Moving into Faith: Rational and Responsible or Gullible and Rash?

In the last two posts I clarified the idea of history, located the source of information decisive to the transition from nonbelief into Christian faith, and clarified the distinction between an outsider and an insider view of this source. Today I want to move us closer imagining an outsider’s actual encounter with the core Christian message and clarifying the status of the judgment demanded in this situation.

Moving from nonbelief into Christian belief requires us to believe reports of events to which we have no direct access on the word of those who claim to have had direct access. This encounter is exceedingly complex, way beyond our ability to describe fully. The following are some general categories that affect the outcome of this encounter: (1) the background beliefs, experiences, questions, and interests of the nonbeliever; (2) the relationship between the witnesses reporting the events and the nonbeliever listening to the story; (3) the nature of the events reported; and (4) the perceived advantages or disadvantages of accepting the report. Obviously, we cannot create a description of the event of hearing and believing the gospel that anticipates the details of every encounter.

Perhaps some analogies will help. Suppose I am visiting an unfamiliar city and need a prescription filled. I ask the hotel concierge for directions to the local Walgreens. I listen to the directions carefully, accept them fully without consciously examining them critically, and follow them trustingly. Or, in another analogy, when I was a child my father told me that he served in United States Navy in the Pacific during World War II. I believed him immediately and without reservation. Or again, suppose that shortly after I return home from work my neighbor rings my door bell and warns me that in my absence today she saw an unfamiliar man step into my yard and peer into my dining room window. Will I believe her or not? Will I take appropriate measures in response to my belief that these events happened? In one final analogy, suppose a stranger approaches me on a street corner as I wait for the “Walk” sign to illuminate. He tells the story of how a few years ago on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains he spotted a group of men burying piles of cash. Sadly, they placed a huge rock over the spot so big that he could not move it. After returning from his hike the stranger drew a map to the hidden treasure, which he will happily sell to me for $100. The sign across the street flashes “Walk”. I continue on my way without any reservations about having walked away from the buried treasure and a secure retirement.

In each of these four analogies we can see at work the four general factors mentioned above. I bring to each of these encounters the whole package of my beliefs and expectations, I have some kind of relationship to the witness, the events presented for belief possess a certain character, and I have a feel for the cost of believing or not believing the reports. Each of these factors plays a part in my decision. Most of the time, we are not even aware of the processes by which we perceive and weigh these factors and come to believe.

At this point I want to return to an idea I discussed in the first few posts of this series, applying it in the present context. I believe there is more to the belief-forming process than perceiving and weighing evidences. In much modern thought about belief formation, it is presumed that being a responsible and rational person requires us to consider doubt as the initial attitude toward testimony. Only the measurable weight of testimony, the demonstrable credibility of the witnesses, and other articulable evidences can propel the mind from its initial doubt into belief. I object to this account of the transition from not believing to believing for two reasons. (1) As my analogies show, in many cases we are able to evaluate the complex factors in a rational decision to belief very rapidly. We need not and cannot articulate a detailed assessment of our processing of these factors. And attempting to do so would be as foolish as impossible. Only neurotics spend enormous time and energy attempting to articulate and weigh every factor in their decisions. To live we must take risks. (2) I think it is more descriptive of what we actually do to assume that we possess a natural tendency to believe unless there is a reason not to believe. In other words, our first inclination is to believe what other people tell us rather than doubt them. We do not have an obligation as rational persons to doubt what others say unless there is a reason to doubt.

Getting clear that we do not have an obligation to begin with doubt will help us clear our minds of unreasonable rules that bias us against the testimony of the apostles before we even hear it. It will allow us simply to listen to the witnesses’ stories with openness to being persuaded. All the four factors for belief formation will still play their part but without the extra burden of a false description of what it means to be a rational person. Of course, as my example of the treasure map shows, we can sometimes have good reasons to doubt what people say. But simply that we are being asked to trust the word of another person is not good reason to doubt.

In future posts we need to examine the reports of how the first Christians came to believe and how their testimony was received.

Programing Note: For the next month I may need to post less than once a week. My publisher InterVarsity Press wants the final edition of my book on creation and providence by January 15, 2015. That effort will require my full energies. We just settled on the title: The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence For An Age of Anxiety.

2 thoughts on “Moving into Faith: Rational and Responsible or Gullible and Rash?

  1. nokareon

    I know we’ve mentioned the “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” axiom before, and it seems that neither of us find it very convincing. But when looking over the four analogies that you gave, it seemed to me that this very axiom does a handy job of explaining why it is that you are able to trust the testimony of the first three while still disbelieving the fourth. Allow me to expand below.

    It seems the reason you disbelieve the testimony of the man selling the map is threefold: 1) You have no knowledge of the man, and thus no reason to trust that his testimony is accurate, 2) By his selling the map for $100, there is a clear motivation for potential fabrication, and 3) Most importantly, the tale that he tells is fantastical. But take 1 and 2 away. Suppose that a colleague within the Pepperdine religion department tells you the same buried-treasure-and-rock story in passing; you know him to be generally trustworthy, and there is no clear motivation for fabricating the story. Even so, you would probably think s/he was joking and not take his/her account seriously, although you might find the tale remotely possible. But now change the colleague’s tale so that it is only one man who moves the gigantic rock. The tale is now more extraordinary, the prior probability lower, and thus your probability in believing it even slimmer.

    Now take the first three analogies. You seem reasonable to believe without further skepticism in all three cases as stated. The cases are mundane and plausible—perhaps the situation with the lowest prior probability is the stranger peering through the window, but even though it is uncommon, it is nonetheless plausible and mundane. But now suppose that the concierge instead tells you that the way to Walgreens is through an interdimensional elevator housed in a nearby phone booth, your father says that he served as a militia man during the American Revolution, and your neighbor says that an extraterrestrial saucer came to hover over your house and green extraterrestrial men came down to look through all the windows. Wouldn’t the low prior probability of the reported events in these cases incline you to disbelieve their testimony? Doesn’t that show that the extraordinary content of the testimony in these cases justifies you, as in the fourth analogy, in taking a skeptical approach to it? Don’t we see from these cases that the axiom “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is true?


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Good challenge. I wish I had time to reflect appropriately. But you saw my programing note about the deadline for the book. Briefly, I am wanting to navigate between two deep ditches, and it’s not easy to keep my balance on the narrow foothold above the precipice. In this piece I want to call into question the simple application of axioms such as the one you state. The word extraordinary can be deceptive. It hints at the idea of “impossibility” when it simply means out of the ordinary. In one sense every historical event is extraordinary. History does not repeat itself. I want to argue that every case is unique, and axioms that settle questions before we ask them are to me suspect. Again, thanks for the stimulation.



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