Faith in "Galatians"

St. Paul’s “Letter to the Galatians” must have come from an early part of his ministry when he was still establishing his authority as an interpreter of Jesus. St. Paul gives this away by defending himself at the beginning of the letter from the accusation that he had been untrue to his view that circumcision was not essential for someone who had come over from the Gentile community to become a Christian.  In the course of his discussion of that sacramental and ritualistic issue, he comes to clarify his view of what is very distinctive about Christianity: that it is an allegiance to a belief that Jesus, as a matter of historical fact, that He had arisen from the dead and had by His crucifixion atoned for the sins of mankind. Christianity is a matter of belief rather than a matter of group identity or ritual or law or ecstatic experience, which is what other religions had been. He also explains how the nature of a religion of belief provides its adherents with kinds of freedom they would not otherwise experience and that far transcends the social categories of master and slave. Explaining these two ideas requires St. Paul to delve into topics that would seem too philosophical for someone not professionally trained, but we really don’t know enough about St. Paul’s background to speculate on what kind of learning he had. What St. Paul does in this letter and elsewhere, regardless of his intellectual training, is elaborate on the idea of what a proposition is and requires and so is his own way of introducing what will serve, somewhat down the road, as the basis for the scientific revolution: the assertion that propositions are either true or false and not merely having some grain of truth within what is largely a metaphor. Down the road will also be found the doctrine of freedom that is, when it becomes shorn of its religious associations, a crowning achievement of the early modern world: freedom means voluntary choice.

Among the characteristics of secularism is a fidelity to science. That means a number of things, including a trust in scientists so that one goes along with what they say because they are experts and presume to know what they are talking about even if what they say is counterintuitive or simply not available to laymen who have not mastered the equations or the data on which the science is based. It also means a willingness to accept scientific explanations as sufficient explanations for any number of things that might otherwise be left to superstition or religion, such as the physical nature of the universe, or the cell theory of life, and a distrust of astrology or some other discredited science. Those who do not accept evolution or climate change are regarded as intellectual know-nothings by educated folk. And, of course, given that technology is so much a product of science, the whole world of gadgetry is regarded as part of the scientific world and so supplies another reason that the scientific world view should not be dismissed. Humanistic studies, in this view, are merely peripheral, a leisure activity precisely in the sense that they are of no use except to amuse people who make their livings otherwise.

There is another sense in which secularism has a fidelity to science that goes even deeper than the ones mentioned. That is the belief that propositions say what they mean even if they do not say everything that can be said about a matter and that these propositions, moreover, are either true or false. St. Paul, for his own religious reasons having to do with establishing the nature of faith, uses arguments and analogies to support the idea that a proposition is a factual statement, that it is true or false. His endeavor is useful in part because it provides an archaeology of what goes into the concept and in part because it exposes the experiential meaning of the concept.

The ancients, for the most part, viewed things differently. The gods were metaphors in the sense that there were gods to the extent that gods could be thought of as beings rather than names for the causes of otherwise inexplicable actions. A god of a place was a symbol of the place, such as a temple, and the god of a group was, let us say, a household or regional deity. The image of a god or just the word "god" conveyed the spirit of the place or the group, and so it would make sense to come to speak of a god of love guiding your actions because something of that sort, that spirit, had entered your actions. It would also be easy to lose sight of a metaphor as a metaphor, as we do all the time when we speak of Washington as the seat of government of the United States, or when we speak of a person, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., as the personification of an idea of freedom, and so regard the name of the spirit as a real thing or person that motivates us to beware of Washington or to be King-like.

The tell tale sign of such a pagan like use of words is that there are degrees to which the words become identified as distinct objects that are said to have independent existence. So we can say of Lincoln that we have a faint or a strong sense of him as the presiding genius over the industrialization of America through free rather than slave labor, or we can say that we are prisoners of love because that seems an oxymoronic apposition or because love is a little bit like being forced to do what you don’t want to do but don’t have enough “free will” to resist or because, at the literal end of the spectrum, there are enough characteristics that love and being imprisoned share (doing someone else’s bidding, counting out the time till the next act of goodwill, being overwhelmed by one’s condition, acting differently than one would under other conditions) that they might as well be identified with one another.

The Greeks, of course, had made their own breakthrough to scientific thinking. Anaximander makes it very clear that he is speaking in propositions rather than in metaphors, and so deserves the title of the first scientist. He identifies a singular primordial substance to be the basis for all differentiated matter. This is true for all of nature for all time and so this is a truth rather than an opinion or a metaphor and as such it is open to disputation or even disproof even though, as Stephen Weinberg reminds us, experimental proof was not part of ancient science.

The Hebrews, however, come to this question in a different direction. Their rejection of paganism is so primitive, so much already a part of their culture, that they cannot understand that idols are representations of spirits and forces rather than the objects that are themselves gods. It is silly to think that breaking an idol makes that god go away. The Hebrews were so oblivious to paganism that they must have thought pagans very stupid even though some elements of paganism, as in Jacob wrestling with an angel, do sneak into their master narrative.

Christianity, for its part, relies on the literalist religion of Israel and the Judaism that followed upon it, but goes a step further. It treats the propositions of Christianity, even those that are about supernatural matters, and so not part of the natural law to which all people regardless of belief can have access, to be true in the same sense that propositions about the natural or social world are true. Pope Benedict XVI very elegantly put the point in what became his notorious lecture about Islam. Hellenistic reasoning was not just a circumstantial adjunct of Christianity, and so an historical fad to be dispensed with as are the cultural customs of tribes that become Christian; rather, the idea that the universe is controlled by the laws of reason as well as by God is essential to Christianity. Muslims, Pope Benedict argued, do not share the idea that God is bound by reason and his actions therefore explicable to reason. Evolution is no threat to Catholicism, this enlightened Pope argues, though he certainly knows that not all Christians take that view.

Catholics and a great many other Christians do not define belief on the basis of gradually increased degrees of credulity, more and more confidence given to religious ideas now understood as propositions. Rather, belief is a matter of either/or. You believe propositions about God to be true or false, including the proposition that God exists. That is well attested by the high points of Christian thinking. Dante puts heretics in Hell not because they dissent or have not been convinced; he puts them there because of a failure of character which makes them incapable of accepting the truth. They are nay-saying when any person of good will would be a yea-sayer because it is so clearly true that God exists. Cardinal Newman, for his part, claims that religious belief is based on a clear assent and tries to provide a rhetoric that will allow such assent because once one has gone over, even by a little bit, to the assent side of the ledger, one is a believer rather than a non-believer. Pascal’s wager is also a mechanism for tipping the balance between belief and unbelief by adding a perhaps extraneous matter--whether one will find a place in heaven-- to one side of the scales. And St. Thomas, of course, mobilizes the Aristotelian apparatus to show that belief in God is the same as the truth of the proposition that God exists. Even if the post Scholastic commentators are more probabilistic, they share with the rest of Christianity the certainty that belief in God is not a maybe thing but, rather, the assertion that, like other propositions, it is either true or not true, and the only question is what is enough to tip you over into one camp or the other.

Belief and faith are therefore to be carefully distinguished from one another. A belief is a proposition about the world, a matter of fact, while faith is the reason or the basis upon which a person believes that a belief is true. To experience a belief as true is to suggest that it has the qualities of facticity that are present as they are for other facts of nature or social life. Facts are not superstitions or sentiments but are known for being objective, available to all, and agreed to by all as a way to settle an argument. A scientific law can be verified with an experiment. And even a fact that occurs within nature can be verified. A tree either did or did not fall in the forest whether or not someone saw it and it is possible to go out there and see the fallen trunk to settle whether that was what caused the noise.

St. Paul, however, is not concerned with the truths that are or could be known about nature, no more than is any of the Old Testament, with the possible exception of “Ecclesiastes” which has already been discussed as concerned with those regularities of life as they are set up by weather or our social lives or our existential condition. Rather, St. Paul is concerned with the historical facts offered by religion. The authors of “Exodus” may have had no need to prove that the Red Sea had in fact split in two while St. Paul does want to give people a reason to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah and that He arose on the third day, and that His mission on Earth to redeem mankind for the sin of Adam, were all propositions in the sense that they were true rather than merely metaphors for insights into the human or supernatural condition.

The assertion of a truth of history is very different from the assertion of a truth of nature, or at least so it might have seemed to a St. Paul who knew enough about Greek science to have to find a different footing for belief in historical truths which are notorious for being false. Asserting that Columbus discovered America means perusing his recounting of his voyages and inferring that those documents sound authentic rather than faked and matching those up with other documents of the time including eye witness accounts. Nobody now remembers on their own having seen Columbus discover America while anyone can demonstrate the laws of inclined planes on their own with jerry rigged equipment. How do you demonstrate those few and singular truths of religious history, such as the bringing of the Law down from Mt. Sinai or the Resurrection of Jesus, without these assertions being subject to all the problematics of historical proof? The answer is that you posit a different term which fills the place of proof. That term is “faith”.

St. Paul sounds strikingly modern in that he foretells a Protestant tradition of theology, as that is found in Luther, Kant and Kierkegaard, as well as in any number of contemporary American preachers, in as much as St. Paul treats faith as the reason for belief in a truth that is just as much a fact as any other fact. Faith is whatever the basis is for a belief in the truth of a fact about the supernatural. Put aside are all the rationalizations of supernatural facts such as those that occur when people discover that there might have been a path across the Sea of Reeds which gets misinterpreted as a parting of the Red Sea, or when they treat as literally true the legend that Jesus disappears to Southern France after having somehow survived his crucifixion.

Faith as a way to justify a proposition that has no empirical backing can also be subverted when faith is the term invoked to support what is a value rather than a claim on factual truth. There is no need for Jesus the Redeemer when we reduce Christianity to the Sermon on the Mount. And faith can be regarded as simply filling in for matters not open to science but about which we want to have some confidence, such as the idea of politics as a place to seek liberty, or that it is better to live an ethical life than to live the life of a libertine. Scriptural texts can be found to justify certain ethical matters, such as whether homosexuality is an abomination, but it is still necessary to first establish the basis for beliefs, much less the authority of Scriptures to settle issues, and for that we turn to faith.

The Catholics say that Christian belief is a scandal, something contrary to common sense or to science, though still justified by faith, while Protestantism by and large treats the beliefs of Christianity as no nonsense certainties about matters of fact which are certified as true on the basis of this mental entity St. Paul calls “faith”. Faith can tell you that the dinosaurs and early mankind cohabited the Earth. All the mollusks of evolutionary biology are challenged by the assertion of faith. That is logically possible because Christianity admits to the general scientific understanding that all facts are equally facts if they are facts at all. There are only bivalent propositions: true ones or false ones.

The rhetorical strategy employed by St. Paul is not to treat faith as a term that refers, as it does nowadays, to both the substance of faith, which is the propositions ascribed to, and to the mechanism whereby that substance is affirmed, but only to the latter. St. Paul makes clear that facts are the object of faith. When he says to the Galatians: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited and crucified!” (Gal. 3:1), he is referring to public events, to which everyone, even non-believers, would have access, those events spurring people on to consider the claims made about events they did not witness, such as the Resurrection and what the Messiah is out to accomplish. Faith is also other than a matter of law or birth. Rather, “…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”, where “faith” is defined in the next sentence as “to believe in Christ Jesus….” (Gal. 2:15). Faith is to have confidence in a truth that would not otherwise get confirmed. Paul does not even consider whether a proposition known to faith can be verified scientifically. That is not part of his mental schema. It is enough to show that faith verifies what cannot be verified by the canons at work in his own tradition: the criteria of law and birth.

Paul, however, begs the question of what it is that allows something to be taken on faith. It is not enough to repeat the formula just because the formula is itself intoxicating. We suddenly know what we had not known before. A Christian I know said it was very hard to understand how it was possible that Jesus arose on the third day, and then decided that he wasn’t up to the task of deciding how it was possible, and so could come to simply accept it and not worry about how he knew it was true. That was his experience of the meaning of faith: it was the relief that comes from no longer worrying about how you knew an important proposition was true.

Paul uses the word “faith” as a trump card. An appeal to it negates whatever is contrary to it and there is no appeal beyond it. Any proposition, whether plausible or not, can be taken as a matter of faith. Bread and wine turn in fact in your mouth to flesh and blood even if there is no empirical evidence that this is so and however implausible that is because you accept as a matter of faith that that is what happens. Prayers are answered because the church says they are answered in some fashion or other, at least if they are properly formed as prayers, and so are not merely selfish. The appeal to faith hedges against empirical disproof. That does not, however, make faith merely a matter of “values”, which means an ethical imperative imposed on the world.

This situation, this approach to facts, can lead to discussions that are very frustrating because they lead to endless regress. The believer knows by faith that certain propositions are true.  When told that they are not subject to disproof, the believer knows by faith that they do not need to be subject to disproof. When the believer is told that surely there are some propositions about religion that are subject to disproof just like Newton’s laws (such as whether God exists, or whether there is evil in the world) the believer says that which propositions are matters of faith and which ones aren’t is also a matter of faith.

This linguistic strategy is the same one given its philosophical legitimacy, eventually, by Immanuel Kant, who provided a status similar to that held by the concept of “faith” to the concept of “ought”. People ought to do things, Kant thinks, because it is a feature of their free will that they can impose themselves between what is and what might be; people cannot be properly understood except as they, unlike atoms, have this capacity, it being a Positivist notion (really, a Spinozistic one) that general descriptions of behavior can be made of people as well as atoms, so long as we abolish from our vocabulary the appeal to the idea of “cause”.  In practice, then, the concept of “ought” is so potent that nothing can stand up to it in that there are no set of facts which can be deployed to say an “ought” is wrong. You have to do what is right, what you ought to do, even if it is not approved of by most or all other people. There is no room in this imperative to be moral because a certain practice is a custom or the consensus of opinion. You have to do what you ought to do even if it will avail you naught. You fight a losing battle or die for your country because it is right, not because you had a chance to win. Kant did think you ought to choose your battles carefully, not being too quick to determine that a moral claim was at stake, there being a number of practical judgments people had to make just to get through the day or to engage in political life. But when you put morality on the line, there is no answer to it from facts. You can not, in short, reduce the word “ought” to any other word or combination of words such as “useful” or “pleasurable”. It is just that kind of word, and one which we cannot do without because it describes a central feature of life.

In similar fashion, you can’t do away with the word “faith” once it has been introduced into the discussion. It cannot be reduced to any other even though one should be chary about using it too liberally, such as when a person claims that evolution cannot be true because one knows as a matter of faith that mankind descended from Adam and Eve. The word is necessary, however, in the sense that it cannot be abolished, because it is central to a description of what believers think to be the supernatural world which surrounds ordinary life. It is hard for Christian believers to imagine a life unless it is filled up with those objects that are matters of faith, like God or Jesus or the Immaculate Conception or the beginning of life at conception. And so there must be some basis for believing these things to be true, and whatever that is, all the various possible motives for belief going under a single name: “faith”.

A rejoinder to Paul’s view of the term “faith” is that the word might cover multiple concepts, as do the words that are similar to it in their power to demand attention. There might be, for example, multiple sources of certainty in the truth of propositions, each one of them perhaps to be called by a different name, such as “intuition” or “inference” or “existential apperception” just as there might be a number of different sources of morality that all operate in the world that might go by different names rather than only one term or reason known as “ought”.  It does seem to me closer to the truth about moral life to say that there is a difference between the “ought” of filial piety and other such customs and the “ought” of not knowing how to be other than the kind of person you are, which has to do with essentials, and the “ought”, which is the moral injunction that is usually invoked by the word, of whether circumstances require you, for the sake of your family, to rob a bank. There are also clear differences, once one has acknowledged the possibility, between the following forms of faith: faith in the sense of a commitment to believe in the fidelity of a wife, which has to do with what is essential to you, at least in the life you have come to lead; faith in the sense of reasonable confidence that a dishwasher will break down only when it goes out of warranty, which has to do with reasonable prediction; faith, in the sense of wanting to think so, in, for example, the high-minded purposefulness of major political leaders; faith, in the sense of a sentimental confidence provoked by a superstitious mindset itself provoked by religion, that the Shroud of Turin is the shroud of Christ; faith in Santa Claus in that a person has a sense of the usefulness of such sentimental imagery; and faith in the sense of a certainty that goes to the core of one’s being and that serves as the foundational image which allows one to pursue one’s life with hope and comfort that Jesus is the Messiah in all the senses that the New Testament elaborates.

Faith and morality are tied together. It is not just because religions deal with both matters, and it is not just because they are the same kind of word, trump words. Rather, it is because both are leaps across a chasm between the present as it is known and the future as one is certain it will become or ought to become, “ought” in this case a weaker version of faith because faith knows that the Apocalypse will come, not just that it ought to come. Both words make the world as it is possible, believers not easily capturing a feeling (or recapturing it) of how people can do without these words and the concepts they represent.

Both terms come from outside the empirical frame of reference or those generalizations which have their justification only in that they are inferences from the empirical frame of reference. Morality is a matter of faith in the sense that religious people will often say there is no reason other than faith to have a morality, whether that faith is called secular humanism or whatever, not acknowledging that there might be people who are really atheists, who do not have faith. Faith is a matter of morality because how could a person who is decent and therefore intellectually modest not have confidence enough to acknowledge that there are unseen things, matters beyond human ken that it is yet very important for us to understand. And, most of all, faith and morality are tied together because the internality of the one (faith) is expressed, is the same thing, as the Quietist piety that can be identified with the second.