Monday, August 2

A Response To Peter Wehner On Faith And Doubt

On Christmas Day of 2017, Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he argued on the basis of Jesus’ teaching that, while faith and doubt are complementary, faith is nevertheless superior to doubt as a guide to life, thought, and morality. As a corollary, Wehner argues that faith is consequently also superior to both doubt and reason for such purposes. For the purposes of this reply, I will assume that Wehner intends for his argument to apply to both comparisons synonymously:  faith vs. doubt, faith vs. reason. This equivalence is justified by Wehner’s own argument.  The problem with Wehner’s argument is that it undermines itself if we attempt to apply it in contexts other than the purely individual and idiosyncratic.

The self-referential character of Wehner’s argument is implicit at the outset. Wehner asks

Why is it that, according to Jesus, faith is better than proof?

This immediately begs the question “Better for what?” In some obvious sense, we can be thankful that most people do not interpret Jesus’ preference for faith in an unqualified sense. We can be thankful, e.g., that an aircraft engineer does not “have faith” that the laws of aerodynamics do not apply, that a surgeon does not “have faith” that the appendix is on the left side of the lower abdomen, etc. Wehner rather explicitly acknowledges that faith and reason have different areas of applicability. But that only leaves the question begged, not answered.

Without actually saying so explicitly, Wehner seems to imply that faith is better, or at least as good, as reason for providing a basis for social consensus and cohesion in much the same way as reason does.

Christians would say, in fact, that reason is affirmed in Scripture — “Come now, and let us reason together,” is how the prophet Isaiah puts it — and that faith properly understood is consistent with and deepens our understanding of reality.

This is where matters begin to get really interesting, and that for two reasons:  (1) yes, reason does provide a certain general basis for social, political, and even moral cohesion in any society. If we know the Nile floods at certain times of the year, we can probably "reason together" that it is best to plant crops so as to leverage increased fertility of the new topsoil the floods bring. We can also "reason together" that, for the sake of social cohesion, it is probably best to prohibit murder and theft. Etc., etc. But (2) to what extent  are we justified in the inference that faith provides a similar basis of commonality? Commonality is important because the Isaiah text says "Come now and let us reason together", not " ... reason individually" and perhaps least of all " ... reason idiosyncratically". Do religious ideas and doctrines conduce to anything like a similar solidarity of thought and action? Probably not. Israelis and the indigenous inhabitants of the Levant could probably "reason together" on certain principles of planting and harvesting. But they disagreed violently as to whether their respective gods – YHVH for the Israelites; Molech for the latter – demanded, e.g., infant sacrifice. In fact, Israel even disagreed even with its own Deity about religious principles and practices.

"The School of Athens" ... Raphael Sanzio of Urbino

“Reason[ing] together” vs. faith is not an outright false comparison. But asserting without qualification that faith and reason / doubt are complementary is just true enough to be misleading. To "reason together" -- and to do so with intellectual integrity -- means to be willing to admit, rather like a marriage therapist dealing with a fractious couple, that both sides of an argument have at least some truth on their side, and that neither party has cornered the market on same. You cannot “reason together” with integrity while assuming that God is always right and the human party to the conversation is always wrong. You cannot have a genuine argument -- you cannot truly "reason together" -- with someone (or Someone) who is by definition always right. But to assert no more than that God only has some truth on God's side is logically equivalent to asserting that, at least in some ways, God may be in the wrong. In fact, the position in italics above is essentially Prof. David Blumenthal's thesis in Facing the Abusing God. That is true "reason[ing] together".

So because “reason[ing] together” is “reason[ing] together,” there is a social and communal dimension to the conversation that Isaiah advocates, because Isaiah’s text was addressed to the Jewish community-as-such. That is the discursive fissure that divides reason, properly so called, from faith and that renders comparisons of the two highly problematical:  for reasons I discuss below, it is much easier to agree on the conclusions of reason than on the revelations of faith. The former can lead to reconciliation. The latter often leads to violence. And the only means of reconciling the two is to adopt an understanding of faith that has “always already,” and prior to the "reason[ing] together," been rendered consistent with reason. Given that, the conclusion is already foregone:  God is always right, and humans are wrong.

(You have to be meticulously careful when using expressions like "reason" and "liberty" with respect to God. In the biblical understanding of those terms, such locutions have to be hedged about with the implicit understanding that we are discussing such subjects on God's terms, not necessarily on ours, which has the effect of tacitly "pre-validating" God's stance.  E.g., North Koreans are perfectly free to "reason together" with Kim Jong Un and to exercise their liberty -- provided that their reasoning always leads them to agree with Kim, and they exercise their liberty consistent with Kim's wishes.)

"Allah" in Arabic calligraphy

The result:  Reason and Faith remain two incorrigibly different ways of apprehending the world. That is not to say – here I agree with Wehner – that there are no points of contact whatsoever between the two. I have addressed this issue at length elsewhere. Yes, there is a sense in which we just accept “on faith” that physical law in the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light-years away is the same as physical law here on earth. Yes, there is a sense in which we accept “on faith” that mathematics is always and everywhere consistent. Etc., etc. Neither of these “faith-based” suppositions is strictly susceptible to empirical proof. So if in an important sense, rationality (and its corollary, doubt) is grounded on faith, what distinguishes this faith from the religious faith to which Wehner refers? Why are the two not on the same level epistemologically? At least two reasons:

(a) Reason works (often through doubt) ... One's metaphysical and ontological presuppositions being whatever they may, reason, scientifically applied, works. If you and I had the requisite equipment and the proper training, we could, independently of each other and with no collusion whatsoever, measure the speed of light, and we would both arrive at the same answer -- 300,000 kilometers per second -- within the miniscule limits of our measuring equipment. The very fact that I am writing this column on a laptop computer suffices to demonstrate that reason works. But, be their faith ever so great and their prayers ever so impassioned, I have never seen the faith of a faith-healer suffice to, e.g., re-grow an amputated limb. In some important sense -- and that preceding phrase is a critical qualification on my part; hence the italics -- faith does not work. In radical contrast, we humans have been using math for, conservatively, about 6,000 years and have been doing astronomy for roughly that long, and neither of the above principles has ever gotten us into trouble.

(I say this entirely without rancor. The problem here is not with faith, but with our expectations vis a vis faith, and with our use of faith as a means toward an end, much like using a hammer to remove a brain tumor.  Faith does not “work” if we expect faith to function in a person’s life as an efficient / instrumental causewhich is contrary to the nature and purpose of faith. I have also written about this elsewhere.)

(b) With faith, there are no truth-criteria ... At least, there are no trans-personal truth-criteria such as we rely on for measuring the speed of light. Catholics have faith that when Jesus said to Peter "Upon this rock I will build my Church", Christ was naming Peter as the first Pope. Protestants have an equally strong faith that such was not Jesus' intent. Who is right? Who is wrong? And why? There has been no way to decide either truth-claim since at least the middle 1500s, probably longer than that. One need not buy whole-hog into claims about magisterial infallibility, conciliar or papal, to agree that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church did provide a criterion for assessing the truth of religious propositions, and that the loss of this common standard resulted in epistemological chaos in the "big Tent" Christian Church. When members of the Orchestra abduct the Conductor, break his baton, throw him out of the auditorium, and invite the musicians to play their own music -- jazz, heavy-metal, baroque, salsa ... -- you must expect, for better or for worse, that the Orchestra's sound will become dissonant as a matter of course.

The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ending the 30 Years War

Absent truth-criteria -- absent some kind of magisterium, absent some kind of epistemological "supreme court" -- "reason[ing] together" with integrity in the above sense becomes more important, not less. What participants in that conversation all have in common, despite their other differences, is reason and respect for evidence, something merely “feral” faith cannot provide. The alternative is a purely private, personalistic, idiosyncratic faith -- pretty much the kind of faith John Milton had after the Restoration in 1660.

At that point, with no truth-criterion beyond or besides purely personal meaning, the only kind of faith we have, the only kind of faith we can have, is my faith -- "What Jesus means to me" -- a kind of Kierkegaardian faith:  essentially, faith in faith. You could write the history of European civilization during the centuries immediately following the Reformation in terms of the violence occasioned by attempts to put the great epistemological Humpty Dumpty back together again:  to use naked force against entire nations to enforce a uniformity that was lost the moment Protestants separated, doctrinally and institutionally, from the Catholic Church. For better or for worse, all the blood and iron of the 16th and 17th centuries could not put the toothpaste back in the tube or un-ring the bell.

So what restrained "feral" religious passion -- the much-vaunted "power of faith" -- and thus prevented Europe from bombing itself back into the Stone Age? The short answer is Reason powered by Doubt as mediated by the more or less concurrent European Enlightenment, which I have written about elsewhere,  The same European Enlightenment that people of good will, committed to tolerance, freedom of inquiry / expression, individual rights, and equality before the law must fight to preserve against the depredations of the current climate of authoritarianism and fascism -- and not just in the United States. Since disagreements over religious convictions admitted of no religious standard for adjudication, leaving only violence, bloodshed, and force, the nations of Europe gradually and over time began to learn, painful step by painful step, to submit all disagreements, eventually even religious disagreements, to the arbitration of reason, observation, and evidence. I have elsewhere described this process by comparison to control rods moderating the incipient catastrophe of a nuclear reactor on the edge of undergoing meltdown. During at least the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was a Continent-sized Chernobyl looking for a place to explode. But Europeans learned to agree to disagree. It was a near thing, even so:  e.g., as late as the 1790s, a person of no less eminence than Immanuel Kant could be suspended from teaching on the basis of his published writings on the nature of Reason in relation to religion.

But had the Enlightenment not eventually culminated in the secularization of civil government, individual religious liberty, and what we Americans call "separation of Church and State," religion would have been eradicated no less than latitudinarian constitutional government. In other words -- and contra Mr. Wehner -- Reason and Doubt conspired to save Faith from itself.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Question mark ... Marco Bellucci ... CC BY 2.0
The Doubt of St. Thomas ... Caravaggio ... Public domain
"Allah" in Arabic ... Calligrapher unknown ... Public domain
Cavalry charge in 30 Years War ... Jan Martszen de Jonge ... Public domain
Signing of the Treaty of Westphalia (ending 30 Years War) ... Gerard ter Borch ... Public domain
US Constitution ... ... Public domain
"The School of Athens" ... Raphael Sanzio ... Public domain


  • Very interesting James, re: Peter Wehner – your orchestra metaphor, quote below. As a Wesleyan, I will argue this one on Wehner’s side – and against your thesis of a purely personal faith. But on all the science stuff I agree with you. I’ve always been a doubter too, and make much room for it in the church where I worship.

    There is a problem, says William Abraham in his book “Canon and Criterion” with the whole issue of Criterion in the conversation about faith. The narrative of this amazing book shows (I think it shows) there was a time (roughly 800 years until the Bishops of Rome starting posturing for power) when “the faith” of say, Jude 3, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” worked as Canon, not Criterion. But since the filioque split 200 years later, the West has been more and more driven to Criterion, while the East has stayed happy with Canon. So for 800 years the Conductor of the Orchestra was God – as Holy Spirit, dependent on every member of the orchestra doing his/her thing. 1st horn, last stand of the 2nd violins, tympanist and Concert Master all essential. Sections in the orchestra included, but not limited to:

    Missionary Activity

    all delivering in their own way, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” The Holy Spirit then brings the music. Saving grace through the icon of Christ – creating, prevenient, convincing, justifying, and sanctifying. I.e., orthodoxy, as in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    In other words, there was a 800 year period in which none of the Canons were allowed to lord it over the other ones. Not altogether harmonious of course. But no human endeavor ever is. And there still is a living church today in which that imperfect experiment is living. The Eastern Church. Without the filioque. Orthodoxy.

    But not an orthodoxy that is interested in becoming yet another western criterion. We in the west always mess up orthodoxy when we try it from either our Protestant or Roman Catholic starting points. Orthodoxy is the living community – in which all the Canons run and do their thing, and the church struggles to make sense of it. And stays up all night for Easter Vigil waiting for the miracle.

    Wesley was steeped in this “primitive church” idea. And we know his witness was never purely personal. Wherever Jude 3 lives, the faith ah la Ephesians 4 “One Baptism” ecumenism also lives. Not even primarily personal.


    “One need not buy whole-hog into claims about magisterial infallibility, conciliar or papal, to agree that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church did provide a criterion for assessing the truth of religious propositions, and that the loss of this common standard resulted in epistemological chaos in the “big Tent” Christian Church. When members of the Orchestra abduct the Conductor, break his baton, throw him out of the auditorium, and invite the musicians to play their own music — jazz, heavy-metal, baroque, salsa … — you must expect, for better or for worse, that the Orchestra’s sound will become dissonant as a matter of course.”

    • Contrary to appearances, I’ve not forgotten you and am not ignoring you. I was out of town visiting family — in Wichita, KS, where the high temps were in single digits — and caught the cruds. I’m over the cruds now, but still spaced out on meds. Will be in touch when / as the cobwebs clear. Thanks for your patience.


  • Thanks for the response … Most of the time, writing “Skeptic’s” columns feels like I am a stand-up comic performing his act in a comedy club where the lights on the stage are so bright I can’t see the audience, so for all I know, the seats “out there” may all be vacant. I very seldom elicit a response of any kind. I think the “canon” paradigm would work if all the canons’ utterances / teachings / assertions were all mutually consistent. Or at least, if not reconciled, then reconcileABLE. E.g., when I was a child, and through much of my teen years, I was part of a very conservative, fundamentalist Baptist group called the “Missionary Baptists”. But i also knew, even then, that there were other groups that claimed the name of Baptist: Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free-Will Baptists, General Association Regular Baptists, etc., etc., etc. To anyone in any of these traditions, the differences seemed like theological Grand Canyons, whereas to anyone outside ALL these groups, the actual differences were like minor cracks in a sidewalk. Basically, we were all just … “Baptists”. If the differences among the various canons were of such a nature — molehills masquerading as mountains, to shift the metaphor — what you say about the pre-800 / pre-Carolingian Church would be well taken. And, in fact, I think that in pre-800 / pre-Carolingian Europe, your statements most likely — I’m not a professional Church historian — ARE well taken. But I am not optimistic that — AFTER 800, and perhaps least of all after the middle 1500s — you can, as I said, put the toothpaste back in the confessional tube and apply the canon model to the Church in the West. So I see Wesley and other dissidents as brave people, but basically as fish out of water, trying to apply a paradigm of Church in an environment where it was not applicable. Yes, I am sure Wesley’s faith was not merely personal. But there is a lot more involved in the idea of magisterial authority than just inter-personal agreement. The fact that 2 or 200 of 2000 or 2 million people happen to agree on statements A, B, C, D … does not lend the principles on which they agree any authority: they all may be wrong, inter-personal agreement notwithstanding. That was what — I confess — I still, to this day, like about the Roman Catholic concept of the universal magisterium: it is a standard like the speed of light, i.e., it’s true whether you believe it and agree or not. Fundamentalists — and, yes, I do realize you are not one; this is just an analogy — fundamentalists may and do deny that evolution and speciation take place. Doesn’t matter. Evolution and speciation DO take place. They are real, irrespective of one’s subjective beliefs. (That is why I agree with the PRINCIPLE, the CONCEPT of the universal magisterium: it’s a kind of doctrinal / confessional Supreme Court. I may disagree with certain specific magisterial pronouncements, but the principle of a magisterium is a good idea.) Basically, if all you have is a group of people who agree on doctrines X, Y, and Z, then … well … that’s a good thing in terms of people getting along with each other, and certainly better than fighting another 30 Years War or holding another Inquisition. But it says nothing about the truth-value of the principles X, Y, and Z themselves. No matter how many people agree with you, you still have only subjective belief. There are lots of fundamentalists around who think the earth is 6K years old and that God just zorched humans into existence. But they’re still wrong. Agreement does not add up to authority. Nor does appealing to the Holy Spirit. According to the Pew Survey of religious attitudes, there are around 40 thousand Christian denominations, depending on how you define “denomination” (e.g., are Southern Baptists counted separately from Missionary Baptists). Many of those 40,000 teach widely divergent doctrines, and yet all claim the “leadership of the Holy Spirit” for their respective teachings. You see this a lot in the movement to replace civil law with “Christian principles”. WHOSE Christian principles? WHICH VERSION of Christian principles? Which of the 40K is right and which are wrong? With all due respect to those groups and their First Amendment / “free exercise” rights, their Holy Spirits looks more and more like a pneumatic Donald Trump saying “X” to group A and “not-X” to group B. “Oh but we agree on the ‘essentials’ … ” Really? And who gets to decide what is essential and what is optional? Now, multiply all the above by the 40,000 in the Pew Survey, and I think you can see why I (a) wax cynical about the whole thing and (b) thank H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Cthullhu and the Old Ones for the First Amendment and both of its “religion” clauses! I wish we could talk this over in person!

  • “I think you can see why I (a) wax cynical about the whole thing and (b) thank H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Cthullhu and the Old Ones for the First Amendment and both of its “religion” clauses! I wish we could talk this over in person!”

    . . . . That would be huge fun. So let’s do that sometime. I had never heard of “H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Cthullhu” – WOW! And yes, I think I can see why you wax cynical. I also know that (am watching the new Cosmos Series by Neil deGrasse Tyson) what is described as “spiritual” by scientists (being in jaw-dropping awe of DNA) won’t play in Peoria!

  • Not ignoring you, but am out of town with only my iPhone, whose virtual keyboard is hard to type on. Suggest you start with Lovecrart’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness”. More later …

  • Contrary to appearances, I’ve not forgotten you and am not ignoring you. I was out of town visiting family — in Wichita, KS, where the high temps were in single digits — and caught the cruds. I’m over the cruds now, but still spaced out on meds. Will be in touch when / as the cobwebs clear. Thanks for your patience.


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