Commending the Faith

This past Saturday, I attended John Stackhouse’s lectures on faith, reason, and the new atheism down at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre. Evidently, there is still some interest in this topic as the event sold out—even in hyper-secular Nanaimo! Around twenty people from our church attended which was fantastic to see! I was in and out of the sessions throughout the day due to carting kids to hockey, friends’ houses, etc, but a couple of things struck me about his presentations:

  1. Rather than offering a blow-by-blow refutation of the arguments of folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris or a “here’s how to answer atheists” checklist (which some may have been expecting), Stackhouse began with some pretty basic anthropology and epistemology. He dealt with issues such as the limitations of human knowledge, how knowledge and faith are related, and how both are necessary for all human knowing and behaving, and how the view set forth by the new atheists—that knowledge is for smart, rational people, and faith is for the superstitious and ignorant—is a simplistic and, well, untrue. Faith is a condition for all knowledge and knowledge is necessary for faith. The prying apart of faith and knowledge as two completely unrelated things is among the less helpful of the new atheist offerings.
  2. Stackhouse also talked a bit about what he called the “hierarchy of disciplines” moving from the physical to the metaphysical. Natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry) are at the bottom, then come the social sciences (sociology, psychology, etc), then the humanities (philosophy, history, literature), and then, at the top, we find theology/religion/worldview. Of course this isn’t meant to be an evaluative hierarchy—as if the disciplines at the bottom are less important than those at the top—but I thought it nicely illustrated the comprehensive scope of human understanding, and how each level of the hierarchy needs to be appreciated. If folks like Richard Dawkins are often guilty of contenting themselves with explanations at the bottom level (as if all of life can be explained by evolutionary theory), Christians are often guilty of the opposite. We decide upon a religion/philosophy of life, and then ignore both the insights and challenges that might come from the levels “below.” The result, in both cases, is an impoverished worldview that doesn’t take enough into account.
  3. Finally, Stackhouse asked us to consider how the worldview set forth by the new atheists deal with the classical philosophical categories of “the good,” the “the true,” and “the beautiful.” Can the worldview of the new atheists sufficiently account for our conceptions that goodness and beauty are more than adaptive fictions? Even more interestingly, can they account for the normative force of truth that they rely on in the very process of making their arguments (i.e., why should we care what is “true” in a world where survival value is the final standard? If believing lies is adaptive, so much the better!). If our view of the world—our philosophy of life—cannot account for how we experience the good, the true, and the beautiful and the importance we place on these categories, then it might be worth rethinking.

Given my history researching this topic and my time spent in Stackhouse’s classes at Regent, the content of the presentations was familiar enough. What was interesting to observe, at least for me, was the strategy adopted by Stackhouse on Saturday. Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the nature of debate and written responses to the new atheists over the last few years will know that there are no shortage of writers and lecturers eager to pick apart this or that argument set forth in their books, whether it is historical, scientific, or philosophical in nature. What Stackhouse did, I think, was better. Or at least more enjoyable. He gave us an honest assessment of who we are and what we can know and how we come to know it, whether we are Christians, atheists, or anything else. He also gave us a reminder of what we care about as human beings and asked us to consider what kinds of worldviews might be up to the task of explaining and addressing these.

All in all, a very good approach to apologetics, I think. Rather than attacking the deficiencies of the new atheists’ arguments or defending Christianity from this or that critique, Stackhouse actually commended the faith—in the best sense of the word—as that which meets us at the point of our deepest human need.

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16 Comments

  1. Re: Stackhouse also talked a bit about what he called the “hierarchy of disciplines” moving from the physical to the metaphysical.

    Based on your summary here, it does sound like Stackhouse thinks of theology in terms of metaphysics and epistemology. It is an approach that many find appealing.

    I don’t.

    I don’t mean to say metaphysics is a bad thing. I just mean to say it does not ease my doubts, my own tendency towards atheism. Huston Smith is another example of one who approaches faith through metaphysics, and his theology is perhaps closer to mine than is that of Stackhouse. Still, as much as I like Smith’s writings, they seem to fertilize my atheism, as do the writings of Stackhouse. That happens, I think, because I find metaphysics unbelievable.

    So, is the Stackhouse approach good for apologetics? I think it depends on whom the theologian using it is addressing. If apologetics is the aim, then I think theologians or pastors need be able to respond to the problem of disbelief, or atheism, or faithlessness, from multiple angles.

    I wonder who reads the new atheists and believes them. My impression has been that they mainly appeal to disaffected evangelicals and Catholics. There seems to be a great deal of anger in the polemic of the new atheists and a great desire to slay a dragon. Did your research reveal anything about who reads such works?

    1. I think that multiple angles are certainly a good thing when dealing pastorally with doubt or unbelief. I don’t think any of us can really escape metaphysics, though. At some point, metaphysics makes an appearance in every worldview, however unwelcome this appearance might be.

      Re: who reads the new atheists? Well, the short (and not very insightful!) answer is “a lot of people.” These books are all best-sellers, so I would assume that their appeal is broad. Some read them to refute them, some read them for liberation, some just for curiosity. I’m sure they are read by disaffected evangelicals and Catholics and many others besides.

      1. Interestingly, perhaps, I don’t know anyone who reads the new atheists, and most of the people I know are atheists, at least to a significant extent. There must be a market for these books that does not include the subculture in which I live.

        Re metaphysics: Writers who embrace metaphysics say as you do that metaphysics makes an appearance in every worldview. Other writers do not make this claim. Of course, metaphysics involves seeing reality on another level. If one does not have that kind of eye, then metaphysics sounds like fantasy, not of this world, not of any world.

      2. I guess the atheists you know don’t have any dragons to slay. Or maybe just gentler ones :).

        I think that the extent to which I, personally, embrace metaphysics is irrelevant to the claim that metaphysics make an appearance in all worldviews. I’m not usually one for bluntness, but in this case I would say that those who claim that this is not the case are simply wrong or unwilling to acknowledge something real about how worldviews work and what they do.

        Metaphysics come in all kinds and varieties, after all. In my view, every time someone makes an “ought” statement they are wandering into metaphysics.

      3. Yes, they do prove hard to escape. Maybe one day perceived metaphysical properties will be explained by physics, however, that day is still a long way off, if ever.

      4. Ryan, yes, I realize that is how it looks to you: “those who claim that this is not the case are simply wrong or unwilling to acknowledge something real about how worldviews work and what they do.”

        My sense is that is how it looks to Huston Smith as well, although I am not sure he would say “unwilling.”

        That view does not strike me as necessarily blunt. In the case of Huston Smith, for example, it is not. Nor is it blunt in the case of Plato.

      5. I don’t think it’s just “how it looks to me.” Everyone imposes some interpretation upon the physical world. In that sense, everyone operates with an implicit or explicit metaphysics.

      6. I understand that you don’t think it’s just how it looks to you. You are saying that your expression is true – “metaphysics make an appearance in all worldviews.” And I understand that you are saying that those who disagree are “simply wrong or unwilling to acknowledge something real about how worldviews work and what they do.”

      7. Sounds like a great night! I agree that metaphysics is ultimately unavoidable. But it took a while for me to accept that, and one thing that helped a lot was to understand the different ways in which the term is being used. Stephen Long provides one typology of different “metaphysics”:

        “First, metaphysics is … an imprecise use of language, which speaks of being or beings for which there can be neither verification nor falsification (metaphysics 1). Second, metaphysics is a totalizing discourse that presents Being as origin, cause, and goal and thinks everything within its structure (metaphysics 2). Third, metaphysics is the inevitable opening of a sign that exceeds its context (metaphysics 3). Fourth, metaphysics is the beyond that interrupts immanence ‘in the middle’ (metaphysics 4). Fifth, metaphysics is a beyond that secures the presence of any sign such such that the sign is unnecessary. It is an objective, universal validation where a sign corresponds to a reality such that the reality could be known without the sign. In fact, the reality secures the sign and not vice versa (metaphysics 5). (Metaphysics 5 is the ‘cartoon Platonism’ post-metaphysical philosophy critiques.)”

        Most who critique or reject metaphysics are speaking of metaphysics 1, 2, or 5, as are many who defend “metaphysics.” But there can be metaphysics that is not meaningless, fideistic, totalizing, or absolutist. Indeed, Long suggest metaphysics 3 and 4 can even be allies with deconstruction.

      8. Interesting definitions, Michael. Partly so because none of the 5 correspond to how I use the word. True my definition comes from my first philosophy course [taken many years back] called, Metaphysics and Epistemology. The definition is akin to a Grand Unifying Theory of everything. In this definition one can be materialist, platonic, deconstructionist, modern postmodern or anything. It is merely the GUT from which one looks at the world. It can be implicit or explicit but it is hard to imagine how anyone can claim not to have a metaphysic- by that definition.

      9. I think you’re right, Michael, everything depends on how the word “metaphysics” is defined. To the extent that I understand Long’s typology, I think it has promise (I’m not quite sure how he is using the word “sign”). I do think that many who reject metaphysics have exactly the “cartoon Platonism” you refer to in mind as they do so.

        My understanding of metaphysics might be a bit simplistic, but I just think of “meta” as connoting “above” or “over.” Anything set forth as an interpretation of the physical data that presents itself to sensory perception qualifies as a metaphysic, in my view. The world does not interpret itself and we are creatures who seem unable to resist and unwilling to live without interpreting. In that sense, I think, we are all metaphysicians.

      10. The world does not interpret itself and we are creatures who seem unable to resist and unwilling to live without interpreting. In that sense, I think, we are all metaphysicians.

        Yeah, it’s hard to imagine every human being coming together to agree on how they interpret their reality (if that’s what you mean). But to have individuals expressing how they view what they’ve experienced of the world (as ignorant and fallible it may be), doesn’t seem unrealistic to me.

        And if these expressions are not so much containing blanket “ought”s from a revealed reality “above” or “over” our own, but rather an elaboration of possibilities already seen in our own reality (however smaller those examples or instances may be), would those expressions still be considered metaphysical?

      11. I certainly don’t think that every human being will come to anything like a universal agreement on how to interpret reality! That would be very strange indeed. I also don’t think that individuals expressing how they view what they’ve experienced of the world is unrealistic. I don’t see how anyone could do otherwise.

        I’m not sure I understand your second paragraph. I don’t recall mentioning “blanket oughts” from “revealed realities.” I am simply saying that to the extent that human beings offer explanations of reality, they are engaging in metaphysics. This is not a uniquely religious phenomenon, but a human one.

        The process of “elaborating upon possibilities seen in our own reality” presumes a creature inclined to investigate and elaborate upon possibilities. It presumes the existence of metaphysicians. As I see it, even the claim “there is no such thing as metaphysics” is a metaphysical claim in the sense that it goes beyond (above) the raw data presented to sensory perception.

        (Of course, everything depends on how the term “metaphysics” is understood and employed, as Michael has reminded us.)

  2. Michael,

    Long’s book looks interesting. Google provides excerpts, including the chapter that includes the passage you quoted.

    He says that the reference to “cartoon Platonism” comes from the work of a philosopher named Desmond. It was his way of putting down Nietzche’s critique of metaphysics, as in the death of God.

    Nietzsche is not easily put down.

    My impression from the introduction to Long’s book is that he writes in an evangelical context. Is that true?

    Why do you think appeals to metaphysics in any category support the faith of some and erode the faith of others? (Like me.) Is it just that certain categories fail?

    Some of us used to think that what some writers consider nonmetaphysical approaches, perhaps what Long considers category 3 and 4 metaphysics, supported faith. But then, after a while, they didn’t. Ironically, perhaps, it is the natural sciences – the lowest level in the hierarchy of Stackhouse, and the sword of the new atheists – that most support faith for some: the religious naturalists.

    For me, I don’t know. I may just be damned.

    Sometimes I reread Huston Smith, for whom metaphysics matters, and hope for faith. Or I read the work of religious naturalists and hope for the same.

    1. Ken,

      I’m quite certain evangelicals would not approve of Long – he’s a professor at Marquette, which is Catholic, and he ends his book with a fantastic meditation on Mary, and how “Truth, like every sign, is ‘made,’ just as Jesus, who is the Truth, is ‘made’ in Mary’s womb.” The Incarnation enables a radical social constructivism where all truth is produced, but not untrue for being so.

      I’m not sure why metaphysics is so controversial. It might help if we all realized that accepting metaphysics does not entail becoming a Christian, or even believing in any sort of ‘god’. Most human beings throughout history had a metaphysic (or two), and most were not monotheists.

      I don’t think you’re damned. 🙂

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