Fideism

Fideism (i-/) is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism".[1]

Theologians and philosophers have responded in various ways to the place of faith and reason in determining the truth of metaphysical ideas, morality, and religious beliefs. A fideist is one who argues for fideism. Historically, fideism is most commonly ascribed to four philosophers: Pascal, Kierkegaard, William James, and Wittgenstein; with fideism being a label applied in a negative sense by their opponents, but which is not always supported by their own ideas and works or followers.[2] There are a number of different forms of fideism.[3]

Overview

Alvin Plantinga defines "fideism" as "the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth". The fideist therefore "urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious", and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason.[5] The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.[4] Plantinga's definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much "reason" per se—it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational—but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence.

History

Theories of truth

The doctrine of fideism is consistent with some, and radically contrary to other theories of truth:

Some[which?] forms of fideism outright reject the correspondence theory of truth, which has major philosophical implications. Some[who?] only claim a few religious details to be axiomatic.

Tertullian

Tertullian's De Carne Christi (On the Flesh of Christ])[6] says "the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd."[7] The statement "Credo quia absurdum" ("I believe because it is absurd") is sometimes cited as an example of views of the Church Fathers, but this appears to be a misquotation of Tertullian.[8]

Tertullian's statement, however, is not a fideist position; Tertullian was critiquing intellectual arrogance and the misuse of philosophy, but he remained committed to reason and its usefulness in defending the faith.[1][9]

Luther

Martin Luther taught that faith informs the Christian's use of reason. Regarding the mysteries of Christian faith, he wrote, "All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false." And "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has." However, Luther conceded that, grounded upon faith in Christ, reason can be used in its proper realm, as he wrote, "Before faith and the knowledge of God reason is darkness in divine matters, but through faith it is turned into a light in the believer and serves piety as an excellent instrument. For just as all natural endowments serve to further impiety in the godless, so they serve to further salvation in the godly. An eloquent tongue promotes faith; reason makes speech clear, and everything helps faith forward. Reason receives life from faith; it is killed by it and brought back to life."[10]

Blaise Pascal and fideism

Another form of fideism is assumed by Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal invites the atheist considering faith to see faith in God as a cost-free choice that carries a potential reward.[11] He does not attempt to argue that God indeed exists, only that it might be valuable to assume that it is true. Of course, the problem with Pascal's Wager is that it does not restrict itself to a specific God, although Pascal did have in mind the Christian God as is mentioned in the following quote. In his Pensées, Pascal writes:

Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give reasons for their beliefs, since they profess belief in a religion which they cannot explain? They declare, when they expound it to the world, that it is foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain because they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is through their lack of proofs that they show they are not lacking in sense.

— Pensées, no. 233

Pascal moreover contests the various proposed proofs of the existence of God as irrelevant. Even if the proofs were valid, the beings they propose to demonstrate are not congruent with the deity worshiped by historical faiths, and can easily lead to deism instead of revealed religion: "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not the god of the philosophers!"[12]

Hamann and fideism

Considered to be the father of modern antirationalism, Johann Georg Hamann promoted a view that elevated faith alone as the only guide to human conduct. Using the work of David Hume he argued that everything people do is ultimately based on faith.[13] Without faith (for it can never be proven) in the existence of an external world, human affairs could not continue; therefore, he argued, all reasoning comes from this faith: it is fundamental to the human condition. Thus all attempts to base belief in God using reason are in vain. He attacks systems like Spinozism that try to confine what he feels is the infinite majesty of God into a finite human creation.[14]

Kierkegaard

Natural theologians may argue that Kierkegaard was a fideist of this general sort: the argument that God's existence cannot be certainly known, and that the decision to accept faith is neither founded on, nor needs, rational justification, may be found in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and his followers in Christian existentialism. Many of Kierkegaard's works, including Fear and Trembling, are under pseudonyms; they may represent the work of fictional authors whose views correspond to hypothetical positions, not necessarily those held by Kierkegaard himself.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard focused on Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac. The New Testament apostles repeatedly argued that Abraham's act was an admirable display of faith. To the eyes of a non-believer, however, it must necessarily have appeared to be an unjustifiable attempted murder, perhaps the fruit of an insane delusion. Kierkegaard used this example to focus attention on the problem of faith in general.[15] He ultimately affirmed that to believe in the incarnation of Christ, in God made flesh, was to believe in the "absolute paradox", since it implies that an eternal, perfect being would become a simple human. Reason cannot possibly comprehend such a phenomenon; therefore, one can only believe in it by taking a "leap of faith".

James and "will to believe"

American pragmatic philosopher and psychologist William James introduced his concept of the "will to believe" in 1896. Following upon his earlier theories of truth, James argued that some religious questions can only be answered by believing in the first place: one cannot know if religious doctrines are true without seeing if they work, but they cannot be said to work unless one believes them in the first place.

William James published many works on the subject of religious experience. His four key characteristics of religious experience are: 'passivity', 'ineffability', 'a noetic quality', and 'transiency'. Due to the fact that religious experience is fundamentally ineffable, it is impossible to hold a coherent discussion of it using public language. This means that religious belief cannot be discussed effectively, and so reason does not affect faith. Instead, faith is found through experience of the spiritual, and so understanding of belief is only gained through the practice of it.

Wittgenstein and fideism

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein did not write systematically about religion, though he did lecture on the topic. Some of his students' notes have been collected and published. On the other hand, it has been asserted that religion as a "form of life" is something that intrigued Wittgenstein to a great degree. In his 1967 article, entitled "Wittgensteinian Fideism", Kai Nielsen argues that certain aspects of Wittgenstein's thought have been interpreted by Wittgensteinians in a "fideistic" manner. According to this position, religion is a self-contained—and primarily expressive—enterprise, governed by its own internal logic or "grammar". This view—commonly called Wittgensteinian fideism—states: (1) that religion is logically cut off from other aspects of life; (2) that religious concepts and discourse are essentially self-referential; and (3) that religion cannot be criticized from an external (i.e., non-religious) point of view.[2] Although there are other aspects that are often associated with the phenomena of Wittgensteinian fideism, Kai Nielsen has argued that such interpretations are implausible misrepresentations of the position. It is worth noting, however, that no self-proclaimed Wittgensteinian actually takes Nielsen's analysis to be at all representative of either Wittgenstein's view, or their own.[citation needed] This is especially true of the best-known Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion, D. Z. Phillips, who is also the best-known "Wittgensteinan fideist". In their book Wittgensteinian Fideism? (SCM Press, 2005), D. Z. Phillips and Kai Nielsen debate the status of Wittgensteinian fideism. Both agree that the position "collapses", though they think it fails for different reasons. For Nielsen, the position is socially and politically irresponsible since it ignores prudential, practical, and pragmatic considerations as a basis for criticizing different language games. For Phillips, the position fails because it is not Wittgensteinian, and thus is a caricature of his position. Amongst other charges, Nielsen argues most forcefully in an article entitled "On Obstacles of the Will" that Phillips' Wittgensteinian view is relevantly fideistic and that it, therefore, fails on the grounds that it cannot account for the possibility of external, cultural criticism. Phillips, in turn, in the last article in the book, entitled "Wittgenstein: Contemplation and Cultural Criticism", argues that the position is not Wittgensteinian at all, and that Wittgenstein's considered view not only allows for the possibility of external, cultural criticism, but also "advances" philosophical discussion concerning it.

Fideism and presuppositional apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics is a Christian system of apologetics associated mainly with Calvinist Protestantism; it attempts to distinguish itself from fideism.[16] It holds that all human thought must begin with the proposition that the revelation contained in the Bible is axiomatic, rather than transcendentally necessary, else one would not be able to make sense of any human experience (see also epistemic foundationalism). To a non-believer who rejects the notion that the truth about God, the world, and themselves can be found within the Bible, the presuppositional apologist attempts to demonstrate the incoherence of the epistemic foundations of the logical alternative by the use of what has come to be known as the "Transcendental Argument for God's existence" (TAG). On the other hand, some presuppositional apologists, such as Cornelius Van Til, believe that such a condition of true unbelief is impossible, claiming that all people actually believe in God (even if only on a subconscious level), whether they admit or deny it.

Presuppositional apologetics could be seen as being more closely allied with foundationalism than fideism, though it has sometimes been critical of both.

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