Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thom Stark on faith

Christian Thom Stark--upon answering atheist John Loftus a few years back regarding a review of his great book The Human Faces of God--perfectly articulated what faith is, in a very profound and intriguing manner:

To me, if a Christian is certain that God exists and that everything Christianity teaches (whatever brand of Christianity they think is truest) accurately describes metaphysical and physical reality, then they don’t have faith. To think that you can “know” that these things are true is by my definition of faith precisely to reject faith. What faith is by my definition is action based on hope, and hope is a direct response to profound uncertainty. Let’s put it this way. Loftus and I both agree on what resources we should utilize to figure out what the moral thing to do is in a given situation. But for me (and maybe Loftus doesn’t have this problem, and if not, more power to him), what I’m not sure about is whether being moral is itself morally significant. I see people suffering, I want to try and alleviate their suffering, but I struggle with the question of whether my doing so has any point, beyond the obvious one of the immediate alleviation of their suffering. Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out.

I really don’t know. This isn’t a hypothetical or an argument for the existence of God from the undesirability of a morally absurd universe. The universe may well be completely amoral. I’m afraid it might be. And because I’m human, that troubles me. (I doubt it troubles raccoons.) That doesn’t mean I believe because I’m emotionally weak. Anyone who’s read my book will know, so it’s really no surprise, that I don’t by a longshot believe everything Christianity says is true. But the question is, when I am faced with human suffering, and I set out to alleviate that suffering, is there a point to it? Does it matter, not just in that moment, but in the long run? Does it ultimately matter whether human beings continue to exist or not? I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that it doesn’t. I really don’t know whether it does or not. But here’s the point: I earnestly hope that it matters; and when I act on that hope, that is, when I act as if human suffering matters, I am acting in faith. That to me is what faith is. It is action based on hope, which in turn is a direct response to profound uncertainty. If I weren’t profoundly uncertain, I couldn’t hope that our existence has a profound meaning; and if I didn’t have that hope, then I couldn’t have faith (which is action, not assent to metaphysical propositions).

So, I have faith because I really don’t know if any of this has any meaning. But I act like it does, because I hope that it does. I can’t be “wrong” (about this) because I haven’t made a claim one way or the other. And this isn’t Pascal’s Wager. Another thing I really don’t know about: I don’t know if there is a God that sends unbelievers to hell, but I hope that there isn’t. Not because I don’t want to go to hell, but because it would really suck if God turned out to be less just than most humans. I’m not talking about Pascal’s Wager. I’m simply saying that my uncertainty about the meaning of our existence goes so deep that any time I try to do what is right for right’s sake is an act of faith on my part. Maybe others (maybe Loftus) aren’t as profoundly uncertain as I am. Like I said, that’s great for them.

If somebody could show me beyond doubt that the universe is a cosmic accident and everything is ultimately meaningless, then I’ll accept that and find some way to go on, but it’ll be a different way, most likely. I’m not talking about needing a reason to live by rules. I’m not saying that if the cosmos has no meaning then I’d rather blow off my family and party till I’m dead. I’m not talking about that kind of morality. I’m talking about the very core of human endeavor itself.

It may well be that there is no meaning and that we can only create meaning for ourselves. But if that’s the case, then the best I can do is try to create the best meaning, and that’s what I’m already doing. I’m trying to find out what’s good and true and to pursue that. And I think that when it comes to such truths, the processes of “discovery” and the processes of “creativity” are virtually the same processes. All human beings can do is create their own meaning, and hope they got it right. The Bible is the product of such efforts, as are all cultural artifacts. To create meaning and believe in it is, I am convinced, what it means to be human. It’s when we refuse to acknowledge that our creativity is a response to profound uncertainty that it loses its human quality—that’s when we’re trying to be more than what we are, or rather, other than what we are. To be human is to have faith—to act on our hopes which arise consciously in response to our own ignorance and uncertainty.

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