Faithful and Free
5 - Criteria for belief
We have sketched some possible belief systems, which do not agree amongst themselves, and which do not appeal to us as satisfactory explanations of ultimate reality. There are countless alternative possibilities. How does one make up one's mind as to what is trustworthy and what is not?
The truth of some kinds of information is easy to check out. Your guess about who is knocking at your door will be verified or falsified simply by opening the door. But when it comes to testing the truth of possible answers to the question of faith the situation is more complex. There is no simple test that can establish to everyone's satisfaction either the reality or the unreality of God.
The faith that is an inescapable factor in human life leads on to a question about ultimate reality behind all other realities. What is it about ultimate reality that draws people to persist with the often difficult business of living? Is understanding of the world to be grounded finally on a theme suggested by science or philosophy? on human values? on some kind of religious belief? Different people give different answers, and you will be conscious of tension within yourself as you consider competing claims to truth. How can you know who is right, or what is right?
Even though you are glad to listen to other people as they present their beliefs to you and give their reasons, in the end you have no honourable choice but to make up your own mind. Your belief ought to be your own.
First of all, it is reasonable in itself. It is something we are able to believe. For belief is not a convenience, or a means to some other end. It is not just a device for making life tolerable, or for keeping one functional. Belief is encounter with what is real and true.
Then it is comprehensive. It helps make sense of the whole of our experience, and relates both to the positive and to the negative aspects of existence. It helps us to respond to the actual world we inhabit and to the particular cultural setting we find ourselves in.
It is liberating. It is not a straitjacket. It creates space for us - offering freedom from narrow-mindedness and dogmatism, from dullness and ignorance, from self-centredness and isolation, from inner-dividness, from pessimism and arbitrary self-limitation. It offers freedom for people and for the world we live in. It situates us in a world of openness and possibility.
It is attractive, inspiring, enriching, motivating. It opens up creative possibilities. It encourages a way of life in relation to ourselves, to other species, to the earth itself, that appeals to our best instincts.
We do not ask you simply to accept our own list of belief criteria. It would be healthy for you to draw up your own list, and use that to check what we are offering you against alternative possibilities.
It is in terms of our own criteria that the varieties of scientism have failed to satisfy us. They are generally unbelievable, being less than convincing even in scientific terms. They show a fixation on a narrow theme that is crippling for human thought. They do not comprehensively cover the range of human experience. The motivation they suggest may be shallow, or simply mean and ugly. Our particular conclusion about secular humanism is that, by pre-setting boundaries for what may be regarded as real, it gets into rational difficulties, and it falls short in liberating power.
To many people such a presentation of salvation will seem incomplete. They see the crux of salvation in a dimension that reaches beyond the limits of this life. They wish to believe particularly in a hereafter in which justice is finally done, and in which those questions are answered that seem to have no this-worldly answer.
We have reasons for not wishing to move too quickly into that kind of discussion. We have set ourselves the challenge of appreciating this world as we actually experience it, and of coming to terms with it through the exercise of our human faculties. We do not wish to short-cut that process by rushing to accept other-worldly answers. The immediate effect of such answers is often to abort the use of people's own intelligence. We find that our life in this world already faces us with an unavoidable faith-question, and this-worldly criteria already constrain us to answer that question in terms of God. We are bound to push this experimental approach to the limit before we decide whether, finally, we are compelled to go beyond it.