Seventeenth century apologist Blaise Pascal famously claimed that the degree of evidence for Christian faith is set at the optimal level to secure the role of divine electing grace:
“there is enough evidence to condemn and not enough to convince, so that it should be apparent that those who follow it are prompted to do so by grace and not by reason…”
It is not surprising that Pascal should have argued so given his sympathies with Jansenism, a theology which is, to put it rather crudely, a Catholic brand of Calvinism.
However, countless theologians and apologists have argued rather differently, claiming that the evidence for Christian faith is set at the optimal threshold not to illustrate divine grace but rather to protect human freedom. Consider, for example, the argument of Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins:
“the freedom, unpredictability, and novelty of a special act of God involves an element of mystery. Such acts are never unambiguously so. They remain concealed to the extent that people may see or fail to see these events as acts of God. Recognition remains uncompelled. The factor of relative concealment allows cognitive freedom to persist.” (Gerald O’Collins, SJ, Rethinking Fundamental Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 82-3).
This seems to be a popular idea, this notion that the evidence for faith is purposefully kept ambiguous so that people are not compelled to believe, but instead can believe of their own free will.
When you think about it however, the argument is most curious. To illustrate the strangeness of the argument we should take a moment to draw out the assumed parallel between free action and what we might call “free believin’.” Imagine that you’re walking down the hall when you come to a corner where you must turn right. You might say you’ve no choice in the matter since there is only one direction to go. And thus, you are effectively compelled to turn right. But now imagine that you’re walking down the hall and you come to two options: you can go right or you can go left. Suddenly you’re free to choose your future direction where you weren’t before.
O’Collins seems to be thinking about belief like this. As you assess the evidence (i.e. walk down the hallway) you do not find yourself compelled to accept the truth of Christianity (i.e. turn right). You also have the option to reject the truth of Christianity (i.e. go left).
The problem with that picture is that belief is not like action. The idea that we exercise direct control over the beliefs we have analogous to the control we exercise over the placement of our body in space is surely flawed. We cannot simply choose what we believe like we choose where to walk. Instead, we find ourselves with various beliefs or with various doubts. (Yes we can exercise indirect control over our beliefs but we cannot exercise direct control and thus simply do not have the doxastic freedom this argument seems to assume.)
For an example, think of the father who desperately wants to believe that Jesus can heal his son, all the more so because Jesus seems to make healing contingent upon belief: “Lord I believe!” he wails … and then he adds inexplicably, “Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Inexplicable at first blush, perhaps. But not so surprising when you think about it. Really what he’s saying is “I want to believe! Help my unbelief!” And that means that he cannot simply will the beliefs he holds like he wills where to walk. So it is simply erroneous to suggest that Jesus is here protecting the man’s freedom to choose to believe his son can be healed. He wants to believe, but can’t.
Consequently if there is no freedom being protected by the relatively ambiguous degree of evidence then one must find another explanation for that ambiguity.