Wednesday, 27 April 2011

God of Truth: How "reason" might lead to unbelief

by John Updike

Dale, an evangelical graduate student at a New England university, attempts to prove God by using a computer programme, so sure is he that God would show himself in the patterns of the universe. He asks the theology professor Roger Lambert for some money to fund the research. Roger is appalled by the notion, but out of some kind of seeming interest he decides initially to fund the research. Meanwhile, Roger is reintroduced to his niece Verna, who is a friend of Dale, and Roger feels an attraction to the 19 year old black sheep of his family.

What is real faith? Several books I have written about distinguish between authentic and inauthentic lives of faith. For religious believers, this is an immensely important question because, for us, it is not a question of whether to believe or not, but rather how best to live our beliefs in an authentic way and deepen our relationships with God. And I believe this distinction is furthermore important in the Gospels, where Jesus constantly differentiates his faith and those of his followers with the beliefs of the Pharisees. The parable of the high priest and the publican is perhaps the most distinctly obvious way he expressed this.

We have all met the naive Christian that Dale represents, the kind of guy who cannot take atheism seriously because he thinks that atheism is just a deficiency of reasoning. He remind us that real faith has nothing to do with the kind of epistemological certainty that drives the zealot but instead involves the profound acceptance of mystery. It is unsurprising then that when he cannot prove God by his computer programming, he loses faith. Dale, sadly, is the caricature of this kind of personality, and though many of his initial views about belief are certainly false, most people in his position have at least a kernel of real faith that, even when they do lose their old sense of belief, they do not just abandon their religion but seek new ways to live with the actual feeling of love that they have experienced from Jesus in the Church.

On the other hand, Professor Roger Lambert is a less oft criticised kind of believer and much more interesting. Roger has been described as a "Satanic" character: he is not a nice man regardless of his being formerly a pastor and currently a theologian. Despite all his high-sounding theology and what he sees as a sophisticated faith that would not allow himself to be so naive as Dale, his actions do not seem to follow that of an authentic believer. He makes it his goal to try and destroy Dale's simple beliefs, especially as he imagines Dale is having an affair with Roger's younger wife Esther. He has an incestuous affair and is obsessed with pornography. Roger cannot trust the goodness of other human beings and justifies his own behaviour as his being part of this sinful humanity. While Roger complains that Dale is trying to invent a god that is so powerless as to allow himself to be trapped into a mathematical equation, Roger himself has made God powerless by his own philosophising, seeing God as inherently distant and unknowable and unreachable. Hence God and faith have no power in Roger's own life. Roger's god allows Roger to act in whatever way he likes, because his distance from such an impersonal god means that Roger has no one to answer to.

Perhaps, it is Roger's kind of faith that better represents a more commonly held intellectual approach to faith than Dale's. I have often wondered why some of the cleverest Christians I know can also be the nastiest. The problem with both characters is in the relationship they have with faith and reason. For Dale, he assumes that one can get to faith by reason, as if people who do not have faith just haven't reasoned properly. This is not true; faith is a God-given gift, and it is faith that is the foundational value of belief, not reason. We cannot use reason to bring us to belief (which is the fallacy of the modernist philosophical project), but we can use reason for further exploration of truth after the foundations of truth have been set in reality by faith, by our experience of God in our Church. With Roger, on the other, he already has a "faith" that thoroughly corresponds to his reason, even if it does not cohere to the traditional beliefs of his faith community. His reason has allowed him to construct a god who is not observable and, therefore, compatible with secular versions of reason that have no foundation. For Roger, God might as well not exist because his "reason" has made his existence primarily theoretical, and on his personal level, powerless.

I have felt the struggle of both characters in my life especially while studying philosophy and "Concepts of God". I studied the analytical form of philosophy which starts with the modernist assumption of Descartes that we can come to belief purely by reason. Of course, even an elementary critique of his Meditations seems to show that this project is not possible. None-the-less many philosophers after him have taken this assumption as a given and attempt to find truth purely through reason. While the games of philosophy can be immensely enjoyable, I have not found the learning from analytical philosophy to be beneficial for life. I am not advocating fideism, but I am acknowledging that faith gives meaning to reason and reason in turn can clarify the truths of faith, as would be appropriate in a Thomist philosophy. Philosophy does have meaning and can guide us how to live when it is no longer divorced as a discipline from theology and our actual experience of value in the reality of the Church.

Read it if: you like the modern campus genre of novels, like Lucky Jim, or if you want a good look at the contemporary world and the role of religious belief in it.

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