died at age 38, he never was able to finish his reflections on how he—a person of remarkable intelligence—wove his reason and his new-found faith together. His scattered writings were collected into a volume we know as the Pensées after his death.
Perhaps the best known sentence from the Pensées is Pascal’s observation that “the heart has reasons that reason does not know” (Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas). Pascal expands on this on several occasions, writing for instance that
We know the truth, not only through reason, but also through the heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it.
The persistent complaint of the atheist is that the person of faith bases her or his faith on principles or experiences for which they can provide no rational supporting evidence. The person of faith often responds defensively by trying to provide such supporting evidence, knowing all along that the atheist is right. The core of faith cannot be expressed, nor can it be supported, in an exclusively rational manner.
Pascal’s insight is that the problem here is not with the person of faith’s irrationality. Rather, the problem is the atheist’s refusal to accept that there are more kinds of evidence than rational and more sources of belief than reason. The source of the conviction of faith is what Pascal calls the heart, as legitimate a source of belief and evidence as are reason and logic. Pascal writes that
Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways. And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of its first principles before accepting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before receiving them.
This is why I have often said that the best “proof” of faith is a changed life. Only the person who inhabits that life can tell the story of how she or he came to embrace as the centerpiece of their life principles that are felt rather than proved. The atheist owes such a person a hearing; this requires admitting, at least for the sake of argument that, as Hamlet tells Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
I’m quite sure that this will not satisfy my new atheist friend, who believes that he has heard all of this before. But he sounds not only like a smart guy, but a guy with a heart. For the time being, my best case for why I am a Christian is what I told him in response to his question about why I bother:
- There are many reasons that I am a Christian, beginning with that it is my heritage, my tradition, and my home in the sense that I can inhabit it while also knowing that there are crazy people in the house as well, just as there are anywhere else. It provides the best cognitive framework for understanding myself and the world around me than I have ever encountered. I have never been able to escape the strong suspicion that maybe, just maybe, there is more going on than our limited capacities are able to directly engage with. Most importantly, the best evidence in support of faith (or whatever you choose to call it) is a changed life. That’s my own story.