Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fidelity and the Word

This is a response to a post on Jamie's blog, yonder. I wanted to offer a more detailed, and possibly more useful, response than the two brief comments I've already left.

I think the best way to frame these topics is in terms of a brief discussion of faith. In a spirit of gross simplification, I'm going to suggest that there are two basic ways of viewing faith.
  • The first involves a path to knowledge; it is an intellectual acceptance of a certain category of data, i.e. revelation. Or prophecy. One knows something to be true because they have faith. Belief in this piece of information brings salvation. To be wordy, this kind of faith is a question of epistemology. To be critical, it is a shortcut. This is the faith that fruitlessly opposes skepticism. This is the Josh McDowell vs. Richard Dawkins kind of faith.
  • The second involves holding a certain perspective. It is not the same thing as a simple acceptance of particular propositions. This second kind of faith is an evaluation -- certain propositions are not only held to be true, but they are held to be valuable. This form of faith has more to do with a way of being; it is a human possibility. Incidently, this faith is the true object of study for theology.
I do not intend to suggest that the second form of faith - the evaluative - includes the first, and adds something else. The first form is an epistemological shortcut; the second form has only a secondary concern with epistemology. The evaluative form of faith does not first accept the truth of a proposition, than add a value to it; it's not really the other way around either. It's something rooted in lived experience - which is not empiricism, by the way.

How is this related to Jamie's post, you might be asking?

20th/21st Century North American Evangelical Christians place a great deal of stock in the idea that God speaks to them (and make no mistake, this is a contemporary North American oddity). They believe God offers direction and gives commands, in any myriad of ways. I am not interested in passing judgement on the truth of all this; I just want to comment on this belief in light of the above discussion of faith.

There are two ways to problematize the idea that God has spoken to you.
  • One is to question the truth of it - to study the possibility of revelation as an object, the way an astronomer studies a star. To pass judgement on the truth of this possibility - did God speak or not? There are two problems that a Christian thinking this way has to deal with.
    • The first is that of finding a criteria for judging the authenticity of a possible prophecy. Whatever criteria you wish to use - however strict or exact - it is still a question of finding a yardstick. Some kind of systematic way of judging. There are a myriad of problems with this problem of finding criteria, not the least of which is that this epistemological approach always leaves open the possibility that you are wrong.
    • The second is a question of diffusion of responsibility. If you believe that God said something, commanded something, and your response is basically "I was given this piece of data, and now I must act on it," you are walking into "I was only following orders" territory.
So to take some information - revelation, prophecy, whatever - and approach it as a question of correct or incorrect knowledge is to invite a disaster. You're gambling on a possibility (as opposed to a Pascalian wager) and you're letting yourself be led around like a donkey.
  • The second way of problematizing the idea of God speaking to you is, obviously, rooted in the second kind of faith. It takes God's word and holds it for true. The epistemological question of whether or not God actually spoke is not ignored, it is simply a secondary matter. Yes, this involves an act on the part of a subject. The subject of faith holds the word of God as true, and is formed by this word.
This second way dodges both of the problems of the first way. It ceases to take the word of God as an object to be studied and judged. The question of whether or not you are wrong ceases to have the same sort of import, because it is the wrong question. The responsibility also entirely falls upon your own shoulders, because you are choosing to accept the word of God and you are the one holding it as true. None of this "God made me do it!" stuff, which is really no better than the devil making you do it.

If one chooses to be a subject of faith in this sort of way, they aquire a particular perspective. Because they are engaged in a particular way of being - a particular comportment to the world - the immediate circumstances surrounding them in the world do not have the same power over them.

God's word acts as a disruption in the status quo of their life, and they conform their perspective to these disruption. Their life revolves around living out the consequences of holding God's word to be true - not around taking care of the myriad possibilities that may befall them. Calculating possible harms and possible goods becomes a tertiary issue.

I do not say any of this to denegrate someone's faith, even if it comes down to being that epistemological version. I am trying to illustrate a perspective that does not revolve around harms and goods, a perspective that an orthodox Christian can accept. If the best part of one's self is given over to God's word, then harms and goods are distractions.

A disclaimer is almost certainly required. I absolutely insist that I am not suggesting that a Christian believe they exist in the best of all possible worlds. I am absolutely not saying "chin up! Jesus loves you!" or "things will get better!" I have already said this, but God is just as likely to kill your entire family as he is anything else. You are just as likely to end up homeless or an inmate in Auschwitz as you are rich or comfortable or secure. But remember, these things are goods and harms. They can be calculated out in a utilitarian way: "five units of possible good versus six units of possible harm... better not take that route!" If that is the route you want to take, gambling and calculating possibilities, than what do you do when your calculations fail and the "truths" you have had faith in turn out to be childish fairytales?


David Grant said...

I must confess Mike that I don't fully understand all that you are saying but I think some of it resonates with me. I posted a blog today titled, God Told Me. Not sure if it has anything with what you wrote but I think there are some similarities.


Jamie A. Grant said...

"God told me" is sometimes no better than "the devil made me do it." Ha! I love it. So true.

Mike said...

If I was going to boil it all down, it would be exactly what Jamie commented on - when things appear to go badly, saying "God told me to do it" is no better than saying "the devil made me do it."

Fine, maybe God did speak to you. I dunno. But the consequences of obedience to God are on your head, not anybody elses', least of all God's.

"You" there being generic plural.