Tuesday, April 08, 2008


The opposite of faith isn't doubt; it's certainty.
-- Anne Lamott

Having come to the Easter season (I began writing this on the evening of Easter Sunday; it's now two weeks and one day later, but still within the liturgical Easter), it seems appropriate to review my Ash Wednesday post, and reflect on what's transpired since. In that post, I wrote:

As I've noted recently, I have great difficulty with the notion of "faith" as it is commonly understood in a Christian context; that is, as a willingness to suspend skepticism with regard to propositions that are not amenable to empirical testing.
This drew a response from Marcia Tremmel, wife of my old high school and college friend Allan, and herself a deacon of the Episcopal Church:
I'm not sure that's my idea of faith. I am not at all sure that God expects us to suspend our skepticism or to walk away from such empirical testing as our current levels of science and knowledge permit. Those levels move almost daily - just look at the physics we grasp now compared to 50 years ago. The Letter to the Hebrews defines faith as "being sure of what we hope for and certain of that which we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) It doesn't say a thing about maintaining a blind and stubborn certainty about things our empirical observations have proved otherwise. To me, being sure of what I hope for and certain of what I do not see, is remembering that I (and you and all of us) are created in God's image, redeemed by the death of His Son, and sustained by the gift of the Holy Spirit. That, to me, is way bigger than any empirical testing done or not done, or that might become possible tomorrow or next week, so why not do that empirical observation? God's big enough to handle it.

The first syllable of 'remembering' is stressed because I'm thinking of the way my Vicar says the words of institution in the Great Thanksgiving - "do this in remembrance of me." He's stresses that syllable because he's trying to get across that we are not thinking about something that happened a long time ago, but bringing it into the present moment--into our lives today--anamnesis--right now. I catch it because I'm standing next to him at the Altar; the rest of the congregation I'm sure doesn't notice.
I remembered what Marcia had written to me during our Easter Sunday mass, when our Rector made the point about the resurrection not being some historical event, but something that is present for us and in us now. I still have trouble with the notion of a physical resurrection, of a body which has been in a state of decomposition for over two days coming back to life like one of George Romero's zombies; indeed, I have a serious problem with the notion of "miracles" in general, and nothing that C.S. Lewis wrote on the subject seems convincing to me. (Update: I linked to Tattersall's article because his objections to Lewis's arguments in Miracles seemed pretty much in accord with mine, if better thought out. Now that I've had the opportunity to skim Darek Barefoot's response to Tattersall, I see that I'll need to revisit this issue in another post.) Nevertheless, the notion of "resurrection" as the remembrance of Jesus' teachings by his disciples, and by the heirs of those disciples down to the present and into the future, does not run afoul of that objection. Others might cavil that this provides the basis for only a denatured form of Christianity, but more about that in a later post.

It was what Marcia wrote about the definition of "faith," however, that particularly caught my attention. When I read it, I realized that I had used a meaning that was at variance with something I had read many years ago. That was Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith. I got it from my bookcase and quickly found my definition skewered at the beginning of Chapter Two, "What Faith is Not." Under the heading, "The intellectualistic distortion of the meaning of faith," Tillich writes:
The most ordinary misinterpretation of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. Something more or less probable or improbable is affirmed in spite of the insufficiency of its theoretical substantiation.
Tillich then distinguishes between faith and belief, the latter being based either on "evidence sufficient to make the event probable" or trust in some authority who has answers; that is, who has evaluated the evidence in a way I regard as trustworthy; much as I might trust the late Richard Feynman on the topic of quantum physics, or Jancis Robinson on what wine to have with roast duck. Such trust, however, is not the same thing as faith, because trust is conditional--if some other authority I respect publishes something that contradicts or modifies what Feynman wrote about quantum physics, I may decide to believe the new theory; if Ms. Robinson recommends a wine that I don't like, well, de gustibus non disputandum est--while faith is unconditional.

So, just what is this unconditional faith? According to Tillich, it is not knowledge.
Faith does not affirm or deny what belongs to the prescientific or scientific knowledge of our world, whether we know it by direct experience or through the experience of others. The knowledge of our world (including ourselves as part of the world) is a matter of inquiry by ourselves or by those in whom we trust. It is not a matter of faith.
In this respect, Tillich anticipated the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument for "nonoverlapping magisteria" or "NOMA"; that is, that the magisteria (teachings) of science and religion, as properly understood, cannot be in conflict because they address different spheres of human experience. As Gould put it:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.*
But this still doesn't answer the question: What is faith? Faith, for Tillich, means "the state of being ultimately concerned." What would it mean for Gould? My quick-and-dirty research has failed to uncover anything Gould wrote addressing that question. Gould proclaimed himself an agnostic, but not hostile to religion:
I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball).
(Now there's a man who had his priorities in good order.) Gould went on to write:
As a moral position (and therefore not as a deduction from my knowledge of nature's factuality), I prefer the "cold bath" theory that nature can be truly "cruel" and "indifferent"—in the utterly inappropriate terms of our ethical discourse—because nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn't know we were coming (we are, after all, interlopers of the latest geological microsecond), and doesn't give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing, because we then become free to conduct moral discourse—and nothing could be more important—in our own terms, spared from the delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature's factuality.
I think that this passage indicates that Gould's "ultimate concern" (note the words "nothing could be more important") is the freedom of humans to determine the moral framework governing their lives through rational "discourse" rather than through revelation. While to many this seems the opposite of "faith," to Tillich it exemplifies a particular type of faith, specifically, a "humanistic" faith of the "moral" or "progressive-utopian" type. Of such a faith, Tillich writes:
The faith of the fighters for enlightenment since the eighteenth century is a humanist faith of the moral type. They fought for freedom from sacramentally consecrated bondage and for justice for every human being. ... It was faith, and not rational calculation, although they believed in the superior power of a reason united with justice and truth. ... As for every faith, the utopian form of the humanist faith is a state of ultimate concern.
Because it is "ultimate concern," it is faith; for Tillich, the only way to be without faith is to have no ultimate concern.

What is "ultimate concern"? According to Tillich, it is defined in Deuteronomy 6:5, the so-called "Great Commandment": "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (N.R.S.V.)
This is what ultimate concern means and from these words the term "ultimate concern" is derived. They state unambiguously the character of genuine faith, the demand of total surrender to the subject of ultimate concern.
Yet it is obvious that it possible to have faith, even "genuine" faith in the sense of the demand for total surrender, in something other than the "Lord your God." At the beginning of Dynamics, Tillich gives two examples. The first, making reference no doubt to Nazi ideology but with application to jingoism anywhere, is a totalistic nationalism, and the second is "the ultimate concern with 'success' and with social standing and economic power."
It is the god of many people in the highly competitive Western culture and it does what every ultimate concern must do: it demands unconditional surrender to its laws even if the price is the sacrifice of genuine human relations, personal conviction, and creative eros. Its threat is social and economic defeat, and its promise--indefinite as all such promises--the fulfillment of one's being. ...When fulfilled, the promise of this faith proves to be empty.
Later, Tillich makes a similar, if somewhat qualified, assertion concerning humanistic or secular faith.
It is faith, but it hides the dimension of the ultimate which it presupposes. Its weakness or danger is that it may become empty. History has shown this weakness and final emptiness of all merely secular cultures. It has turned them back again and again to the religious forms of faith from which they came.
At this point, I confess to being a bit perplexed. I don't think Tillich is arguing here for the elimination or erosion of the separation of church and state. Rather, he seems to me to have asserted that a culture that is not informed by religious faith, even perhaps a plurality of faiths, has a fatal weakness. However, I wish he had given examples of "merely secular cultures" that had "turned...back...to the religious forms of faith from which they came." Perhaps some readers can help.

A more fundamental difficulty for me is defining the nature of that "ultimate" which, according to Tillich, is the proper--as opposed to idolatrous, like those discussed above--object of ultimate concern. According to the Great Commandment it is "the Lord your God." Here is where Tillich made a clever move:
The fundamental symbol of our ultimate concern is God. It is always present in any act of faith, even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God.
Well, OK. Tillich has already posited ultimate concerns--nationalism, success, humanism--that are not "God" as understood in religious terms. Suppose I were to say, as I believe Gould would have, that my ultimate concern is with human freedom to establish a moral order based on reason, and not on divine command. Would I be denying God in the name of God? To cut to the chase, what Tillich seemed to be saying is that whatever is our ultimate concern is, for us, God, and that, consequently, no one can be an atheist, or even agnostic, no matter what that ultimate concern may be. It all seems to me a bit, dare I say, tautological.

So where do I end up on all this? It would be easy if I could just state, "My ultimate concern is X." At my age, it should be a question I could readily answer. Not long ago, I would have given the same answer to that question that I hypothesized Gould's giving: that it is the freedom to determine the moral order through reason alone. I would have said that despite regularly attending church services. If pressed as to the sincerity of my religiosity, I would have given a flip answer (as I actually once did) like, "I'm just an ontological reductionist who gets off on good liturgy."

Today, I'm not so sure. The mere fact that I can "get off" on liturgy points to something: Tillich might have said it was an indication of a "sacramental" form of faith. I've sometimes been accused, with good reason, of wanting to have things both ways. Tillich's radical separation of faith from the empirical and Gould's NOMA give me some comfort in this respect. I like to say that my position is one of epistemological modesty. By this I mean that I retain a healthy skepticism about claims that are not readily testable, but also keep in mind, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."** There's a fine line between this kind of open-mindedness and credulousness, but I try to stay on the right side of it. At least, I hope that Archaeopteryx will concede that I still have functioning neurons.

Lastly, I must address the apparent conflict between the epigram at the start of this post from Anne Lamott, which I got courtesy of our Rector, Steve Muncie, and the words from Paul's letter to the Hebrews (11:1) quoted by Marcia. I like Ms. Lamott's statement that the opposite of faith is certainty because it seems in accord with my position of epistemological modesty. Yet Paul wrote of faith as being "certain of that which we do not see." On reading this, I was tempted to interpret it as meaning "certain that there are things that we do not see." This would mean a certainty of there being uncertainty, certainly in agreement with the modest position. Unfortunately, I don't have access to, or knowledge of, the original Greek, so I couldn't attempt my own exegesis. I looked to see how the verse was rendered in my Cambridge Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version), and found it was
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The Cambridge scholars helpfully appended to this and the succeeding two verses*** this note:
The explanation of faith given here conforms in style to definitions in Greek philosophical writings, and the crucial terms, conviction and assurance, carry philosophical meaning as to how ultimate reality can be known. But the writer has made a crucial addition: faith is oriented toward the future and is grounded in the hope of fulfillment of God's purpose. The assurance is that the heavenly realities, which humans have not yet seen, will be revealed to God's faithful people, just as the ancestors looked forward to this reality. God's word, which was the instrument for shaping the creation...and the ages of history (worlds), is here seen as disclosing an eternal world which exists in the heavens but is not visible to humans.
(Emphasis in original; citations omitted.) Perhaps the crucial point here is that the certainty in question is "oriented toward the future" and "grounded in hope." This can be contrasted to the "certainty" of Biblical literalism, or fundamentalism, which is oriented towards the past (and which, I suspect, is the "certainty" that Ms. Lamott had in mind). (Biblical literalism is also, for Tillich, a form of idolatrous faith; a point I mean to take up in a later post.)

Over to you, Marcia (and anyone else who wants to chime in).

Update: Thanks to Archaeopteryx for linking to this post both on his blog and on the Faith-Based Fray, where it's already generated lots of discussion.

*Gould recognized that, while the magisteria of science and religion do not overlap, there are important issues that implicate both:
Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both [magisteria] for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?
**Hamlet, I, v.

***These are
2. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.
3. By faith, we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Hebrews 11:2-3 (N.R.S.V.). The second clause of verse three may be a restatement of Democritus' atomic theory.


  1. "Functioning Neurons?" This is an awesome post. Thanks for it.

  2. This is a rich post, Claude. It is too well thought out for me to make a simple comment of any merit. So, I shall say “thank you” for the stimulation you have provided to my mind and continue to contemplate your words.

  3. Anonymous4:38 PM

    Please forgive my lack of coherency, but here are points I want to put down...I realize there is a suppressed premise in here somewhere, but I'm not sure how to state it:

    1. I am certain that there are things unseen that exist. To someone who doesn't share my certainty, I guess my beliefs would be seen as faith, so I'm thinking faith and certainty are not opposites, unless you're the person who doesn't share the beliefs of the believer.

    2a.Empiricism is a funny critter. I think sometimes it was born of an alcoholic culture. Drunks lie. And they hurt people...a LOT. I'm not going to waste your time explaining that I think the desire to codify privacy came from the same cultural dysfunction (so alcoholics can do whatever they please without prying eyes or questions) ... I think these two issues are related in about 12 indirect ways...but anyhoo...

    2b. When people find that they cannot trust their authority figures, they start looking to demand proof...they decide they're not going to believe something unless they see it with their own eyes.

    3. Maybe the Abrahamics made a mistake in etching their mythology in stone and on paper. Truth changes as circumstances do. Facts no. Truth, yes.

    4 (and maybe a little of number 1). This reminds me of something I was telling archaeopteryx, elsewhere.

    This was an excellent post, and I've copy/pasted it to my documents so I can read and reread it. (I find that I will eventually understand more of these things with each new attempt at comprehension.)

    Thank you.

  4. I have a hard time accepting a devotion to any ultimate concern--I suppose it's no surprise that creatures who'd surrender to any such forever want to impress themselves on people of innumerable caveats (such as me). Tillich's substitution of any "ultimate concern" for God is a projection, perhaps. To theists, everyone seems to look like a theist. (An issue with something I'm reading right now.)

    I can get down with certainty of uncertainty though, and that right there is as close I can get at my (still relatively young) age to harboring anything like faith. That, and some sense of awe at that big, cold unverse. (To imagine a meaning to our existence is a very comforting fantasy.)

    Of course, that ecumenical outlook is the top of a slippery slope toward abandoning the Christian notions of the divine altogether. If you reduce faith down to broad meanings like that, there's not a whole lot of room for God's reassurances and so forth. An ancient middle eastern sky god or a 2000-years-gone political insurrection doesn't seem to have much relevance to an appreciation of the universe, nor to a reasoned humanist outlook. Your rational theists are appealing, but there's still that.

    K (I'll let you know what it's like when I slide down to the bottom.)

  5. still digesting this post. hell of a lot of meat in it.

    i've always considered faith to be unreasonable belief. not necessarily irrational, mind you, but just belief without any reason to support it. i like to have reason supporting my beliefs. still, i suppose i do have faith in certain things, such as the belief that most people are, at the root, good. stuff like that. not so much in benevolent divinities making sure our favorite sports teams win. i don't rule out a spiritual aspect of humanity and the universe at large. it's a funky place, after all. just don't think religions have gotten it right.