Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Faith, Active and Passive

The always thoughtful Mark Vernon, while reviewing a book about the early Christian Church, writes about how people regard their faith.....

As an active virtue, faith is the ground upon which you stand in your search for truth. When and if that ground shifts, your faith evolves too. As a passive virtue, faith is submission to authority. Truth is still recognised as being fundamentally unknown. But instead of encouraging speculation, it is discouraged or banned, for fear that it would be theologically blasphemous and politically subversive (as indeed it inevitably is.) The intellectual effort that would have been directed at speculation is re-channelled into elucidating the insights of orthodoxy, which are not, of course, without value. Similarly, the ethical character of the speaker ceases to the basis for their authority. Instead, in the religious case, God is understood to be speaking through an authority and so what matters is that authority's place in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

I think this is seen in many Christian (and other) denominations today; parishioners quietly treat their faith as an active virtue and the church leaders say it's a passive one, but no one pushes it. This explains why people can justify staying with a church for social or personal reasons even though, if pressed, they would disagree with many points of it's doctrine; they've philosophically moved on, and they pretend their church has also. Meanwhile the church leaders avoid pressing too hard on such matters lest they drive people away. Barack Obama is a prominent example of this coming undone.

Mark applies this idea to a another current argument....

These two different ideas of faith dog debates about theism and atheism today. Typically, protagonists accuse their opponents of exhibiting only the passive sort, and claiming the active for themselves. Thus believers accuse the new atheists of scientism, the belief that knowledge is found only by the scientific method. And atheists accuse believers of placing their faith beyond rational scrutiny. There are some atheists and arguably more believers who are guilty as charged. But not all, at all.

I think this idea can be applied to debates about many issues, which often suffer from the tendency to see the other side as rigid and doctrinaire while you're flexible and reasonable. It's easier to argue against a static rule than an evolving philosophy. Unfortunately this usually accomplishes little since both sides end up talking past each other.

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