The Wheatley Institution

How to Think Through Faith Today

Christina Gschwandtner
December 5, 2013

Related Videos

James H. Charlesworth

The Dignity of Human: Imago Dei
James H. Charlesworth

December 2, 2008

Truman G. Madsen

Eternal Man, Reflections on the Life and Thought of Truman G. Madsen
Truman G. Madsen

December 2, 2008

Daniel N. Robinson

The Alphabet of Man
Daniel N. Robinson

September 17, 2009

Click here to view the transcript
Click here to hide the transcript

After the good meal, and with the darkness, this is conducive to going to sleep; I hope I will be able to prevent that. Thank you so much for the kind introduction and the kind welcome I have received from Emily and the [Wheatley] Institution. I was reading some of Truman [Madsen's] works this morning and I wish I had the chance to know him. I wonder what he would think about some of the things that are happening in philosophy at the moment, in particular hermeneutics and phenomenology, which are the approaches I work on the most fully. Hermeneutics refers to the philosophy of interpretation, the interpretation of texts in particular, the phenomenology to the study of experience and it seems to me that both of those are very central to Mormon faith and to what I was reading from [Truman Madsen] and so hopefully this will do him a bit of honor tonight.

Can you all hear me ok, even in the back there? So the title has slightly changed. It still says something very similar, "Faith and Fidelity: Thinking Through Faith Today." Why should we think about faith today? Sometimes thinking deeply about matters of faith can feel threatening to people, it can raise uncomfortable questions, sow seeds of doubt, or imply that one does not really believe with one's whole heart and soul. And yet, can we really help it? Is thinking about what we do and who we are not an essential aspect of what it means to be human? Some would say the most important part of us is this. Must faith necessarily be opposed to deep reflection? It seems to me that even if it were possible to believe without thinking, that would hardly be desirable. Thinking through faith is desirable on several levels. On the one hand, it is a way of taking seriously our beliefs and convictions, facing questions or doubts squarely, acknowledging that we live in a complicated, diverse world where not everything can easily be interpreted in the light of faith. It is in a kind of honestly, a way of admitting our humanity, including its finitude and insecurity. On the other hand, thinking through faith also seems essential for articulating beliefs coherently and convincingly, not only to ourselves, but also to others. Thinking about our faith helps us to say something more about it than we could otherwise. Something about how it hangs together and why it matters to us, which is maybe particularly important in traditions in which mission and evangelism are central.

What does it mean to think through faith? Is it an attempt to eliminate any sort of mystery or secrecy, to dismiss the most deeply held assumptions, to expose sacred commitments to the cruel light of abstract rationality? What does thinking mean today and what does it mean to think about faith? For Christianity in particular, more than other religious traditions, faith has often meant doctrine. Many Christians use the term orthodoxy "right belief," as a stamp of approval, as equivalent with affirming correct doctrines and assertions. My sense is you don't actually in your tradition use the term in that way, but it is used by a lot of Christians. Those who do not believe the right things, who get something wrong about assertions about God or other aspects of the faith are labeled heretics and are often in the tradition excluded or even eliminated. Getting the facts wrong can be dangerous. It seems to insinuate that one does not genuinely believe. Much of the Christian tradition has used reason, especially as expressed philosophically, in order to prove statements of fact that God exists, or that certain propositions about God are true, meaning that they are correct and can be verified rationally or maybe even empirically. That is often referred to as apologetics, as an attempt to defend the faith through reason. Many such apologetic endeavors, both today and in the past, use philosophy as a rational discourse which provides categories and language for solid and well-reasoned defense. This particular interpretation of apologetics and what it means to defend Christian faith is actually rooted in a particular time period.

It emerged especially in response to scientific and industrial revolutions and the intellectual period known as the enlightenment which challenged religious presuppositions and beliefs more rigorously than any other period in human history. The particular concepts of faith and reason on which both critics and defenders of Christianity usually draw, were developed most fully in the modern age. Maybe you have heard of Descartes who is usually considered the first modern philosopher. He has this project of doubting everything that can possibly be doubted in order to get to the absolute bottom line, the most fundamental thing that can possibly be doubted, which turns out to be himself, so if he is thinking, then he must exist. Descartes was into geometry and math and he did important work in science, so this was a sort of scientific approach. The way in which the sciences and math think through this and have these basic axioms, [was the way] he wanted to do philosophy. We have these absolute foundations and when we have that, everything else can be built from there. That is what truth then comes to mean, this kind of rational project will be that we have a basic foundation and then we rigorously go from there. The problem with that project was that it was increasingly questioning certain kinds of beliefs. Beliefs about miracles, can we prove them? Did they really happen? If you can't prove them empirically, then they must be superstition. This ended up becoming quite problematic for many Christian beliefs.

We talked over lunch with some people, most philosophers today are atheists or at the very least agnostic but that has actually radically changed recently. Increasingly in the larger culture and even in certain strands of philosophy, we do not think about truth and rationality anymore  in this sort of Cartesian way. That is actually good news for religious believers. What I would like to explore tonight is this change in thinking about thinking, especially by some contemporary philosophers or philosophical approaches, and what that might mean specifically for thinking about and through faith. Let me give you two examples of this different kind of thinking about truth, and then talk about some implications of what it might mean for faith.

For several reasons, philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur make a distinction between truth as verificational correspondence and truth as revelation or a manifestation. Modernity and science think of truth essentially as statement of fact that can be verified. Something is true if it corresponds to a state of affairs. I could make some sort of claim about how many people are in this room, I am not going to attempt it because I am terrible at guessing numbers, and somebody could go around account every person and verify that that corresponds. It is a true statement, or wrong as the case may be, if it corresponds to the actual number I could make a claim about the weather or the time. You could look at your watches, or now-a-days people look at cellphones, and that would tell you whether my statement is true or correct, but that is not the only way to talk about truth, and it is actually inadequate to a great many aspects of human existence. Even though the kids sort of realize, I don't know how many of you grew up reading the books about Amelia Bedelia. Her employer gave her all these instructions; she takes them all literally and this is rather problematic. Only this marvelously baked pie can redeem or remedy these situations. Truth is about much more than this sort of simply correspondence to facts. Something is true also when it reveals or manifests or uncovers something. A painting or a piece of music can convey truth, can say or show something true. And yet, that is not a truth that can be verified or really corresponds to anything in a simply, straight-forward fashion. It is much deeper and more complicated than that. Heidegger puts that difference in terms of what he calls calculative thinking and meditative thinking. Calculative thinking is the kind of thinking that we are really getting very good at. Most of the large culture does this, it is the kind of thinking that gives us technology and numbers. It all comes down to zeroes and ones I'm told, not that I would have any clue how that works but we get better and better at that. It is all about speed, calculation, and numbers. But we forget that what he says is this other kind of thinking, this meditative thinking, philosophy means love of wisdom. That is very different than this sort of calculation, it is about who we are at our deepest level and that takes time and pondering; it is more about depth. This calculative thing tends to be very superficial and move very quickly. You need time to think about truth, and Heidegger thinks this is central to what it means to be human and that the danger of technology and of the age that we are in is that we might forget to do that kind of thinking altogether, which he thinks a greater threat than just about anything else. Heidegger talks about this primarily in terms of the truth of art or the truth of poetry or something like that. Paul Ricoeur who is a French protestant philosopher applies this notion of truth as manifestation, specifically to the Christian scriptures. So what does that mean concretely? Ricoeur claims that the biblical texts are true because they speak authentically about our condition and because they reveal something about the divine. We must look closely at primary religious experiences and texts in order to think authentically of what religious beliefs do and how they understand themselves. "Religious discourse," [Ricoeur] maintains, "is not senseless, but it is worthwhile to analyze because something is said that is not said by other kinds of discourse, ordinary, scientific, or poetic, or to put it in more positive terms, it is meaningful at least for the community of faith that uses it either for the sake of self-understanding, or for the sake of communication with others exterior to the faith community."

The biblical texts then, are at the very least a genuine witness to the ways in which a community understands itself and can possibly also provide indication of truths that might be revelatory even to people outside of the community. Ricoeur counsels us to "try to get as close as possible to the most original expressions of a community of faith, to those expressions to which the members of this community have interpreted their experience for the sakes of themselves or for others sake." For him, that means the biblical texts are the most original documents. Obviously you can still ask about whether the actions of religious believers correspond to their beliefs or to the\ the text that represent them, but this sort of talk about faithfulness or internal correspondence is crucial.

So, there is an important difference in the way in which modernity speaks about truth and reason, and the way in which we can and maybe even must do so today. The modern age assumed that it was possible to reach some absolute foundation that was indubitably true. From this foundation, everything else can be examined and judged. Faith has always found itself on the defensive, judged by parameters external to it and imposed from without. Something is true if it can be proven objectively from some neutral position that anyone can occupy if he or she is divested of all prior assumptions and beliefs. We increasingly recognize that there is no such neutral or absolute standpoint but that we always make sense of things from within particular communities and against certain horizons of understanding. Even science is sort of realizing that—how we observe the way a particle moves influences what we can measure about it or, what Einstein did with relativity as well. The context in which one measures something matters to what one is measuring. That does not mean that horizons cannot shift, that we cannot take up different positions, that we cannot question our assumptions. Conversion would be impossible if that were the case, but it does mean that it is not possible to operate entirely without any assumptions or to get outside of any context or horizon whatsoever. There is no entirely objective or neutral position, no place completely divested of assumptions or context. Instead, we always speak from within a particular context and tradition. Ricoeur shows how this is immensely helpful for thinking about faith because it is the thinking that happens from within faith and from its starting point, instead of being imposed externally or demanding that one first dismiss all faith assumptions and sever all connections to community and tradition as the modern age would have wanted us to do. Faith is not judged by foreign parameters like those of science but instead has its own criteria of meaning. By paying careful attention to the ways in which faith speaks about itself, biblical texts or other expressions of faith, we can ascertain the kinds of truths it needs to communicate. In Ricoeur's words, such a discourse makes claims both to meaningfulness and to fulfillment such that new dimensions of reality and truth are disclosed, that the new formulation of truth is required. The biblical texts project a world that they invite us to inhabit. We are challenged to envision ourselves differently. "In effect, what is to be interpreted in a text is a proposed world, a world that I might inhabit, and wherein I might project my ownmost possibilities."

Hence, the biblical texts not only speak authentically of our situation and concerns, but they also unsettle and transform us by inviting us into the world they depict, a world that can challenge our assumptions about reality and provide new ways of living. For Ricoeur, this is what the notion of revelation is all about. He says, "I would go so far as to say that the Bible is revealed to the extent that the new being unfolded there is itself revelatory with respect to the world, to all of reality, including my existence and my history. In other words, revelation of the expression is meaningful as a trait of the biblical world." Throughout his work, Ricoeur engages in careful depictions of the biblical world and of the various sorts of texts that we find in the scriptures and the ways in which they interact with each other and with our contemporary situation. Biblical truth emerges as we listen to and interact with these texts and the world they paint for us.

While this has not simply become arbitrary where I can claim whatever I like and is meaningful for me and true for my own context, it is the fear that many people have about post-modernism, and in particular hermeneutics, that is, they are utterly relative and everything depends on context and so nothing really means anything. That is really not what hermeneutics as a philosophical discipline is about. There is on the one hand, a kind of faithfulness to the text, but this is what is called the hermeneutic circle. If you want to understand a literary text, you look at the author and what we know about him, , what happened in the time period, and the kind of context in which the person is writing. You look at other texts from the author so they shed light on each other, you look at the sentence in the light of the whole and the whole in light of what the particular sentences mean, you look at the way it was received in the tradition, how it interacts with our own context, what makes sense to us, what it means to us, etc. Other interpretations matter, there is a sort of history of interpretations. There are all these different ways of circling back and forth and those check each other. It is not arbitrary; it cannot mean anything that you want. There are a variety of interpretations, but there are also a variety of interpretations that really are very bad or don't work. The circle helps, and discernment about the truth of the text helps in terms of checking it by this constant cycling back and forth.

Ricoeur formulates this attitude as follows: For hermeneutical philosophy, faith never pierces an immediate experience, but always is mediated by a certain language that articulates it. For my part, I should link the concept of faith to that of self-understanding in the face of the text. Faith is the attitude of one who accepts being interpreted at the same time that he or she interprets the world of the text."

That is the hermeneutic example. Let me give one other example from the phenomenological tradition. The study of phenomenology is not primarily texts, but experience. Jean-Luc Marion, another contemporary French philosopher, strongly argues for the rationality of faith today. As Christians he says we have an obligation to reason, "even, and especially when someone faithful to Christ confronts the rationality of the world, he or she confronts it with reasons and for the love of wisdom." Reminding us of Justin martyr and other early Christian thinkers, he says, "to witness can designate making an argument as much as giving one's life, to philosophize as much as suffering martyrdom." He contends that this is a particular kind of rationality, namely one of faith or love, not of scientific proof or correspondence, what he calls a higher reason that contrasts to a Cartesian rationality obsessed with certainty and concerned only with objects. Such a focus on facts and objects misses what is most important to us, not just in religious terms, but even more generally in regard to any feelings or experiences that really matter to us. This felt immediacy concerns what is closest, whereas the rationality of objects concerns what is furthest away. As in the immediacy of feeling we experience ourselves without distance, so the distant knowledge of object doesn't really help us at all. We do not stand opposite ourselves, but we sense what we are and are what we sense most intimately, namely in pain and pleasure, hunger and thirst, sleep and fatigue, but also in hatred and love, communion and division, justice and violence. From all this, we know very clearly that the common rationality of objects knows nothing about what is most intimate and can do nothing about it. So, he distinguishes then between two types of rationality—one of certainty that is concerned with objects, the Cartesian approach where you have a subject and everything else is an object. So, Descartes is trying to get at certainty instead a kind of thinking that is much more intimate than our dealing with things, and he talks about that as a kind of assurance.

The difference in these types of knowing may be best expressed in the title of one of Marion's recent books, Le Croire pour le Voirwhich, roughly translated, means, believing in order to see. This turns on its head the usual dictum, "seeing is believing," so it is "believing is seeing." For Marion, believing is a form of seeing, and the phenomenon we may not be able to experience unless we believe. We all recognize the phenomenon of finding beautiful what or who we love. Another who does not love as I do, sees nothing beautiful there. For example, I recently moved to New York and I am having a hard time seeing new Yorker's love of the city, on the other hand, I have no problem whatsoever seeing Estonian's love for their city; I lived there much longer. So the eyes of love enable us to see differently. Marion contends that this is not irrational or purely emotional, but that love has a particular rationality and it is possible to think about it deeply and rigorously. Love provides evidence, it is a kind of knowledge, though not the knowledge of certainty that Descartes and modernity celebrated. The ancient Hebrews knew this. We read in the scriptures that Adam knew Eve and they had a baby. This is a different kind of knowing than the kind that Descartes talks about. Marion stresses this sort of connotation of love as a kind of knowledge throughout this work. So it is not about certainty, in fact, one of his most recent books is called negative certainty where he says that we gain knowledge of certain phenomena. We do not gain a knowledge of certainty, but a knowledge that we can never know certainly but that we can know in a way that has its own rigor and rationality. Marion calls on Christians to peruse this rationality of love and to think deeply about their faith by stressing that reason or knowledge can take different forms and that some are more useful or appropriate for matters of faith and others.

So, let me bring together what I think these very brief summaries of what Ricoeur and Marion give us. Truth does not mean that something corresponds to the facts or can be verified by observation, but it also refers to uncovering the ways in which something is meaningful or speaks authentically to who we are and how we experience reality. Knowledge is not just about certainty but also about insight. Such knowledge is gained not only via objective and abstract rationalizing or distant observation, but also by intimate experience and encounter. Knowledge requires recognizing all the ways in which insight depends on a particular context and frameworks of understanding within which it is acquired. This means in particular that truth or knowledge are not obtained through some external or neutral standpoint but it is also emerges from within and often this internal thinking has much better access to meaning and truth. All these are the case for many aspects of human experience, but they are particularly appropriate for thinking through faith and religious experience. If there is a way to think of truth and knowledge in these alternative ways that are more appropriate to matters of faith, what does that actually mean concretely? How can these insights about the nature of truth and knowledge help us think through faith?

Let me again, more briefly, give two examples of how contemporary philosophy might give us some insight about this. First, let me pursue Marion a little bit further. As I mentioned, Marion is a phenomenologist and the philosophical approach of phenomenology studies the basic structures of experience, so by looking at experiences carefully, describing them in great detail, conversing about them, bearing them in our imagination, comparing them to memories about the experience and so forth, phenomenology tries to ascertain their meanings, their truths. Unlike modernity, phenomenology is not interested in proving whether a particular experience corresponds to some external reality, rather it takes the experience as it presents itself on its own terms and tries to ascertain its meaning from within its context via careful description. There is nothing remotely religious about this at first. Traditional phenomenology examines very mundane, everyday experiences for their meanings and structures. I think water bottles are usually a particularly prevalent example because they tend to be there when they talk about these things. Or books, I've seen them hold up books and talk about the front and the back and how we experience the book and you see one side of the book and yet you don't experience the visual side, you experience it as a book because you have seen books before and you have turned them around and you have opened them and so you do not experience visual objects, two sided or whatever, you experience book, and it means something to you and so this is the way in which we try to examine what experience means. Marion employs his phenomenological methodology in order to talk about religious experience or to show what it might mean to have an experience of God, an experience of revelation, or we might say a religious or spiritual experience. Such an experience, he claims, is of a particular kind because God is infinitely other and infinitely beyond what we can imagine, an experience of the divine must be excessive, overwhelming, bedazzling. It is what he calls a saturated phenomenon: Something we cannot grasp or control, an experience that cannot be predicted or created. It comes entirely out of itself, not from us, but to us. Think about the way we talk about sort of following religious experiences as these sort of overwhelming events that radically change how we live our lives or how a whole community understands itself, presumably this is the way you talk about Joseph Smith or maybe even very personal experiences. They are very mind boggling, they really change the way we live our lives. This kind of experience overflows what we can make sense of in ordinary terms. It is far richer than an encounter with an object. Consequently in Marion's view, this provides the parameters for religious experiences which we can then describe and justify philosophically with these terms and categories. We can think through experiences of revelation rationally, i.e. philosophically, and show their truth in a way that makes sense and shows or manifests their inherent meanings. Note though, that these are not external parameters imposed upon the experience of faith, but that they are internal to it, imposed by itself and from within itself. The experience of faith is thought and depicted on its own terms as it presents itself, as it is actually experienced. Emmanuel Falque,an even younger French philosopher, employs phenomenology somewhat differently in order to talk about the most intimate experiences. He talks about birth, suffering, death, the flesh with all its chaotic passions and drives, it seems to be a favorite phrase of his, eros, sexual difference. He has a phenomenology of marriage that he develops, this begins not with religious experiences per se, but he starts with the human experience and then he uses insights from the tradition, Bernard of Clairvaux, Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and other sorts of things, and he talks about concrete religious experiences and practices such as the sacraments in order to enrich and challenge standard phenomenological accounts of such experiences. For example in his first book, he engages in a close reading of Heidegger as a kind of finitude and our being toward death. If you have read any Heidegger you know that death is really central for him. To show that these fundamental experiences of despair, suffering, and death are not close to a Christian experience or precluded by them in light of problems of salvation and resurrection as Heidegger sort of claimed, that Christians cannot really appreciate death because they immediately jump to the resurrection. He says, no, we can give a sort of Christian account of suffering, of death, of finitude.

We might say that, and in fact he does it specifically form an analysis of Christ, Christ's anguish in the garden, and that can then surface as a sort of guide for the way we understand our own suffering. We might say that while Marion starts with religious experience as a given and employs philosophical categories in order to articulate in such a way that it gives a wider coherence and legitimacy, Falque starts with a more common human experience and then shows that the religious experience provides insights that help us think more deeply and more authentically about these fundamental aspects of human experience. They are both using phenomenology but they are using it a bit differently.

Although Marion and Falque probably push analyses of spiritual and religious experience the furthest, such discussions are by no means particular to these two thinkers. Many other contemporary philosophers, most of them are French I should admit, examine such topics. Jean-Louis Chrétien focuses on prayer, love, vocation, beauty, vulnerability, and other themes of that sort, Jean-Yves Lacoste examines liturgy and what he calls our being before God. Michel Henri speaks of incarnation, conversion, life, the words of Christ. Giorgio Agamben considers messianic time, the vocation of the church, and political structures and the transformation of economea and liturgia where we got our word economy and liturgy from in early Christian communities and their theologians. It is true that most of these are Roman Catholic thinkers working in France, or in the case of Agamben in Italy, but I think there is no reason why their descriptions should not apply to more generally Christian or indeed any religious experience, especially since France is more or less secular, if not atheist at this point. In fact, if their descriptions are to have philosophical validity, presumably they must also work for the religious traditions or at least have a wider import. Some American thinkers are indeed beginning to go in that direction, though I am not going to give you all that tonight or you will get very tired of me talking.

I think you can hopefully see already some of the ways that might work for your own tradition and it might apply there. And let me say a little bit about what I think are the implications of this contemporary philosophical work for our topic tonight.  I see two ways in which philosophical discussions have significant potential for religious communities and help us think through faith today. On the one hand, these new philosophical approaches provide a manner of thinking through faith for religious believers themselves. Thinking about faith deeply and seriously, depicting it carefully, ascertaining its meaning (or maybe its many meanings) is surely useful for the community of faith. It helps make sense of what believers do and what they say about themselves. It declares the face of faith to itself but also explains it to others, maybe even defends it against attack by articulating its internal coherence and validity. This is not an attempt to reduce revelation to sterile rationality, rather it is a description that tends to faithfully represent the manifold aspects of religious experience, both in its concrete particularity but also in its more general structure and commonalities. On the other hand, I think philosophical work is useful also to the philosopher and maybe even the anthropologist outside the community. It helps make sense of what religious believers do, why they act in certain ways (to some secular people in very strange ways), what their practices mean and why they entail such strong loyalties and passions, and it also aids us in understanding why religion has always been an important part of human existence and why it is not likely to disappear anytime soon. This, it seems to me, is worth exploring for philosophers if they are generally committed to understand the human condition and the most fundamental aspects of human existence. The slogan at the very beginning of philosophy in Socrates is "know thyself." If it is really about knowing who we are at the deepest level it seems to me that religion is an important part of that. Yet, thinking through faith in this way is really quite different from traditional, modern, conceptions of apologetics. It is not about providing proof, but about ascertaining meaning; not external verification, but about internal coherence; not about certainty but about manifestation. It begins with faith instead of ending with it. It starts from within the community, instead of being imposed from the outside. It is not a desperate attempt to defend one's faith as meaningful, but in fact proceeds from the assumption that it already has meaning and significance and that this meaning is worth exploring and explicating. It is not an attempt of proving that God exists and that religious events and experiences occur in some abstract fashion, but rather begins from the experiences and practices of faith, and shows how they make sense and shape our identity. By doing so, it helps us think more fully also about faith, about the very nature of faith, about what faith might mean today. Throughout this talk I've used faith and belief more or less interchangeably. That is what we often do. I have pointed out an opening that faith is often taken to be synonymous with doctrine or a statement of belief which seeks agreement or adherence. I believe is taken to mean that I agree to these statements, I adhere to this doctrine, I can sign onto this teaching or set of propositions. I believe generally suggests that I think such and such, a teaching is true and corresponds to some external reality.

In closing, I want to suggest in light of what I have said about contemporary thinking about religious experience, that faith is maybe better understood as fidelity or faithfulness, instead of merely as agreement with statements of doctrine. In fact, several contemporary thinkers both inside and outside religious communities draw such a distinction between belief and faith. Sometimes I think the distinction gets a bit too strong. The contemporary atheist philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy makes this distinction more starkly in wondering why faith might still be necessary today. "Faith, in any case, is not adherence without proof or a leap beyond proof, it is an act of a person of faith, an act that as such is the attestation by an intimate consciousness to the fact that it exposes itself and allows itself to be exposed to the absence of attestation." Christian faith, then, is a category of an act of intimacy that misses itself, that escapes itself, then Christian faith is distinguished precisely and absolutely from all belief. It is a category sui generis that is not like the lack of, the dearth of, not a state of waiting for, but faithfulness in its own right, confidence, and openness to the possibility of what it is confident in. Faith consists of entrusting itself to the word of God, which for an atheist philosopher it seems to me, is a fairly strong statement. Although he is not personally a believer, he has written extensively about how this still matters today and is essential to being human.

To be oneself as much as possible and thus being a human as much as possible means nothing more than being faithful to this opening or to this infinite going beyond of the human by the human. Faith is the relationship of fidelity. Faith takes the shape of fidelity to someone who is not of this world, and who as a result, is not someone outside this world either, but who is to be understood in terms of this relationship of fidelity. For Nancy???? the question is,whether you are able to remain faithful to something that infinitely exceeds you. Faith designates action or doing, not just assertion. Another contemporary philosopher defines the idea of faith not as the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather as living subjective commitment to an infinite demand. Faith is understood as a declarative act rather than as an enactment of the self. The French Christian existentialist thinker, Gabriel Marcel also draws this distinction between faith as belief and faith as fidelity, and shows how fidelity requires steadfastness through change, how it is a creative process in which I commit myself even in the face of uncertainty and doubt. In fact, the book which collects a bunch of his essays is called Creative Fidelity. Faith then is about practices, about what religious communities do, and about commitment to these communities and practices. And that is in fact how the thinkers we examined earlier talk about faith: It is about religious experience, about religious practices or about self-understanding of the religious community, and the texts such as the Bible that speak about this understanding and experience most authentically. Faith then is much more about how we live our lives than it is about what ascertains we agree to, that is not to say that doctrine or teachings do not matter, but rather that faith in them is less about mental agreement than about fidelity to them. Even doctrinal statements ultimately only make sense within a faith that lifts and a community whose practices are shaped and informed by such beliefs

While it is possible to create some personal religions (our culture seems to be very into this at the moment), practices, symbols, and rites give meaning to our lives [and] they are much richer and more meaningful when they are predicted and grounded in community. Yes, these meanings must be made our own, must always be appropriated anew, but they become meaningful as they are experienced and lived. Ricoeur speaks of this as the second naiveté where symbols and founding stories can be reinvigorated by thinking deeply about them and re-appropriating their meaning within a changing culture and new situation. Our society craves community and is starved for genuine and faithful relationships. Religious communities have a genuine potential to provide meaning to our increasingly fragmented lives through the ways in which we live with each other and the ways in which we are faithful to each other. It seems to me that the Christian tradition has far too often focused on correct belief or doctrinal orthodoxy and the enlightenment obsession with certainty and verification has exacerbated this sense that we can only believe what we can prove rationally and that belief means agreement with propositions. Such narrow definitions of faith can commit us to being highly suspicious of doubts or questions and seeing any kind of thinking through faith as dangerous, or even as a kind of betrayal. This makes life very difficult for anyone who feels the natural human tendency to raise questions from toddlers or teenagers (who seem constitutively disposed to ask questions) to any serious adult living in the contemporary world and grappling seriously with pluralism, science, and the diversity of faiths. It must be possible to be generally committed to community and still have honest questions about some of its convictions and practices.

If faith is more about fidelity than about correct opinion, then it speaks more deeply of our commitment to community and our faithful participation in the practices and rituals that gives meaning to our lives within the community as they flow out of and are informed by the lived and living faith of this community. Faith is less about propositions or statements I agree with or can affirm in my head than it is about the practices in which I participate, mind, soul and body, and the community to which I am faithful, even beyond doubts and questions. Faith is fidelity. It is not just about what I hold to be true, but to whom and how I am true.


Question and Answer

Q: Thank you for your stimulating lecture, it has caused me to think which is good. Joseph Smith produced a book that we accept as scripture called Doctrine and Covenants. And it seems to combine two of the things that you've talked about tonight, hermeneutics and text analysis, Doctrine and covenants which is our fidelity. The definition of faith as fidelity to faith. In that book of scripture, truth is defined as knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come. I just ask you to comment on that in connection with what you have talked about tonight—true as phenomenological definition of truth. Truth as knowledge, it is a state of being of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come.

A: The first bit of the question seems to me, I have read a little about Mormonism, I have read some of Truman Madsen's work, but I don't know enough to really work this out obviously and I would be scared to make too many mistakes or say things that might be offensive. So I think some of that working out would have to come from within the community. But it strikes me from the bit that I know and I have read that hermeneutics and phenomenology would be particularly appropriate in lots of ways because so much it seems to be about the importance of texts and about interpreting what those texts mean today and how they shape our lives. So much of it is also about experience, about founding events, about personal experiences, revelation, and so phenomenology seems very appropriate to talk sort of intelligently about what that might mean and how that might make sense. That is sort of to the first bit. In terms of faith in the biblical sense, using the language of covenant actually, covenant is about commitment, it is about a relationship, it is about working that out and actually living it out. Think about Abraham. It is actually interesting that faith in this early Hebrew scriptures is almost always talked about as walking with God and sin is walking away from God. So it is about a life commitment, like Abram gets called out, he travels far away, away from his family and his country to a place he does not know, and really has no idea about, and then he is promised a son. If  you think about how many years he had to wait for this, and Sara, they are almost 100 when the angels comes and promises them, or the angels, depending on how you count, that they will have a child and Sara laughs. This seems unreal but it is this kind of relationship that gets shaped over all this time and even in Hebrews where faith is about this sort of seeing what I do not know and believing in what we do not hold on to, but the description there is about the martyrs and about what they did for their faith and not just about a kind of blind not knowing. But it is about a kind of commitment. So I do not know if that addresses your question.

Q: I am one of Truman's grandsons and you mentioned that you did some research, you read some of his material. This morning as well as I am sure more…

Geschwandtner: Mostly this morning because I did not get it beforehand.

Q: My question was what was some of the things that stuck out to you, what was some of the most favorite and or thought provoking things that you read about Grandfather and would you mind expounding upon it and how it affected your thinking?

A: I really wish I had the chance to read more of this before I came in, even before I wrote this beause I think it would have been nice to interweave some of what he says, you know some of the things I said in here, so I read Eternal Man and Christ and the Inner Life and parts of The Highest in Us and that is as far as I got. I really enjoyed Christ and the Inner Life actually, I have to say, maybe more so than the more philosophical essay of Eternal Man because the kind of philosophy which he got at Harvard, which is why I said in the opening I would be interested to know what he would do with hermeneutics and phenomenology because philosophers currently behave like two-year-olds. There are these analytical philosophers who do math and science and think about propositions and truth statements and things like that, and then the continental philosophers talk about social and political issues and literature, and both are interested in language but in very different ways, and they basically do not talk to each other most of the time which is a shame. Both sides think that the other side really is not doing philosophy. Harvard is pretty adamantly analytical. So some of the questions he engages in in Eternal Man about theodicy and the question of evil and body and soul distinctions and thinks like that… continental philosophy is interested in corporality and the body, in love, in intimacy, in the way society works, etc. I think in the kinds of questions he would have really been very interested in. You said you had talked to him a little bit before he died and that he seemed very interested in some of those questions. I have to say, what struck me the most, and I do not know what that says about me or about the speed at which I read this, I do not know, but was the conversation he has with this person who apparently grew up in the church but had all these questions and says "how can you still believe in this after having been to Harvard and getting a PhD there and doing philosophy," and he has this conversation with him where he asks him all these questions asking, "have  you had this, this, or this experience? Do the scriptures speak to you in this way? Does, when this happens in the church, does it move you?" The man had to keep saying no, no, no, and Madsen said yes to all of those things. That holds the difference between being a part of the community and not being part of the community. So it seemed like it was much less about can he put in the checkmarks, but much more about "has this been a lived experience for you?" And that really struck me. It may have struck me because I am a phenomenologist, but also on a more existential level, that probably spoke to me the most.

Q: Thank you very much for  your presentation. I am inclined to agree with you wholeheartedly that thinking about faith as fidelity is very good for faith, provided with a way to think about it that is coherent, philosophically sophisticated, and even, I think, a little pleasantly poetic. My question I guess is, is it equally good for reason, how do you stop faith as fidelity from devolving into the self-justifying kinds of irrationality that we see, for example, in forms of religious extremism?

A: Right, very good. That is of course a danger if it becomes something that is sort of internal. So if it is only about the excess of experience, and that is the danger I see in some of these phenomenologies, Marion in particular, that pushed us to an extreme where it gets defined solely in terms of this outer exis. Well, it seems to me that that would condone any kind o f totalitarianism, terrorism, whatever, if that is the only parameter which is why I want to try on both hermeneutics and phenomenology. I think you need hermeneutics to sort of interpret the experiences, to discern what are useful and not useful experiences, valid and invalid experiences, and you do it through this kind of circling back and forth. You do it about faithfulness to the texts, faithfulness to the tradition, faithfulness to the community so if you have a kind of experience that is completely out of sync with anything that your community has held to be true, you know, maybe that is a little dangerous. Now, it does have, at the same time, a potential for genuinely new experiences of faith. But they need to be confirmed by the community, by the practices, by continued revelations, by interpretation, and so there has to be this kind of back and forth, a kind of responsibility to it and there has to be a kind of discernment about whether it injures people, what it does, how it actually works itself out in action, so I think that is really important. Ricoeur is known for what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion. He thinks that's also really important. You need some suspicion and you need affirmation. In fact he says life is always a struggle between what he calls concordance and discordance. We try to make this coherence sense of our lives, we tell these stories about our lives that try to hold it all together, but in fact life is pretty chaotic and it gets fragmented all the time and then we try to give it coherence again. Both matter, the discordance and the concordance and the sort of responsibility to multiple texts, to the community, and I think, also to the larger culture. If all the other insights we have about reality are sort of radically contradictory to what we believe then at least it should raise questions, I think, that we have to grapple with.

Question: I think my question comes well on the heels of Travis'. First thanks again for a very interesting and engaging lecture. I loved all of the bibliographic references, I would have loved longer developments on many of those authors, but I will consult your written works to get it

Gschwandtner: Or their written works

Question: and eventually their written works to get the longer story. My question is a little hard for me to formulate. It may be too big, but at least it is a starting point of a conversation, and it has to do with the language of infinity and absolute otherness that came up in your account of Marion and one or two of the other French phenomenologist or hermeneutical philosophers that you discussed. It seems to me that in a way, this movement away from faith as belief emphasizing, let's say, a cognitive dimension towards faith as a fidelity embedded in the practices of a community. It does seem to me that this depends upon or tends to be linked with this understanding of divinity as infinite or absolutely other and you probably would have noticed from reading Truman Madsen that for Latter-day Saints, the language of infinity shows up in the way we talk about our beliefs, but our idea of God we would never use the language of absolutely other. Our God is certain respects shockingly familiar. One might think we risk over familiarizing our idea of divinity, but we think of ourselves as of the family and of the species of God. So we tend to emphasize a great deal of continuity between God and man and between humanity and between the goods of this life and the goods of the next. Part of what I'm asking is whether this view of faith as fidelity which tends to, if not exclude to, to depreciate notably the cognitive aspect, whether it doesn't depend somewhat on this absolute infinity that seems to be to be not very much at home within Mormonism. As coded to that question in an illustration, you mentioned early on in the talk Heiddeger's thoughts of resurrection, that Christians could not appreciate death because resurrection closed up the question of death for them I suppose. What about resurrection? I would not want to reduce the resurrection of the body to an abstract scientific of something merely objective, but it is more than a fidelity, it is real or it is not in a certain sense. There is a concreteness to it that is not just a part of the practices of our community, it is a belief with cognitive substance that tends to be relativized by the language of infinity and saturation. That would be my start to a discussion anyway.

Answer: There is a lot there. So maybe first of all to be ones here I should make a qualification or clarification, this sort of application to faith as fidelity, that is what I was sort of trying to work out from some of this, that is not a distinction made by Marion or Ricoeur, but it is made by Marcilles(53:14), some of the existentialists, and it is made by some of these thinkers that are actually agnostic or atheist. They tend to think that somehow if you do not belong to a community you can have more faith, which I find a little strange, where faith is most successful somehow if it is empty, do not ask me why. Some of those distinctions come from there. I do think that there is something to be said about this sort of importance of community, more so that some of these religious phenomenologists admit. It tends to be very individual. In Marion's work, in Quatia, la Cost(53:50), these people I've mentioned. It all seems to be about the individual mystical experience and there is very little account of communal experience or communal life and that seems to me to be missing a little bit, so I was trying to get at some of that with this. In terms of the language of absoluteness and infinity, actually phenomenology cannot talk about the transcendent or the infinite directly. Phenomenology is rigorously committed to the study of experience so it has to be imminent in some way. It is an analysis of conscienceness and how we experience things or how we experience others. So in fact, if something is a phenomenon, it is experienced, it cannot be absolutely other. Levinas (54:39) has tremendous toruoble with this. I did not talk about him in the talk, but the language of the absolute other, or absolute alterity, he is from the Jewish tradition, or a strain of the Jewish tradition where the absolute alterity of the divine is so fundamental and there is a sense where he tries to articulate that philosophically, and to try to articulate what it might mean to think about autolitarity, and it becomes very hard to do that phenomenologically, and he has a lot of criticism on that, and he will occasional say that what he is doing is not phenomenological anymore. Marion does want to do it phenomenologically, but then he always takes recourse to the reincarnation, then if God becomes like us, then it can be experienced. And so we can study how that experience occurs. Even Heidegger begins to talk about experiences that are not necessarily perceptual. We can have an experience of something ath I might not actually be able to see visually, and yet I experience a kind of impact, or maybe, Levinas says it in terms of hearing. It doesn't have to be just about perception, it can be about other kinds of experience, but if it is phenomenology it has to be about experience. It can't be about of transcendence that cannot be experienced. So I think there you have actually a much stronger position than some of the religious traditions that emphasize autalitarity of the divine.

I should also say about the cognitive bit, since that was part of the question as well. For Marion and for Ricoeur certainly, this is a kind of knowing. In terms of the qualification of self, and what I was doing with faithfulness, I'm not sure they would follow me there. For him, love in particular, but this sort of phenomenological account that he's giving is a cognitive account, but it is not a knowing of certainty, it is not Cartesian knowing, it is not the knowing of modernity, but it is another kind of knowing. It is the knowing of experience that is confirmed through experience but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a cognitive dimension, but he talks about it as a rationality, as a reason that has a validity, that has a coherence, even though it is not the sort of coherence that Descartes is looking for but a different sort of coherence. He would make the distinction, to sort of get to the resurrection, that phenomenology really can only talk about the possibility of religious experience. So phenomenology or philosophy can tell us the kind of methodology we can use and the kind of language we can use in order to make sense of religious experience, in order to examine it maybe as it is occurring. But it doesn't prove, or can even intelligently talk about the actuality of that experience. For that you really have to go to theology. If resurrection occurred and if it impacted us and shaped our faith what would it look like? That I can make sense of philosophically but I can't prove through philosophy that the event of the resurrection happened. For that, I really have to go to other disciplines. Maybe that is a cop-out, but that it is the way you would answer that particular question. It also depends on what you mean by whether it is a kind of proof, going back and somehow finding a scientific evidence. I am not sure either theology or philosophy would be involved in that particular exercise, and is that really what matters the most? Is it about what kind of belief and community that gives rise to? It is evidenced through the way in which the disciples speak of it, the way in which it transforms the early church, the way in which it impacts our lives now and transforms them, the kind of experiences of transfiguration or transformation we might have in light of this belief? It depends on what is meant by this knowing or cognitive dimension I think. I'm not sure if that is a particularly adequate answer, but it was a stab at it.

Question: First of all, thanks for your presentation. I appreciated how accessible I thought it was. That kind of gets to my question, my question is: we find people who are not philosophers at all, who would never read Levinas, who are dealing with the same types of questions you're dealing within your discussion today. Do you think that if you have a friend in that situation who is confronted by faith and looks at the world through these very objective lenses but is trapped in this sort of view, what is the right response? Is it to encourage them to read philosophy? What is the best way to help somebody out of that conundrum in your view?

Answer: I wouldn't advise reading Levinas. For me, reading Levinas, I would say for like the twentieth time, is a kind of spiritual experience. There is something going on in those texts that I think gets at something very deep about the human experience and about what it means to be open to others. That speaks to me, but I don't think it necessarily dies to everyone. And having attempted to teach it at the undergraduate level, I would not highly recommend doing that. What would I recommend? I think I would say talk to other people, be in a conversation, don't separate yourself, don't try to work this out only in your own head. Books can help, but you need relationships and friendships and other people who are grappling with these questions and who are committed to each other, and who aren't threatened by the questions. I also think it depends on the person. Some people, it does help to read certain philosophical texts. I am thinking that what was trying to do here is more about how as a community, if we talk about ourselves, I think there are resources here to help us do that in a way that is credible to other communities or to other people because the work has a kind of philosophical validity. Of course, they get into trouble all the time, "why do you talk about God? This is not philosophy." Yet, so many are doing it by now, there is a kind of critical mass. I think there are resources there for thinking through things in a way that can help us make sense of things on an intellectual level that then enables conversation with others. But I am not sure that on an individual level that is necessarily the best, or certainly not the first place to go.

Click here to hide the transcript