Friday, February 3, 2012

The Existential Christian

Philosopher Paul Pardi pens an excellent series of essays at his website Philosophy News on questions of religious faith and reason. He's specifically interested in defending the claim that religious belief is grounded existentially but subsequently argued for rationally.

Students interested in existentialism, Kierkegaard, and the relationship of faith and reason should check it out. Here is the list of topics he discusses:
  • Unlocking the Tension Between Faith and Reason
  • The Ground of Faith
  • How do Faith and Reason Relate?
  • Faith and Reason in Existentialist Thought
  • Is Faith Practical?
  • Faith and Reason in Tension
  • Kierkegaard and the Modern Religious Mind
  • The Irrational Faith--Proof, Intuitions, and Religious Belief
  • Interview with Dr. Paul Moser: On Knowing God
  • Interview with Dr. C. Stephen Evans: Kierkegaard, Natural Signs, and Knowing God
One of his key points throughout the series is that it's the failure to comprehend the existential grounding of belief that causes so many atheist writers to go astray in their critiques of Christian theism.

By "existential grounding" he means something like the following taken from his essay on Kierkegaard and the Modern Religious Mind:
I met my wife-to-be when I was 17 and she 14. She was from Oregon, I was from New York. She grew up in a middle-class town consisting mainly of residents of Irish, Scottish, and German descent. I was raised lower-middle class in a homogenous population of second and third generation Italian-Americans. She loved sushi, salsa, smoked salmon, and lima beans. I subsisted mainly on pasta with red sauce and Iceberg lettuce salads. Distance, age, family background, economics, and a long list of other circumstances should have kept us apart. Yet we found ourselves spending a summer together and connected on wholly irrelevant grounds: we both are identical twins. Our relationship made little sense and most everyone we knew let us know it.

My mother regularly reminded me of my full-blooded Italian heritage and the implications of “breaking the chain.” Her father, with a knowing grin on his face, thought that “dating” a scrawny boy of 17 who lived 3000 miles away wouldn’t last more than 3 months. Our twin siblings, amused by the quaint letter writing and phone calls, didn’t get it. Our worlds couldn’t have been more distant. Our families couldn’t have been more different. Yet we were in love. Damn the critics and naysayers and all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. We didn’t care what was reasonable. We cared about each other and we wanted nothing more than to be together and spend each waking minute with each other.

For Søren Kierkegaard, being a Christian is like falling in love. Most passionate, erotic relationships are not rational nor should they be. They are not strictly irrational though reason doesn’t seem to apply to them. When two people fall in love, they may know very little about one another but this is not relevant; in fact its part of its virtue. Common sense becomes a ballast and the lovers discard it, intentionally or not, for the possibility that all the promises they hope are true will be realized.

To those on the outside, their relationship may seem silly at best and dangerous or harmful at worst. Yet they jump in with both feet, critics and naysayers be damned. Theirs is a voyage christened by passion and driven by the excitement of a lifetime of discovery and private, personal moments that only the two will share. Their relationship is lived each moment, and only analyzed or talked about or reasoned with when disaster strikes. They have nothing to prove to outsiders and seek to be true only to themselves and what they’ve committed to each other.

If one is to be a true Christian, says Kierkegaard, one must take a similar leap of faith.
In other words, arguments against Christian belief that are based on reason, to the extent that the argument itself has any validity, is not going to be particularly effective because Christian commitment is a matter of the heart, not of the head. It's much more like falling in love than it is like working a problem in geometry.

The critic can tell the believer that his belief is irrational, just like friends and family can tell a person in love that his love is irrational, but the effort is usually pointless and unavailing.