10/23/2005

On Faith

<Aside>I apologize for the recent dearth of posts. Grad school has been keeping me very busy. So busy, in fact, that I’m dreaming about O-notation and bayesian parameter estimation on a regular basis.<Aside/>

Jonathan Bryan’s post about faith got me thinking about the subject. Both Aquinas and Calvin define faith as a kind of knowledge. Aquinas goes so far as to state explicitly that it is impossible for something held on faith to be incorrect, and I think Calvin would agree. This definition flies in the face of the modern (secular) understanding of faith as blind and irrational. So far from being blind, faith is another set of eyes. It is a way of knowing independent of reason. Truth cannot contradict truth, of course, so reason and faith ought never to contradict – but one need not be supported by the other to be legitimate.

As true as I think this understanding of faith is, something has always bothered me about it. I severely dislike the “you wouldn’t understand because you’re x” method of dismissing arguments. For example, a Marxist might dismiss any objection that happens to come from a wealthy person by saying “of course you disagree, you’re a member of the oppressive bourgeoisie.” Feminists could reply the same way to a man who objects to feminism, no matter what the content of his objection. This strategy has always struck me as manifestly unfair.

However, it seems that with the definition of faith given above, we can only respond to unbeliever’s questions about the legitimacy of faith in a similar manner: “well, you just don’t understand because you don’t have faith.” Of course this is going to sound anti-intellectual to an unbeliever, because they do not recognize faith as a valid means of knowing. But it is impossible to give reasons for the legitimacy of faith... if you could do that it would not be faith. In other words, the means of knowing (reason) which both Christian and unbeliever share is fundamentally inadequate to establish the validity of faith as a means of knowing. So it seems that about all we can do is say “Well, you just can’t understand unless the Holy Spirit gives you the gift of faith.” And despite the fact that I think that is true, it strikes me as cheating.