Stanley Fish defends faith

Stanley Fish defends faith May 22, 2009

Stanley Fish is a major postmodern literary critic, but before he got famous for that, he was a 17th century English literature scholar like me. He was consistently good in explicating the religious depths of authors such as John Milton and George Herbert. In fact, he and I were both in the same camp in insisting on the impact of the Reformation–specifically, the doctrines of God’s grace and the Gospel of Christ–in the literature of this time. Though he has been rather radical in his time, recently, he has been using the weapons of postmodernist literary criticism for more conservative ends. Here he takes on the “new atheists” and their notion that science is purely objective, while faith is illegitimate. After, well, deconstructing that modernist assumption, he goes on to deal with the another misconception about Christianity, in particular (quoting some of his commenters on a related blog post):

If there is no thought without constraints (chains) and if the constraints cannot be the object of thought because they mark out the space in which thought will go on, what is noticed and perspicuous will always be a function of what cannot be noticed because it cannot be seen. The theological formulation of this insight is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained.

Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.

Some readers find a point of vulnerability in what they take to be religion’s flaccid, Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism. Religious people, says Delphinias, live their lives “in a state of blissfully blind oblivion.” They rely on holy texts that they are “to believe in without question.” (C.C.) “No evidence, no problem — just take it on faith.” (Michael) They don’t allow themselves to be bothered by anything. Religion, says Charles, “cannot deal with doubt and dissent,” and he adds this challenge: “What say you about that, Professor?”

What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.

The key event in that life is not the fashioning of some proof of God’s existence but a conversion, like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, everything visible becomes a sign of God’s love, and a new man (or woman), eager to tell and live out the good news, is born. “. . .

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

HT: Strange Herring, who also links to some other heavy-weight critics of the new atheists.

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