Theology And The Origin Of FAITH

What response can the theologian make to these attempts to provide a Darwinian debunking of religious faith? I have no doubt that one way of understanding faith is to explore it through the tools of evolutionary science, and I am convinced that theology should encourage science to push evolutionary understanding as far as it can within the limits of scientific method. From a scientific point of view our capacity for religious faith has evolved like all other living phenomena, and biology can lend an interesting new light to religious studies. But, like almost everything eke, religious phenomena also admit of a plurality of levels of explanation. The phony rivalry the new atheists posit between science and religion is the result of a myth* a myth that asserts—without any experimental evidence—that only a scientific frame of reference, or only what counts as "evidence" in scientific circles, can lead us reliably to truth.

Theology, unlike scientism, wagers that we can contact the deepest truths only by relaxing the will to control and allowing ourselves to be grasped by a deeper dimension of reality than ordinary experience or science can access by itself. The state of allowing ourselves to be grasped and carried away by this dimension of depth is at least pan of what theology means by "faith." In spite of what their formal creed states, even scientific naturalists have had the experience of faith as understood in this fundamental senseJ^ To be more specific, they too have made a worshipful bow toward the unconditional value of truth. 1 have no doubt that Dawkins, 1 larris, and 11 itch ens feel empowered to issue their bold edicts only because they firmly believe they are serving the noble cause of truth seeking. They probably have not noticed that, in order to serve this cause, ihey have tacitly allowed themselves to be taken captive, as it were, by their love of truth, an undeniable value that functions for them as a timeless good that will outlast them and their own brief success, Should they express outrage at what I have just said, this passionate reaction likewise could be justified only by their appealing once again to the value of a deeper truth than they can find in my own reflections.

It is not too hard for any of us to notice that we are always being drawn toward deeper truth, even if we decide to run away from its attractive, bur also disturbing, pulL If you find yourself questioning what I have just said, it is because you are allowing yourself to be drawn toward a vet deeper level of truth. So you prove my point. What I mean by faitht therefore, is precisely this dynamic state of allowing yourself to be carried along toward a deeper understanding and truth than you have mastered up to this point. People have faith, therefore, nor only because faith is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, nor only because faith serves the cause of gene survival, not only because of ultrasensitive predator detection cerebral systems inherited from our remote evolutionary ancestors, not only because they have a need for pattern and meaning, and not only because their parietal lobes are overly active. Without denying that any of these factors may be at work, one may justifiably add that people have faith also because they are being drawn toward a dimension of depth. In theological language they are being addressed by and responding to the infinite mystery of being, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty that theistic faiths call God. Such a claim is in no way opposed to evolutionary accounts of religion. Contrary to Daw-kins, religious faith no more conflicts with science than does his own surrender to the value of truth.

Generally speaking, faith is the state of being drawn toward or being grasped by something of utmost importance, by what Tillich calls ''ultimate concern/' Our ultimate concern can be identified by asking what it is that gives meaning, zest, and courage to our lives. What sustains us in moments of hardship, fail ure, guilt, and the realization of our perishability? What is it that might cause our lives to fall apart if it were suddenly missing? Is it another person? Our job or career? World peace? The advancing of just ice? Cod? Or is it perhaps science or reason itself?1N

Sam Harris appears co be the only one of the new atheists to have so much as cracked open a work by Tillich, and even after doing so he slams it shut immediately1^ To take theology into account would not serve the purpose of Harris's protests, which arc "aimed at the majority of the faithful, not at Tillich s blameless parish of one' (65). Instead ol grappling with a challenging theological elucidation of faith, Harris thinks it would be better for the unenlightened masses not to hear what theology has to say on our topic at alh In his comments on Tillich he dumbs down the definition of faith to "belief without evidence," even though he knows chat Tillich has rejected this definition as misleading and not worth defending.

I am not sure how most readers will react to this rhetorical strategy, but J think it deserves several comments. First, it logically undermines the intended universality of the new atheistic condemnation of faith, hven one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the newr atheists1 simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population. Second, the readership that does pay any attention to the new atheistic tracts will include very few of what Harris calls "the faithful/' The terrorists and religious fanatics being targeted exist far out of the range of our three wrathful diagnosticians. Although the books under discussion have landed on bestseller lists, the number of readers who will have purchased and studied them is only a tiny segment of the world's population. Moreover, a sizable portion of their readers are people who already agree with them, or who have serious doubts about religious faith, while others are simply curious as to what the fuss is all about. Of course, Harris and the cithers can always respond that they are hunting down liberals and moderates for tolerating freedom of thought and faith. Rut it is hard to believe that, short of a new arheistic dictatorship, they seriously expect the world will ever be purged of freedom of faith.

If they are truly serious about ridding the wrorld completely of faith, therefore, the new atheists should start by grappling with major theologians rather than trying to outflank them. To get rid of faith, the atheists—by their own admission—will sooner or later have to get rid of theology. Theology, they claim, by making room for any faith at all, makes possible the delusions that take over the minds of terrorists, yet the books 1 am treating here make not a single major assault on any prominent theologian. (Dawkinss pelting of Richard Swinburne is too weak to qualify.) Given all their bluster about the evils of theology why do thev wade only ankle deep in the shallows of religious illiteracy? A well-thought-out military strategy sooner or later has to confront the enemy at its strongest point, but each of our critics has avoided any such confrontation. Unlike the great leaders in war, these generals have decided co aim [heir assaults exclusively at the softest points in the wide world of faith.

Third, an encounter with a theologian like l illich would help the atheists understand better the tacit dynamics of their own atheism. They would be able to see that their own criticism of faith arises not from a neutral objectivity that empties one s head of all a priori assumptions. The very passion of their protests erupts from the deep font of a native trust in reason, an "ultimate concern" that has grasped Si old of them and to which they have surrendered in fiduciary reverence. In this sense they are as religious as anybody else> so they have not severed their ties with the rest of humanity after all.

Fourth* in their very worship of reason and science, the new atheists have succumbed to what Tillich understands as the main temptation of all faith, that of idolatry Enthroning reason and science as our only access to truth is an almost perfect illustration of the absolutizing instinct that ultimately deadens the vital spirit of inquiry, Scientism and rationalism imprison human minds no less than the worship of idols keeps religious be I ievers from developing a liberating relationship to the whole depth of being. Theologically speaking, reasoiu in order ro avoid self-imprisonment, needs faith, not in Harris's but in TiUichs sense of the term, for faith is what keeps reason from absolutizing itself By stirring us at every level of our existence, faith holds the frontiers of our consciousness open to the infinite. Faith reminds us of how limited science and reason are in their capacity to penetrate the richness, beauty, and depth of being. Deifying science and reason, as only a little understanding of history is able to show, is a sure way to wilt the world and shrivel our souls.!<1

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment