Facts — cheap, plentiful; too many, too often, too varied. The farmer, banker, liberal, conservative, Christian, atheist — they can all go outside, look up at the same sky, feel the same breeze, see the same blue, notice that same storm unfurling in the horizon – clouds rolling, it draws nearer.
But why go outside? Indoors, the domain of AC: indoors with curtains drawn is where the Real disappears; indoors, where changing the weather doesn’t require divine interference, but a flip of the TV channel until someone with a Tempestas Doctorem opines otherwise, masking the storm’s bitterness with a salad of opinion, dressed with a rich layer of flattery, topped with bacon bits of factoids.
You can draw the curtains, let the dying light drip in, point at the rain and thunder. Yet even with the window left open, from the couch, the window’s just another screen (not even HD!); you’re just another weatherman (without even a T.D.!)
Without saying, there is a real storm brewing outside in our scenario. And without saying, you can talk as much as you want to the person on the couch, but unless you bring them outside, your words mean nothing.
From this Platonic perversion, notice that the problem of postmodernism has been cleverly misdiagnosed as a lack of fact. With that, the Doctors prescribe a dose of densely packed reason, page upon page of thinkpiece, bitter critique, and facts. Lots of facts. IV drip upon drip of fact and fact, stats, citations, accredited opinions.
But postmodernism is the virus that adapted to Reason. It dares to dismantle logic using logic, finding fault in observation, wisecracks to crack the wise, theorizing that every theory must be flawed — and all in a giggling, incoherent, mischievous, effective voice that repeats: why? why whys (ha!) why?
Et cetera, ad infinitum.
Postmodernism isn’t atheistic; in fact, it is just as antagonistic towards the absolutist atheism as Christianity. Rather, it is an intricate web of pluralism, individualism, and agnosticism, tied together by a strand of “We can’t know.”
As an increasingly popular worldview, it conflicts with Christianity, which is all about a singular knowledge of faith: the knowledge that the Bible gives, that the Spirit reveals, that missionaries seek to spread and theologians attempt to clarify. And Christianity does remarkably well as a body of knowledge; through intellectual branches like apologetics, Christianity has successfully defended itself from a whole host of intellectual assaults throughout the millennia, including but not limited to other religions, atheism, positivism, various philosophical critiques, scientific rationalism, etc.
Yet – postmodernism poses a much more difficult problem because at its core, postmodernism relies on one absolutely incontestable fact: human reason cannot encompass the world. It points to the logical fallacies inherent in structures of authority and reasoning; it exposes the assumptions that people have disguised as carefully reasoned; it rediscovers and focuses on the individual’s capacity to act, a capacity that every individual recognizes as true, because well, it is.
And therefore, Christianity with its seemingly infinite cascade of facts and theology, doctrine and teachings, reams of ancient scrolls, bones aching with history: to the person determined to be unconvinced, no amount of archeological evidence nor poetic meditations can hope to persuade. In precluding the existence of absolute Truth, postmodernism also cuts off the tool of persuasion using logic, which asserts that at the end of our discussion, one of us will be right.
Pre, Intra, and Post: the Natures of Truth
How do we determine if something is objectively (outside of individual opinion) true?
The roots of Western objective truth are Greek, but the history of it is Christian. In the works of Plato, Truth exists in ideal Forms1, permanent yet located in an intangible realm2; everything that humans interact with is an imperfect instance of these Forms3. More importantly, he questions how we can know that what we have is the Truth. To answer this, he develops an epistemology (theory of knowledge) of recollection4: that learning is simply the recollection of knowledge our eternal souls possess.
Christian theology reveals a similar permanent fixture of Truth, but teaches that we know truth through divine revelation5; it isn’t up to humans to reach truth by themselves, but for them to accept it when it comes6.
Descartes reversed the solution: we determine truth by the lack of doubt. This shifts the focus from a mystical “Truth” outside the self, towards every individual’s Reason as the judge of validity. Though Descartes also argued that “we ought to submit to the Divine authority [Bible] rather than to our own judgement”7, this new paradigm allowed individuals to evaluate truth based upon their own doubts. No longer would an alien, imposed Truth restrict us; throw off the “yoke of tutelage” and our “self-imposed nonage”8, and our freedom to choose crystalizes. This first movement, generally corresponding to the Enlightenment, shifts the authority to determine Truth from God to Man.
Yet, when the dust settled, authority had simply switched hands, from the priests and the kings to the experts, whether in science, theology, politics, or business. These experts were no longer ordained by birth, but rather seemingly arose out of the common folk. They held authority by their ideas, words, and determination; they spoke of social mobility and the American Dream. And the people were happy.
Until they weren’t. Because it turns out, everyone isn’t equally intelligent, or gifted, and the world really isn’t a fair place. Authority based on those factors seemed arbitrary, success in Nature’s lottery, and therefore illegitimate. This concept of authority, an organizing principle that grants one person’s ideals more legitimacy than another, is functionally necessary for any ideals to exist. Yet, with it came subordinates, and with ideals – inferiors. This stage, of big ideas and people, is the Modern one: the Self’s swan song to itself, an unwavering belief in Reason, a meta-narrative that enable individuals’ paths to reach ideals by following a path of perfect behavior. The nuclear family; cookie-cutter careers; the self-help industry.
What postmodernism does is reframe authority around the Self, far tighter than Descartes ever did. I now have the authority to decide everything about me. If I am the perspective that speaks, the voice of Agency, then it follows that I am the most important thing. And in this narcissism, the Creator transforms from God to society to the Self; it’s the reclaiming of autonomy; it’s Pinocchio playing make-believe; it’s a shadow pretending it’s alive.
Yet, despite how narcissistic postmodernism seems, it does arrive at an important truth: everything we believe is true, at the deepest level, is something we choose to believe. Objective analysis, such as reason, attempts to define what is true – a static entity that everyone must accept, or know they are lying to themselves. Not only is this trend towards objectivity logically flawed, but the Bible almost explicitly warns against it.
In Eden, the perfect design God originally had for the world, He doesn’t establish any objective knowledge for Adam to utilize. Rather, everything He commands is based in His authority as a Creator, rather than His commands’ roots in “objective truth”. It should be revealing that the tree that God warns against eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil9; quite obviously, the reason isn’t that there isn’t an objective good and evil, but that a) the ability to determine objective things isn’t meant for humans, and b) the knowledge of good isn’t necessary to live a good life, because God both didn’t provide knowledge of good and established everything in Eden as “very good”10.
The second point is the most significant when applied towards the issues of faith and reason, because it demonstrates that knowledge and action are not tied together. In fact, they are explicitly kept apart in the beginning, and only unified because of an act of human rebellion. The conclusion to be drawn here is that for faith, true faith is not meant to be based in its object, but rather in the character of the believer: faith is not knowledge, but a leap into the unknown. Anyone can believe that the fruit dangling before their eyes is good, but only the faithful can trust in the eternal fruit of the future.
Everyone operates under faith in a variety of different things. In driving, there is an implicit faith that the car won’t break down; in eating, faith that the food isn’t poisoned. Christians have faith that the Bible is true and that God exists; atheists have faith that what they can’t observe doesn’t exist, and therefore God doesn’t exist. Two people can have the same level of conviction in their own beliefs yet hold contradictory points of view.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t reason involved within faith; for example, the Christian can point to the historical evidence for Christ, the textual studies scholars have done on the Bible, the philosophical and epistemological necessity for a Creator, etc. From those, it is only logical that a God, with all the characteristics Christianity attributes to Him, exists.
But trace these branches of logic far down enough, and eventually the roots end at tips of assumption. A simple exercise is to simply ask “Why?”, continuously asking the same question about every justification given. It’s a mathematical certainty that not everything can have a justification: eventually (probably within a few cycles of questioning), the answer will either be circular, proving something with the very thing it proves, or the answer will simply be: Because.
And what of this original assertion, an original “leap” of faith, from which all inertia to continue reasoning comes from? It must be fully unsupported, a choice that an individual decides to make – that they can trust their senses to convey reality, or that there is existence outside of themselves, or that they themselves even exist.
These “facts”, whatever term they’re cloaked underneath (presuppositions, or for the critic, fallacies), are incredibly and uniquely powerful. For one, they are impossible to prove, and therefore impossible for an outsider to disprove. For example, a man assumes quite reasonably that what he can observe is real; since he is also drunk out of his mind, there is a ghost standing at his door, warning him not to go outside. Now, you can bring in a doctor, or a psychiatrist perhaps, dressed up in fancy degrees and linguistic splendors, armed with studies and tests galore. They can say whatever they want, work to persuade him otherwise, but why should he trust them over himself? After all, it’s far more likely that they are the ones trying to deceive him, because it’s crazy to be told that your hearing is wrong, or be shown that your sight is faulty. It is only in the act of trust that the man can lose his assumption, and in that act of trusting, he assumes something else.
For every single individual, no matter how “rational” they are, there is at least one ungrounded movement of faith they have made, a decision to believe.
It’s a small and seemingly obvious statement. It also holds the solution to the impossible.
Does ‘I’ ever do anything anymore?
Of course not; it’s far too precarious of a position to put my fragile Self in. Rather, I can just live in the perpetual third-person, surgically extracting Self from everything. Happiness, Sorrow, Anger: they personify and separate, shoving us aside, ascending from object to subject of our lives; it wasn’t me who wanted to eat with you, but Boredom mixed with a cocktail of Hunger and Loneliness. Of course I didn’t choose to feel angry; anger seized me. Sorrow drowned, choked, strangled me. Happiness moved me, eluded me, fled me.
Humans cannot bear the full weight of their sin; as a supernatural burden, it wasn’t designed for flesh to carry. Therefore, the ancient Israelites had to sacrifice animals for it; later on, Christ had to die for it. In the modern era, sin is transformed into a societal concept, one caused by grand narratives of economic predestination and political tides, all outside of the individual’s control.
Academia, too, has played a huge part in this collective alienation of responsibility. For every individual phenomena, any one of a dozen systemic forces could be to blame; with enough creativity, every single progress or problem can be attributed to capitalism, evolutionary biology, metaphysical nonsense, etc. There are psychological factors from the childhood, sociological forces that mold the individual, scientific realities that must be followed, and if all else fails, blame the misfired neuron.
And what about questions of the Spirit? Here, people have become conduits for various amorphous forces, mindless puppets jerked string to string with no say in the matter. In modern theology: sin, faith, love, lust, all have devoid themselves of human actors, and are instead purely attributed to the spiritual.
The problem with this – of the sin apart from the sinner, like a hazy cloud of toxins that poison the otherwise innocent mind – is that it removes responsibility, from the individual. In this view, because Sin is an outside force, the sinner is created by Sin; similarly, Faith creates the believer, and Fear the coward.
In some of the most essential stories of the Bible, this idea of an “alienated Force” is dispelled. For one, take the story of Adam and Eve. Satan is in part responsible for Eve eating the apple, but he is not the cause. Rather, when “Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye”11, she eats it. The reason she sins is not because there was a Sin external to her, but rather because she makes the decision to accept Satan’s premises and reject God’s; her decision to put faith in Satan is what created her sin.
Take another example – the crucifixion of Christ. Complicit in his murder were the Romans, the Jews, the unbelievers; the collective weight of the sin of humanity. Yet, what the chief priests falsely interpret as his inability to save himself12 is Christ’s decision to not save himself. Surely, he could: someone who can blot out the sun and make the earth shake can surely fight off a few soldiers. He also wasn’t forced; though he didn’t want to die13, there is no force which could coerce Christ to do anything against his will. And so, he bowed his head, discarded his dignity, and waited to die. It is also this free choice that makes the story meaningful. If Christ were coerced into death, it would completely undermine the omnipotence of God, and reveal not love but necessity. However, because He chose to die – in that dazzlingly irrational, confounding decision, God’s love for the world is revealed.
Reality is more constrained than a world of perfect freedom, and there are an infinite array of outside forces. Yet, for the personal movement of faith, it must be recognized as that: a decision, uncoerced and unforced by fact, to believe.
For Christians, there are some major implications of faith being a choice. Most importantly, it posits the existence of an agent with a will outside of God, one who can choose faith; this statement is equivalent to saying that things can happen outside of God’s sovereignty. In addition, this existential view of faith shows Christianity isn’t in believing what I know is true, but accepting as truth what I believe. In doing so, faith becomes a passion, the marvelous paradox which reconciles sinners and God, and Christianity becomes an action rather than passive acceptance. For such a radical statement that runs a bit contrary to doctrine, some things must be cleared up:
Isn’t faith a gift? In Ephesians 2:8, Scripture says that “for by grace you have been saved through [faith]. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. Yet, a gift is freely given, but the moment it actualizes from an object to a gift is through the reciprocal process of giving and receiving. A gift cannot be forcefully given either; without the active consent of the receiver, a gift becomes a punishment. Closely examining the verse, the “gift of God” refers to the received salvation (“have been saved”), and faith is the process through which grace is translated into salvation. Completing the analogy of a gift, just as a gift requires a giver’s generosity and a receiver’s consent, the gift of salvation requires God’s “grace” and our “faith”.
If faith saves us, and we choose faith, isn’t that claiming self-salvation? The function of faith (in the broader, not necessarily Christian sense) is of necessity; in order to do or think anything, a number of things have to be taken on faith value. In addition, faith functions as a method of expressing autonomy, which links action with meaning. A programmed robot acting the way it was programmed would have no meaning associated with its actions. In contrast, because humans can choose alternative choices in any given situation, each choice brings the significance of opportunity cost: I care enough about my decision to sacrifice a whole host of other possibilities. However, the results of my actions are not attributed to me; I fulfill simply one out of the numerous events necessary for any result to happen. Therefore, in the situation of salvation, faith is essentially choosing not to jump off the elevator headed to heaven, and choosing to jump on in the first place. It isn’t about making the individual good enough for God, but rather to be transformable into something good. The previous notion of consent and autonomy comes into play here: faith is the decision to forfeit autonomy, and to consent to Christ transforming the self; it is a personal decision to allow God to decide. In doing so, the individual counteracts the original decision of Eve – in doing so, God is able to transform an individual by their own residual choice (which as established above, gives the individual’s transformation meaning). Therefore, in function, faith is where autonomy consents to erase itself.
What separates faith from simply belief? One of the clearest definitions of faith in Scripture is that it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”14 Assurance and conviction are solid words that convey permanence, signifying a truth the individual believes as objective. In contrast, hope and “things not seen” are things the individual recognizes as subjective and not necessarily true – we do not hope for things that are guaranteed to happen. Faith thus works through transforming the unknown into the known, not through appeals to other known facts (reason), but simply through a movement of solidifying the subjective into the objective.
Christians can’t have faith simply because Christianity is true. They have faith because Christianity, and its God, are good. It is not a faith acquired by years of careful deliberation over facts, but a faith that even a child can attain15.
No, not even a child. Only a child.
Only a child believes that vegetables are good because Mom told me, and Mom loves me. No why’s, no but’s. Only the naïve offers two loaves of bread to feed five thousand people16; only the unknowing decides to face the giant17. The smart, experienced, logical, mature, adults, they know the world well enough to sit back and cut their losses, bear their hunger, and let the mountains block their journeys18.
Because only a child doesn’t know, and doesn’t care that they don’t know, because knowing isn’t needed for trusting, or loving, or believing.
And only a child – only a child can witness her father subjected to criticism and slander, his goodness questioned by evidence and eyewitness, his power restrained by law and science, his love muted by distance and abandonment, and still know firmly that he loves her.
Because He is her Father.
Application: Moving Backwards to Faith
To move Faith back to its pedestal, where it exists as a choice and not a dogma, requires the brain to time-travel on itself. But how do we unlearn? Knowledge and reason have a stickiness to them, one that is impossible to shake from the crevices of memory. There is a reason that the sin caused by the Tree of Knowledge has embedded itself within the very lifeblood of humanity, masking itself as a tempting perversion of the good.
As Descartes writes, “Above all we should impress on our memory as an infallible rule that what God has revealed to us is incomparably more certain than anything else; and that we ought to submit to the Divine authority rather than to our own judgement even though the light of reason may seem to us to suggest, with the utmost clearness and evidence, something opposite.”19
Note the language: “impress” over “memory”, “submit” rather than “reason”, act not know. Because, the solution is to act. Leap, in no uncertain terms, off that cliff of reason, and know that you’ll hurtle down; trust that you won’t. Go and move that mountain, walk don’t swim, see the paradox of Faith realized. And – Believe. Not because of the facts and reasons, which will never be enough, but despite them; believe because faith’s results are good. The existence of facts that correlate or contradict with it can never shake that.
Faith starts in the shivering self huddled against the unyielding floor at night, after the lights of the day have gone to bed and only an aching nothing, created by the unstemmable flow of time, remains. It is there – it knocks before entering, at first a small “what if”, not daring to whisper too loudly, into the most remote corner of the heart, tugging at the cramped tired corners, pulling this way and that, until a brighter heart pulled full emerges, and that “what if” becomes an assurance so deep that if tomorrow weren’t bright, there would be no doubt that it were merely a nightmare.
By its nature, faith is elusive to the sensible; after all, was ever a scenario more inconceivable than strolling through the gates of Heaven, ushered by the Lord Himself? Yet, the Scriptures attest that with faith, that is all that is needed. And who is brave enough to trust that silver, thread-bare ladder of silk, barely a glimmer in the harsh sun and sieging winds? Much safer to pile blocks up, one by one, so the journey is at least safe; at least I won’t fall. And so they stack up block by block, a realization in their gut that they’ll never reach the heavens, but at least they are secure in knowing that.
But for the one who dares to climb, higher and higher till dizzying moons become engulfing clouds become the bright bronze gleams of Heaven’s gates – only there is glory and God, even as their body, left behind, rests within the dusts of the Earth.
And later on, when life begins to dull and the lights of heaven shine through, and their senses are replaced with convictions and hopes with assurances, and their knowledge of Truth finally corroborates with their belief in the Truth, as they knew it always would be – well, what a feeling that must be.
1. Timaeus 28
2. Phaedrus 247c ff
3. Cratylus 389
4. Meno 86b
5. John 16:13
6. John 14:6
7. Haldane, E. S., Ross, G. R. T. (1931). The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251
8. Kant, Immanuel (1784). Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?
9. Gen 2:17
10. Gen 1:31
11. Gen 3:6
12. Matt 27:42
13. Matt 26:39
14. Hebrews 11:1
15. Matt 18:3
16. John 6:9
17. 1 Samuel 17:32
18. Matt 17:20
19. Haldane, E. S., Ross, G. R. T. (1931). The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251