Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen (Part 1)

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

These words of Jesus may suggest that Christianity is about faith and not about knowledge. Yet it is not so. The separation of belief and seeing, of faith and sight, in the New Testament is only a separation of one way of knowing from another way of knowing.

Reason and Faith

Let’s start with some working definitions of our relevant terms.

Reason is the proper operation of the mind, consistent with the rules of logic, with the purpose of gaining knowledge.

Faith is trust. That’s the first definition of “faith” in the dictionary. One could also consult the forerunner terms fides (Latin) and pistis (Greek).

Now, observe that one of the proper operations of the mind is to trust reliable testimony.

When consistent with the rules of logic, therefore, trust in reliable testimony is reason. And, thus, faith is reason–sometimes.

So the ancient question is easy to answer: Is religious faith rational?

It certainly is not rational whenever we accept as reliable a testimony which we shouldnot treat as reliable. And it certainly is rational whenever we treat a testimony as reliable which we should treat as reliable.

It’s worth looking for a moment at one of the alternate translations of the Latin fides.Fides has an economic sense; it means “faith” or “trust,” but it also means “credit.”

Is credit rational?

That question may sound wrong to us; it strikes us as a confused mix-up of economic and mental categories. But the economic property of being given credit is the state of being trusted, and so there is a correspondence here: For everyone who is given credit, there is someone who is trusting.

Well, is that trust rational?

Of course, there is such a thing as extending bad credit. But much credit is good, and there is such a thing as extending credit rightly–extending it prudently and rationally to someone with creditworthiness. So the extension of credit does admit of rationality, and frequently is rational.

The same is true of faith, including faith of the religious variety. When Mastercard extends credit to you, it extends monetary credit–it expects you to pay the money you owe.  Faith is the extension of epistemic credit–trusting the object of faith to tell the truth.

All we need for religious faith to be rational is testimony from God or from a prophet, a church, or a holy book which we can reasonably think to be reliable (and preferably, as the Abrahamic religions tend to think, infallible).

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Knowledge as a Credit System

The credit system is a terrific way of thinking about knowledge. Here’s William James talking about truth:

Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass,’ so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. But beliefs verified concretely by SOMEBODY are the posts of the whole superstructure.

Our account of truth is an account of truths in the plural, of processes of leading, realized in rebus, and having only this quality in common, that they PAY. They pay by guiding us into or towards some part of a system that dips at numerous points into sense-percepts, which we may copy mentally or not, but with which at any rate we are now in the kind of commerce vaguely designated as verification.

James is precisely correct about at least this much: Knowledge (even scientific knowledge) is a system or network of beliefs, and the system operates on a credit system–a system of trust in the testimony of others. And that credit system depends on the beliefs in the system being subjected to direct confirmation at various points.

For the record, I would amend James on a few points:

  • I won’t say this about truth–just about knowledge;
  • confirmation isn’t only from experience; there are other, non-empirical sources of knowledge;
  • confirmation may involve the surviving of tests for falsification as well as verification;
  • and confirmation is not necessarily limited to confirmation from sensory experience.

Tune in next week. From this foundation, we will look at specific passages from the New Testament that demonstrate the relationship between faith and knowledge.

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