Over the years, I had many intellectual struggles with my life of faith and following Jesus Christ. I grew up in a household that highly valued rational thinking. Both of my parents were physicians, but my mother was a psychiatrist who was intimately familiar with the way people who had severe disorder of thinking were able to rationalize their beliefs. I grew up implicitly understanding the way that the human mind can try to preserve itself from challenges to what it feels and thinks. While this post is partly a reflection on how my own background contributed to my struggles with faith, I am deeply grateful to this background, as I think there is much value in being able to think that way.
However, as is usually case, when a parent transmits a practice, a custom, a way of thinking to their children, the child doesn’t always pick up the significance of the practice that the parent attaches to the practice. We see this all the time in a Christian household, where the child may have faith themselves, but they own it because it is how they great up, but they had yet to own their faith as their faith. They had not found the significance to faith that their parent has. This usually becomes apparent as the child grows more independent around high school or college. The child also frequently doesn’t directly learn the usually implicit rules that determine when we engage in a specific practice and when not to. A parent may use Scriptures to teach their children how to think and act in a particular situation. However, the child may come to think you use Scripture to correct anytime they see something they deem bad behavior rather than to teach someone who one already has a relationship with. In the case of growing up and learning, what is transmitted from parent to child undergoes a change in terms of significance and application. Sometimes this is bad when the parent has a wisdom, but sometimes this is good when the parent has some bad practices. The imperfection of transmission has its potential benefits as well as its problems.
In the same vein, I didn’t pick up the significance of critical thinking about oneself that my mother had for it. What I essentially did is I took my rearing to be a critical thinker and then I applied it to a more extreme level than my parents. In some places, I feel there were benefits to this, as no parents are perfect, but there was some instances where this became a hinderance. Most particularly, I had a deep problem with the often hard-to-define gap between having a good reason to believe something and knowing something to be true. We can call this the pursuit of certainty, confidence, epistemic justification, etc. Whatever one wishes to call it, it left me with a real problem: the inability to act based upon what I am aware of, for fear of the possibility that I might be in fact mistaken. I kept trying to find the way to improve confidence and reliability in what I thought and believes.
What I never picked up is that there are some situations where you can not become more reliable about what you think because there is nothing more you can possibly learn at that specific point in time. In the pursuit of higher confidence, I often assumed that the truth is knowable at any point of time and that I simply had to think better and more critically to get there. The net effect of this underlying meta-cognitive belief was this: I devalued what I had already been made presently aware of. What I had become aware of was never good enough. My thinking may have been better than it was in the past, but it wasn’t actionable. I wanted to be more than aware; I sought to know.
There is place where the value of trying to move beyond awareness to knowledge can be a very good thing. If a CEO is aware that one of their company’s products are not selling well, rather than making a rushed decision, it is helpful to try to pursue more information to see to comprehend why the product isn’t selling well. A CEO may assume they know the reasons behinds the problem and jump to fix it immediately; they immediately jump from awareness to knowledge. However, a thoughtful CEO may wait to try to find more information before determining how to react. Maybe it has a serious design flaw that needs to be addressed. Maybe the product just doesn’t serve a real purpose and the products needs to be pruned. Maybe economic realities have temporarily thinned the wallets of their prospective customers and the company should just hold tight. The point is that a good CEO is one who does not presume their awareness equates to actionable knowledge, but that they need to press forward for more information.
However, there is certain type of conditions where trying to move from awareness to knowledge can become dysfunctional: when it is impossible to expand one’s information so as to move from awareness to knowledge. For example, imagine a situation of communicative incompetence that commonly occurs when someone gets angry. A person may have one of their friends unpredictably blow up at them, but they were entirely unclear in expressing what they were actually angry about. The person may try to reach out to their (perhaps now former) friend, but they refuse to talk about it. The person can try to think back to their memory of their past interactions and not remember anything that can explain the blow up. They have an awareness of their friend’s anger, but they do not comprehend and know what their anger is about. But, if they work under the illusion that the reason for their friend’s anger is knowable at that point of time, then they may begin to try to imagine and conjure up possible scenarios that can try to explain what happen. But, what happens at that point is that the person starts to fill in the gaps of ignorance with their beliefs about themselves or beliefs about how other people perceive them. They may be the type of person who feels self-assured about themselves and conjure up an imagination that their friend is just being irrational. Or, they may be the type who isn’t very confident and think they did something really wrong and conjure up all sorts of criticism of things they remembered doing. However, ultimately, their thinking likely doesn’t pick up on the actual cause of their friend’s anger, but simply their own thinking about themselves and thinking about how other’s perceive them. However, whatever the source of the conjured up explanations, it is enabled by an epistemic illusion that we can move from awareness to knowledge at the present point of time if we just think and try hard enough to understand.
Applying this to matters of faith, some of us Christians have an implicit assumption in our pursuit after God and seeking to follow Jesus: that we can move from being aware of God to knowing about God in the present moment. We may act as if our understanding about God is solely our responsibility at this point, and so those of us who are intellectually inclined can seek to engage in better exegetical, theological, and philosophical thinking so that we can become clearer and more reliable about our understanding of God. It isn’t simply that we can take what God has given us and seek to learn from them (from Scriptures, our past experiences, etc.), but the implicit assumption that we can now at this point in time know about God if one we rightly direct our thinking
This can lead to one of at least two potential problems. Firstly, one can have a sense of self-assured confidence about one’s own thinking, that all of one’s thoughts are reliable. In this case, one can develop a theological arrogance and superiority. However, this arrogance can fail to differentiate between what God has revealed and their theological explanations of God’s revelation, treating their understanding as God’s revelation. In this case, they then apply their theological understanding to more and more situations, unaware that they may not understand the significance of God’s own revelation from God’s perspective or that they may be applying what they learned about God in a way that God would not. The end result is the imperfection of transmission combined with a sense of self-assuredness can lead a person to a place of self-deception about their understanding of God. We can call this the pathway of theological rationalization.
The other problem, the one that I struggled with, is that one can fail to find the needed information to further validate what one thinks about God. In the struggle to find validation, one can increasingly devalue what one has already been made aware of. Scripture and past experiences aren’t good enough right now, and so one can begin to lose confidence in those sources of awareness of God. The end result can be a weakened faith, or pushed further, to the loss of faith. We can call this the pathway of theological despair.
To be clear, the problem here isn’t the willingness to challenge our thinking and push ourselves further. The problem is that we work under an epistemic illusion of God’s knowability at the present moment based upon our own thinking. Sometimes, we can’t proceed beyond our awareness of God to knowing about God, because God is free to make Himself known as He chooses to do so. The whole of Scripture would testify that He is a personal being, who responds to us but is not controlled by us. Nor, is He a God who is reliably known by anything and everything we observe in the world, which is a source of idolatry and taken to its unhinged conclusion ultimately leads to pantheism or some variant (e.g. panentheism). Rather, He makes His will known in particular actions, at particular times, and through particular persons. We aren’t always immediately aware of the how, when, and who, nor is God obligated to make His will known through the ways, times, and people we think He should. For instance, He chose Israel to bear His light into the world from the Exodus, then He became incarnate in a specific Israelite named Jesus Christ to makes Himself clearly known, and then He chose some Gentiles in addition to some, but not all, of Israel, to bear witness to Jesus Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then, there is our personal experiences of God and His work. But our understanding of those experiences aren’t necessarily inspired, but that sometimes God, for whatever reason, leaves us in a place off ignorant awareness.
But, if we recognize that the faith comes in response to God’s redemption of us is about our awareness, and not so much about our understanding and knowledge, we can work against the epistemic illusion of God’s immediate knowability through thinking. At the core of Christian faith is the awareness of God’s goodness and ability (e.g. love and power) demonstrated on our behalf in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit that is an actionable trust; faith isn’t the epistemic confidence in our ability to define, articulate, comprehend, and predict God, espcially in all the specific details or across the board. While Anselm’s ‘faith seeking understanding’ is certainly a noble goal that is in some instances possible, the resistance to recognizing that sometimes authentic faith can do nothing more than be faithful to what one has been made aware of and wait to receive something anew can lead us into episodes of conjuration of an undisciplined imagination that culminates into theological rationalization or despair. It isn’t our comprehension that saves us from the sin and illusions of the world, but it is through faith that God justifies and sanctifies us so that we can be brought into a transformed way of life in the image of Jesus Christ.