Faith and other Epistemic Categories

anchor-fishI. Faith

In response to Bonald’s excellent little piece Faith is honesty in doubt, I wanted to offer a parallel thesis (or, if you like, a friendly amendment): faith is a matter of whom, not what.

I can have faith in a man (I believe him).  Maybe I have faith in him in a general sense, or maybe I have only heard him recite one particular narrative (in which case when I say I believe him I mean I have faith in that particular narrative).  I can also have faith in groups and communities, and in their reports, publications, traditions, in the names they put forward as trustworthy authorities on certain questions, and so on.

Faith (or belief) is a matter of trust; fundamentally it is your confidence in the man that makes you confident his words will ring true.  (Indeed, confidence is a Latin word meaning with faith.)

You can trust a man, or a group; you can always trust every word that comes out of his mouth, or just in one incident; you can trust him on account of his honesty, his accuracy, or both; you can trust him absolutely or only casually; but wherever you say you trust, the question whom it is that you trust arises.  You can’t trust things, states of affairs, trees…

We sometimes describe inanimate objects, and especially technological devices, as trustworthy.  This just means that they are extremely predictable.  If the 12:05 express train is so regular you can set your clock by it, you can trust the train: i.e., rely that the time it goes by is always 12:05.  But when we metaphorically describe inanimate objects as trustworthy that is not to say this “trust” has any relation to truth, or indeed to any other good thing.

(During WWI, general staff officers visiting the front were amazed to see the way captains and sergeants would casually walk around while artillery shells were whizzing by, and never get hurt.  The junior officers were blasé because once a German gun was positioned and trained in a certain way, it would hit almost the same point every time.  The physics of the incoming ordinance was very predictable; that is not to say that being shelled inspires a feeling of trust or faith!)platodividedline

II. Knowledge

The line that divides knowing from imagining is not a particularly clear border (build the wall!) but loosely speaking we can say that we all know a great deal about the world we live in, and indeed about the universe that lies beyond it as well; so much, in fact, that any person’s knowledge vastly exceeds anything he could have possible seen with his own eyes or heard with his own ears.  Some of this knowledge comes from extrapolation and generalization from the seen to the unseen.  Some of it comes from evidence which remains in the present and can analyzed for clues about the past.  But most of our knowledge is a matter of belief.  People told us stuff, we believed them, and here we are.

(Most of our errors are also a matter of belief.  Therein lies the rub!)

Consider Bonald’s statement of the difference between Christian faith and atheist faith:

“Mathematical certainty is not to be had in this life outside of mathematics.  The difference is that the Christian is forced to be conscious of his act of faith.”

“It is not religion but liberalism that manifests a discomfort with doubt, discomfort to the extent that the liberal must shield himself from acknowledging the questionability of his beliefs.”

From this starting point, our friend Bonald went on to consider faith as a capacity and as a virtue.  He did not dwell on the primum quid, the existential fact that faith is a relation  between someone who has faith and the one whom he believes.

As Christians, we believe Christ and his Apostles.  When Mr. Smith tells us something that conflicts with our Christian creed, we withhold our assent from Mr. Smith’s claims because we have greater faith in Christ than in Mr. Smith.  If later on Mr. Thompson tells us something that conflicts with some other rumor we heard from Mr. Smith, this conflict will cause us to experience some uncertainty and confusion; but we will have a much more vivid understanding of what is going on if we have recently had some reason to reflect on Mr. Smith and how much (or how little) we trust him.

If you don’t know whom you trust, you will still hear things from other people.  You will still build a picture of how the world works (some of it accurate, some less so).  You just won’t know where it comes from.  For the atheist this jumble of knowledge and error that he acquires from his contemporaries is not faith; that is, it is not a relation between the believer and the one he trusts.  There is, first of all, no one special in whom he places any unique trust; and lacking that deep faith, there is no easy way for him to get into the habit of comparing those whom he trusts more to those whom he trusts less. (Such systematic comparisons need to start with whomever one trusts most.)

Consider a faithful wife and a drug-addled slut.  Both of them are likely, in the normal course of things, to conceive a child, but only the wife will know who the father of her child is.  The Church is the wife; the pagans are the slut.

III. Epistemological Passivity

(Warning: hair-splitting ahead. Stop reading unless you really like hair-splitting.)

The Greek word for faith, πίστις, comes from πείθω “to persuade”.  In fact, one of the original ways to say “I trust him” in Greek was to say “I-am-persuaded [πείθομαι] by him”. Languages that conjugate verbs in the passive voice will let you do all kinds of neat tricks like that.  I think I heard somewhere that πίστις and the verb πῐστεύω (“to believe”) might have originally come from one of the mediopassive constructions of πείθω, but that seems unlikely. (Probably the -τις suffix came first, and then a new verb was constructed out of the noun.)

The Greek passive construction hints at the primary difference between faith and persuasion: a believer corresponds to the person whom the persuader has successfully persuaded.  But faith and persuasion are not exact opposites.  There is a secondary difference as well.  Faith, I have claimed, is a matter of whom rather than what.  However, persuasion is always a matter of what.  One cannot persuade someone in a general kind of way; one always persuades one’s audience to adopt some particular opinion or view.

In this sense persuasion is like salesmanship.  Trained persuaders, like salesmen, are not commonly considered trustworthy.  Thus while at certain times it is persuasive to emphasize one’s own identity (“You know me, Johnny; would I lie to you about this?”), far more frequently the persuader disclaims any personal link to the case he’s making; he tries to shift the burden of persuasiveness onto the claim he’s making and the supporting evidence he can produce for it, giving his rhetoric the specious glow of a universal truth.

Perhaps we could say that this is the difference between faith and conviction.  Conviction refers to something that you have been convinced is true (and only implicitly, if at all, to those who convinced you), whereas faith refers to someone you trust (and only implicitly to opinions you hold as a result of this trust).  To restate a point using this new conceptual contrast: everyone has convictions, but a Christian has faith as well.

εἰς, εἰς, baby

The Greek verb “to believe, to trust” (“to be persuaded, to be convinced”) gives you the option to flag specific opinions (convictions) that you hold as a result of your trust.  The Fathers of the Church were mostly Greek-speaking, and so all of Christianity’s early theological squabbles were conducted in Greek; and when it came time to agree on specific verbal formulae that would resolve those squabbles, it was natural for the ecumenical councils to affirm not only that they trust God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, but that they believe “in” (εἰς) a God who is almighty, a Son of God who is consubstantial with his Father, and a Holy Ghost who spake by the prophets.

This innocent linguistic quirk of the ecumenical creeds has had a peculiar effect on the epistemology of the faithful.  These creeds (and countless catechisms and sermons which directly echo their language and grammar) have given many pious Christians the idea that the faith which is a gift of the Holy Ghost is a set of propositions which the faithful believe.  Moreover, just as they consider it impious to deny the propositions outlined in the Nicene Creed (under the formula “We believe in…”), they consider it impious to distinguish between assertingaffirming, or accepting a proposition (or judging it to be true) and believing, trusting, or having faith in someone.

This distinction implies that the ecumenical creeds are couched in potentially confusing language, which I suppose some people find disrespectful.  And in happier times, I would find their instinct to honor the symbols of their faith salutary.  But the failure to make the distinction has led to a complete conflation of faith (the virtue) with judgment (the evaluation of propositions) and of trusting (whom?) with being convinced (what?).  This amounts to a cultural crisis.  When the house is on fire, there is not much time to worry about purity spirals.


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