The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.IV. Belief (Part I)
Part I, The Question of Belief
What is belief? What does it mean to believe? How does someone come to believe in something? Something which is believed is something which a man accepts as true. A child believes in Santa Claus. A Christian believes in a person called Christ. An atheist believes in whatever he decides he would like to believe, so long as it is not God. A nihilist believes in not consciously believing in anything, including all of the things in which he subconsciously cannot help but believe. In these examples, there can be seen two kinds of belief: that which is examined and that which is not. All four examples can actually be either kind. A child may examine his own belief in Santa Claus, though unless he is a very exceptional and unfortunate child, not very thoroughly. Similarly, a Christian may examine his belief in Christ, both as a historical figure and as the Son of God, the Redeemer, Savior, or whatever title by which He is lauded; contrariwise he may simply accept the existence and message of Christ as it is given to him without ever once examining it. The same is true of an atheist, a nihilist, and an atheistic nihilist. All such beliefs may be examined or unexamined, and all may be examined well or poorly. Proponents of the New Atheism, a movement spearheaded by men such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, deride the idea that a Christian’s belief in the Divine may be well-examined with an insular scurrility that threatens wider conceptions of a reasonable faith within Western Civilization with a false dichotomy. Because the Christian faith, or any faith, cannot be proven by demonstrative materialist science, the New Atheists argue, it is in contradiction to reason; thus, either one accepts reason and rejects faith, or one rejects reason and accepts faith. To understand the falseness of this proposition requires no dogmatic theological counter-attacks, but only a simple inquiry into the universal human experience of belief.
When a man accepts something as true, he may do it consciously or subconsciously. The first sort of acceptance is propositional; in other words, the conscious acceptance of the verity of something always takes the form that “S is P.” If a man consciously believes that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a better football team than the New York Giants, he has a subject, the Steelers, a copula, “are,” and a predicate “a better football team than the New York Giants.” The conscious belief is articulated, if not necessarily pronounced. Contrariwise, the subconscious belief does not necessarily have a predicate; it may not, in fact, have any predicate in any situation. For instance, a man may subconsciously believe that some object is moving towards him fast, but as soon as he articulates it as such, it becomes a conscious belief. The experience that is unfolding is simply what it is until it is articulated within the categorial relationships of the syntactical structure of a proposition. This sort of unarticulated belief occurs throughout the life of every man every day. Men scratch, eat, blink, breathe, drink, walk, and do a hundred million other things, all believing in that which they are doing and the objects that are involved in their activity, without ever once stopping to question the truth of those actions or objects. They are encountered, and so their existence as it is encountered is subconsciously believed. It takes something out of the ordinary to instigate man’s consciousness to meaningful inspection of some object or action: a terrible itch, really good or really bad food, the inability to blink, bad air, a great beer, a hole in the ground, so on and so forth.
When a man becomes consciously aware of the existence of some thing, as existing in a particular manner, he may start to examine it. A beer which has qualities that are far above that which he normally drinks may incite him to think critically about the qualities of beers he has experienced. Sometimes this state of awareness or consciousness may be brought on by the articulation of another, in which something experienced that has nonetheless remained in the subconscious is taken to the fore, is raised up to the consciousness. Regardless of how the consciousness is alerted, the object or activity may be examined, inspected. An object, seen every day for weeks or months or years, may suddenly be seen in a different way. This happens rather frequently; the door for inspection, for inquiry, is opened. But like all too many chances to truly seize upon the truth of something, man becomes accustomed to his own instances of awareness and does not pursue his inquiry.
Douglas Adams, in the fourth book of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, seems to have accidentally captured the manner by which man allows the truth to continually elude him. Two characters, Arthur and Fenchurch, are getting acquainted with one another; Arthur asks Fenchurch to tell him a story, and she proceeds to tell him about a picture that hung over the foot of her childhood bed. Fenchurch was always worried that the otter in the picture was being forced to pull a rift laden with other animals; “Then one day–and I remember I’d been looking at this picture every night for years–I suddenly noticed that the raft had a sail. Never seen it before.”1 Arthur promptly makes an insight that such a story, for it ends with the above quote, leaves the audience crying, “Yes, but what of it?”
Yes. What of it?
It is common among atheists to cite, with pride, the day that they first reject a belief in the divine. Oftentimes, though not always, those who become atheist do so coming from a minimally religious home, in which a faith is practiced but not examined. Then, one day, the young nominal theist looks around and realizes that everything he believes in which is not a part of his religion is evident, is physical, is present, measurable, demonstratively verifiable: a bucket can be kicked a thousand times and it will move, but calling on God in prayer will not deliver words to the ear. In other cases it may be noticed that God is supposed to have created the world, God is supposed to be good, and so the world ought also to be good, but it is filled with suffering and nastiness. Therefore, it is concluded, either God is not good or God does not exist. The theist has become the atheist, because God is not what he has been told God is, because the conception of God which he has been given is one that is left almost entirely unexamined.
Yes. But what of it?
The otter was not pulling the raft. God is not a kindly old man, with a white flowing beard, who sits upon a cloud and listens to the prayers of His followers so that he may grant their wishes. While there likely would not be too much gained by a deep inquiry into what the otter really was doing if not pulling the raft, it is a great loss that many today pursue no inquiry into the realization that God does not conform with their pre-existing conceptions.
When an object or activity is brought to the awareness of a man, when his subconscious belief is placed under the light of consciousness, there are two ways in which he may inquire about the validity of the proposition that accompanies the awareness of that which is believed: well and poorly. The latter is the process of the materialist, who considers the thing only insofar as it is quantifiable, that is, measurable, in all its dimensions, qualities, and activities. Such an inquiry can only go so far, for any meaningful conclusion about anything requires that it be related to the human person, whose experience, whose existence, cannot be boiled down to the strictly material. Demonstration of this is not difficult. It can be and has been proven that at standard atmospheric pressure, water reaches its boiling point at 212° Fahrenheit. At this temperature, in water, a chicken’s egg’s white and yoke will coagulate within the shell. Great. But what of it? The only way this information becomes relevant, meaningful, is by the relation of the eggs to the person; making the soritical leap, the only true grounds for a relationship between a hardboiled egg and the human person is goodness, something materially incalculable; meaning itself requires the postulation of a truth which is not empirically verifiable. The idolization of methodological ratiocination and materialism, despite its smugness in practical applicability to solving difficult math problems, is as insufficient in providing answers to questions about the truth of material existence as theology is insufficient in providing material facts to prove the existence of God; in fact, theology is far more successful, once the conception of God’s existence is revealed and clarified. Belief in any sort of meaning or significance, even at the most relativistic, nonetheless requires belief in something immaterial in order to validate itself. The good and the true demand transcendence; anyone who denies this denies not only the evident reality around him, but even the maniacal assertions of the most intractably solipsistic mind.
Part II, The Argument for the Transcendent will be posted soon.
1 Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (United States: Del Ray, 1985) 551.