Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Taxonomy of Religious Belief

In his book, The Varieties of Belief, Paul Helm deals with four paradigms of belief. He deals with belief as a judgment of probabilities, based on certain natural analogies or empirical data. Secondly, he deals with belief as certainty grounded in the self-authenticating character of a document. He then deals with belief as a moral or regulative principle. Finally, he considers belief as an immediate awareness of God, akin to knowledge by acquaintance or persons and material objects.

The question of belief is as much a moral question as it is a spiritual and an intellectual question. Indeed, it is as much a theological question as it is a philosophical one. In fact, we must confess that the worldview of a particular individual informs their paradigm of belief as much, if not more, than their paradigm of belief informs their worldview. What should humans believe? What motivates us to believe certain claims and reject others? Do we have a right to believe some things and an obligation to reject others? Do we have an obligation to believe some things and a right to reject others? And why should we believe such things about belief to begin with? To be sure, the question of belief is not short on controversy or complexity.

William James, in his article, “The Will to Believe,” says “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”[1] If we place James’ assertion within the context of Helm’s first model of belief, we would conclude that the probability of a proposition is what informs the ethical disposition of belief. In this case, the revelation upon which belief rests must be determined to be most probably a revelation from God. Even though a proposition may be claim to be revelation from God, that proposition must be accompanied by evidence such that human reason can determine if in fact it s more probably true than not that it is a revelation from God. The point here is that belief that is based on revelation that is proven by human reason remains a most reasonable sort of belief. Stated a different way, John Locke asserts “that the same truths may be discovered and conveyed down from revelation, which are discoverable to us by reason, and by those ideas we naturally may have. Locke thought that a revealed proposition, once it is determined that it is in fact a revealed proposition, that believing that proposition is matter of faith. However, whether or not it is a fact that a proposition is a revealed proposition or not, is not a matter of faith, but one for reason to decide.

The second paradigm addressed by Helm is the view that belief is certainty grounded in the self-authenticating character of a document. Religious belief, in this sense, involves assent and/or acceptance. Calvin says, “When we call faith ‘knowledge’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception.”[2] This kind of assurance or assent is impossible to change. Calvin goes on to say, “But they are more strengthened by the persuasion of divine truth than instructed by rational proof.”[3] The former is the work of God while the latter is the work of men.

The connection between the assent or acceptance of the believer about God and His revelation rests entirely on the self-authenticating documents of sacred Scripture. Contrary to Locke’s opinion that reason must determine the status of something as it concerns divine revelation before belief in it’s content is wholly embraced; no such scheme can be employed here. Locke is arguing for the self-authentication of human reason, which is obviously contrary to Calvin and Owen’s view of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. The ‘reasons’ for the self-authenticating character of Scripture are internal to Scripture. Indeed, they must be internal if they are self-authenticating. Some will insist that the Christian ground this belief in something other than Scripture in order to avoid circularity. However, upon close examination, it is clear that Christianity is not unique in the sense that it’s ground is within it’s own system. “The framework propositions of the system are not put to the test, not backed up by evidence”[4] The point that Wittgenstein rightly make is that the moment we subject something to the test of justification, we are presupposing something that is not tested. However, the Christian is in a very enviable position because for him, the ground of belief for the self-authenticating character of Scripture is in God communicating and acting in Scripture. In other words, Christian theism’s ground for belief is in the personal, self-contained ontological Trinity speaking in Scripture.

“What is distinctive about this view of religious belief is that the proposition believed is certainly true, and that the believer is certain that it is certainly true.”[5] The objective of this sort of religious faith is truth from God. Knowledge is not used here because knowledge involves what is known comprehensively. God is incomprehensible from that perspective. Hence, reformed theologians prefer the use of belief rather than knowledge. The Christian faith is not grounded in propositions that are probably true. That view of belief belongs to different model than the one we are now discussing. Rather, the Christian faith is grounded in propositions that are “God speaking,” and hence, are reflective of the very authority of God Himself. The Christian model of belief is unique, not just in it’s claims, it’s view of reality, it’s epistemology, but it is particularly unique in that it sheds the multifarious problems around epistemic justification that other models are unable to solve.

In distinction to the first two models, Immanuel Kant held that religious belief is unique from the standpoint that it has a distinctly regulative character about it. Kant denies that religious faith has anything to do with knowledge. “The objects of religious faith must therefore be objects of pure reason, that is to say, pure practical reason.”[6] The issue for Kant is how he sees the objects of faith versus the objects of cognition. Ecclesiastical and historical faith belongs to the latter while pure religious faith belongs to the former. Kant believed that morality made the postulate of the existence of God necessary. The human reaches for the summum bonum, which cannot be obtained apart from things like duty, virtue, and wholesome living. However, without God, it seems that man could never secure “the systematic unity of the ends of morality.” Hence, in Kant religion is reduced to morality. According to Kant, the duties of morality are present in the commands of God.

Finally, Helm deals with John Hick’s view of belief as acquaintance. To be more precise, “The knowledge of God that it is claimed the believer has is not that he sees God but that he has a direct non-sensory but cognitive experience of God which provides not anyone, but the one who has the experience, with the grounds to claim ‘I know God.’”[7] Unlike Kant, who contends that religious belief is a matter of pure reason, Hick locates religious belief in human experience. We do not only experience God when feeling the duty of the divine command, but we also may sense Him in the solitude and beauty of the mountains and the sea. Additionally, Hick argues that our knowledge of God, being experiential, is always subject to interpretation and is therefore free. In fact, Hick argues that is must be deus absconditus, or obscure and hidden if indeed we are free to know Him. This brings us back to the idea that knowledge of God, being an interpretive act, is located in the will. Whether or not the experience reflects a cognitive knowledge of God depends on how the object of a particular experience voluntarily decides to interpret that experience.

The model of historical Christian orthodoxy is that belief is based on the self-authenticating authority and testimony of the documents we call sacred Scripture. The propositions that are believed supernaturally are regarded by the believer as certain. The ground for our belief is internal to the proposition.







[1] Baruch A. Brody, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, ©1992), 39.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1960), III.14.559.
[3] Ibid., 560.
[4] Baruch A. Brody, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, ©1992), 65.
[5] Paul, Helm, Varieties of Belief: 4 (Muirhead Library of Philosophy), Reprint ed. (Humanities Press, New York, NY, 2013), 112.
[6] Ibid., 120.
[7] Ibid., 140.

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