Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Gen Eds Series P2: Philosophy of Religion

This is the second week of philosophy in my series, "The Gen Eds in a Nutshell." Last week I overviewed the subject matter of philosophy and set out a course for twelve posts on the topic.

1. A philosophy class might not normally begin with the philosophy of religion. Questions about God, as it were, are logically a subcategory of questions about what is real (metaphysics). And before we can ask questions about anything, don't we have to establish what it means for something to be true (epistemology)?

I start with philosophy of religion not only because I teach in a Christian context but because some Christians believe there are certain assumptions or presuppositions that must be made before any discussion of truth can take place. These are "epistemological" questions that have to be addressed first if that particular way of Christian thinking is correct.

We are dealing here with the role of reason and revelation when it comes to truth. We might outline three basic positions:
  • I believe in order to understand (credo ut intelligam, Anselm)
  • I understand in order to believe (intelligo ut credam)
  • I believe because it is absurd (credo quia absurdam, Tertullian)
At present, there are strong forces in Christian circles against a predominant role for "reason" and evidentiary thinking in theological or Christian philosophical thinking. This way of thinking is particularly typical in Reformed thinking ("Reformed epistemology"), which has often emphasized the given-ness of Christian belief. from this perspective, unless you assume the right presuppositions (which the elect will ultimately assume), you cannot hope to arrive at the right conclusions.

These forces have had significant influence in late twentieth century American Christian thinking, and they have been empowered by postmodernism in recent decades. Late twentieth century postmodernism seriously undermined any claim to objectivity on the part of thinkers, opening the door for a kind of fideism which isolates faith from any rational evaluation or evaluation on the basis of evidence.

Another force that fits this Zeitgeist or "spirit of the age" is post-liberalism. Post-liberalism is a post-modern movement toward faith emerging from "liberal" circles where traditional faith claims had largely been marginalized, especially in mainline churches and seminaries. Post-liberalism tends to see all of us as situated within "narratives" from which we cannot remove ourselves in order to get anything like an objective standpoint. From this perspective, we cannot really get outside of our narrative in order to evaluate our narrative, so we more or less can just assume it. [1]

2. By contrast, the Methodist tradition has more typically seen a significant role for reason in truth-seeking, born as it was at the height of the Enlightenment. Wesley's theological method has often been called a "quadrilateral" of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. [2] American frontier Christianity, both heavily Methodist and Baptist, was very comfortable with human reason, and the possibility that argument or persuasion might convince someone to believe. American fundamentalism, which is strongly Baptistic, has always claimed to correlate strongly with reason and evidence, as captured well in the title of Josh McDowell's well known book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

The Catholic tradition has also had a strong openness to rational argument, especially under the influence of Thomas Aquinas. "Faith seeking understanding" may be the dominant mode of truth-pursuit, but reason is not seen as the enemy of faith. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps. 14:1) is taken to indicate that there is both natural revelation (truths that God has put into the universe to be discovered) and special revelation (truths we would not know unless God revealed them.

Next week's post on epistemology will set out an argument for a kind of critical realism. This perspective recognizes that no one is objective and that none of us can have a God's eye view of truth. But reason and evidence are paths to truth. Indeed, they are ultimately inescapable. The evidence may not demand a verdict, but Christian faith hopefully is not irrational. That which refuses to be subject to evaluation is prone to abuse.

3. "Faith versus evidence" is thus one key topic within the philosophy of religion. We might mention three others: 2) the meaning of life, 3) arguments for the existence of God, and 4) the problem of evil and suffering.

The meaning of life of course relates heavily to other topics in philosophy like the philosophy of a person and ethics. Nevertheless, religion usually makes claims on ultimate meaning. Albert Camus once suggested that the only serious philosophical question was, "Why not suicide?" [3] In other words, what do you have to live for? For him, this was a question without a particular answer. A person simply needed to have one or end it all.

Soren Kierkegaard started this "existentialist" line of thinking in the 1800s. For him, we take a "leap of faith" to embrace some meaning in our lives. For him, God was the appropriate destination toward which to jump. But of course he had no basis to preclude jumping into something else.

Christians believe that God should be the ultimate focus of our existence. As the Westminster Confession says, "The chief goal of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Augustine prayed to God, "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you." God is thus should be the focus of our lives, the one for whom we exist. He is the meaning of life.

4. Many arguments have been made for the existence of God. It is not clear that they actually prove God's existence, although they may suggest that faith in God's existence is reasonable. Alvin Plantinga, coming from a Reformed perspective, has suggested that belief in God is a "warranted Christian belief." That is to say, it is such a fundamental human belief that no argument is necessary.

Blaise Pascal suggested that belief in God is a good wager to make. If you are wrong, you have lost nothing. If you are right, you have won everything. However, Pascal did not believe God had made his existence obvious. Rather, God had left his existence sufficiently ambiguous that believing in him required faith more than proof.

Nevertheless, the three classical arguments for the existence of God are the 1) cosmological argument, 2) the teleological argument, and 3) the ontological argument. The cosmological argument suggests that the existence of the universe needs to have a cause, since we observe no effect in this world without a cause. [4] The current consensus that the universe was created in a big bang and that it began 13.8 billion years ago plays into this argument. What caused it to begin? [5]

The teleological argument is sometimes called the argument from design. It suggests that the complexity of the universe is unfathomable without positing some sort of intelligent Designer. While this idea is often applied to the question of evolution by chance, the argument extends much further. Life on the earth is predicated on a razor thin set of circumstances, sometimes called the "anthropic principle."

If the earth were a little closer or further away from the sun, life would not exist as it does. In current theory, if there had not been a two in a billion imbalance between matter and antimatter in the early universe, no stars or galaxies would be here. In current theory, if the sun had not burned and exploded multiple times, there would be no heavy elements to form the world. Even smaller molecules like carbon and oxygen were not the immediate by-products of helium fusion in the early universe, in the current understanding.

All that is to say, an unfathomable number of chance events would have had to happen in just the right sequence for life to be here by chance. It is much simpler to suppose that an unfathomable Mind was involved.

A third argument usually mentioned is the ontological argument. In its principal forms, it is unconvincing. As Anselm in the 1000s and Descartes in the 1500s formulated it, it largely argued that God must exist in reality because he exists in our minds. If I can conceive of God, he must exist.

But perhaps there is a more profound version of the argument, perhaps something akin to Thomas Aquinas' argument for God as a necessary Being. If every thing that exists were contingent, then there would be no basis for anything to exist. Surely, Aquinas argued, there must at least be one Thing that exists necessarily, which cannot not exist. This, he suggested, we call God.

Ultimately, the strongest reason to believe in God is a personal one. In Wesleyan theology, God reaches out to everyone in the world at some point of their life so that no one can be without excuse (prevenient grace). In Calvinist theology, God reaches out to those who are chosen. In either case, faith in God is initiated and empowered by God himself.

If these beliefs are true, we should expect them to correspond to our experience. We should experience a "tug" from God that leads us toward faith in his existence and goodness. It is not a matter of rational proof, although it is more than likely that God draws some people to him through argument. Ultimately, however, our faith comes from an encounter with God and so, for any specific individual, the definitive argument for God's existence is a matter of personal experience.

5. The problem of suffering and evil is one of the strongest objections to the idea of God, especially against a God who cares for his creation. It is often noted that the other arguments for the existence of God do not in any way point toward a God who is good, even if they suggest a creator. [6]

The issue has been expressed in this way: "If God is God he is not good. If God is good he is not God." [7] The idea here is that if God had the power to stop evil and suffering, he would have if he were good. On the other hand, if God is good, then he must not have the power to stop evil and suffering.

Two primary arguments have been advanced to explain the conundrum. The one is called the "Irenaean theodicy," where a theodicy is an explanation for how God can be just and yet evil persist. Irenaeus' suggestion was that God uses suffering to help us grow morally. The struggle against suffering and evil helps us become better people. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was no friend to Christianity, "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Perhaps better known is the "Augustinian" or "free will theodicy." The idea here is that God does not force us to choose the good because a world in which we freely (or somewhat freely) choose him and the good is a better world than one in which we are forced to do the good. But if God gives humanity the freedom to choose, some will make the wrong choice and will bring evil into the world.

Of course in Augustine's thinking, it was Adam, the first human, who made the wrong free choice. Now, according to Augustine, the world is fallen. Sin is woven into the fabric of the universe. The evil and suffering in the world is not only the result of the evil perpetuated by fallen angels but is the direct consequence of Adam's sin.

From Paul's perspective, perhaps we might say more precisely that our world is currently under the power of Sin. Christians believe that God has used his power to address this situation. He sent Jesus to fix the problem and to identify with human suffering. The power of Sin is broken, even if it has not finally disappeared. But God has definitively addressed the problem of evil and suffering. The solution just has not finally worked its way out into history.

6. These are thus the primary topics relating to the philosophy of religion: the role of reason and evidence in faith, the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the problem of evil and suffering.

Next week: Philosophy 3: How do I know what I think I know?

Classical Reading
  • Plato's Euthyphro
  • Augustine's ConfessionsCity of God
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
  • Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

[1] It is thus another kind of fideism that tries to isolate itself from the possibility of critique.

[2] Unsurprisingly, post-liberal forces in the Methodist tradition have pushed back on this description in recent decades.

[3] The Myth of Sisyphus.

[4] Thus the law of conservation of mass and energy. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, although we have come to learn that it can be converted to energy.

[5] One theory currently in play is the idea that our universe is just one "bubble" as it were in a multiverse. Even if this theory were to gain traction, it might only extend the question back into such a multiverse. What caused the multiverse?

[6] A "moral argument" is sometimes made to suggest a moral God. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis suggested that the fact that human beings have a morality (not the specific content of that morality) suggested a moral God. Given the general moral state of the world, however, it seems difficult to argue for a moral God on the basis of human morality.

[7] From Archibald MacLeish's play, J.B.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this.

Alex said...

This and seminary series would be great podcasts.