Monday, January 18, 2010

Irrational Faith

In Beyond Critical Thinking, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael S Roth discusses the universities’ emphasis on critical thinking and the limitations of such an approach. He points out that not only do universities encourage critical thinking in the context of higher education, but that they are producing graduates who believe that ‘being smart means being critical’. Roth also says:

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to "trouble" ideas.

‘Self-satisfied debunkers’ have not just popped up recently. They have been with us for quite some time.

In The Theological Orations, Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390 AD) says that God should not be talked about before people ‘who watch what we do with overgreat care and would take the spark of what is wrong in us to become a flame, and secretly kindle and fan it and raise it to Heaven with their breath and make it higher than the Babylonian flame which burned up everything around it. For since their strength lies not in their own dogmas, they hunt for it in our weak points. And therefore they apply themselves to our, shall I say, ‘misfortunes’ or ‘failings’ like flies to wounds.'

Gregory of Nazianzus’ main point was that philosophising about God should be kept within proper bounds. (And, I might add, advice that I find extremely difficult to heed. I would talk theology with my dog if he would let me.) But it does say something interesting about approaches to Christian beliefs.

For it does seem that there are a number of people who want only to point out the flaws in what Christians believe. Then we get a whole lot of Christians pointing out the flaws in the atheists’ arguments. Everybody is doing a great deal of critical thinking. But I’m not sure that any of it gets us any closer to understanding God.

God’s existence does not rely on our ability to put forward a good argument. If I do a terrible job of explaining why I believe in God, that does not mean my belief in God is misplaced. And if someone finds faults in what I am saying, that does not mean that what I am saying is untrue. In a university essay, a student will get good marks if they give good reasons for their thesis – regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Conversely, if I fail to state good reasons for my beliefs, it says more about my lack of ability to put forward a good argument than it does about the beliefs themselves.

And so it seems to me that people who want to point out the flaws in what Christians say or believe are proving nothing more than who is the best critical thinker. Which I suppose can be quite an interesting exercise for some people. And I guess it can be quite an ego boost to know you bested someone in an argument who has beliefs different to your own. But it doesn’t really seem like a very productive exercise to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

Second, Christian faith does not rely on reasoning alone. To some, this automatically discredits it. If critical thinking and good arguments are held up as the ultimate method by which all issues should be resolved, then anything that cannot be proven is seen as irrational. In such a world, I suppose it makes some kind of sense to point out why belief in God is not a rational belief to have.

The problem is that I don’t think belief in God is rational. I – like many other Christians, I’m sure - didn’t come to my beliefs through good arguments and critical thinking. I came to them through faith. And for some, faith is a very bad reason for believing anything. For others, it is the best possible reason.

When my sons were babies and they were hungry, like all babies, they cried. They could not tell me they needed food. They certainly could not explain their reasons for wanting food. If I had entered into a debate with them on whether they actually needed food or not, I would have easily won. But it wouldn’t have removed their hunger. And what is the best reason for feeding a baby? A good essay on the necessity of giving babies food or a baby who cries because he is hungry?

I have a hunger – a spiritual hunger. My soul cries out for God. And I cannot put those cries into words, for that hunger belongs to a place whose language I have not yet learnt. Yet still I know that hunger is real. And I know the God I cry for is real.

And if that knowledge rested on how well people debated the issue, that knowledge may easily be lost. But it rests on something far more important than that. For this knowledge is not the kind of knowledge that sits in the mind, pushed and squeezed by all the other notions that are competing for the same space. It is instead a certainty that lies deep in the soul. And it is far too deep and solid to be affected by anyone’s critical thinking.

I’m sure, if you try, you can find flaws in this post. I did not argue this very well. I did not show my reasoning here. This point seems to contradict another point. That sentence goes against what the evidence tells us.

So point out its flaws. Destroy my arguments with your critical thinking.

Just don’t expect me to care.


  1. Hi Liz,

    The thing with faith is, once you possess it, you don't have to justify it to anyone. It is a certitude.

    To possess faith is to say, "I believe this, I believe that, but I do not believe ..."

    I'll have a better read of this later this afternoon and make a longer response, especially to what St Gregory had to say ...

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    Sorry I didn't reply to this earlier. I was waiting to hear what else you had to say.

    The passage from St Gregory was in a book I am reading, called Christology of the Later Fathers, which I am finding interesting. I am now up to Gregory of Nyssa. I had already read the article about critical thinking. And so those two things together sparked the idea for the article.

    Among my friends and family, I don't have to justify my faith very often, as most of the people I know believe in God. And this article was written more with public figures in mind, like Christopher Hitchens.

    But I have needed to explain the reasons for my move to Catholicism to a lot of people. I wasn't thinking of that at all when I wrote this - and it is a different situation. But it has made me now wonder whether I am trying too hard to justify that decision to everyone.




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