My Sixth Principle: Receiving Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions Involves Faith …

My Sixth Principle: Receiving Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions Involves Faith … August 6, 2016

*The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

*First read my first five posts in this series; they immediately precede this blog post. This essay continues a series on why I am an “evangelical Arminian Christian.”

6) My Sixth Principle: Receiving Answers to Life’s Ultimate Questions Involves Faith (But Faith Should Be Supported by Reasons) (By Roger E. Olson)

As I move on in this series of “my principles,” what I say will increasingly assume readers’ knowledge of the previous essays. Unlike many television shows, I will not “summarize” the main points after each “commercial break.” I will simply depend on readers, and especially commenters, to have read through the series so far.

Answers to life’s ultimate questions must be revealed in order to be more than mere hunches or guesses. Revelation of answers to life’s ultimate questions must be received. Such reception may involve a variety of modes: insight, intuition, epiphany, discernment, decision, deduction, etc., but all involve some element of what is commonly called “faith.” So-called “knock down, drag out intersubjective proof” is lacking when it comes to answers to life’s ultimate questions. The reason for this situation, as frustrating as it is especially to modernists, eludes complete explanation. It is simply fact. Most religions and quasi-religions include some account and explanation.

Here “faith” is used as a cipher for any grasp of answers to life’s ultimate questions. However, faith in some very broad sense is probably involved in all knowing beyond the analytic realm (definitions).

The world is full of truth claims about the answers to life’s ultimate questions. Some are explicitly religious in a traditional sense and some are quasi-religious (to borrow a term from Paul Tillich). Some claim to be based on evidence and rational deduction alone; none of those have gained intersubjective “traction.” They, too, seem to involve some kind of faith in the broadest sense of the word (e.g., perspective).

I believe there is no escape from faith, broadly defined, insofar as one wants to have answers to life’s ultimate questions and insofar as one claims to have found them. Receiving answers to life’s ultimate questions involves faith.

Having said that, however, faith is not necessarily irrational. What is believed “by faith” can be irrational and often is, but believing something “by faith” does not necessarily involve one in irrationality.

Insofar as someone wants me to believe truth claims about ultimate reality, insofar as he or she appeals to me to believe his or her answers to life’s ultimate questions, I have the right and perhaps the duty to ask “Why?” and expect some intersubjective reasons. By that I do not mean “proof.” I do not think intersubjective proof about ultimate reality, the answers to life’s ultimate questions, is possible. However, intersubjective reasons for being open to a claimed revelation about the answers to life’s ultimate questions should be offered by those who ask others to be so open.

This principle turns back on me, of course, as a religious believer—insofar as I appeal to others who do not share my beliefs about ultimate reality. If I am only believing, even together with fellow believers, no such intersubjective reasons are absolutely necessary. However, I think mature belief seeks them out—to support subjective faith.

What is called “apologetics” is primarily for believers; it asks and answers the question about intersubjective supportive reasons for continuing to believe. But it is not about “knock down, drag out proofs.” It is about justifying what is believed by faith rationally—with logic and evidence. However, apologetics can also be helpful, and should be available, when a believer is appealing to non-believers to consider what is believed reasonable, not irrational. This is true whatever the belief about ultimate reality may be—including sheer skepticism and nihilism.

Of course, as we all know, a person (or group) can simply say “I don’t believe anything about ultimate reality; there are no answers to life’s ultimate questions.” Examination of his or her words and actions, however, reveals (to me) that he or she does, in fact, have some implicit (if not explicit but hidden) belief about ultimate reality, the answers to life’s ultimate questions. For example, all notions of justice depend on some belief about the nature of reality beyond the merely observable. And what can be observed is a question about ultimate reality; what counts as “evidence” depends on some vision of ultimacy beyond the universally observable.

So what is the intersubjective reason—beyond “faith”—for a set of answers to life’s ultimate questions? There can only really be one (with two “sides”) and it falls far short of intersubjective “proof.” That one intersubjective reason for being open to or continuing to believe in a vision of ultimate reality is “This belief system, worldview, philosophy of life, theology, best answers life’s ultimate questions.” The two sides are 1) coherence, and 2) experience.

A worldview, a set of answers to life’s ultimate questions, received by faith, must pass these two tests insofar as it claims universal truth (truth for everyone) and insofar as it claims to be reasonable (not irrational). This is especially true insofar as it appeals to unbelievers to be open to it.

Here I am not rejecting so-called “evangelism;” I am only arguing that sheer witness, testimony based on faith alone, appeals to unbelievers to believe, ought to be supplemented by intersubjective reasons insofar as “inquiring minds” want to know why they should be open to the belief system, set of answers to life’s ultimate questions, implied in the appeal.

I cannot offer here a full blown account of religious or quasi-religious rationality, intersubjective supporting reasons for faith reception of a revelation. I can only say that, for me, such must include 1) an explanation of its coherence, and 2) an account of its ability to illumine human experience.

One way to go about that apologetic task is simply to consider all the major alternative sets of answers to life’s ultimate questions and ask which one stands out as 1) most coherent, and 2) most able to illumine life experience. I believe many will simply fall before the test of coherence; the same and others will simply fall before the test of adequacy to experience. Perhaps none will remain standing. In that case we are in real trouble. But of those that remain standing, that faith is most justified reasonably that stands out as being most coherent (internally and with what else is believed to be the case) and best able to shed light on, account for, explain human experience.

Most believers will not be able to do this convincingly, but every vision of ultimate reality, explicitly religious or quasi-religious, every set of answers to life’s ultimate questions, must have someone who carries out this task for others. It must be done; else the vision will eventually lose credibility—except to those who have faith. Eventually, even for many of them, insofar as they have inquiring minds, reasons will become a felt need to support faith. The only alternative is esoteric folk religion—the reduction of a belief system, set of answers to life’s ultimate questions, to clichés, slogans, anecdotes, etc., without any intersubjective, intellectually rigorous reflection. In folk religion critical reflection is left behind and even rejected. A folk religion can thrive among an insular tribe, but it is unlikely to have public influence without coercion.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me (or the guest writer). If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective, feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among especially evangelical Christians.

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