Thursday, May 07, 2009

Theological Triad: Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, this installment will focus on epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy that is concerned primarily with various theories of knowledge. More specifically, epistemologists try to get at the nature of justified true belief (JTB), which many—but not all—in the field take to be synonymous with knowledge.

But there’s a notable challenge to the idea that JTB is sufficient for knowledge, namely, the Gettier Problem. The idea is that one can, by sheer luck, have a JTB that does not in fact constitute knowledge of that which is believed. Take the classic barn-façade case, for example:
Henry drives through a rural area in which what appear to be barns are, with the exception of just one, mere barn facades. From the road Henry is driving on, these facades look exactly like real barns. Henry happens to be looking at the one and only real barn in the area and believes that there’s a barn over there.
Although Henry’s belief that he sees a real barn is technically justified, it does not qualify as knowledge because the fact that his belief happened to be true was due to luck; Henry would presumably have had the same belief about the barn facades, in which case his belief would be false. Similarly, it could argued that Nicodemus fell victim to the Gettier Problem when he professed a belief that Jesus was “from God”…but he was quickly disabused of his unfounded belief (see Part I).

It’s not just the ancients who, by luck, have believed that Jesus is God without a corresponding knowledge. Take Jon Meacham’s NEWSWEEK article entitled The End of Christian America, in which he writes:
America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse. The belief in an order or a reality beyond time and space is ancient and enduring. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods."
Meacham’s piece is thoughtful, but he stumbles with the assumption that “faith is an intrinsic human impulse.” The truth is, authentic faith is anything but intrinsic to humans. Like so many people do, he seems to conflate faith and belief (a point I’ve made before).

In point of fact, belief is a necessary, but not a sufficient component of genuine faith. What does that mean, exactly? Well, according to the Bible, faith is not mere intellectual assent (contra Nicodemus). Rather, faith is—for lack of a better phrase—a special type of knowledge. Hebrews 11:1 explains it this way:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
The operative words there are substance and evidence…and I have direct, personal experience that affirms this. And by ‘experience’ I don't mean what garden-variety mystics claim to have. No, the experience of genuine faith is a deep-seated knowledge that has proven, in my case, to be unshakable and enduring. This is because faith is a type of knowledge that isn’t learned through the normal cognitive process; nor does it begin as a soft, speculative belief that hardens over time.

Actual faith both contains and transcends belief. For example, I not only believe the axiom: cogito ergo sum (as opposed to being a brain in a vat)…I know that I’m a thinking person, instead of an envatted brain.

So, meaningful faith is tantamount to knowledge…of the fact that Jesus is God; it is not synonymous with mere belief in some generic god or disinterested deity, which is mistaken at best (i.e. the Gettier Problem) and simple self-delusion at worst. The antidote for this is introspection, which, if done consistently, allows one to distinguish what one knows from that which one merely believes.

The third and final installment will focus on the deeper theological implications of that which was discussed in the first two.