Most Debates Will Not Produce Faith

Most Debates Will Not Produce Faith January 23, 2023

Johann von Armssheim : Disputation Between Christians And Jews / Wikimedia Commons

One of the worst approaches to the Christian faith is to treat it as if it were something which can be easily proven through argumentation, acting as if someone did not agree with such arguments, they must be a bad thinker. The Christian faith, indeed, any faith, or scientific examination, or philosophical engagement with truth, should not to be treated as a simple ideology which can be easily proven to others. This is what so many so-called apologists fail to appreciate. They think everything can be easily settled and proved by a debate, which is why they act as if they have a surefire way to convert everyone to the faith. While some might be initially convinced by their arguments, usually, this leads them to embrace the faith as a rationalistic enterprise instead of realizing the greater mystery which is to be found beyond such rationalism. This will mean such people will embrace a mere shadow of the faith, and once that shadow is proven ephemeral, they will either move to a deeper, greater encounter with the faith or deny the faith itself. If a person’s faith is based upon what can and cannot be proven in a debate, their faith will prove unstable, for it is possible someone else will come along with a better, more rational-sounding argument.  Thus, Gerald O’Collins was right when he wrote:

Experience constantly shows how the mere force of argument is never enough by itself to convert someone to the Christian faith. If the (historical) evidence were sufficient to establish or conclusively confirm resurrection belief, such belief should be utterly convincing to all those willing to weight the evidence and draw the obvious conclusions from it. [1]

As the truth transcends our intellect, and so transcends what we can comprehend, it is impossible for us to prove the  fullness of the truth in and through our rational arguments. What we offer will be something less than the truth, and once some element of the greater is discovered, it can and often will be used as a reason to criticize our beliefs. While the use of reason is important, we must understand and appreciate its limitations, making sure our faith itself allows for and accepts the transcendence of the truth (and the paradoxical nature of what can and will be discerned of that truth). We should, that is, heed the words of St. Gregory Palamas: “ Someone who has faith in his own reasoning and the problems which it poses, who  believes he can discover all truth by making distinctions, syllogisms and logical analysis, can neither know the things of the spiritual man directly, or believe in them.”[2] Certainly, we can take what is given to us and use our reason to try to understand the truths of the faith, but we must not assume we can derive all those truths from reason alone. Moreover, we must not confuse the propositions which we can make based upon our faith as the fulness of the truth. Propositions can point to the fullness of the truth, but they are not such in an of themselves; even the best proposition can lead us astray when it is taken as an absolute instead of a convention. This is why, even a good proposition, when it is misconstrued, can lead us to embrace a pseudo-faith, an idol, for we replace the fullness of the incomprehensible truth with a position which we can comprehend.

For the faith to truly take hold, it must take hold of the whole person. The Christian faith is not some Gnostic religion which makes truth claims that have no value in the material world. It contains spiritual truths, but like the incarnation, those spiritual truths are connected with the material realm. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the embrace of love. Our love of God and love of our neighbor (in their spiritual and material being together) should serves as the foundation for our faith-based activity. Indeed, love is so important that it can be said that love is what  allows our faith to have a firm foundation on which to grow. Ficino, recognizing this, nonetheless reminds us that without God’s grace coming to us from God’s bountiful love, we would not be able to love God (and in this way, shows one way to counter Pelagian ideologies):

Grace moves Love. Love begets Faith. Faith embraces her father Love, and through the heat of this embrace, By Love gives birth to Friendship. Then Faith feeds this infant Friendship, allowing her to grow daily, and completely protecting her from destruction. [3]

Faith is something far different from what comes out of and develops through debates (though, of course, one with faith, can and will discuss their faith with reason, helping such faith to grow, but it must be remembered, faith is not created by reason but rather is enhanced by it). Faith will reveal the truth, but in a way which transcend mere intellectual exercise. It always comes in and with grace, and not apart from it:

But we call faith that light which dawns in the soul by grace, and which by the testimony of the mind establishes the heart in freedom from doubt through the full assurance of hope that is remote from all conceit. This faith manifests itself not by the tradition of the hearing of the eye, but with spiritual eyes it beholds the mysteries concealed in the soul, and the secret and divine riches that are hidden away from the eyes of the sons of the flesh, but as unveiled by the Spirit to those who are brought up at Christ’s table in the study of His laws. [4]

We must not let this lead us to think that faith is something which is imposed upon us in such a way that we have no real role in its development. Faith is connected with grace, and so, like grace, it is something which we must engage and cooperate with, which is why faith can be said to be related to our will (without making it exclusively a thing of our own willing).  “Faith in God is a mysterious reciprocal bond between the Godhead and the human soul which requires the direct participation of the human will; without an act of the will we cannot believe in God.” [5]

And it is here, for example, our intellectual engagement can be shown to have some validity, for then we have a faith seeking understanding,  making it a faith which gets developed, instead of becoming mere fideism. But, as it is seeking understanding, it will engage evidence and reason in order to shape the counters of that understanding, allowing some possible ideas to be discarded when they are shown to be erroneous. Debate, in this way, if it is done to help develop our faith and understanding, instead of serve as the foundation for our faith, can be useful. For debates to be as useful as possible, they should be done in all charity, with all those involved sharing what they know and understand instead of trying to prove themselves superior to anyone else involved in any particular debate. Thus, debates should not be about forcing someone to believe, or think  in a certain way. This is because, as Solovyov ascertained, our walk in faith must embrace our experience, and use it to help us discern for ourselves the way to the truth (instead of having someone or something force us to come to a particular conclusion):

And as for paths, only honest experience can show which of them is true and which is mistaken. I am always ready to reject directly and decisively any opinion of mine as soon as its falsehood is disclosed in actual fact. Prohibition is not disclosing, and force is not evidence of truth. [6]

If there is to be any prohibition, any discipline, for it to stick, it must be done by ourselves for ourselves:

In a word, the very first step that a resolute disciple takes it to trample underfoot his own soul, and the first sword that he wields in anger is upon himself, not an infidel. Any wound that is inflicted on an infidel is only a bodily one and is made only for the sake of looting a person’s goods, but the wound inflicted on the ego goes to the very foundation of faith, and its only intention is to plunder the faith! Hence, any blow you strike should be directed toward your ego.[7]

This shows us why if someone uses their faith as a tool to impose their will upon others, trying to force others to come to the same faith they possess, they will fail. No one can force someone else to believe. No matter how much someone would like to beat others into submission, either physically, or intellectually in a debate, in the end, what they produce is not faith but a perversion of it. And this is why many who engage apologetics often cause the Christian faith more harm than good, because they are using the faith as a tool to prop themselves up at the expense of others; in doing so, they lead those who listen to them to misunderstand the faith itself.

[1] Gerald O’Collins, SJ, Easter Father (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 49.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas: The Triads: Books One. Trans. Robin Amis (Wellington, Somerset: Praxis, 2002), 103 [This is from the complete translation of the first book, which is not had in the Westerns of Spirituality Volume of the Triads that I normally use].

[3] Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino. Volume 1.  trans. by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1975; repr. 1988), 102  [Letter 56 to Naldo Naldi].

[4] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 401 [Homily 52].

[5] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 11.

[6] Vladimir Soloviev, The Karamazov Correspondence. Letters of Vladimir S. Soloviev. Trans. and ed. Vladimir Wozniuk (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 162 [Letter to Tertii Filippov, July 30, 1889].

[7] Sharafuddin Maneri, The Hundred Letters. Trans. Paul Jackson, SJ (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 212 [Letter 53].


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N.B.:  While I read comments to moderate them, I rarely respond to them. If I don’t respond to your comment directly, don’t assume I am unthankful for it. I appreciate it. But I want readers to feel free to ask questions, and hopefully, dialogue with each other. I have shared what I wanted to say, though some responses will get a brief reply by me, or, if I find it interesting and something I can engage fully, as the foundation for another post. I have had many posts inspired or improved upon thanks to my readers.

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