Faithful and Free
3 - The question of faith
It is not just science that wants to present its view of the world without reference to God. Serious historical study (as we noted in the previous chapter) leaves just as little room for God's involvement in unfolding events. If you want to claim that God acts in history, you have to give a convincing answer to the question: What exactly does God do? Historians are bound to be agnostic in the method they use to pursue their studies. They have as little use for the God-hypothesis as Laplace had.
Religion must come to accept that God cannot be used as an explanation for what happens in the world, on the same level as other kinds of explanation. Indeed, religion must learn to be be glad of that fact. In the Christian understanding God is not a fact alongside other facts, or a cause alongside other causes, or an explanation alongside other explanations. God transcends any and every fact, any and every cause. God is the explanation which transcends every explanation and every act of explaining.
Western science is sometimes said to have had its origin with the Greek thinker Thales of Miletos, about two and a half thousand years ago. Before him, the-way-the-world-is was explained (if at all) in terms of mythology, stories of the gods. To this extent myth functioned as primitive science and primitive history. Thales offered the epoch-making suggestion that water is the underlying substance of the world. Noticing that water may solidify to ice, or vaporize to 'air', he appears to have reasoned that earth or rock was a more solid form of ice, and fire a more rarified form of air. In this way he began the process of exploring the rational connection of things, to find their ultimate unity.
Our point is that Thales must have begun with an underlying intuition of the orderliness of nature. That intuition was not itself science, but was necessary before science could arise. Our conclusion is that there is more knowledge than science itself knows. There is something else you need to be aware of before science can begin. Science itself does not, in fact, dispute this. Few scientists of the first rank would dream of claiming that scientific knowledge is all the knowledge there is. Science itself is somehow established on a deeper foundation.
The effort to accumulate knowledge in any realm that the human mind can explore leads, sooner or later, to the same discovery. No body of knowledge is self-contained. Each must be established on a foundation beyond itself. Another obvious example is the study of ethics.
Ethics is a branch of philosophical enquiry that asks what it is good to do. It already recognizes values of good and bad, right and wrong. These are given. Ethics does not itself address the question, "Why should I do good and not evil?" It simply seeks to express these values in a rational and systematic way. In particular, medical ethics explores what is appropriate and what is unacceptable in medical practice. The aims and value of medicine are not themselves established by medical ethics. These have to be taken for granted as the immediate foundation upon which medical ethics is built. Likewise, business ethics has to assume the nature and importance of the purposes that commerce serves. It needs a basis beyond itself.
When it comes to sorting out the ultimate ethical principles which should guide people and societies (or, for that matter, enquiring whether the practice of medicine or commerce is itself good) a foundation at an even deeper level is required. What is it about the-way-the-world-is that makes it possible to conceive of goodness, and guarantees that it is better to do good than evil? What is the ultimate test of good and bad, right and wrong? What is life for? Ethical enquiry itself cannot tell you. There is some deeper reality which gives that enquiry significance - unless, of course, all human endeavour is meaningless and absurd. Our interest, however, is in beliefs that are relevant to life as we concretely experience it. We do not see how anyone could actually live out the conviction that human existence is valueless and ultimately absurd.
Just as science presumes the orderliness of nature, and ethics begins with the acceptance of goals, so life itself depends upon trust in its environment. Life, too, expresses a kind of knowledge, which has its inevitable presupposition. A child enters life with faith. It soon begins to explore its world with confidence and hope. As time goes on, negative experiences will call the initial confidence into question. The child's parents may fail it in one way or another. Life may take on the aspect of a battle-ground, and to lose battles is to have one's confidence challenged. Yet faith never disappears altogether, and in healthy development it grows. It enlarges its horizons. You believe still that the world will respond to your pursuit of values of love and beauty, truth and goodness (or whatever other values seem most important to you). You have the conviction that it is good to persevere in spite of negative experiences. Their ultimate significance is somehow guaranteed in the nature of things. Even the desperate act of ending one's own life is undertaken in the belief that this is somehow worth doing - that the action makes a difference. Faith is the inescapable foundation to life.
Ethics, science, life itself, all in their different ways point beyond themselves. They suggest levels of reality that reach beyond their own domains. The useful word 'transcendent' characterizes a reality that lies beyond, or deeper than, ordinary experience. We are saying that transcendence is built into the nature of things, and that we discover this by thinking carefully about our interaction with our world.
This is the experimental foundation for all the reasoning in this book, so it is very important for us to make ourselves understood. We are not saying that everyone has some conscious religious affiliation, or has a thought-out life-basis. Any number of people just muddle through. They may never give any conscious thought to the underlying meaning of things. And yet all their actions and decisions imply an intuitive trust in 'something' which ultimately makes sense of their discrimination of good and bad, their determination to make what they can of their lives, their conviction that to live (even though we die) is both meaningful and significant. This is why we argue that faith is an inescapable part of what it means to be human and alive.
Because human beings have the special gift of reflective thought, the faith that is an inescapable factor in human life opens up searching questions. Does faith actually point to anything real, or is it a kind of illusion? Is faith justified by reality itself? How should I conceive of ultimate reality? How should I 'name' it? How does this reality make my life possible? What way of living my life does it call forth?
('Reality' is what we have to come to terms with. Reality is thus specific to individuals in their particular circumstances. 'Ultimate reality' is what absolutely everything has to come to terms with.)
Our questions are strange questions, because they cannot have answers in terms of ordinary, tangible things, or even in terms of concepts that our minds can fully encompass. And yet they are not foolish questions. Many people find they cannot help asking them, and they are deeply interested in the answers that may be given. Of course there is a great diversity of beliefs held, consciously or unconsciously, by different people. Faith is universal, but the shape of faith, and the accounts people give of it, vary enormously. This raises the 'faith-question': Which belief best accounts for the intuitive faith I have as a human person?
It is natural to think that if an answer can be found to the question about the reality to which faith points, it will at least suggest answers to questions raised by science, and ethics, and other branches of human enquiry. Ultimate reality, whatever it is, should be a unity, and should relate to every aspect of existence.
There are problems in terminology because of the diverse meanings of 'faith' in ordinary speech. We will try to be consistent in using the word 'faith', on its own, for the responsiveness to one's life-environment that precedes any thinking about it. 'Belief' is for us the more or less conscious expression of that primary faith. Because of what faith is, genuine belief implies commitment (trust). Expressions like 'Jewish faith', 'Christian faith', 'faith in God' 'faith in humanity', refer to a system (or at least a style) of belief, together with a commitment to the pattern of life it calls for. When we become aware of the range of belief possibilities, and of the way particular experiences challenge particular beliefs, we come up against the 'faith-question'. This invites us to examine our beliefs critically in order to arrive at the best way of expressing our basic faith in words and symbols.
Why is there not just one universally acceptable answer to the question that arises out of faith? That must have something to do with human freedom and creativity. It belongs to the nobility of humanity that it must struggle for the truth, and work it out not just in ideas and words, but also in the shape of lives as they are lived.
How is the truth to be recognized? There is no available short-cut, through an infallible institution, an infallible teacher, or an infallible book. You feel you are coming closer to the truth when your belief is consistent in itself, when it does justice to your experience of life, and when it opens up creative possibilities for individuals and for communities.
We are using the term 'belief' for the words in which you try to express your understanding of ultimate reality. But words will always be inadequate to such a subject, and to choose one word rather than another is already to provide possibilities for disagreement.
Belief can never be simple and unarguable. Any optimistic belief is challenged by negative experiences - experiences of chance, limitation, loneliness, suffering, evil. Negative and pessimistic beliefs, on the other hand, are challenged by experiences of love and sacrifice, of human solidarity and human hopefulness, of beauty and creativity. Faith does not disappear under these challenges. Faith is an inescapable dimension of life. But your beliefs - the words in which you try to give shape to your faith - may become problematic and questionable.
Our experience of the trustworthiness of reality leads us to name ultimate reality with the personal name 'God'. For us, then, 'God' is that reality which anything whatever has to come to terms with, in order to be or mean anything at all.
This has two implications. First, if you want to prove the existence of God, you cannot go about it as though God is one fact alongside other facts, one cause alongside other causes, one explanation alongside other explanations. To use the technical term for it, you have to resort to a transcendental mode of enquiry, not an empirical one. To use a more popular level of explanation, you will find God by the disciplined use of your sixth sense, your imagination, rather than in the scientific laboratory where you use sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
Secondly, to realize that God is not a fact alongside other facts, but rather that which is presupposed by every fact, sheds light on the question of how you experience God. Some Christians talk as though their experience of God is a separate experience, parallel to other experiences. As they see it, they have spiritual experiences alongside intellectual experiences, aesthetic experiences, physical experiences. But if God is ultimate reality, then God is the one 'in whom we live and move and have our being'. That means that any experience whatever is an experience of God, and can be received as such by those who reflect on it wisely and well.
We believe that only God-talk is capable of doing justicc to life as we experience it. Furthermore, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth decisively represents the character of God. From him we learn that God's love is without limit, touching everyone and everything. From Jesus we learn, too, what is the true human response to God's love - to accept that love for ourselves and to reflect it to our world. Form Jesus we learn how best to lead our lives in the light of that ultimate reality we name 'God'.
But before we explore this answer to the faith-question in depth, we will look at some of the alternatives.