Clarity vs. Skepticism and Fideism
From The Clarity of God’s Existence by Dr. Owen Anderson
Clarity conflicts with skepticism. Skepticism as a universal claim says that knowledge is impossible. Some skeptics might say that some knowledge is possible but God is unknowable. If this claim is true then unbelief, as ignorance, is not culpable. Both forms of skepticism are often the result of continuing divisions between humans. As the skeptic views these divisions, and the lack of progress made in the realm of knowledge, he concludes that knowledge must be impossible. One reason given for skepticism is that philosophy appears to have made little progress in natural theology or metaphysics:
I will therefore conclude with pointing to two most important features of the higher life which stand in the same position. First, Philosophy: in spite of the arduous and unwearied efforts of men of the highest intellectual power it cannot be affirmed that the last three centuries have provided us with a philosophy of acknowledged supremacy, in relation to which all others can be set in place as historical stages superseded by a consummating system. Neither in Germany nor in France, nor in the British world, taking them separately, has this been achieved: much less has it been accomplished in Europe as a whole. And, secondly, in Christian Theology as the dogmatic exposition of the contents of the Gospel, the Reformation has caused a bisection, and has not brought uniformity even on the Protestant side of the line; while in the application to Church government and modes of worship the situation is still more varied and diversified. If this is so for Philosophy on the one hand and for Christian Theology on the other, ought we be surprised that variety has prevailed, and still prevails, in the region of Natural Theology, where these have a certain extent of common interest?
However, the reality of continuing divisions does not prove that we cannot know but only that some, in fact, many do not know. The skeptic assumes that humans are seeking to know and yet failing to know. If this were true then it would also be true that God’s existence is not clear. The alternative possibility is that humans are not seeking to know God, so that even though God’s existence is clear the result is that none know God. It is often the case that those who are not seeking think they are seeking. Therefore, the mere reality of persons who claim to be seeking and yet do not know is insufficient to disprove clarity. In fact, the reality that persons do not know God could be taken as an argument in favor of the need for redemption. Natural theology, as the study of God as known through general revelation, stands in contrast to skepticism and fideism. The former says that God is not knowable, the latter that belief should be placed blindly (without proof or justification) in the absence of the ability to know God.
Apart from determining its accuracy, skepticism can be shown here to be inconsistent with the need for clarity presupposed by the claim that all humans need redemption. If we cannot know then we cannot be held responsible. Whether knowledge is not possible in general, or God is unknowable, such claims are incompatible with Historic Christianity since redemption requires guilt and guilt in this case requires knowledge.
Skepticism provides an excuse for unbelief. An example is expressed by Hans Kung: “It is possible to deny God. Atheism cannot be eliminated rationally. It is irrefutable.” If such a view as this is true, then the unbeliever has an excuse. The lack of proof or evidence constitutes an excuse in this case because one cannot be said to be guilty for failing to believe what one has no reason to believe. As rational beings, nothing more can be expected from us but to hold beliefs that are rational. It should not be surprising that one who holds a view like Kung’s will also abandon the redemptive claims of Historic Christianity and instead explore inclusivism and pluralism.
Clarity conflicts with fideism. Fideism claims that we should believe even in the absence of proof. The fideist agrees with the skeptic that knowledge is not possible. However, where the skeptic refrains from belief, the fideist asserts a leap should be made. Belief should be held without proof, or in spite of the lack of proof. For some fideists this is a regrettable concession and it is admitted that knowledge would be superior. For others a blind leap is superior to reason and knowledge and should be made boldly. If fideism is true, then unbelief, as ignorance, is not culpable.
Fideism often rests on an appeal to authority. The fideist defers to another person or text that is said to know. This knowledge is transferred to the believer, even though the believer lacks proof. The essential question is whether the sources are reliable, and which (if any) of the many books that claim to be special revelation actually are from God. Perhaps the objects of religious activity are products of the imagination:
Our natural incredulity in these matters is increased by our study of history. Educated people are well aware of the way in which, in ancient Greece, men continued to talk confidently about the lives and characters of the Olympian gods long after they were reasonably sure that these were fictitious beings. Perhaps we are in a similar situation. Perhaps millions who flock to church on Sundays in order to pray are only exercising their own imaginations in a world in which there are many to pray, but nowhere One who can listen or care to respond. It is conceivable that the entire evolutionary process, involving millions of years, is purely meaningless, in the sense that it involves no purpose and reflects no mind. It is possible that the only example of consciousness in the entire universe is that which we know in our little lives on one particular planet, and that, beyond the surface of our earth, there is neither life nor consciousness nor understanding anywhere, but only space and planets and stars. To say that we know better by the light of faith is not a convincing answer; the early Greeks had faith, but their faith was centered on nonexistent objects.
The fideist is unable to explain why the leap should be made to one belief system rather than another. As soon as proof is offered in support of the leap (say, to Christianity instead of Buddhism), the leap is no longer fideistic.
Fideism faces the same contradiction with the claim that humans need redemption as does skepticism. Also, in asking humans to believe without proof, fideism is contrary to human nature as rational. It asks humans to accept a story about the world apart from rational proof:
The contemporary fideist tries to support his position by developing a story about reason’s limitations and by contending that this story deserves general acceptance. Inquiry into the ground for this view is important because any claims about the capacities and scope of reason have vast significance for philosophy. It is not the fact that fideists place religion in the sphere of the non-rational that bothers me, but that the Irrelevancy Thesis has implications for our understanding of the promise of reason and of the philosophic life. Thus, in arguing a position that is sympathetic to the possibility of a religion based on reason, I aim to save reason, not religion, from diminution.
How do we know what to believe without proof? Fideism undermines itself. In offering an argument for why one ought to make the blind leap to a specific religious system, fideism is recognizing that arguments are necessary. The question of what to believe is settled by searching for justification. Even the appeal to one’s heart or emotions is an attempt at justification. It should be expected that those who accept fideism will also abandon exclusivism and the historic claims of Christianity about redemption in favor of some form of inclusivism or pluralism. This emphasizes the incompatibility of fideism and the claim that unbelief is inexcusable. Attempts to resolve this incompatibility by asserting that belief in God needs no justification because it is properly basic will be considered later.
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