Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Faith and Knowledge


Knowledge is not faith, and faith is not knowledge. Knowledge can't bring you to faith, and faith should not serve as the basis of knowledge.

Many of the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God appear to hinge on a person already believing that such a God exists. Nowhere is this more apparent in my mind than with Thomas Aquinas, who frequently wrote, in varying words, that ‘everyone understands that this is God.’ He was living in a Christian culture where the presuppositions were on his side. No doubt most if not all of the people in his life agreed together on the general nature of a supreme being who created the universe, even if they may have differed on some particulars. He might have been shocked, as I was, when I started meeting atheists who had been atheists since childhood, having always thought the stories about God to be silly or at least improbable. It could also have troubled him to have encountered people from cultures where the nature of the divine was either not considered of great import, or not understood as a personal deity to be known. A lot of assumptions go into the reasonings about proving God’s existence.

Anselm of Canterbury famously describe God as "that than which a greater cannot be thought." In recent years I've learned that he wrote his ontological argument in a work of meditation, not of logical reasoning. In other words, no ‘argument’ was intended at all, and it appears he was self-aware in writing from his perspective as a believer in God. Already believing, he found this way of thinking to be faith-affirming. That being the case, it seems uncharitable to take him to task for such a weak argument.

Someone could assert that an Invisible Pink Unicorn is the creator of all things, having swept the cosmos into being with a tilt of her glitter-laced horn. How can she be both invisible and pink? Why, that’s a divine mystery to be contemplated. After all, she is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Maybe that’s quibbling over details though. Assuming that there is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is a different question from the nature of that being, whether an Invisible Pink Unicorn, a Trinity, or something else.

It seems to me that such reasons ‘proofs’ for the existence of God can only ever serve as encouragement to those who have already taken a leap of faith, or are on the verge of doing so. They cannot possible provide the conclusive evidence that would be required to become considered knowledge. In the end, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). If it were knowledge, it would not be faith. And if faith is not required, then why does the New Testament repeatedly call for it?

To be clear, faith is not a moral virtue. When believing in something without or against evidence is held up as a moral triumph, a door is opened to embracing virtually anything that someone thinks 'makes sense' to someone. This is not to say that faith is evil, by any means. It sustains the lives of many through dark times. What I am arguing is that when it comes to making clear-eyed decisions that impact other people, knowledge is of far greater value than faith, on a par I would say with empathy. These two together can change the world.

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