P4T-#1: What is faith and the proper relationship between evidence and faith?

Phil: What is faith as defined by the Bible and the proper definition between evidence and biblical faith?

  • Tim: The book of Hebrews (11:1) defines faith thusly, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Verse 3 follows with, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
    The English word “faith,” as it is often used in our present culture, obfuscates this biblical concept of “faith” almost from the get-go. When one hears the word “faith,” the image that often comes to mind is basically “blind faith” — the exercising of religiously based willpower to simply “believe” irrespective of any objective evidence. Thus, a better present-day English word to describe the biblical meaning of faith would be “trust.” So, to have “faith in God” is to place one’s trust in him.
    As for the relationship between evidence and biblical faith, when you look at the way “faith” (i.e. placing one’s trust in God) is promoted in the biblical narrative, I know of no section, properly interpreted, that presents it as a blind leap of faith without evidence to back it up. For instance, when the Jewish leaders were about to stone him, Jesus said to them, “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:37-38) Here, he is appealing to the evidence they’ve all seen, and this is typical of the way call to belief is handled in the Bible.
    Likewise, walking by ‘faith’ and not by ‘sight’ is not an expression of blind-faith. Rather, it is a recognition that the fulfillment of God’s promises are future tense, and we, of course, can’t see them fulfilled in the present. This, I think is what is taught in the long discourse in Hebrews 11 that mentions the saints of the Old Testament. Such people trusted in the future promise with present day obedience to God and are praised for trust; not blind obedience.
    I saw in one of your posts where you interpreted Jesus’ words in John 20:29 (Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”) to mean that believing without seeing is more praiseworthy, and that this means one is more likely to believe in falsehoods as a result. This, however, is in the context of “Doubting Thomas” and his reluctance to believe the testimony of the others without seeing for himself. If this were the only relevant statement on the subject, you might have a point, but in the context Jesus said it and put in conjunction with all the other instances where belief is encouraged, this is not a teaching that blind faith is superior to a reasoned, evidence-based faith.
    This is not to say there isn’t any role at all for subjective experiences of God. That is a form of “evidence” as well, though only on an individual level. This kind of “burning in the bosom” experience is what is emphasized in religions like Mormonism, and unfortunately that is often true among Christians as well. Whether that was a factor in your story or not, I don’t know, but it is often the case with young Christians with only an emotional experience as the basis for their faith. In a greenhouse environment, that might be enough for them, but not when confronted with their own inevitable doubts (I’ve had plenty of those too) and the challenges skeptics provide that they have no answers to.
    That, of course, is the role of apologetics, to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15) That is why evidence is so important for true biblical faith. Nevertheless, it will never be absolute proof, since it will always be possible to conjure up alternative scenarios to explain away any evidence, and this must be so if we are to maintain free will. If God exists and he were to display himself on a throne in the heavens or whatever in such a way that was undeniable, then belief in him would no longer have any element of “faith” left. That is where verse 6 in Hebrews 11 comes in: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
    So my stand is that God does give us plenty of powerful evidences of his existence, but not so overwhelming that an element of faith is no longer necessary.

Phil: From your comments, I could not distill when trust is and is not a virtue, and when waiting for (more) evidence is and is not a virtue. Could you rigorously spell out the conditions under which trust is virtuous and when it is inappropriate, and when demanding (more) evidence is virtuous and when it is inappropriate?

  • Tim: As I mentioned previously, I do not believe that we can get absolute proof about anything, including God’s existence. I actually believe that God has set things up to function that way so that we won’t be coerced, as it were, to believe in him because of being overwhelmed with evidence so strong that it constitutes absolute proof. So, when is there enough evidence? I don’t know that there is a clear line of demarcation between when seeking more evidence before placing one’s faith (trust) in some conclusion moves from virtue to vice, but I suppose it would be when there is sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion, but you refuse to do that because you personally don’t like the conclusion. If we apply this to such evidences as the absolute beginning of the universe along with its extreme degree of fine-tuning that makes our existence even possible, one thing that is important to note is that new evidences are coming to light all the time, and the trend line is very positively leaning in the theistic direction rather than a materialistic one. So, we can say to a skeptic that if the evidence is not strong enough for you now, just wait a few months and see which way new evidences are pointing. But if you reach a scientific conclusion based on philosophical premises rather than the actual evidence (and this applies to both theists and atheists), then you’re not following the evidence wherever it leads. I’ll comment more on this in my response to your response my initial question.

Phil: If you believe there can be no absolute proof of god, how can there be an appropriate absolute trust in that god? Why would this irrational trust that exceeds the evidence be virtuous?

And it appears that at the very foundation of the biblical gospel is the notion of faith (or “trust” as you call it). Why is there no clear demarcation of the point at which trust beyond the evidence is warranted when the consequence of getting it wrong is no less than our eternal destiny? Trusting too soon in the wrong religion such as Islam sends you to hell according to your bible, yet trusting too late in Jesus will also send you to hell.

Take the hypothetical of two 10-year-old children, one in a Christian family, and one in a Muslim family. Both are being encouraged by their families to adopt the faith of their ancestors. Could you specify what is proper course of action for each? What is the proper next step for each of those children given that they have both been presented only the evidence of testimonies of changed lives within their respective religious communities?

  • Tim: Your characterization “this irrational trust that exceeds the evidence” is mere assertion on your part. When you look at the total force of the numerous arguments for God’s existence (cosmological, moral, ontological, etc.) along with God’s intricate designs that allow our physical existence and then put on top of that foundation the experiential evidence of encounters with God, etc., it hardly seems “irrational trust that exceeds the evidence.”
    As for your hypothetical cases, the proper next step for those who have been presented “only the evidence of testimonies of changed lives within their respective religious communities” it to test out the teachings they’ve received against the clear facts of the natural world and of human history. All of our ideas, including religious notions, need to be put to the test to see if they stand up to reality. You obviously think that Christianity doesn’t jive with reality, and I would have to agree that certain forms of it do have problems in that area. Those known as “young-earth creationists,” for instance, come to mind. While I would agree with them on numerous central points that are fundamental to the faith, I think they are way off in their interpretations of Genesis and the record of nature.
    Unfortunately, not many people take the time to actually do the hard work of really checking things out. In many cases, including within Christianity, all a young person has is various “testimonies” and subjective experiences with no firm foundation to ground them in. And so it’s quite easy for them to “lose their testimony” when they find themselves overwhelmed with objections they have no answers to.

Phil: Tim, when I said “this irrational trust that exceeds the evidence”, I was making no assertion about my own position as you claim. I was simply restating yours. You believe in a notion of trust that must necessarily go beyond the limited inductive evidence to give you full certainty, don’t you?

And if I understand you correctly, you believe that any young adolescent child who hears a Muslim or Christian gospel in isolation of evidence other than the integrity of their parents cannot yet take the leap of trust. They are obligated to “test out the teachings they’ve received against the clear facts of the natural world and of human history”, is this correct?

  • Tim: Phil, I fail to see how your supposed restating of my position and then referring to that as “irrational” is not at least strongly implying an assertion of your own position. Are you saying that unless one has absolute proof beyond any possible doubt that it is irrational to place your trust in something? Actually, we need to go back to your full statement, where you say, “If you believe there can be no absolute proof of god, how can there be an appropriate absolute trust in that god? Why would this irrational trust that exceeds the evidence be virtuous?” I, of course, am the one who brought up the phrase “absolute proof of God,” and by that I mean proof with no possible doubt. But just like when sitting on a jury to judge innocence or guilt, the standard is not “no possible doubt” but “no reasonable doubt.” Do you mean something different by “absolute proof?” And how about “full certainty?” What do you mean by that?
    I also want to challenge you on your question in the previous post as well, where you said, “Why is there no clear demarcation of the point at which trust beyond the evidence is warranted when the consequence of getting it wrong is no less than our eternal destiny?” I would answer thusly: “A person is judged based on what they do know and not on what they don’t know.” The Bible makes it clear that everyone understands there is a God, what some of his attributes are, and that all will be judged according to that knowledge. Basically, the Christian position is that there is enough evidence in nature to clearly indicate that God exists and that our response to this evidence, along with the internal evidence of the conscience, is enough for God to rightly judge each of us.
    And as for your hypothetical about children raised in Muslim and Christian families, no one is “obligated” to test out anything. All I’m saying is that if you want to really get at the truth, that is the only way to do it. Anyone can “take a leap of trust (faith)” — including into a belief in atheism — but unless one is willing to test it out against objective facts, it will be a weak trust indeed. “Test all things and hold on to what is good (true).” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) Likewise, I could respond with a hypothetical of mine own: “The Muslim child looks around at nature and sees that the generic God of nature is not the Islamic God. This child then repents and believes in the general revelation that is around him.”

Phil: By “full certainty” I mean there is no doubt. “Less than a reasonable doubt” is still doubt if the evidence is inductively derived. (“Less than a reasonable doubt” is also subjectively defined, and such a less-than-discrete subjective definition is not adequate in a judicial context when the punitive consequences of belief/unbelief are at extreme poles such as are heaven and hell.) Can a rational mind having access to only non-deductive evidence (non-absolute evidence) legitimately arrive at no doubt (absolute certainty)? The following graphic based on a hypothetical proposition requiring inductive evidence will perhaps clarify my question.

  • Tim: Phil, nice graph! You have some computer skills that I don’t have, as I don’t know how to produce something like that (or is this borrowed from somewhere, which is what I would have to do to respond with something similar). I would agree that in the judicial context, “reasonable doubt” is somewhat subjective, but it is all that we have to work with, and so juries are routinely instructed to bring the guilty verdict when the evidence points to that conclusion “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I could always come up with some “possible” scenario to explain away the evidence and say I couldn’t render a guilty verdict, but that is not the real world. Occasionally, an innocent person may be wrongly convicted — even when the evidence was fairly treated and there was no collusion to railroad a guilty verdict, which has certainly happened even in the fairest of countries. So, what I object to in your characterization is that the movement from X to Y in your graph is “irrational.” This is where “Pascal’s Wager” comes into play. I could certainly be wrong in my beliefs, just as you could be. If I am wrong and there is no afterlife, no judgment, no heaven or hell, but just extinguishment into nothingness, then I haven’t really lost anything. But if you’re wrong and those realities do exist, then you’ve lost everything. You have nothing to gain (other than a perceived freedom to temporarily live your life as you please without consideration for any consequences other than temporal ones) and everything to loose. I think the odds are heavily in favor of my not being wrong about these things in general (though I likely do have some of the specifics not quite right), and so that’s the wager I would place — something I think is imminently rational.

Phil: I do want to continue this thread on faith/trust, but this appears to be a good opportunity to initiate a debate. You seem quite committed to Pascal’s Wager. I’m prepared to defend the position that Pascal’s Wager fails as a coherent argument in favor of Christianity. Will you accecpt this challenge?
Here is my proposed format.
Proposition: Pascal’s Wager fails as a coherent argument in favor of Christianity
1st round – P 1000 words | T 1000 words
2nd round – P 500 words | T 500 words
3rd round – P 200 words | T 200 words
Fair enough?

  • Tim: Phil, I think we have too many threads going on at the same time as it is. Pascal’s wager was not intended to prove Christianity. In fact, it isn’t even designed to serve as evidence in favor of Christianity, and so is not an argument for Christianity per se. It was simply proposed as an argument based on pragmatism that Christianity would be a prudent thing to place your bet on, from a pure cost-benefit analysis. So, since I don’t think it is meant to be a “coherent argument in favor of Christianity” in the first place (i.e. whether Christianity is true or not), let’s just leave it at that.

Phil: Then can you explain why you introduced Pascal’s Wager if it is not a logically coherent argument? Didn’t you call a decision based on Pascals Wager “imminently rational”? Do you think someone accepting The Gospel based on Pascal’s Wager has acquired salvation?

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