Posted on Sep 4, 2013 by Tom Gilson
What does faith have to do with knowledge? Skeptics keep asking that. In part one of this series I showed one thing obviously wrong with a certain atheistic philosophy professor’s view on the matter (more on him below). But I was asked to draw out the actual connection that exists between the two. It’s a fair question, but it’s also a daunting task, in that the follow-up question is bound to be, “If faith is tied to knowledge, then how do you know what you have faith in is real?”
There’s no short answer to that question: it’s the whole apologetic issue wrapped up in one quick query. So I’m going to ask everyone to bear in mind that although it’s easy to ask a question like that in one brief blog comment, to answer it is the project of libraries full of material. The libraries exist, but they’re deucedly difficult to reproduce in a comment thread.
Still I believe I can offer a manageable answer to the basic question, What connection is there between knowledge and [glossary]faith[/glossary]? Faith is a complex experience and a multifaceted word, so what follows is far from the whole story; but I think it comes close to the heart of the ongoing discussion here. Its short form goes something like this: faith is trust built upon knowledge.
I’ll play that out in a couple different ways from a believing Christian perspective, then I’ll address the number one skeptical objection.
Faith Based On Knowledge
I’ll begin with the common Christian experience of having faith in the promise of eternal life. That belief doesn’t arrive out of thin air, or wishful thinking, or fear, or hopefulness, or (especially) pretending. There is a strong knowledge connection there. It begins (Christians believe) with knowing that Jesus Christ died and rose again following a life which, when capped off by his resurrection, established his credibility as one who could make promises of that magnitude, and who would keep the promises that he made.
Let me repeat that to make sure it’s clear. Suppose (whether you believe it or not) that Jesus actually
- Lived a life at least approximately like what the New Testament records
- Rose again after his death
- Demonstrated a completely trustworthy character
- Demonstrated sufficient power to raise others from the dead
- Promised to raise you or me from the dead based on certain conditions
If you had reason to consider all that to be actually true in history, then the step of faith would be quite justifiable, even obvious: all you would have to do is to take the otherwise quite normal step of believing someone will do what he says, when he is known to have the character and the power to do what he says. That’s what Christian faith is like: it’s drawing a warranted conclusion about the unknown based on knowledge of the known.
What if none of it’s true, though? I know some of you are asking that question, and I promise I’ll come to it. First, though, I ask you to linger on that last sentence: without the information of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, no one would have faith in him for eternal life. The knowledge connection there is unavoidable.
Faith As the Determination To Keep Hold On Knowledge
C.S. Lewis has another helpful angle on this. In Mere Christianity he wrote,
I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it. That is not the point at which faith comes in. But supposing a man’s reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for it. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair; some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments where a mere mood rises up against it.
Now faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why faith is such a necessary virtue; unless you teach your moods “where they get off” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of faith.
For Lewis — and I am quite sure that he is right in this — faith is the determination of the mind to cling to what is known in the face of what is felt. Though it involves trust it’s all about knowledge: trusting that what one knows to be true remains true even when it does not feel true.
The Unbeliever’s Objection
But the skeptic will ask: Sure that’s what you Christians say, but what good is that “knowledge” connection if everything you think you know is all false?
Even in that case, my point remains: faith and knowledge are bound together as one. For if we are right, we are not (primarily) right in our faith, we are right about what we know to be true. If we are wrong, we are not (primarily) wrong in our faith, we are wrong about what we thought we knew to be true.
Whether Christian faith is justified depends first of all on whether that which Christians take to be knowledge is justified.
Of course the skeptic may not be finished yet: he or she will likely go on to ask, How could you possibly think that your “knowledge” is justified? Which brings me back to where I started: I am not going to try to write the book here that it would take to answer that question. I’ll be satisfied if we can just come to agreement that Christian faith is intimately tied to matters of knowledge. For that is the point of this post, it’s what I’m trying to establish; and I am content to accomplish one thing without at the same time accomplishing everything.
Boghossian: Confused or Crafty?
But I do to do one more thing. I want to keep pressing on Peter Boghossian as I go through this series, which in this case is not hard to do. He proposes erasing the faith-knowledge connection, and replacing it with a faith-pretense connection instead. He’s on a mission to change faith’s definition to, “pretending to know what you don’t know.” And he means that in quite an exclusive sense: that’s the only thing that faith means, to him.
But by now it should be obvious why that’s wrong, even from a disbelieving perspective. For from an unbeliever’s perspective, Christian faith isn’t pretense, it’s error. It’s not play-acting at knowledge, it’s being mistaken about knowledge.
Pretense and play-acting are not at all synonymous with error or mistakenness; or if they are, then Ptolemy was a pretender, a child in the astronomical sandbox. So was Copernicus, who thought the heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles, or variations thereof. So was Columbus, who thought the earth’s circumference was something like 14,000 miles. So was Darwin, who thought that cells were made up of basically undifferentiated materials. So were you, if you ever got a single answer wrong on a test or a paper in school, or if you ever misunderstood something your significant other was trying to tell you. If being mistaken is equivalent to pretending, then what does either of those words mean, after all?
Therefore to equate faith with pretense is to make a sophomoric error in the realm rational thinking. That doesn’t mean Boghossian is sophomorically stupid, though. If his purpose is to undermine faith, rhetoric can fill in where rationality fails. If only he weren’t portraying it publicly as good critical thinking.
Of course I don’t think that Christian faith is either pretense or play-acting, error or mistake. The thing is, you don’t have to agree with me about that to see that Boghossian is wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw that just as clearly, and if he was willing to set it aside for his rhetorical purposes. Sometimes when you have an agenda, you can accomplish it more directly by pretending to know what you know is false.
Faith and Knowledge: Intimately Connected
It should be clear now: faith is intimately connected to knowledge. Faith’s validity stands or falls with the validity of the knowledge to which it is tied.