L.B.: Faith vs. Reason

L.B.: Faith vs. Reason December 9, 2006

Left Behind, pg. 237

Chloe Steele is a bit hesitant to embrace her father's newfound apocalyptic faith. "I have to be intellectually honest with myself," she says.

NollThe implication is that her father's premillennial dispensationalist sect seems intellectually dishonest. The word "intellectually" is the key there for LaHaye and Jenkins. They come from the visceral, experiential strain of evangelicalism, so for them "intellectual" is always bad. Their particular PMD variant of this strain arises from, and relies heavily upon, anti-intellectualism.

Our authors, therefore, regard Chloe's phrase — "intellectually honest" — as an oxymoron. Anything intellectual, they believe, is fundamentally dishonest. There is, for them, no such thing as sophia apart from sophistry.

Chloe's "intellectual" objections are never explained or described. The authors cannot imagine what the substance of such objections might be. Nor do they care. If those objections are intellectual, then they are anti-faith, and that is all that they or their readers need to know.

Evangelicals are hardly alone in believing that faith and the intellect are incompatible. This misconception is quite popular among people who misunderstand one or the other (or both). Miracle on 34th Street was on cable the other night. Edmund Gwenn is terrific, but I still can't abide that film's refrain: "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

No. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. "Believing when common sense tells you not to" is something else. That's called "denial." The former involves belief in something that cannot be proved true, the latter involves belief in something that can be — or has been — proved false. The former requires a vital intellect, the latter necessarily regards the intellect with fear and suspicion.*

Mix in some anger with that fear and suspicion and you get Rayford's reaction to his daughter's comment about intellectual honesty:

It was all Rayford could do to stay calm. Had he been this pseudosophisticated at that age? Of course he had. He had run everything through that maddening intellectual grid — until recently, when the supernatural came crashing through his academic pretense. But like the cabbie had said, you'd have to be blind not to see the light now, no matter how educated you thought you were.

We can only give the authors partial credit for this impressively anti-intellectual paragraph. They managed to work in dismissive references to sophistication, intellect, academia and education, but of course for full credit, they would also need to have mentioned chardonnay, brie, the French and Ivy-League elites.

This is the first we've seen or heard of Rayford Steele's "academic pretense." (I'm picturing him in the cockpit, wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, smoking a pipe and explaining to his copilot that altitude is merely a social construct.) Our hero is certainly pretentious, but his is the pose of someone who's trying to pretend he's Steve McQueen, not of someone who's trying to pretend he's Stephen Hawking.

Rayford's "academic pretense" is only retro-introduced here in order to note that it had been swept away "when the supernatural came crashing through." This is a major theme of Left Behind, and the characteristic that distinguishes it from most other evangelical apocalyptic fiction.

Most such stories — think of the literal cult-film A Thief in the Night — are mainly concerned with trying to scare people into Heaven.** They function as hellfire-and-brimstone sermons, complete with altar call, except instead of telling people they're going to Hell, these stories tell people that Hell is coming to them.

I'm not a fan of this scared-straight approach to evangelism, but at least it arises from heartfelt good intentions. The brimstone preachers may have a disturbing notion of the character of God, but given that notion as their premise, they're acting out of genuine concern for others. Left Behind, by contrast, is less interested in saving unbelievers from Hell than in "proving" that they're wrong. And since they're wrong, they deserve what they're going to get.

For all its faults, the message of A Thief in the Night was something like, "Please, repent and save yourselves from suffering and Hell." A pervasive message of LB is something more like, "You'll see. We're right and you intellectuals are wrong. Neener, neener. Have fun in Hell."

One of the stranger things about LB is the way the authors seem to think that their novel, their work of fiction, serves as "proof" of their claims. They seem to think it not only illustrates, but demonstrates, that faith conquers reason and that Scofield's notes are canonical rather than heretical. They've created a fictional reality in which their weird theories are true. In this fictional world, all who disagree appear as fools. Taking potshots at one's opponents through fiction is nothing new — the political disputes of Dante's Florence are immortalized in the Divine Comedy. But Dante didn't seem to think that he had settled the argument by condemning his opponents to a fictional Inferno.

Chloe Steele is trying to remain neutral in the supposed war between faith and reason. Such neutrality, the authors suggest, is untenable. Chloe, like everyone, must choose sides. And when faith conquers reason — when the supernatural crashes through academic pretense — you'd better be on the right side. Or else.

You'll see.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* On the subject of anti-intellectualism in American evangelicalism, let me recommend yet again Mark Noll's wonderful The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Here's a small taste from Noll, in which he in turn recommends two other excellent books on the subject:

Recently two very good, but also very disquieting, books have illustrated the weaknesses of evangelical intellectual life. Both are from historians who teach at the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Numbers's book The Creationists (Knopf, 1992) explains how a popular belief known as "creationism" — a theory that the earth is ten thousand or less years old — has spread like wildfire in [the 20th] century from its humble beginnings in the writings of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism, to its current status as a gospel truth embraced by tens of millions of Bible-believing evangelicals and fundamentalists around the world. Paul Boyer's When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1992) documents the remarkable popularity among American Bible-believing Christians — again mostly evangelicals and fundamentalists — of radical apocalyptic speculation. Boyer concludes that Christian fascination with the end of the world has existed for a very long time, but also that recent evangelical fixation on such matters — where contemporary events are labeled with great self-confidence as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies heralding the End of Time — has been particularly intense. …

Both Numbers and Boyer are first-rate scholars who write with sympathy for their subjects. Neither is an antireligious zealot. But their books tell a sad tale: Numbers describes how a fatally flawed interpretive scheme of the sort that no responsible Christian teacher in the history of the church ever endorsed before [the 20th] century came to dominate he minds of American evangelicals on scientific questions; Boyer discusses how an equally unsound hermeneutic has been used with wanton abandon to dominate 20th-century evangelical thinking about world affairs. …

They share in common a picture of an evangelical world almost completely adrift in using the mind for careful thought about the world. As the authors describe them, evangelicals — bereft of self-criticism, intellectual subtlety, or an awareness of complexity — are blown about by every wind of apocalyptic speculation and enslaved to the cruder spirits of populist science. In reality, Numbers and Boyer show even more — they show millions of evangelicals thinking they are honoring the Scriptures, yet interpreting the Scriptures on questions of science and world affairs in ways that fundamentally contradict the deeper, broader and historically well-established meanings of the Bible itself.

** A strange side-effect of spending so much time with Left Behind has been an increased appreciation for earlier, less-awful works of apocalyptic fiction. Before reading LB, I regarded Thief and its sequels as inconsequential, inept pieces of dreck. But by getting everything wrong, LB illustrates that Thief wasn't actually as bad as it could have been. By resetting the bar so much lower, LB enhances the reputations of its predecessors. It's kind of like the way we're having to reconsider the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

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  • Jesurgislac

    Re-reading through this whole thread, it strikes me that the theists who are arguing their corner appear to be arguing that because logic, reason, and science tend to show that God does not exist except as a concept in the human mind, and as they themselves are sure God exists, they think that means that logic, reason, and science obviously don’t work properly with regard to “some things” (God stuff, basically).
    Logic is a system of drawing conclusions from given premises and being able to show how you drew those conclusions to other people. There’s nothing special about it: it’s a system of communication as much as anything else. And logic can provide wrong answers if your premises are incorrect: but using logic means people can see how you arrived at your conclusion, and which premises you chose to start from.
    Logic, reason, and science are all methods of thinking about the world that require that you are clear about what you know for sure: what you do not know for sure: and what you are hypothesising is true for the sake of argument.
    Hapax’s god – the inner joy felt by her at the sight of a first snowfall – is not provable or disprovable using logic, reason, or science. It’s an inner emotional state that she feels, that I feel, that many people feel. No one would want to argue that this inner joy does not exist (well, okay, some people might, but not people I’d care to know). But Hapax seems to be confusing people who say “Yes, that inner joy exists, but it is not god” with people who argue that this inner joy itself does not exist – which no one has argued on this thread.
    Hapax can say “I know that inner joy I feel is God” or is “from God”, and no one can gainsay her that. But she cannot say that this inner joy is evidence God exists, because there is no logical or rational or scientific way to show that. And to argue that this means there is a failing in logic and reason and science is profoundly anti-intellectual.

  • Beth

    So here’s my counterfactual for the theists out there: Suppose … a time machine, in which you could go back and see that your favourite prophet was a fraud, perhaps.
    You know that’s kind of funny. Think about it. How many times on this thread have you seen someone rely on the words of a prophet or sage? How often has someone presented some holy teaching as evidence that their belief about god is the right one? From what I’ve seen, it’s gone on almost constantly, and everyone who’s done it has relied on the same sage: Saint Occam of Razor.
    Seriously, how many of you who have brought up Occam’s Razor or some reference to it (pink unicorns, anyone?), have considered the possibility that the rule might be wrong, or wrong, at least, for this particular subject?
    BTW, logic only works on models. Think about it.

  • Ray

    ‘waves hand’
    Seriously, is there anyone here who think’s Occam’s Razor is anything more than a useful rule of thumb?
    This reminds me of the line that everyone is an atheist, but some people are more thorough than others. Everyone on this thread has a long list of gods they don’t believe in, but the atheists have slightly longer lists. Similarly, everyone on this thread has a long list of entities that they don’t believe in – the famous invisible pink unicorns, for example – because they are applying Occam’s Razor.

  • Jesurgislac

    Beth: BTW, logic only works on models. Think about it.
    Really? Okay. An hour ago I went to my favorite coffee shop and bought myself a double-shot skinny latte, came back to my desk, and drank it. Taking as a premise that my memory of these recent events is accurate, logic tells me that the paper cup that I can see out of the corner of my eye is empty.
    *pause as I test my logic by picking up the cup, and, if it is empty, throwing it into my bin*
    You may think that logic only works on models, Beth, but in fact it worked fine in the real world: the cup was empty, and is now in the bin.

  • the opoponax

    But Hapax seems to be confusing people who say “Yes, that inner joy exists, but it is not god” with people who argue that this inner joy itself does not exist – which no one has argued on this thread.
    first off, that was me. wrong ax! ;)
    second off, nowhere upthread did i ever say that the fact that inner joy (good shorthand for what i was talking about, i guess) exists proves the existence of god. i’m not in the business of proving the existence of god or not, and i’ve never claimed otherwise. i don’t really care whether others believe in god, or whether anyone believes in my own personal ideas about god.
    i offered up that statement (and most of those i’ve offered up in this thread) to illustrate an alternate point of view; specifically a conception of god that does not correspond to the models atheists in this thread have proposed. mostly because i’m sick and fucking tired of the assumption that all religious believers believe in a form of deity that is roughly congruent to that of Christians, and since that form of deity is in some respects laughable, or at least disprovable if one uses literalist logic, therefore god does not exist.

  • Jesurgislac

    Argh! Sorry. My bad. :-(
    i offered up that statement (and most of those i’ve offered up in this thread) to illustrate an alternate point of view; specifically a conception of god that does not correspond to the models atheists in this thread have proposed.
    Your lovely comment about the God you believe in (and it was lovely!) corresponds nicely to the conception of God I had back when I believed in God (quick summary: prior to age 10 or so, I believed in God with absolute certainty: after age 20 or so, I didn’t: between 10 and 20, gradually and painlessly, I became an atheist). But I don’t recall proposing any specific model of God that I don’t believe in: I just don’t believe in God. Any god.
    mostly because i’m sick and fucking tired of the assumption that all religious believers believe in a form of deity that is roughly congruent to that of Christians
    I don’t make that assumption, and many of the atheists on this thread didn’t appear to be making it either.
    I’m tired myself of the assumption that as an atheist there is a specific god I don’t believe in, rather than I have come round to a world view which has no deities at all in it, thank you.

  • Jesurgislac

    Italics begone! Sorry.

  • Francis

    Question: The PMD’s claim that acts aren’t important (Jesus accepts you as you are), only the magic words matter. My gf (a good catholic lass) claims that acts not mattering was the big protestant thing – part of the schism. So how widely spread in the protestant world is this belief?
    You’ve managed to hit one of my theological rant buttons (150 posts late, but still).
    The differences between salvation by works and salvation through faith alone are trivial in the initial formulations. Salvation by works ties in with the statement that an evil tree can not bear good fruit and the injunction to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind – faith is a necessary part of the works. Salvation by faith alone ties in with “by their fruits shall ye know them” as well as the injunction to let not the left hand know what the right is doing – and James 2:1-26, and in particular the injunction that “faith without works is dead” (verses 17 and 20) are central to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It is the faith that saves, but if you have faith, works will necessarily flow from that faith.
    In short, both doctrines hold both faith and works to be necessary. It is a perversion of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to say that it means that once you have faith you do not then need to do works.
    The reason for the change during the reformation wasn’t anything to do with it being an excuse not to do works. It was that the concept of works had been perverted to mean “works which benefit the church” and that you could buy indulgences from the church to allow you to do what you wanted without it being classed as sin. Therefore the move to Salvation by Faith Alone was a move to measure someone by the content of their character rather than the size of their bank balance.
    The perverted version of salvation through faith alone AFAIK is focussed round the PMDs and almost every marketing scam that masquerades as a version of Christianity…

  • Angelika

    on contradictory revelations:
    – The example you gave “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no false Gods before me”, or “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”. was not at all contradictory to Mohammed who was convinced that the entiety talking to him had been the same that had been talking to Moses thousand years earlier.
    Let me just add two more possible conclusions to your dilemma:
    – not all religious experiences need to be necessarily caused by the same entiety. Different entities might very well contradict each other. Not even monotheistic religions deny the possible existence of spirits, devils, angels and so on, which are considered to be able to communicate with humans.
    – statements that seem to contradict each other at first, are not always that contradictory on the second view. To take an example from science: People used to think that a particle nature or a wave nature of light would contradict each other, light would have to act either according to one model or to the other. Now we are pretty convinced that light indeed acts according to both natures.
    Most often, I’d assume, the perceived contradictions of the divine encounters come in during the mental processing and theological expoundings afterwards and not yet at the level of the actual encounter.

  • Beth

    Seriously, is there anyone here who think’s Occam’s Razor is anything more than a useful rule of thumb?
    It pleases me beyond all proportion to hear that at least one person doesn’t.
    everyone on this thread has a long list of entities that they don’t believe in – the famous invisible pink unicorns, for example – because they are applying Occam’s Razor.
    That’s not true my case. I don’t believe in invisible unicorns, but not because of Occam. I don’t believe in them because the belief simply isn’t there. Why isn’t is there? Probably because I’ve never had any reason to believe in them.
    Are your beliefs under your direct, conscious control? Let’s imagine for a moment that rational thought provides no reason whatsoever to prefer either belief or disbelief. Now imagine I present strong, legitimate evidence that believing in invisible unicorns increases intelligence. Would you be able to will yourself to genuinely believe in them? Suppose someone else showed equally strong evidence that believing in invisible unicorns causes cancer. Would you simply stop believing because it was the healthy thing to do?
    Personally, I’ve never sat down and consciously decided whether or not to believe in god any more than I’ve decided what my favorite music should be or who to fall in love with. Belief, like enjoyment and desire, seems to arise in my mind of it’s own accord and isn’t particularly obedient to my will.
    p.s. Hopea, good stuff.

  • Hopea

    It occurred to me that the scenario I talked about above does not necessarily result in a Russell paradox. Fortunately nobody noticed.
    *Note to self: stick to subjects where you actually know what you are talking about.*
    *Counter note: Naah, that would be far too boring*.

  • Ray

    point by point –
    – the recipient of the second message would not have been Mohammed (since it mentions Mohammed). I’m pretty sure Mohammed’s revelations had something specific to say about the divinity of Jesus. Please don’t make me look for it!
    – we could grant, for the sake of argument, that every personal experience of the divine is really an experience of some supernatural entity – divine, semi-divine, demonic, or fairy – but the people experiencing it can’t tell which…
    As an atheist, I don’t see any compelling reason to grant that assumption. As a theist, are you really willing to grant that your experiences of God, and the experiences of God that other people report and you find inspiring, could equally well be tricks played by Puck – and neither you, nor anyone else, would be able to tell the difference? In your shoes, that’s not a step I’d want to take.
    – an argument that only works if you think that you are a better judge of what a divine revelation _really_ means than the people who experienced that revelation. If Jack says “God told me that all people must pray standing up!” and Jill says “No, He told me that all people must pray sitting down!”, are you presuming to tell them that no, they’re both wrong, and God really meant something else? Does God need you to stand as his interpreter? Are you ruling out a whole category of divine revelation as wrong, because as far as you’re concerned, God doesn’t do that kind of thing?

  • ProfessorPlum

    He did, after all, predict its destruction (Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6), and he was right.
    It even came before 100 A.D.
    I can’t believe no one has responded to Pepperjackcandy’s post from above yet.
    PJC, Mark was written after the temple was destroyed, and Luke and Matthew used Mark as a primary source. So, Jesus’s predictive abilities on this are a little, shall we say, unproven.
    He may have in fact predicted it. But Mark didn’t write it down until the destruction of the Temple.

  • Ray

    Beth, you’re confusing “deciding that the evidence supports a belief that X” and “deciding to believe X, for reasons that have nothing to do with the evidence for its existence”. (It’s hard to believe the confusion is accidental, but anyway…)
    You, me, and everybody on the thread applies Occam’s Razor regularly, by deciding that the evidence does not support a belief that pink unicorns exist. And yes, those beliefs are, at least partly, under your conscious control.
    If you want to say your belief in God is completely arational, just like your preference for The Beatles over The Who, that’s fine with me. (And I’m just glad it was a theist who made that comparison, because if I’d made it the howls would be loud)

  • Angelika

    As a theist, are you really willing to grant that your experiences of God, and the experiences of God that other people report and you find inspiring, could equally well be tricks played by Puck
    Well, as a theist I’d consider it even more stupid to reject the possibity of every kind of religious experience right away, just because I might not always be sure who is speaking.
    an argument that only works if you think that you are a better judge of what a divine revelation _really_ means than the people who experienced that revelation.
    Not quite. Somewhere above in the thread I described a religious experience of mine. And I know that I interpreted the experience according to my own Christian believe system, even though it did not contain any references to Christian dogma. I’d assume, that if the oppoponax had had the same experience, she would have interpreted it according to her pagan ideas. And despite it being the same experience, the way we would communicate it, would seem very contradictory to a third party.

  • Ray

    But are you willing to grant that your personal experience, which you thought was an experience of God, could have been an experience of a fairy pretending to be God? You’re happy with saying “I can’t be sure it was good, but it was definitely something supernatural”
    Again, that argument only works if you can be sure that religious experiences never contain immediate religion-specific messages. Okay, your experience was kind of generic, but are you saying that any religious experience that starts “This is Jehovah calling – not Allah, not Krishna, not Zeus, and not one of those other false gods you people keep thinking up, but JEHOVAH!” (cue FX) – any religious experience like that is definitely not what it is claimed to be?

  • Ray

    “I can’t be sure it was good…” should be “I can’t be sure it was God”, sorry