Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time interacting with comments on the recent episode of “Unbelievable” (for which I was one of the guests) debating Justin Brierley’s book Unbelievable and the atheist/skeptic response titled Still Unbelievable. Some of the contributors to Still Unbelievable were frustrated that I took the time to quote several passages to highlight the book’s acerbic tone and tendentious claims. (See the sample list I provided in my previous article.) I was even erroneously accused of “quote-mining”. (Not true.) And I was admonished (or, perhaps, exhorted?) to spend more time critiquing the actual essays in the book.
Fair enough, I decided to take up that last challenge. And so, I agreed to write a critical review of chapter 11 titled “Faith: All the Way Down” coauthored by David Johnson, Andrew Knight, and Michael Brady. I have also invited Knight to write a response which I will also post at my blog if he so chooses. So here goes, my response to “Faith: All the Way Down.”
The chapter begins reasonably well as the authors point out that the word “faith” is used in the New Testament (e.g. Jude 3) to refer to “a collection of beliefs”. It can also be used to describe “a degree of confidence, and at others, it expresses a leap over a gap in knowledge.”
In short, we have two basic uses here which map onto contemporary English usage as well which I will define as follows: (1) Faith: a religion; a system of basic epistemic and volitional commitments; (2) Faith: the exercise of trust in a belief or a witness.
The authors also write:
“There is one other religious usage that we should have in mind that is a rough combining of the two ideas so far. In some conversations the idea of a leap of
faith is discussed. Here, the idea is that there is some amount of empirical confidence that a Christian can have and the remainder is covered by faith.”
Unfortunately, the authors provide no documentation with respect to the phrase “leap of faith”, choosing instead to refer vaguely to “some conversations”. This is an example of the frustrating lack of documentation or critical engagement with academic Christian sources in the book.
Even worse, the authors never once refer to the Greek word pistis, the word which is translated into English as faith. This omission is ironic given that the authors write that “we must come to some consensus on what the bible means by faith when its writers use the word” and yet they never bother to consider the actual words that the biblical authors use. This is one of the many lacunae in their analysis.
Later, in a section on faith in the Bible, the authors quote Hebrews 11:1, but again, they never interact with the Greek. Nor do they interact with any Christian scholars on the topic. And strangely, they quote the antiquated King James Version “because it uses two words that play well with secularists: substance and evidence.” Needless to say, this is not a proper basis to select a translation.
Everyone has faith
It is important to recognize that pistis is not a “religious” or “Christian” word. Rather, it is a common Greek word for the universal phenomenon of (1) having a basic set of beliefs and practices to which one is committed and/or (2) trusting in a belief or a witness. (One could also say that the first definition (in both English and Greek) represents an ongoing state of affairs — i.e. having faith — whilst the latter represents an event — i.e. exercising faith.) In all these cases, the core shared idea is twofold and involves both commitment and trust. Often, the concept also exhibits an additional quality: hope. So faith is an attitude to which one is committed, in which one trusts, and (often) in which one hopes.
Just as pistis was a word in common use in Greek which could be applied to all manner of instances of trust (including the trust exercised by a Christian in Jesus and various claims about him), so it is with faith: this, too, is a common word with all manner of application. Every time you exercise commitment and trust, you exercise faith.
Let’s consider a few examples, beginning with pop music. In 1987, George Michael topped the charts with a song called “Faith” with the following resonant chorus:
‘Cause I gotta have faith
I gotta faith
Because I gotta to have faith faith
I gotta to have faith, faith, faith
The song is somewhat ambiguous, but as I understand it, Michael is describing the resolve of the singer to leave a dysfunctional relationship whilst having faith — trust — that this is the correct course of action. He needs to remind himself of this resolution because of the coming emotional turmoil he anticipates in the separation.
You may quibble with some aspect of my reading of the song, but regardless, one thing is clear: there is nothing religious about these lyrics. Countless other examples could be provided: for example, when Joe Cocker sang “Have a little faith in me” he was saying, “Trust in me.”
Second example: the insurance industry commonly uses the terms “good faith” and “bad faith” to describe actions which either conform or fail to conform to the insurer’s duty of honesty and fair dealing with customers. Once again, the lesson is that “faith” (as with “pistis“) is not a “religious” word/concept being appropriated into a non-religious context. Rather, it is a mundane word which describes epistemic attitudes of trust, commitment, and hope which can be employed in countless contexts, including religious ones.
Why does all this matter? It matters, because when the authors observe that “the one thing all Christian ideas have in common is faith”, what they should have said is that the one thing all people have in common is faith. Faith is something characterized by the epistemic dispositions of these authors as surely as anyone else. One cannot sustain a fallacious distinction between these “skeptical” authors who don’t exercise faith and Christians who do.
A Word on Evidence
Not surprisingly, the authors also describe a fallacious relationship between Christianity and the role of evidence. They write:
“At bottom [in Christianity], there is a story or claim that cannot be justified with classical evidence or scientific scrutiny. It doesn’t take long before every Christian vs. atheist debate comes down to a faith-based proposition. You simply cannot construct a religion that does not require some amount of faith. By their very nature, religious claims are beyond the realm of classical proofs.”
I have two comments here. First, it is true that the “classical proofs” do not succeed in the sense of being logically valid arguments which have premises that are compelling to every rational person. But as with faith, this is a universal human phenomenon. And so, the atheist likewise lacks a proof for their beliefs, including their beliefs that Christianity is false and irrational. The fact is that precisely nobody has a proof for their belief system in the lofty sense of the classical proofs: i.e. a universally compelling logically valid argument.
It follows that every person exercises some degree of faith in assenting to a belief system which other people can rationally deny. We all stake our claim on a set of truth claims even as others reasonably disagree with us. And the deluded people are those individuals who choose to deny this fact whilst insisting that their view is the only reasonable position to hold.
Needless to say, it is frustrating to see a total lack of awareness from the authors of Still Unbelievable that they themselves lack the very standard of a proof to justify their skepticism of Christianity. Talk about having a plank in one’s own eye…
Two General Problems with Still Unbelievable … and this essay
In my opinion, setting aside the acerbic tone, there are two main problems with Still Unbelievable. First, several of the essays ramble and are in need of some incisive editorial work to avoid repetition and tighten up the logical progression of the argument. Second, the book is almost entirely lacking in interaction with Christian scholarship. Instead, the authors periodically refer to Brierley’s book and then post their own ruminations on various biblical passages and their personal understanding of Christianity, apparently based on their own personal experiences. Needless to say, that is not an adequate basis on which to ground a categorical critique of an entire religion.
Both of those problems are on display in this essay. After introducing the concept of faith (as understood by the authors), the chapter cycles back repeatedly, offering different qualifications, nuances, and caveats, until the authors finally settle on a very different concept: blind faith. (More on that anon.)
Furthermore, there isn’t any interaction with Christian biblical scholars, historians, theologians, or philosophers on the topic of faith. As noted above, the authors cite the KJV and ignore the Greek word pistis. They refer vaguely to “conversations” about a leap of faith, but strangely never mention Kierkegaard’s pivotal definition of the concept in books like Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Fear and Trembling. In short, opinion takes the place of research. (Nor are they apparently familiar with the origin of the concept in Lessing’s ditch, and just how tendentious Lessing’s presentation of the problem is.)
With that method, it is not surprising that the essay includes many tendentious and flatly false claims. Rather than bore everyone by enumerating examples, I’ll provide one sample based on Jesus’ words to “doubting” Thomas:
“Jesus was not fond of evidence. He preferred faith from his followers: the kind that did not involve seeing convincing evidence.”
This is absolutely false and a gross misrepresentation. As Douglas Groothuis demonstrates in his book On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2002), Jesus employed sophisticated philosophical arguments in his interactions with his opponents. See also Dallas Willard’s essay “Jesus the Logician”, Christian Scholar’s Review (1999) (which you can read online here). Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus regularly appeals to the rabbinic standards on testimony (i.e. two or more witnesses) to justify his claims. He also regularly appeals to his miracles as demonstrable evidence of his messianic claims (cf. John 10:38).
If you want to hear more about the central role of reason and evidence in the life and ministry of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, you can listen to my sermon on the topic. To sum up, the authors get Jesus absolutely wrong, and I must assume it is because again, they ignored research and based their argument on a facile and errant reading of a single pericope.
As the chapter moves toward its inevitable conclusion, the authors finally focus in on their central claim that “blind faith” is, in fact, “the core of religious faith.” Then they cite Peter Boghossian’s outrageous claim that faith is “pretending to know things you don’t know” and based on that they enumerate all the things they believe Christians don’t know.
Again, there is no interaction at all here with Christian biblical scholars, historians, theologians, or philosophers on the concept of faith. And while this is ostensibly an essay in epistemology, there is, in particular, no engagement whatsoever in contemporary Christian epistemological theories of knowledge, justification, warrant, evidence, or faith. For example, I have published a book with Oxford University Press defending moderate externalist foundationalism, and I later wrote a popular book with InterVarsity Press expounding the implications of this view for a wider audience. And I’m but one voice. There are many Christians who have developed powerful and sophisticated epistemological treatments of the concept of faith and knowledge which are embedded within various broader epistemological theories (e.g. William Alston, Robert Merrihew Adams, Jay W. Wood, Linda Zagzebski, C. Stephen Evans, Michael Bergmann, and of course, Alvin Plantinga with his 1000 page Warrant triology).
This brings me to my conclusion. In case you were wondering: yes, there is something deeply ironic about an essay which takes Christians to task for their alleged irrationality and “blind faith”; and yet, with its polemical manner, false and tendentious claims, and absence of supporting evidence, it appears to exemplify the very blind faith it eschews in others.