The Personalist Project

There were some interesting conversations among members at Ricochet this week.  One atheist libertarian started a long thread by asking where God's authority comes from.  Then an agnostic, frustrated by the direction of that discussion, asked a different question—a more interesting and personalistic one: Why can't I find God?

These two taken together (and having Jules' course on Newman still fresh in my memory) have made me reflect again on the role of subjectivity in faith.

Many unbelievers, I find, pique themselves on being especially rational—on having "high epistemic standards."  They would believe in God, they like to claim, if only there were sufficient evidence of his existence.  

I think this is mostly a conceit.  I am with Newman in thinking that very often what lies beneath the rejection of Christianity is "a secret antipathy" to its doctrines and moral demands. But that's not the only subjective impediment to faith.  There are others.

1.  Intellectual obstacles.  For instance, we are misinformed about what Christianity teaches.  Or, we've been taught false doctrines (such as that all religions are equally true, or that Allah is God and Muhammed his Prophet).

2. Cultural obstacles.  We were raised in a particular way, with certain customs and habits, with prejudices, attachments and loyalties.  I remember Hadley Arkes saying that the fact that his becoming Catholic would pain his beloved Jewish aunts made him hesitate for a long time.  Tolkien was convinced that it was Lewis' northern Irish upbringing that closed him to Catholicism.

3. Psychological obstacles.  Imagine someone whose father abandoned her when she was little.  Or worse, think of a young boy who was abused by a priest.  Anyone whose experience of ostensibly religious persons was negative will have a much harder time accepting the Good News of Christianity than someone who was sincerely loved and cared for by Christians.  Some are afraid of the personal consequences of belief—losing their friends or family, say.

4. Moral obstacles.  I remember hearing Fr. Francis Martin say at a young adult conference many years ago: "Nothing causes confusion of mind as much as sexual sin."  It's an interesting "proof" of the connection between body and soul, isn't it?—that sexual sin would lead to intellectual error?  Yet experience shows that it plainly does.  We see the link between sex and marriage, until we give in to a temptation to indulge in it outside those sacred bonds, and suddenly, "I don't really see what's wrong with it."   I'm thinking, too, of Sheldon Van Auken's hesitation to believe.  He identified in himself a repugnance to humility, "the bended knee."  He didn't want to submit to Authority.  It was pride.

I'm sure others can come with more. I'm just sketching.  But it's maybe enough to give a picture of how dramatically significant the state of our subjectivity is when it comes to evaluating the objective evidence for Christianity.

Comments (4)


#1, Jan 17, 2013 5:01am

To become a believer doesn't stem from conviction (intelligence) but from a decision (free will), and it can only engage your whole person.

"La vérité n'est pas une idée qu'il faut servir, mais une personne qu'il faut aimer. Le problème du chrétien devant la vérité n'est pas de la découvrir mais de lui ressembler."
(André Frossard) — Truth is not an idea to be served but a person to be loved. The christian's problem regarding truth isn't to discover it but to resemble it.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jan 17, 2013 9:09am

I grant you that.  And yet, in order for that decision to be one of integrity, it has to be grounded in real evidence, wouldn't you agree?  We can't just "decide to be believe" if we are really unconvinced of the truth of Christianity—as if we could use our will to compensate for what is lacking in our reasoning.

Would you agree?


#3, Jan 17, 2013 10:21am

Mmmm... it's not that clear cut.

I think faith is more based on the trustworthiness of the witness then of his/her message. The whole christian doctrine is based on the testimony of the early christians, and notably the apostles: the Church is, among other things, apostolic (in that exact sense).

Even Christ himself calls people to believe not so much based on what He says but on the quality of two "witnesses": His works (miracles) and Scripture (which author is God himself).

Faith is reasonable (it doesn't contradict reason) but it isn't pure reasoned knowledge. You can't study it first, then convince yourself and then finally decide to believe it. It's the other way around: you believe because you trust (your parents when you're a child, e.g.), then you study as much as you can, you continuously discover new riches but you will never understand it completely until you enjoy the beatific vision in Heaven, where faith and hope vanish and only love remains.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Jan 17, 2013 2:19pm

Good point, Sapperdepitjes, and well said. Still, one's trust in a witness must be reasonable. And part of what makes a witness reasonable is that what he says "rings true" even though it passes our understanding.

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