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Feb 09 2009

Kazim to Chuck Colson: Faith and certainty

References:

Hello again Chuck,

Thanks again for taking the time to compose thoughtful replies to my discussion of your book. This time I’ll have to echo your apology for taking so long to reply. I’ve had an extremely eventful year, and it took me a while to devote time to giving your three messages the attention that they deserved. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve chosen to break down my replies into a series of multiple posts, and I will be treating your posts out of sequence.

I’d like to start by discussing the position on faith that you revealed in your second and third messages. I have to say that your perspective surprised me a bit. As I had previously noted, throughout your book you chastised postmodernists for their position that there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Yet in your recent message, you came out with an extraordinary pro-subjectivity statement:

“All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.”

What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried. Like you, post-modernists believe that reason is just another form of faith, and that there is no way to objectively determine the nature of reality outside your own mind, and the only thing that can be described as “true” is what is “true for me.” I disagree with post-modernists: I believe that reality exists, and that it is independent of individual minds or beliefs. While it is by necessity investigated and interpreted by fallible humans, the nature of “knowledge” is that it must be accurate; i.e., it must conform to a reality which is not dependent on belief.

When I read your statement above, it sounded to me as if you don’t really feel the same. When you say “faith,” you appear to be implying that knowledge is a subjective matter, which may be said to be entirely dependent on the observer. If I adopt a position of faith that, for instance, Allah is God, and I will be rewarded with 72 virgins if I die as a martyr, then that belief is “true for me.”

I thought I must be mistaken; this couldn’t possibly be your position. Perhaps you meant something different than I do when you use the word “faith.” After all, you had claimed that St. Augustine’s influence “gave Christians the liberty to use reason when interpreting their faith.” (Incidentally, I find this a curious statement. Why should they even need permission to use reason?) In any case, because of this nod to “reason,” I thought perhaps you were implying that faith is simply an application of justified belief; a corollary to reason.

However, reading your other statements about faith, it became clear to me that you DO in fact set the concept of faith as something separate and apart from reason. Let me highlight a few examples of other places where you applied the word:

“But if we could prove the existence of God, we wouldn’t have to have faith.”

(Clearly, you are setting faith in opposition to the notion of coming up with some kind of objective demonstration of the reality of God.)

“God is that which is greater than that which we can know. It’s almost by very definition what we mean when we say God. And if we could know Him, we wouldn’t love Him. Faith is required for a relationship between the Creator and His creatures.”

(In other words, by saying that if we have faith in God, we are explicitly ruling out the possibility that we can actually know God.)

When I look at your response from this perspective, what I get from your declaration of faith is the following: You think we cannot prove anything, even in a conventional sense; we cannot know anything; we cannot claim objective certainty of anything except through the subjective lens of our own fallible human minds. Therefore, we might as well just treat the things we fervently believe as “True.” So tell me, how is this not the essence of post-modernism boiled down to its purest form?

What’s interesting is that when it suits your purpose, you freely use the term “faith” as a pejorative, again in the sense of “belief without evidence,” as long as it can apply to those with whom you disagree. For instance, when you speak of Darwin, you say this:

“Yet on the basis of naturalistic presuppositions—a faith position—he had to make this argument, and scientists who share that faith position must also support it.”

So you ridicule Darwin’s scientific conclusions as “a faith position,” yet elsewhere you have repeatedly said that faith is the most important thing there is. I mean, really, it’s right there in the title of your book. This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about disting
uishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?

To return to the original theme that I touched upon when I discussed your book, the main difference between your position and mine appears to be that you have chosen to take a position of unwavering certainty, and then you describe that as knowledge. But it’s a highly subjective kind of knowledge, for your central point is that knowledge begins with something that (you acknowledge) you have arbitrarily decided to believe without reason. So again, if you’re going to take that point of view, I don’t see a useful way to distinguish your faith from the faith of a Muslim, a Mormon, a Wiccan, or a Jehovah’s Witness – all of whom stand on faith-based principles with which I am sure you disagree.

I wish to turn now to your third message, in which you attempted to justify this style of faith. You say:

“I started thinking about your comment about my being so certain in my convictions that I came across as somewhat arrogant. I think you’re probably right. And the reason, I realized as I was thinking about it, is that I have spent much time over the years pondering this question rationally.”

“I suddenly realized I did have a good ability to think. And ever since then I have really enjoyed the life of the mind. But I do apologize if I’ve come across as arrogant. I have nothing to be arrogant about; whatever good I have done is a gift from God.”

I don’t begrudge you the confidence in your own abilities. I too have spent a lot of time considering these issues, and I have a similar high opinion of myself – I’m confident that what I think is probably right because I’ve already given it a lot of thought. Both of us hold inherently subjective opinions, but we are basing them to some extent on our own past experience, which is certainly one component of reason, and hence a step in the direction of objectivity.

So if you are confident in your own mind that your position is the right one, then that’s great; enjoy your certainty. If your only goal in writing your book is to “preach to the choir,” then by all means, just tell your audience that you know you are right from experience, and they’ll probably believe you.

But I was under the impression that you wrote your book at least partly in order to persuade unbelievers like myself that your position is correct. I recognize that you would like to help me get saved from the fire and damnation that you feel certain is in store for me. Unfortunately, I need to point out that merely stating “I know it is true because I am thoughtful and intelligent” doesn’t really achieve that goal. Instead, it is an obvious effort to set yourself up as an authority by fiat: “You should believe this because I believe it, and I must be right.”

If I were to accept this sort of rhetorical tactic, I would be basing my beliefs on something truly subjective. Either I just agree to accept you (or somebody else) as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, or I accept everybody’s beliefs as equally valid, even contradictory beliefs. Neither reaction strikes me as a satisfying approach to knowledge.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    dhawk

    “This leads me to wonder: how do you, Chuck, go about distinguishing which kind of faith is worth supporting, and which kind is ridiculous?”This is the crux of the matter. If he responds to nothing else in your entry, he should respond to this.

  2. 2
    Franco

    Dollars to doughnuts he says he knows his faith is justified because the evidence supports it.Double points if he claims to have “studied all the alternative world views and came to the conclusion that Christianity is the only one that makes rational sense.”I love how if you ask an apologist about evidence, they start talking about faith. And if you ask about faith they talk about evidence.

  3. 3
    Doom03

    I agree with dhawk; Chuck continues to use the excuse that when he has faith in something, it is good and justified, and then turns around and says that trust in science is a bad type of faith. He is trying to play both sides and is really saying absolutely nothing substantial.

  4. 4
    John Stabler

    Renacier:Your comment is utterly depressing in its truthfullness. He is further evidence that theists have nothing to contribute to intelligent discussion apart from circular reasoning, bias and logical fallacies.Doom3:You are correct in identifying that he has nothing substantial to say. I too noticed that he honestly believes that his faith has more value than anything science has to offer.Although I would never use it as an argument, I believe science has benefited mankind exponentially more in the last 100 years than religion.

  5. 5
    Kingasaurus

    Russell, I don’t think Chuck would ever say everyone’s faith is “true for them” in some postmodernist sense.I’m certain he thinks the Capital-T Truth has been revealed to Christians through faith, and anyone who has similar faith in anything else is either making a fallible human error or is the victim of a Satanic deception.Trying to pigeonhole him the way you did won’t work. Best to just mention that his ideas (the way I’ve just described them) are just an unfalsifiable assertion that any faith-based worldview can make, no matter what their beliefs.There’s no way to tell the difference between faith in something that’s real and faith in something that isn’t. They look completely identical, and you therefore need to appeal to some other method independent of faith to make your decision. Chuck won’t agree with that, but that’s a reflection of his blinkered fundamentalism. No way around that, I’m afraid.Anyone telling Chuck his “personal experience” in his driveway which led him to Jesus was a mistake will simply hit a brick wall. That’s the way it is with these people. Once they have an emotional, “transcendent” experience of any kind, you can almost never convince them that their interpretation of that experience was faulty.Chuck isn’t a Christian because he found the Bible especially compelling. Everything followed from that experience in his driveway, and the fact that – in his own mind – he can’t possibly be wrong about what it meant.

  6. 6
    Kazim

    Russell, I don’t think Chuck would ever say everyone’s faith is “true for them” in some postmodernist sense.Well, no he doesn’t. Chuck believes that CHUCK’S faith is “true for him,” and everybody else’s is wrong. But I think he ought to defend where this certainty comes from, because if it’s just “my faith” then it’s no better than believing whatever feels good. Especially if he insists on holding onto this position that there can be no proof of anything.

  7. 7
    Kingasaurus

    Well, one problem with these people is that the twist the idea of human fallibility for their own purposes.They insist scientists are fallible because they don’t like the conclusions. In the same breath, they consider themselves fallible because part of their dogma is that they, and everyone else, is a worthless sinner.I’m fine so far with the idea that everyone is imperfect and can make mistakes, but they then immediately turn around and claim the subjective, emotional, so-called revelatory experience they had – including their own human interpretation of what it means – CAN’T BE WRONG. This is really messed up.They’ll always say “I’m capable of being wrong because I’m human,” then turn around and say “I can’t possibly be wrong about this time in my life when I was convinced a god revealed himself to me in a subjective manner.”Weird.

  8. 8
    Ai Deng

    Faith in FaithSo often under the guided hand of theists the word faith is twisted, convoluted, and contorted with the end result being to either fit the arguments of the conductor or lead the audience astray. Can we not get some concensus on the definition of a word? Faith is ‘firm belief in something for which there is no proof’, so if Chuck Colson justifies his faith via an indication that there exists some evidence which supports it, then tell him ‘Yours is not faith!’ In the end, any evidence for faith is going to turn out to be evidence taken on faith in the first place, and deemed evidentiary to give it a false sense of rationality.

  9. 9
    Coralbee

    Russell,I thought the concensus of the replies to your request for whether or not you should answer Colson’s posts singlely or collectively was to collect all your replies and send them all at once. Apparently, you decided to go at him a bit at a time. Anyway, I was wondering if you plan to respond to a few of the statements he made in his #2 response to you in the following paragraph: “But the fact-value distinction is false. All thought begins with faith. All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions. These by necessity are made without evidence and have to be taken on faith. The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith.”I think this paragraph is a logic abomination. “All thoughts begin with faith”??? Where does this idea come from? “All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions.”??? On what basis can he say this? The statements that follow aren’t valid conclusions.To me this paragraph is only one example of his illogical reasoning that is based on false premises. I wish you luck in your future responses to him. I have a feeling you’re going to need it.

  10. 10
    Ai Deng

    Kingasaurus,I kinda liked that last point you made. In a court setting it would sound something like “Ok, we’ve already established that you are an unreliable witness, so how is the jury to reconcile this with your faith based claims of absolute certainty?”

  11. 11
    Kazim

    Coralbee, I AM going to hold off on sending them to Chuck. I’m just writing them out a post at a time, but I’m not going to alert Chuck or his liaison that I’m writing replies until after I’m done with all of them, at which point I will collect all the messages into one long post.Regarding this “logic abomination” — we’re talking about epistemological systems here. Chuck’s outlined his, and I don’t know if I can get anywhere useful by saying “That’s not how it works.” That’s why I decided to go with this approach of identifying this philosophy with post-modernism, since I already know he will prefer to avoid being branded that way.Maybe it’s not a good idea to explain myself further on this post when Chuck hasn’t read it yet :)

  12. 12
    cipher

    Double points if he claims to have “studied all the alternative world views and came to the conclusion that Christianity is the only one that makes rational sense.”This is, indeed, most likely what he’d say. Some months ago, I found an article he wrote on Zondervan’s blog, in which he made the most abysmally stupid remark about Asian religions; something about their conceptualization of the self, as I recall. In any case, he demonstrated that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I left a comment addressed to the Zondervan editors – something along the lines of “He’s making all of you look like damn fools”. The Zondervan editors asked me, condescendingly, which part of the article I disagreed with (even though I had already made it clear) – in other words, which part was I too ignorant and/or mired in sin to understand? I didn’t bother to respond.This is the man who ignores the evidence that his prison program doesn’t get the results he claims it does, and labels everyone who disagrees with his methods a “God-hater”. He’s nothing more than an authoritarian addict who has exchanged an addiction to one authority figure – Nixon – for an addiction to another – God – and he’s convinced that, as a result of this “transformation”, he’s somehow privy to THE TRUTH™. And, yes, I agree with those of you who are saying he’ll find some way to weasel out of the subjective vs. objective corner into which he’s painted himself – if he bothers to respond at all. The constantly shifting line in the sand is the fundie’s stock-in-trade. Can you say “cognitive dissonance is our friend”, boys and girls?Kazim, again – far be it from me to tell you what to do, but I’m opposed to empowering these people by so much as attempting even to engage them in dialogue. I agree with Gould; I fear it validates them by implication.Young, progressive evangelicals keep saying that people like Colson represent the “old guard” that’s passing away, to which I can only reply “WHEN?”

  13. 13
    Thomas

    Coralbee I think this paragraph is a logic abomination. “All thoughts begin with faith”??? Where does this idea come from? “All intellectual inquiry begins with certain presuppositions.”??? On what basis can he say this? The statements that follow aren’t valid conclusions.I think he was saying that we are constantly assuming things. We assume that we are not living in the Matrix, that the world is not a hallucination, that your senses can be trusted to relay evidence to you, and that evidence was not magically conjured up to mislead us.Those are assumptions, but he is making a greater assumption by picking and choosing which parts of reality to acknowledge, which parts to ignore, and choosing to believe in an alternate reality (Heaven, God, etc) that is not supported by any evidence, at all.

  14. 14
    cipher

    Those are assumptions, but he is making a greater assumption by picking and choosing which parts of reality to acknowledge, which parts to ignore, and choosing to believe in an alternate reality (Heaven, God, etc) that is not supported by any evidence, at all.Yeah, it really is a game of “My delusion is better than/morally superior to your delusion.” Then, of course, Pascal’s Wager kicks in.

  15. 15
    Kazim

    First: I agree with everyone who says that Chuck will not be swayed, and that he will find some justification for his statements.Second, to acknowledge Cipher’s recurring theme: I wish you would explain exactly how I, personally, can “empower” Chuck Colson by chatting with him. The man has a freakin’ MEDIA EMPIRE. He had meetings with the previous president. He probably gets millions in donations.What kind of cred am I going to confer on him? I’m a software developer who’s not even making six figures (yet). I’m some blogger, and I appear once a month on a cable access TV show. How is this little dialog supposed to play into some grand scheme of his?

  16. 16
    cipher

    Kazim,You’re right, of course, in that there’s nothing you can say that’s going to affect this man one way or another.I’m against engaging in dialogue with Christian fundamentalists as a group (or making the attempt; they really don’t understand the concept of dialogue). I’ve come to feel the only way to stop their furious efforts to appropriate reality is to marginalize them, literally to drive them back into the margins of society where they festered for decades after the Scopes trial, until their leadership got them all worked up in the seventies and eighties. To try to bring them to the table, as liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren want to do, is to invite disaster, as they believe they have a God-given mandate to commandeer the whole process. If you offer them a cookie, they’ll grab the whole jar and tell you it was God’s will.Plus, as I’ve made clear – for me, it’s personal. I hate the bastards.But, if you think having this exchange is useful in that it may be seen by a few theists who aren’t total frakking assholes, and who, as a result, may come away with a more positive view of atheists – have at it. I’ve had my rant, and I’ll shut up now.

  17. 17
    Alexandra

    This message was sent via the contact form on the ACA website:In the past years creationist organizations are pumping in a lot ofmoney to deceive a not so gifted intellectual American public.www.creationiststoday.com shows the outrages stupidity of creationists, it simply brings a mocking atmosphere to them(exactly what theydeserve).What I’m asking is to exchange links/banners on each others website. Apermanent free ad on each others site.example: http://creationiststoday.com/node/47Have a delusion free day. Alexandra

  18. 18
    DagoRed

    What I found particularly remarkable about this claim was that it almost perfectly echoes claims by the very same post-modernist movement that you have so often decried.Despite Kingasaurus’ objection, I absolutely adored this part! I have come to this exact conclusion myself about many evangelicals. I have long thought that, despite many Evangelicals open disdain for Postmodernism, they seem to be de facto Postmodernist themselves. How can someone assert faith over evidence without being Postmodern? (that is almost a definition for Postmodern in a way). The 800 lb gorilla I believe is that Colson is an “objective-supernaturalist” and only a “material-Postmodernist” while most atheists are the opposite — “supernatural-Postmodernists” while being “objective materialists.” (I ask forgiveness for the buzzword blizzard there).At any rate — it’s about time someone throw the Postmodernism label at the theists and see how they chew on that.

  19. 19
    tracieh

    >"The idea that evidence is superior to faith as a root to knowledge is one of those presuppositions: it is unproven and non-provable. So it must be taken as a priori; that is, prior to experience, or in other words, on faith." (quote from Colson)Am I reading this right? Maybe I need to check context here or something, but this sounds like utter rubbish.From the moment an infant attempts to take its first faultering steps, and fails–it learns this is wholly untrue. Hit the ground with your head, and you find that evidence is something you not only should, but generally _must_ give credence to. There is an old saying: "He who does not answer to the rudder will answer to the rocks."Seriously–try living your life disregarding evidence, and going on nice ideas you feel good about that are unsupported by reason and evidence. Come back in a year and let me know how that worked out for you. "Unproven and unprovable"? Any three year old can figure it out–so why can't theists?

  20. 20
    DagoRed

    I hadn’t read that quote Tracie sited above too carefully the first time through (Colson’s inanity is mind numbing at times). But in reading Tracie’s re-interpretation, it donned on me that Colson is actually defining himself as a Fideist in this quote. Returning to your (Russell’s) Postmodernism argument, perhaps one of the biggest subscribers to Fideism was Søren Kierkegaard, who is considered the ‘father of existentialism’ by many, and whose ideas were highly influential to the Postmodern movement itself…so here is a legitimate and concrete historical example where Colson’s way of thinking leads to Postmodernism itself. You may want to ask Colson how his idea regarding faith over evidence — which actually lead to the likes of Kierkegaard to create existentialism and others to create Postmodernism — is somehow not going down this exact same path.

  21. 21
    Doom03

    Tracie,I agree with you 100% and I even think you are giving Colson too much credit with his statement, which at its heart is a bunch of non-sense strung together and then tied with the bow of “see how faith presupposes everything and thus it is more important than evidence.” There is no chicken and egg of evidence and faith. To go with your baby analogy. A baby is not born with an infinite number of faith beliefs about the nature of the world, such as, “If I move to the table, I will go through it, bang into it, explode it, eat it, whatever.” There is no THEORY put forward from the baby via its relationship to the table, because the baby has no conception of the table with any reference to anything else it knows. All it knows is that it sees something and it is getting bigger.I am just reminded of the whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide (writing this from memory so I apologize if the details aren’t correct) that was created by the Heart of Gold, its only existence comprised of it falling from high up and splattering on the nearest planet. Much like my baby analogy, it only defines its existence through its immediate senses (which I can safely say does not need to be taken as faith 99% of the time) and pretty much has the time to define air as something whipping past it incredibly fast and the ground as what he can see getting bigger just as fast. The whale does not deify or take anything around him on faith. It is there and he does not define things until his senses interact with it in some fashion, i.e. evidence.(Oh, and I believe the whale DID take on faith that the ground was moving toward him and NOT that he was, in fact, falling. His own isolated existence made him believe something INCORRECT based on faith. Oops!)From the baby to the whale, everything else is a void until the information is presented to us and our brain process that information. Colson didn’t CHOOSE to have faith, he was instructed to have faith by people older than him as the best and only way to live your life. It is only after people question his faith that he finds any need to defend it and give bullshit reasons for its existence. He wasn’t born with faith, it was drilled into him. His attempt at likening faith to a priori is pathetic.He pwned himself.

  22. 22
    cipher

    I don’t know that Colson was indoctrinated as a child – any more than the general population was at that time. I see him as one of Altemeyer’s authoritarians. He was heavily invested in one authority figure – Nixon – who let him down, he experienced a crisis, invested in another authority figure – God – and protects that investment at all costs. It’s a form of addiction.

  23. 23
    Doom03

    I didn’t care to research into him, but the sentiment is still the same…maybe even worse.

  24. 24
    Kingasaurus

    If Chuck had a similar position of authority in a Muslim culture instead of a majority Christian one, let’s just say it’s highly unlikely that his transcendental driveway experience would have been interpreted as Jesus trying to talk to him.This is totally obvious to people outside of faith, yet it almost never gives the people on the inside a moment’s pause about the supposed rightness of the path they’ve chosen.

  25. 25
    Doom03

    Indeed, people in our country tend to not see Shiva on pieces of toast and people in Turkey do not see Mary on trees. The more prominent the religion in a country (Mexico for example), the more likely pareidolia will set in for everyday, natural occurrences.

  26. 26
    Keruso

    Kaz, well done for having the “patience of a saint” to reply to such a knob-Jockey. However I think your great mind is wasted when diverted to deal with such vaporous nonsense spouted by Colson. After all how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could Chuck Colson? …None of it.

  27. 27
    Searching

    I think it is possible to believe in truth (scientific and spiritual) without assuming that one’s understanding of that truth is absolutely correct. I don’t think that makes you post-modern, just imperfect. However, a person’s misunderstanding of the item or fact does not change the reality of the misunderstood item. It was mentioned that the radical muslim believes that he will receive 72 virgins post martyrdom – and since Colson disagrees, it’s all just subjective or even post-modernity. However, no matter who believes what about the muslim man’s destiny, he will either receive the 72 virgins or he won’t – it can’t be both. That’s the objective reality behind the subjective banter.I think some of you are quick to paint all theists with the same broad brush… just as you wouldn’t like to get lumped and stereotyped by the actions of a few with atheistic worldviews, I’m not convinced that Colson fits every preconceived notion…I just appreciate getting your take on these things… thanks for letting me in on your discussion.

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