Sunday, September 05, 2010

Mystery and Evidence - NYTimes

 I am doing a little series on how non-believers attempt to understand faith. In this article, Mystery and EvidenceCrane is making a few mistakes in his attempt to understand who he is criticizing (i.e. the believer). He seems to apply a criteria for understanding what is religious by a "majority rules" criteria of what defines authentic religious faith. Crane's method concludes that if most religious people experience religion as a way to inject meaning into things then this is what religion is about. But

with respect to no other type of knowledge do we use this majority rules methodology. Is what the majority of biology students believe the definition of biological knowledge? No. Instead, in science, we find the best biologist to understand biology. Why not ask the best theologian or most winsome believer what true religion is? Isn't this a better way to understand religion, religious texts and religious experience.
If his method is erroneous, so is the finding itself. His conclusion that religion is how people find meaning is simply not how people with a vibrant religions experience would describe their experience of the divine. This is not why people with vibrant faith believe. 
People who have a vital and life changing religion believe on the basis of an experience with the divine or as the result of a test with God that worked. For example, the seeker pleads, "please deliver me from my obsession". When deliverance comes the seeker becomes a believer. These types of conversion are much more common. Also, a very common form of faith is the direct knowing toy of faith. This believer says, "I do not know why I believe I just do." This is the C.S. Lewis version of faith. C.S. Lewis said he went on a motorcycle ride and he left an atheist and came back a believer. No where do you see vibrant people with distinctive lives who came to faith as the result of injecting meaning into things of deriving meaning out of things.
The moral to the story is that at the root of Tim Crane and other's attempt to understand faith is an unwillingness to accept that faith is actually what people of faith say it is, a direct experience of the divine or the direct result of the activity of the divine on the individuals life.


brad said...

I am testing my comments. I use a mac and I couldn't post a comment.

Mordecai said...

Does one seek out the best businessman to ask about macroeconomic policy? The best surfer to ask about the mechanics of waves? Admirable skill doesn't necessarily come with a useful understanding of the phenomena one is working with.

But let's say I accepted that faith is a direct experience of the divine. OK. How does it work? Which bits of scripture are meaningful to you, and why? Can we model this? Can we predict what sorts of sermons you'd find meaningful, and which fall short of the mark? Which new beliefs and ideas would you embrace, and which would you reject? What constitutes an apt articulation of belief? How does this change over the life of a believer? How does this change in changing circumstances?

As someone who hasn't believed since I was very small, I find all this difficult to understand -- I have no model for the manner in which faith plays out in the emotional life of a believer, or the connection between that and the abstractions they employ, or the rules by which those abstractions themselves behave. Mystery and Evidence seems to be an attempt, by a nonbeliever, to prepare the ground for that understanding.

You seem to be saying there's nothing here that needs analysis. Why not?

brad said...

I hope I am saying something more than nothing needs analysis but that Crane is not doing good anthropology. His approach is too much as an outsider looking in. He appears to me as a believer to be looking at people of faith like mice and is looking at the behavior. I think a better method is to consider that believers are intelligent subjects. The best place then to go would be to the groups spokesman, the theologian or mature believer and ask "what is it to live this life of faith?".

My answer would be to make analogies to marriage and child rearing. Relationship with God is like a marriage. Or relationships with God is like a mentoring relationships.