I am not a theologian but a philosopher, and a philosopher is a kind of professional doubter. As a Christian believer who is also engaged in systematic, meticulous, even obsessive doubt, the question of the foundations of Christian belief has always been very important to me. I don’t here mean the question of which are the most basic or foundational beliefs of Christianity, nor do I mean a kind of proof of Christianity that will persuade the skeptic, nor again do I mean that process whereby God creates Christian faith within us. What I mean is: when Christian belief is called in question, what intellectual or evidential basis can I find for it, that might provide a reason to go on believing?
My forthcoming debate with Graham Oppy on the existence of God—Is There a God? A Debate—provided me with an opportunity to spell out my (current) answer to this question. One of the concerns I had there is: How do philosophical arguments about the existence and nature of God relate to the Church’s experience of God? Can the two be put together in support of Christian belief? In the debating context, I was of course also concerned with the further question of whether any of this might contribute to convincing the atheist. But to me the more interesting and important question has always been about the structure of my own belief system, and whether it stands up to scrutiny. Philosophy, as I see it, is about helping one another scrutinize, revise, and improve our views of the world.
In the debate, I had tried to be as theologically neutral as possible, talking very broadly about monotheistic religious traditions. But there is much more to be explored, particularly about the question of how the Church’s experience of God is mediated to the individual, so as to become a basis for individual belief. This question touches on important issues that separate the different strands of the Christian tradition, and it’s this question that I would like to explore here. If the reader will indulge me, I will approach the issue autobiographically.
I was raised in a Christian community that included a mixture of Protestant traditions and theological views. The most prominent voices in this community, including the pastors, were Baptists and most had a broadly Evangelical approach to Christianity. Upon mature reflection, I suspect there was a gap between what was said in this community and what I heard. But what I heard was: Don’t rely on traditions! Don’t rely on so-called ‘experts’! Study the Bible for yourself, by yourself, and come to your own conclusions! Looking back, the level of faith I once had in this method is rather surprising, particularly after my encounter with Descartes.
When I was about 14, I read a brief excerpt from Descartes’s Discourse on Method. In this famous passage, Descartes compares belief systems to houses. It’s infeasible, he says, to tear down and rebuild an entire city because it was poorly planned and laid out, but if your own house is rickety and poorly made, perhaps you can tear it down and rebuild on firm foundations. I was immediately gripped by this image and the project it described. Yet somehow—in a state of youthful optimism and arrogance—I persisted for years in the thought that, if I just worked hard enough at it, I would eventually arrive at more or less the belief system I started with, established on a new, firm foundation, without reliance on traditions or experts. (Not coincidentally, this corresponds almost exactly with Descartes’s sales pitch for his philosophy!)
There are three general problems with this approach. In the first place, basically nothing—and certainly nothing in theology!—can be established with the kind of indubitable certainty Descartes sought. In the second place, there’s no such thing as complete independence of traditions. Descartes has been much criticized for occasionally importing ideas from the medieval philosophical tradition. I was in the grip of a (paradoxical) tradition of distrusting traditions. In the third place, no one can develop expertise in enough areas to answer all the questions for themselves, without relying on other experts.
There are also two specific problems with applying this hyper-individualistic approach to Christian theology. First, even supposing one established to one’s own satisfaction that the Bible was a revelation, what precisely is meant by ‘the Bible’? There are many different Bibles, and each is a diverse collection of literature, written over a long period of time, and subsequently collected (and perhaps translated). When I was asking a question about ‘the Bible’, I was asking about the collection that happened to be handed to me between two covers. But that practice—of taking this collection of books together—is itself a tradition.
The second specific problem is that if I ignore the tradition and start over by myself, I will never independently discover the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (and similarly for various other important doctrines).
The general problems became more pressing for me the longer I studied. I’ve now spent something like 15 years developing an interpretation of the philosophy of George Berkeley. (See my Language and the Structure of Berkeley’s World.) Hanging around universities, I’m constantly reminded that, for just about any topic, somebody knows as much about that topic as I do about Berkeley.
The specific problems became more pressing the longer my quest for foundations went on without success.
Matters came to a head for me in 2006. I was an undergraduate student spending a semester abroad in Athens and taking a class on the Greek Orthodox Church. It was in this environment that I came to see that my methods simply would not deliver my conclusions: persisting in my distrust of tradition would ultimately mean abandoning Christianity but trusting tradition had the potential to lead to a very different interpretation of Christianity from what I had previously held.
Ultimately, I emerged from this crisis of faith without either abandoning Christianity or converting to Orthodoxy. But I emerged with a very different picture of the foundations of Christian belief and the role of the Bible.
In the debate book, I define (monotheistic) religious belief as belief based on experience of God. My problem is that I, individually, don’t have enough of that to be able to draw very many conclusions. Further, most of the experiences I do have can easily be given other interpretations—not just other theological interpretations, but even naturalistic interpretations. In actual practice, whether I admit it or not, I interpret my experiences against the backdrop of the traditions I’ve received.
This is not a problem specific to theology. No scientist has personally witnessed enough experiments to justify the full range of her scientific beliefs. The solution, of course, is to trust the reports of other scientists.
Thinking back again on the religious community of my youth, I’m reasonably sure that some people actually said things like, “just read the Bible for yourself, and believe and do what it says! It’s just that simple!” But nobody actually did that. (This was a source of considerable frustration to my teenage self.) And the reason they didn’t do that is that it’s not just that simple. But I can now see that what they actually did was much wiser than what they said they did.
This sort of thing is not uncommon. Ask a scientist or an athlete or a carpenter to explain in words what they do and chances are they will tell you something much simpler than what they actually do. These kinds of experts don’t just know certain facts about the world relevant to their expertise, they know how to do things. The philosopher Terence Cuneo (himself a convert from Protestantism to Orthodoxy) has argued, in Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy, that the knowledge conveyed to us in Christianity is like this too: it’s a kind of know-how for the life with God.
So what was the actual practice of the community? It seems to me that each believer was reading the Bible, allowing themselves to hear God speak, being shaped by this encounter, and employing a wisdom gained from life experience in applying this to belief and practice. However, each individual’s experience of God and of the world is quite limited, and it is here that the role of the community becomes important. By exchanging experiences and perspectives on the text, we learn how to live the life with God together.
Once we’ve come this far, though, there’s an obvious next step. The people who attend worship at one church in one town don’t have much diversity of perspective or experience, by comparison to the complete Christian community, the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Thus, seeing this kind of value in community leads naturally to seeing the same kind of value in the ecumenical Christian tradition—and perhaps especially those parts of it that seem distant and foreign.
Christian belief, then, is founded on experience of God—but it can’t be my experience alone, it must be the experience of the whole Church. If this kind of experience lies at the root, where does that leave the Bible? The Bible, in my view, has a twofold role for Christians: first, it is a record of the most important human experiences of God (especially the experiences of those who knew Christ in the flesh); second, it is a means by which people experience God today, hearing God speak.
Is this perspective consistent with the Protestant insistence of Scripture alone? I think that it is. The view I described at the beginning of this post is not a caricature or strawman—it’s what I really believed in my teens and early 20s. I believed these things because of the way American Evangelicals talk about Scripture. But this isn’t really the traditional Protestant view. In fact, my (current) view about the Bible in the Church is, I think, not too unusual. For instance, in Methodist churches the reading of Scripture is often followed by the phrase, “the Word of God for the People of God.” It is among the people of God, in community, that the Scripture can be heard as God’s word. Many Protestants, particularly in the Reformed tradition, have also placed a great deal of emphasis on this passage:
And how are they to believe in [Christ] of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:14–17)
On a very common Protestant interpretation of this passage, it is saying that faith is formed by the Holy Spirit when a person hears the Word. But this Word must be proclaimed by a preacher who must be sent by Christ through the Church. Thus, again, it’s within the context of the Christian community that the voice of God can be heard in Scripture, leading to salvation.
With so much space for the Church and the tradition, what’s left of the doctrine of Scripture alone? Without context this phrase can give a very misleading picture of Protestant theology. Scripture is not alone, it’s received by the Church through the Holy Spirit. But Protestants insist that the Scripture is unique in its authority. As the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England put the matter: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (art. 6). The same idea is expounded at greater length in the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 1) and other major Protestant confessional documents. But these same documents say that the Scripture is given to the Church (not just the individual believer) by the Holy Spirit. This means the whole Church, past, present, and future.
Religious belief is something different from belief in God founded on philosophical arguments. It is built, instead, on a (purported) experience of God. As with other experience-based beliefs, so with religion, it is appropriate to rely on the experience of a community. Accepting community in this way means accepting tradition. As a Protestant, I see Scripture as having a particularly central role in the Church’s experience of God. This remains, at least to some extent, a Protestant distinctive: an Orthodox or Catholic believer writing about the Church’s experience of God would certainly have focused on the sacraments rather than going on at such length about the Bible! I don’t mean to devalue the sacraments as experiences of God, any more than those Orthodox or Catholic believers would devalue the Bible. But the experience of hearing God speak through Scripture is particularly central to Protestant piety, and how precisely to understand this has been a crucial question for me as a Christian and a philosopher.
Is There a God? A Debate is scheduled for release in October and can be pre-ordered from the publisher.
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Kenny Pearce is Ussher Assistant Professor in Berkeley Studies (Early Modern Philosophy) in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. He received his BA in philosophy and classical studies and BAS in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and his PhD in philosophy from the University of Southern California in 2014. He is the author of numerous journal articles in addition to the two books named above. Having previously belonged to several different Protestant denominations, he is currently a member of the Church of Ireland (Anglican).