Monday, November 11, 2013

A Theist First

One of the things that makes me feel a little out of touch with many other Christians is that, intellectually, I am a theist first, and a Catholic second. I proclaim Christ's resurrection, I believe in intellectual strength of the faith, the evidences, etc, but if tomorrow you dumped Christ's bones on a table, my Catholicism would go on the spot - yet my theism wouldn't be so much as shaken. Hell, most of my moral beliefs wouldn't be any worse for wear, nor my fundamental metaphysical beliefs.

But I get the impression that this is alien thinking for a lot of people - and I've seen 'Either Christ or atheism!' sentiments in the past. To me that is just beyond bizarre, a little like saying that if a particular economic theory turned out to be false, that not only would they give up that theory, but the very idea that this thing called an 'economy' exists.

I've run into atheists who were extremely touchy about this same point - guys who seemed to be closet deists, but called themselves atheists because they were anti-Christian. Or who would flat out concede the success or rationality of everything from the Five Ways to the Kalam argument, but would dig in their heels about 'Christ' in particular - as if the word 'atheist' kept much meaning once you've conceded that much ground.

This, I've long thought, is the fundamental reason for the problems of religious faith in the West. Even popular apologists like William Lane Craig seem to be a little hesitant to spend too much time talking about God, full stop, and want to move on to Christ as soon as possible - which has the effect of making it seem as if he never really started talking about God to begin with, but always Christ.

28 comments:

ebougis said...

So you'd be a deist, right? Or does "theist" mean something else for you? I think "theist" is often used in contrast to "deist" in the sense that the theistic God has revealed Itself in some positive way, rather than merely by the light of reason. Sans Christ, I'm curious what revelation you think you'd adhere to. Along similar lines, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this classic (though long) article by David Hart. I think there are some tricky logical issues involved in denying the divinity of Christ, but in any case this post gets at not only precisely why saying "there is no Catholic God" was seen by not a few as problematic but also brings up the Feser-Hart debate about the scope of Natural Law.

And on that note...

Release the hounds!

-- Codgitator

BenYachov said...

Well if God does not exist then any conclusions about the Truth of Christ become elementary.

What would happen if we found the body of Our Lord quite dead?

No that would not disprove God. Still Christianity puts a lot of eggs in the basket of Jesus being the One whom he claims to be.

If Christ be not raised we Christians are still dead in our sins and pitiable men who misrepresent God.

But no one could fault you Crude for seeing the glass have full.

Crude said...

So you'd be a deist, right? Or does "theist" mean something else for you?

My understanding is that 'deist' typically means 'someone who believes that God exists but who rejects all revelation', which always struck me as absurd put that way. How do they know God never communicated, or would never communicate?

On that instant, I'd be a theist - someone who believed in God, who was potentially receptive to revelation, but was in the process of discerning which, if any, revelation seemed likely to be true.

Hart's piece is godawful long. But scanning it, he seems to be talking about the fact that the west, like it or not (and maybe the world entirely) has been shaped fundamentally by Christian concepts, and if we shake those the alternative is nothingness. I'd intellectually disagree, but I know there's a difference between intellectual disagreement and cultural disagreement. The culture seems caught up in 'If the Christian God does not exist, no God does!' But that's intellectually idiotic. At the same time, to point this out is, at times, to get a confused stare from EVERYone in the room.

I remember when Stephen Law was bandying about his 'Evil god hypothesis' and my flippant response was, okay, so now there's two gods atheists have to intellectually contend with. The man's response was to pretty much shit his pants in the combox. The very idea of seriously entertaining the existence of an *evil* god just pulled a 'DOES NOT COMPUTE' from him, mentally. He had no argument against it. He just couldn't fathom it.

That's not to say I think, absence Christ, the Evil god hypothesis gains traction. The responses Feser, etc, give kill it on the spot - but then none of that is based on revelation.

Crude said...

No that would not disprove God. Still Christianity puts a lot of eggs in the basket of Jesus being the One whom he claims to be.

Well sure, Christ's body would eliminate Christianity. But it wouldn't touch God, or any of the intellectual arguments for God's existence - which are many, and vastly more powerful than the arguments for naturalism.

Sure, on that instant I'd be without a formal religion. But I'd have zero intellectual justification for being an atheist. This isn't a 'glass half full' situation. This is a '10 - 1 = 9, not 0' situation.

Gyan said...

Falsehood of naturalism does not imply theism. There is still Buddhist sort of non-theist supernaturalism.

Then, there is Hindu theism.
But most likely, would be Islamic and Jewish theism.

Crude said...

Falsehood of naturalism does not imply theism.

I don't think there's a real coherent thing called 'naturalism' anymore besides. But that said, sure, falsehood of naturalism does not imply theism, but it pretty much wipes away the most popular modern contender.

Theism has its own arguments in its favor.

Agreed about the varieties of theism on offer, and non-theist 'supernaturalism', whatever that is. Though I think buddhism's claim to non-theism is shaky.

Syllabus said...

Even popular apologists like William Lane Craig seem to be a little hesitant to spend too much time talking about God, full stop, and want to move on to Christ as soon as possible - which has the effect of making it seem as if he never really started talking about God to begin with, but always Christ.

I think that's because Craig sees what he does as evangelism first and foremost, and therefore moves from his arguments for the existence of God straight to Christianity.

Crude said...

That I get, but it still makes me think there's this real tremendous, obvious gap out there intellectually that I think needs to be filled. Ed Feser and company go a long way towards filling it, but they still get categorized right away. TLS = 'A Catholic Book', despite it having to do with Catholicism only in pretty indirect ways.

I think the very idea of arguing for God's existence, period, boggles people. I actually see something like this with Intelligent Design. The entire official premise of ID... most people cannot grasp it. And I mean, even a lot of its (non-professional) proponents can't. If you try to explain that all ID infers is 'intelligence', not 'God's design' or 'miracles', a lot of people can't comprehend it.

I used to think that was straight up intellectual dishonesty most of the time. Sometimes it is. Other times? It's like trying to explain the concept of snow to people living in a desert.

Gyan said...

Come to think of it, there have been surprisingly few theist claims.
1) OT Yahweh to Christ to Allah
Now, for obvious reasons both non-Christian claims are shakey
2) Hindu-Krishna-but Hinduism ignores the existence of non-Hindu world. Also, some parts seem derivative of Christian story.

Thus, what kind of theist you could be if not Christian?. You don't have good options.

Crude said...

Come to think of it, there have been surprisingly few theist claims.

I'm not quite sure what you mean.

Thus, what kind of theist you could be if not Christian?. You don't have good options.

This is a bizarre question to me. I can just be a theist, period. Maybe one or another religion will seem more likely in such a situation. Maybe none of them will - but theism remains. Maybe the revelation is yet to come. Maybe it's not. Maybe a lot of things, but none of them need to be answered, much less answered right away, to make theism in and of itself - simple, potentially incomplete - problematic.

Heuristics said...

I agree, theist first Christianity second. Logically Christianity depends on theism after all, Jesus would be unbelievable if belief in theism was not there. As was it with me, I was a theist before I became a Christian.

I think theism can be argued for very well and it is not much above a belief (but where to leave universal religious experiences then?). Christianity is different, it is primarily a personal relationship built on trust in Jesus. Such a thing is entered into because the person out of their own will chooses to enter into it, not because they are intellectually forced to.

Also, if someone does not _Want_ to believe something, they typically wont, the human capacity for self deception is too high.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

So you're basically aiming to promote "pure theism," as a way to sort of circumvent the reflexes about "the Bible" and "Christianity", right? Let's just establish that there is a being called God--then we can discuss where to go from there. I say you condense Vatican I, chapter 2 into your Theism Yes! platform. ;)

"1. The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. [13]

"2. It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way. This is how the Apostle puts it: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son [14].

"3. It is indeed thanks to this divine revelation, that those matters concerning God which are not of themselves beyond the scope of human reason, can, even in the present state of the human race, be known by everyone without difficulty, with firm certitude and with no intermingling of error.

"4. It is not because of this that one must hold revelation to be absolutely necessary; the reason is that God directed human beings to a supernatural end, that is a sharing in the good things of God that utterly surpasses the understanding of the human mind...."

BenYachov said...

>there are some tricky logical issues involved in denying the divinity of Christ, but in any case this post gets at not only precisely why saying "there is no Catholic God" was seen by not a few as problematic.

How can God be "Catholic" given that Catholicism is the True Religion?

Can the Queen of England be her own subject?

Does God "believe" the Catholic Faith is the Truth or is God Truth Itself by nature that happens to be Catholic Truth?

Obviously God can't be Catholic.

It's like God can be the source of Goodness and morality but God is not a Moral Agent nor can He coherently be conceived as such.

God is "Catholic" what Theistic Personalist nonsense!

Can you be a Classic Theist & deny Christ? Yes Jews, Muslims & Unitarian Christian Classic Theits do it all the time.

Should you deny Christ? Ah no you shouldn't.

BenYachov said...

Psychology & experience tell us more often then not when a Christian looses faith in Christ they often fall to Atheism not Deism unless they actively convert to another Theistic religion like Judaism or Islam.

But it is not uncommon that if you become an Ex-Christian you usually go all out and throw out God as well.

Look at Walter. From Fundie to Atheist then later on too Deist. But his initial action upon loosing his faith was to become an Atheist.

Craig said...

Intellectually, I quite agree with you. Are all the theists among the philosophers members of a particular religion these days? That would surprise me faintly. I guess the early 20th-century nonreligious theists (e.g. William James) were probably an artifact of 19th-century idealism. Still, but even today I've run into philosophers who are theists but not apparently religious -- an online example is William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher. (He's more likely to argue against atheist positions than for theism, though.)

Personally, I expect my belief in God *would* be shaken if Catholicism were disproved, but not for metaphysical reasons. If it turned out my judgement was badly wrong in a matter of such importance, I'd have to question my capacity for judgement pretty generally. I think I'd still end up as a theist, but any scenario is so far outside my experience it's hard to figure the odds.

Crude said...

Craig,

I follow Valicella fairly often, so yeah, he does seem to qualify as one of those 'believers in God, but not of a particular religion' sorts.

It's funny that you mention questioning your capacity for judgment, though. One thing I've noticed is that people who were 'Hardcore X' tend to turn into 'Hardcore !X' the moment they have doubts. Someone can be a living caricature of a bible-thumping, evolution-denying Christian for 20 years, suddenly become an atheist... and without missing a beat, they're every bit as confident in their newfound Cult of Gnu beliefs as they used to be in their Christian days. The whole 'Gee, maybe I should be self-skeptical' thing passes them by completely. If you tell them, 'Given your demonstrated capacity to wholeheartedly believe what you yourself now regard as completely nonsense, for literally decades, don't you think you should be a little more skeptical now?', they just get angry.

Crude said...

Codg,

It's more that I think it's drastically important for people to consider the existence of God/god/god(s) from the most basic, fundamental directions, which inevitably means sans revelation. I'm convinced that one of the reasons Intelligent Design initially caused heart attacks among people was because ID proponents, without really realizing it, were stumbling in that direction - and people who find religion or God-belief politically or socially inconvenient were terrified, because they were delivering (however hobbled, however fundamentally misguided in some ways) an argument that was an intellectual wildcard.

I'm aware of the Vatican I talk regarding God, and it's a very encouraging thing. It's more that I think talking about God/god(s), period, is an important intellectual first step that so many people skip, to their detriment. The instinctual approach of most apologists and theologians and so on to nonreligious seems to be 'Let me show you these evidences that Christ was resurrected' or 'Let me show you this evidence for the existence of God or gods - which I am going to immediately associate with Christ, because I don't want you to stop there', and that just seems flawed to me. I think it may be because they realize that if they only convince someone God exists, they may well have convinced someone to become a muslim or a hindu or something, which they may well regard as actually counterproductive or a step in the wrong direction from merely being nonreligious. I'd disagree, and I think the risk is outweighed by the benefits, at least at a certain stage of discussion.

rank sophist said...

Crude,

That I get, but it still makes me think there's this real tremendous, obvious gap out there intellectually that I think needs to be filled. Ed Feser and company go a long way towards filling it, but they still get categorized right away. TLS = 'A Catholic Book', despite it having to do with Catholicism only in pretty indirect ways.

I think the very idea of arguing for God's existence, period, boggles people. I actually see something like this with Intelligent Design. The entire official premise of ID... most people cannot grasp it. And I mean, even a lot of its (non-professional) proponents can't. If you try to explain that all ID infers is 'intelligence', not 'God's design' or 'miracles', a lot of people can't comprehend it.


I recommend David Bentley Hart's newest book, The Experience of God. Its point is to explain theism as it has been understood throughout history and across many cultures. It has no particular allegiance to Christianity, and Hart isn't a Catholic--so it can't be neatly categorized like TLS.

Crude said...

Rank,

I'll have to check out Hart sometime. Even if he butts heads with Feser now and then, he clearly seems to have a lot to say that's of value. I suspect Hart still ultimately subscribes to a very, very topheavy version of theism, but there's still probably a lot to learn there.

rank sophist said...

Crude,

This would be the book to start with. Anyone familiar with TLS should have no problem grasping it. The same can't be said for a lot of Hart's other work. Anyway, I thought I might as well let you know about it, because it fits perfectly in that niche you mentioned. Definitely a book to pass around to people interested in theism as such, without the Christian baggage.

BenYachov said...

Hart's got that whole Eastern Christian Mojo working for him.

Very Classic Theist! I own the Book RS is talking about it's pretty good.

Gyan said...

"Come to think of it, there have been surprisingly few theist claims."

Crude:I'm not quite sure what you mean.

How many theist religions exist or have existed? If religion were purely a social or biological phenomena, then it is surprising that there have been very few theisms on offer.
Surely, you can imagine a possible theism that has not interacted with humans yet. But is it likely or reasonable that God would let humans flounder so long? Doesn't classical theism prove that God is goodness itself?

So, if Christianity turns out to be false, one's most reasonable non-naturalist view would be some kind of philosophical Hinduism which is not so different from Plato or Pythagoras.

Crude said...

Gyan,

Surely, you can imagine a possible theism that has not interacted with humans yet. But is it likely or reasonable that God would let humans flounder so long?

A worthy question, but not one I really need to immediately contemplate when thinking about God's existence itself. I could throw up my hands and say 'Not sure' on that one in principle, and the theistic arguments wouldn't really be affected.

Now, obviously I think God has communicated, etc. But I'm looking for the minimal claims I need to deal with to get a conversation going, and stay at it for a while.

Doesn't classical theism prove that God is goodness itself?

Yes, I think that's a fair way to put it. Though I also - despite being heavily inclined towards classical theism - never really accepted the common CT claim that personalistic theisms were dead in the water. (Actually, they rarely say that - but they go through pains to point out that claims which may gain traction against the PT don't gain any against the CT. I agree. I just think they hardly do anything to the PT either.)

So, if Christianity turns out to be false, one's most reasonable non-naturalist view would be some kind of philosophical Hinduism which is not so different from Plato or Pythagoras.

Once you're stepping right into the question of religion, that's quite possible. But I think someone can be 'a theist' while their actual religious commitments, at a given moment, aren't settled, or aren't close to settled. It's not like you need to immediately join Club Hindu if Christianity were false.

You can keep searching, contemplating, and believing.

Gyan said...

Crude,
Have you read The Pilgrim's Regress (CS Lewis)? There, philosophy is held to be the next thing to Christianity with no mere-theism stage (if I correctly remember). But CS Lewis makes an incisive remark that the philosophers are really sustained by something else, either superior to or inferior to their philosophy. Either Christianity or Hinduism or occult. The philosophy does not stand by itself.

Such could be the situation of mere-theism. It may not be a stable and inspiring situation for an individual. It may not sustain one's faith for long.

Crude said...

Gyan,

Such could be the situation of mere-theism. It may not be a stable and inspiring situation for an individual. It may not sustain one's faith for long.

There's a way I can see this being true. People tend to like certainty, they like answers. 'Theism' in a way doesn't feel like an answer, it's just an introduction to more questions. And the possible answers can be on the intimidating side.

On the other hand, you talk about 'sustaining one's faith', but I'm not sure how that translates in mere theism. Fundamentally there's always a faith one has in believing the conclusions of arguments they know, evidence they see, their own ability to reason, and so on. But theism itself is so broad - once someone starts to think about it, I believe, once they start to really understand just what 'theism' is, what evidences and arguments support it, from classical theism to even more basic claims - I actually think it's more natural than anything else.

Now, it may be that most people who are mere theists are going to move on to a religion as a result. In fact, that may be natural too - 'Well, God or god or gods are likely to exist, so time to find the religion which seems most likely to be true' - and I have no problem with that intellectually. The worry I have is that people skip this critical step, or spend vastly less time on it than is warranted and necessary. It's a little like trying to get someone to accept a scientific theory, and they have no idea what the scientific method even is. Sure, you can get them to make that step. But if they see problems - real or imaginary - with the theory, is it really a surprise when their reaction is to not only ditch the theory, but this 'science' thing they never understood to begin with Likewise, if they think 'science' isn't this basic, ultimately simple reasoning concept, but instead this weird, complicated system that involves academics talking about things they don't understand, it's even more of a difficult initial leap for them.

So what I'd like to see is a focus on mere theism. God, god, gods. The reasonableness of these basic beliefs, way in advance of any particular religious claims. And once this is established, then talk about religion becomes a whole lot easier and more natural.

Andrew W said...

At the risk of mangling terms slightly, one could say that "theism" is a philosophical position, while "Christianity" is a religious position. That a personal god exists is an interesting philosophical point, but it doesn't carry much day-to-day weight until you work from there to "what is his character, what are his purposes, how does he relate to the world, and what does he want from/for me?".

While Christianity necessarily requires theism, it doesn't necessarily follow from it.

(Incidentally, New Atheism gets itself in a similar or worse tangle when it tries to argue from the non-existence of the supernatural to any sort of purpose. Pure naturalism shoots any form of "ought" stone dead.)

Which is where the rubber hits the road. Philosophers of Christianity aren't overly concerned about proving the existence of God, except for defeating a blocker to actually getting to know him. Which is why most of them aren't overly concerned about pure theism. I might be convinced that someone who might be my friend is standing on the doorstep, but it doesn't do anything for me unless I open the door to invite him in.

Crude said...

Andrew,

Which is where the rubber hits the road. Philosophers of Christianity aren't overly concerned about proving the existence of God, except for defeating a blocker to actually getting to know him. Which is why most of them aren't overly concerned about pure theism. I might be convinced that someone who might be my friend is standing on the doorstep, but it doesn't do anything for me unless I open the door to invite him in.

The problem I have with this is that it enables people to treat philosophical theism as being undermined by any undermining of Christianity. Ultimately I think Christianity comes through as powerfully reasonable and rational to accept, but theism should be defended in and of itself.

Andrew W said...

I see where you're coming from, and agree that while Christianity necessitates theism, ! Christianity does not necessitate ! theism. I'm just not sure that straight theism buys you much except as a counterpoint to atheism (or non-theistic supernatural systems).