Saturday, May 14, 2005

On Faithful Semantics (I Don't Have Enough Faith... Part II)

In response to a recent post advising Christians to refrain from saying things like "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist," Michael at Grace Sublime! commented: "Personally, I think you're making a issue out of a non-issue. I think the title is tongue in cheek to illustrate the irrationality of the atheist."

Although I was tempted to respond immediately, I decided to allow some time to pass in order to seriously consider whether my post was, in fact, picayune. I've decided that it wasn't, so I thought I'd take space here to further develop my thought on the matter.

I agree with Michael that the intent behind using the phrase in question as a title of an apologetics book was most likely to humorously display the irrationality of atheism. But that only serves to illustrate my point. Used in that context, "faith" is that which is required in proportion to the irrationality of a belief. The more irrational the belief, the more faith required. By saying "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist," I may mean "Atheism is irrational and therefore I can't bring myself to believe it," but what I'm actually saying (and what the atheist will understand me as saying) is that faith is the capacity to believe the absurd.

Actually, my purpose wasn't to target the book by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek. I've not read it but from what I've heard from those who have, it's very good. My concern was, and remains, Christians carelessly using biblical terms in unbiblical ways, thereby perpetuating and contributing to misconceptions about biblical Christianity. We often talk about the importance of context for understanding a particular verse. Likewise, a Christian's understanding of the meaning of such words as "faith" should be derived from the usage of that word in the entirety of Scripture. There is, in other words, a canonical context that should govern how we define and use words like "faith." This is a function of biblical authority. When we converse with those whose concept of faith is contrary to that of the Bible, and adopt that usage ourselves, we are neither aiding them in their understanding nor faithfully representing the biblical perspective we are seeking to commend.

Francis Schaeffer frequently noted the ambiguity of the word "god" and the need for Christians to clarify what they mean by it. He writes in The God Who is There:
As Christians, we must understand that there is no word so meaningless as the word "god" until it is defined. No word has been used to reach absolutely opposite concepts as much as the word "god." Consequently, let us not be confused. There is much "spirituality" about us today that would relate itself to the word god or to the idea god; but this is not what we are talking about. Biblical truth and spirituality is not a relationship to the word god, or to the idea god. It is a relationship to the one who is there, which is an entirely different concept. - Volume I, The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, p. 159
The point Schaeffer makes about the word "god" is applicable to the word "faith." The Christian's concept of faith is constrained by God's revelation in Scripture. Of course, we can't prevent unbelievers from attaching alien concepts to biblical vocabulary. We can, however, do all in our power not to encourage such unbiblical thinking by refusing to adopt its linguistic practices ourselves.


Tony aka YnottonY :-) said...

Hi Keith,

I think your caution about this is valid, but could this "faith" equivocation issue be a case of presupposing another's categories to point out the absurdity of their system? In other words, atheists think of faith as something antithetical to knowledge as you say. Well, if faith is antithetical to knowledge (their presupposition), then wouldn't it take a great deal of that kind of faith to come to the conclusions they do? That seems to be what those apologists are trying to suggest, perhaps injudiciously.

Most of the time when we switch and adopt another person's presuppositions or categories, we don't make it explicitly known. Isn't this the failure of Geisler and Turek? As evidentialists, they certainly do not think of faith as contrary to evidence and knowledge, but they are not making it known that they are equivocating in their efforts to refute. What is the target audience of the book? Christians or atheists? or both? Knowledgable Christians may know that they are equivocating to make a point, but some atheists may not unless Geisler and Turek say so in the preface or elsewhere. If they do not, then your point holds. However, we may equivocate at times when we assume the position of our opponents, even with the vague term "God." When we do this, we should make it known before or after our argument so as not to confuse. Do you think this is a good way to look at the "faith" equivocation in apologetics?

Great Schaeffer quote by the way! What's the page #?

KP said...

Hi, Tony

I'm glad you've been roused from your lurking slumber. Thanks for your input.

I agree with you that when, for the sake of argument, we assume our opponent's position, such equivocation is legitimate. But, as you point out, I think it's necessary that we make it clear that this is what we're doing so as to avoid misunderstanding. Whether Geisler and Turek do this, I can't say. Perhaps someone who has read the book can fill us in.

As to the Schaeffer quote, your query prompted me to indicate the reference on the blog. Thanks.

Mike said...

KP - thanks for the reply. I didn't realize that I would spark such controversy.