The Tradition Of Sceptical Fideism

One reason for the popularity of the Pyrrhonism that Descartes tried to refute was its tactical value in the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholic apologists had seized upon the Pyrrhonist abandonment of argument and acquiescence in tradition to recommend a similar conservatism in matters of faith. Religion became, in their hands, what it had been for Sextus: a matter of conformity with the subject's own communal observance, unencumbered by dogmatic assertion. This is the position nominally adopted by Montaigne, and Erasmus' apparent sympathy for it roused the ire of Luther (Popkin 1979; Penelhum 1983).

Sceptical fideism has taken two forms (Penelhum 1983: ch. 1). In the first, found in Montaigne and Bayle, the serenity consequent on faith is identified with the ataraxia, or unperturbedness, that the Greek sceptics said followed on the cessation of belief, and faith itself is seen as the subject's acquiescence in tradition. In the second, found in Pascal and Kierkegaard, the sceptic is held rather to be faith's unwitting ally: in exposing the pretensions of reason to arrive at saving truth, the sceptic has paved the way for grace to fill the vacuum thus created. This second form of fideism, unlike the first, is not shy of dogma and is impatient of sceptic detachment. Both forms hinge on the abandonment of the attempt to use reason as a ground for faith.

It is only possible to characterize this apologetic tradition here very briefly. It involves, first, a rejection of attempts to prove the existence of God by reason. Pascal, with a particular eye to the design argument, insists that such proof can only yield a facilely optimistic deism, not a real faith (Pascal 1966: fragment 449). It further involves an insistence that reason is powerless to support the beliefs on which common sense and science depend, so that daily life requires a secular faith that parallels the religious (ibid.: fragments 110, 131). Its third contention is that even if faith provides those who have it with the sort of illumination that Augustine and Anselm attribute to it (as Pascal seems to think), faith is not intelligible to the unregenerate reason. Bayle insists in many places (Bayle 1965) that application of the Cartesian criteria of clarity and distinctness to Christian doctrines shows them to involve irresoluble paradoxes (hence the common belief that he is seeking to undermine them). Kierkegaard insists not only that the incarnation is a paradox, but that to suppose Christ to be the bearer of teachings that the philosopher has the right to adjudicate is to reject, from the start, the need for submission that is the only proper response to God's entry into history: that to require the satisfaction of rational preambles to faith is to try to domesticate, and thus to refuse, the Paradox (Kierkegaard 1985:37-54). Aquinas had said that assent to revelation was not foolishness; the sceptical fideist claims it must be.

We can best summarize the stance of sceptical fideism in Hume's words: 'To be a philosophical sceptic is.the first and most essential step towards being a sound believing Christian' (Hume 1947:228). The omitted phrase is

'in a man of letters' and Hume of course was parodying the fideists. But if we change the tone of voice the parody vanishes.

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