Saturday, September 10, 2016

Faith and the intellectual life

I think discussions about science and faith are important. I think it's necessary to ask whether the latest scholarship and research contradicts or affirms traditional beliefs. I like to be involved in those debates, because I think sometimes skeptics can be convinced that Christianity is not all baloney and sometimes Christians can be convinced that not every traditional doctrine is Truth with a capital 'T'.

But there's a deeper, more fundamental question that surprisingly few Christian apologists ever bother to answer (and perhaps few Christians ever think to ask themselves). Is Christian faith consistent with a vibrant intellectual life at all?

Perhaps the question seems so blatantly offensive that it doesn't seem worth considering. I can certainly understand why. So many of the greatest minds, not only in science but in all areas of philosophy and the arts, have been faithful believers. Why should we doubt that one can have both sincere devotion to God and at the same time vigorously pursue intellectual questions?

Yet it seems to me there is naturally a great deal of tension between faith and reason for the intellectual. By "intellectual" I mean someone who seeks relentlessly to know what is true, who is indeed so committed to the pursuit of understanding that they will not allow any tradition, force of habit, feeling, prior commitment or anything else to stand in the way of rational inquiry. Thus intellectuals necessarily leave themselves open to changing every opinion, even those they hold most dear.

Christian religion, on the other hand, most certainly demands that we believe something. We are called to believe and warned not to fall away. We are expected to be convinced, and once convinced we are warned never to doubt. Faith is indeed a form of loyalty. It means devotion to a person--Jesus Christ--and to his mission, and to all the other people who have also made themselves loyal.

Can the intellectual truly hold such loyalty? I suppose the same question applies to any sort of loyalty. Can one be a committed member of a political party and be an intellectual? But changing political parties is certainly not unheard of. Perhaps a more dire question would be, can one honestly be loyal to one's country and be an intellectual? Is it not the case the one's country might get in the way of the truth, in which case such loyalty must be abandoned?

Less dire, more personal: can one be an intellectual and faithfully devoted to a family? This question seems to me far less hypothetical than the others. Families fall apart all the time in our day. That seems to be in large part because we are quite committed to discovering ourselves as we go, which means old commitments might sometimes have to give way to new self-discoveries. Some people seem to think it's worth it; others of us aren't so sure.

Maybe one could legitimately ask whether it's right or good to truly be an intellectual. After all, is it not self-defeating? To be committed to the pursuit of truth at the cost of any and all loyalties is itself a kind of loyalty of the most demanding kind. Yet that kind of loyalty is exactly the kind Jesus himself demanded: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Indeed, Jesus declared that he is the truth.

If we are committed to the truth at the cost of all other loyalties, there is no internal inconsistency, and moreover we are found merely to be doing what Jesus himself demands of us. The only question is, what gives Jesus the right to call himself the truth? Do there truly exist such overwhelmingly compelling arguments in support of such a claim?

Some apologists begin with five (or so) arguments for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator. Others begin with historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Others begin with an appeal to our sense of justice and innate belief in moral objectivity. Still others appeal to the universal human thirst for spiritual meaning.

When we add up such arguments together, do we yet get anywhere close to where we need to be, in order to convince the intellectual that Jesus himself is indeed the truth? Can intellectuals' loyalty to God ever be higher than their devotion to the truth? Must their devotion, if it is sincere, lead to faith? (Such a demand seems to defy common experience.) Or is the ultimate discovery rather that their devotion to the truth is a sort of faith in God, albeit unbeknownst to them?

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