Why Fideism isn’t an Option for Christians

If you have never heard of the word fideism, it it quite common in Christian circles. It is true that many Christians and churches don’t use the word “fideism.” But the impact of fideism is everywhere. Let me give a definition here which is offered by Stanford Encyclopedia online:

“Fideism” is the name given to that school of thought—to which Tertullian himself is frequently said to have subscribed—which answers that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason. In contrast to the more rationalistic tradition of natural theology, with its arguments for the existence of God, fideism holds—or at any rate appears to hold (more on this caveat shortly)—that reason is unnecessary and inappropriate for the exercise and justification of religious belief. The term itself derives from fides, the Latin word for faith, and can be rendered literally as faith-ism. “Fideism” is thus to be understood not as a synonym for “religious belief,” but as denoting a particular philosophical account of faith’s appropriate jurisdiction vis-a-vis that of reason.

As we have mentioned before, Jesus and the Apostles both engaged in reasons for the claims they made in the public square.  As Peter Williams points out,

” Jesus said: ‘believe on the evidence of the miracles’ (John 14:11)

•  When John the Baptist questioned if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus likewise appealed to the evidence of his works (cf. Matthew 11:4–6)

•  Paul wrote of ‘defending and confirming the gospel’ (Philippians 1:7) •  Paul ‘reasoned . . . explaining and proving’ (Acts 17:2–3)

•  ‘Every Sabbath [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks . . . Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus’ (Acts 18:4; 19:8–9)

•  Paul urges Christians to ‘stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults’ (1 Corinthians 14:20)

•  Paul advises Christians: ‘Choose your words carefully and be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions’ (Colossians 4:6 CEV)

•  Peter commands Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have . . . with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) The Greek translated as ‘give an answer’ in 1 Peter 3:15 is apologia – from which we get the word ‘apologetics.’

Apologetics isn’t apologizing in the sense of saying sorry! An apologia is literally ‘a word back’, but the term means a ‘defense’ or ‘vindication. (See A Faithful Guide To Philosophy by Peter Williams).

Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King by [Bates, Matthew W.]

In his book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Matthew Bates says the following: 

Several years ago some zealous young missionaries happened to knock on the door of my sister’s apartment where I was visiting. These two young women, the radiance of their faces only surpassed by the gleam of their tracts, were eager to do God’s work. As they began to tell us the reason for their mission and the source of their joy, I asked a few probing questions about a sacred text known as The Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham is a text that Joseph Smith Jr., the leading figure of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) tradition, claimed to have discovered when a traveling mummy exhibit came through Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith was living at the time. Smith asserted that the manuscript was an ancient document called The Book of Abraham, and, after purchasing it, Smith eventually offered his own interpretative translation. Smith claimed it told the story of Abraham’s departure from Chaldea, and that it included nonbiblical traditions, such as Abraham’s being bound to an altar to be sacrificed by a pagan priest.

According to Smith, it also contained speculation about Kolob, a creation alleged to be near to God’s celestial residence. Both the pictographs and Smith’s translations are easily available online. But there are large discrepancies between Smith’s claims and subsequent scholarly findings. For example, Smith takes the first image as a representation of a pagan priest seeking to sacrifice Abraham on an altar, translating: “And it came to pass that the priests laid
violence upon me [Abraham], that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.” So Smith asserts that an image in the manuscript and the words associated with the image describe a pagan attempt to sacrifice Abraham. But scholars of the ancient world have determined The Book of Abraham to be from a class of Egyptian funerary documents known from elsewhere as “Books of Breathings,” and that this particular document was “copied for a Theban priest named Hor.” As to the alleged near-sacrifice of Abraham, it is actually a representation of “the resurrection of the Osiris Hor on the customary lion-headed funerary couch.” Meanwhile, an authoritative translation of the words associated with the image reads: “[Osiris, the god’s father], prophet of Amon-Re, King of the Gods, prophet of Min who slaughters his enemies, prophet of Khonsu” (and so forth). So there is significant publicly available evidence that Smith’s The Book of Abraham has nothing to do with Abraham at all if ordinary methods of scholarship and translation are applied. These young women were unflappable when presented with these evidence-based questions, simply stating, “We believe that we can only know the truth by faith,” and inviting us all to consider through prayer whether or not we might have a warm sensation in our hearts as we considered the truth of their presentation. I tell this story not to nitpick the Mormon tradition.

However, this private, experiential, anti-evidential notion of faith (often called fideism in scholarly circles) is not unique to groups such as the Mormons. It also sneaks into the mainstream church in more subtle modes. For instance, we find belief or faith being defined in this basic manner when an inquirer asks a tough question about evolution and creation (on the basis of data available in the public arena) and receives a curt anti-evolutionary response simplistically affirming, “The Bible says it, and I personally have found the Bible to be true, so I believe it,” a response that does not attempt to deal seriously with all the available data (including complexities in the Bible itself). Regardless of precisely how one comes down on the complex creation or evolution (or both!) debate, we should all agree that the “faith” God requires of us has nothing to do with ignoring relevant evidence that is easily available when adjudicating truth claims. And is it not largely due to this abusive use of “faith” and “belief” that so many, past and present, are quick to dismiss Christianity and religion in general, seeing it as purely “faith” based, while taking “faith” to mean the opposite of evidence-based truth? True Christian faith is not fideism.

To see more about this issue, see our post “Why Christians Don’t Think” 

 

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