Friday, March 03, 2006

A reflection on religious doubt

You raised the question of 'doubt' today in a conversation with me. You said that you remembered when I was received into the Church and now found, ironically, that you were having doubts about your faith. You said that I must have "faith," as though it were some sort of achievement. This got me thinking.

Curiously enough, as soon as I got back to my office, I received an email with this provocative quotation on the question of 'doubt' by St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Doubt can happen to some in matters of faith but this is not because of any lack of certitude in the thing itself but because of the weakness of the human intellect. And yet it is at least true that whatever can be obtained in the knowledge of the highest realities is more desirable than absolutely certain knowledge in matters of least importance." (Summa Theologiae Part One, Question 1, Article 5).
The last sentence has, it seems to me, a Pascalian implication: though our knowledge in matters of least importance may seem much more epistemologically certain in terms of 'disinterested' scientific categories, our knowledge of the highest realities is much more desirable. I'm sure you've read Pascal, so I'll say no more about this now.

The first sentence, however, is no less intesting, because it supposes a distinction between what is subjectively certain and what is objectively certain. Matters of faith, it says, are not lacking in (objective) certitude, but may seem (subjectively) uncertain because of the weakness of the human intellect.

This leads me to an observation: I was puzzled when you referred to me as a person who seemed to "have faith," because it seemed to suggest that faith involves some sort of virtue. I can imagine only one circumstance in which that might be so: in the circumstance that one's fidelity is called upon in the face of prima facie data that may suggest the opposite -- as, for example, when one is confronted by 'data' suggesting his wife's infidelity, but gives her the benefit of his doubt because he trusts her (and it is virtuous in such a circumstance to doubt the 'data' and trust her).

On the other hand, I usually don't find myself called upon to exercise such 'virtuous' or 'heroic' faith in matters of religion -- perhaps because my faith has never been tested quite like that of Job in the Old Testament. In any case, this is where Aquinas' statement, to me, makes a great deal of sense. He says that our lack of faith comes from "weakness of the human intellect." He does not intend "weakness" here, I believe, in any sense suggesting any defect of moral virtue. Rather, I believe he is thinking about the metaphysical deficiency of the human intellect vis-a-vis its supernatural object, which, in this case, far surpasses its limited capacity. Because of this weakness, our knowledge of God must rest on a posteri inductions from the empirical record of history (about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, etc.), metaphysical inferences of an analogical nature based on divine revelation (about God's existence, and loving, merciful, fatherly nature, etc.), and existential intuitions forged out of our cultivation of a personal relationship with Christ (about his faithfulness, forgiveness, fidelity, etc.).

When someone says I have "faith," then, I feel rather awkward and uncomfortable if this suggests that faith is some sort of virtuous achievement, because faith -- as a species of "intellectual assent," is something effortless. It is effortless to believe in something when you have the right facts to support your belief. It becomes difficult to believe when those facts are covered over by apparenly contradictory facts suggesting the belief is not well founded. If I have faith, perhaps it is because some things seem evident to me that to not seem evident to others.

Basil Mitchell has a parable of a freedom fighter from the Second World War:
In an occupied country during the second world war, a freedom fighter meets a mysterious stranger and spends the night in deep conversation. The stranger tells the fighter that he is on the side of the resistance, even if at times he might be seen helping the enemy. They never meet alone again. The fighter's faith in the stranger is constantly tested. Sometimes he helps members of the resistance and they are grateful that he is on their side. Then the stranger is seen with German officers, going into their headquarters and attending parties with them. Sometimes he is seen in police uniform handing over patriots to the occupying forces. However the freedom fighter still trusts him. Sometimes he asks the stranger for help, and he receives it. Sometimes he asks and no help is given, but he still feels that 'the stranger knows best'. His friends in the resistance finally say, 'Well, what wouldhe have to do for you to admit that you are wrong and he is not on our side?' The partisan refuses to condemn the stranger. Sometimes his friends say that if the stranger's conduct is what he means by 'being on his side' then the sooner he switches sides the better. Despite being tempted to lose faith in the stranger, as he sometimes sees him appearing to help the enemy and sometimes not, the figher always says t himself, 'The stranger knows best.' (Source.)
On the one hand, from the point of view of the skeptical agnostic, the freedom fighter could easily be taken to be a sort of fideist -- someone who 'blindly' believes. On the other hand, from the point of view of the fighter, it could be that he 'knows' something that others do not see by virtue of having had this personal encounter with the stranger. It's possible that he may have different data. Or, it's possible that he may have no different data, but perceives the same data differently. We all know, for example, how people say the "love is blind" -- whereas it is almost the exact opposite that is the case. It is the lover who sees in the beloved what the indifferent skeptic may not see. The Baptist evangelist, Billy Graham, may wake up in the morning and see a world saturated with the handiwork of God. The French existentialist, Albert Camus, may wake up and gaze upon the same 'data' and see a world evacuated of all meaning, pointless and utterly absurd.

Why is this? Does it mean there is no objective reality, that meaning is in the eye of the beholder? No, of course not. But it may mean that the 'evidence' and 'facts' are not simply neutral 'data', but always presuppose an interpreting subject. The question, then, might be: whom do you trust? Whose understanding of life and the world seems most penetrating, insightful, and trustworthy?