Fideism

The idea that religious faith stands apart from orthodox reason and can never be reconciled with it.

Such religious thinkers as St Augustine (354-430) have argued that reason itself plays a subsidiary role to faith; while others (including Danish philosopher Soren Aaby Kierkegaard (1813-1855)) have maintained that acceptance of various aspects of religious belief requires actual denial of certain rational truths.

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.[6] The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.[5]

History

Theories of truth

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

  • Correspondence theory of truth
  • Pragmatic theory of truth
  • Constructivist epistemology
  • Consensus theory of truth
  • Coherence theory of truth
  • Subjectivism

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])[7] says “the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”[8] 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.[9]

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][10]

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.”[11]

Blaise Pascal and fideism

Blaise Pascal

Another form of fideism is assumed by Pascal’s Wager, which is a rational argument for a pragmatic view of God’s existence.[12] Blaise Pascal invites the atheist considering faith to see faith in God as a cost-free choice that carries a potential reward.[13] 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!”[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

Kant’s qualified fideism

Hamann was a good personal friend of Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era. While Kant and Hamann vociferously disagreed about both the use of reason and the scientific method, there were also a number of important points of agreement between them.[17] For instance, one of the core views defended in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is that reason is incapable of attaining knowledge of the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, a point which Hamann would agree with. The most important difference on this point is that Kant did not think that this gave way to antirationalism, whereas Hamann did.[17] As a result, a qualified form of fideism is sometimes attributed to Kant. This modified form of fideism is also evident in his famous suggestion that we must “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”.[4]

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.[18] 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”

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