The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy and Faith by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp

The somewhat young, not entirely mild mannered, and yet wildly attractive lads over at Homebrewed Christianity were gracious enough to invite me to participate in their blog-tour for Philip Clayton’s new book The Predicament of Belief. This is my post for the blog tour and if you’d like to hear the conversation that insued at Clayton’s house afterwards look no further than right here.

If your unfamiliar with Clayton’s work his introduction to emergent evolution and spirituality found here is worth a watch, or you can just read the review of his and Knapp’s book below. It is my hope that it inspires you to read the book in its entirety.

Paul Ricoeur famously said that his Christianity was a, “contingency transformed into destiny through continued choice.” The fact that he was born into a social location that bequeathed to him his Christianity was a contingent event of history. He could have just as easily been born in India and thus have been a Hindu. However, he made a choice, a decision to live into and live out of his tradition and in doing so it became a part of him and he a part of it. For Ricoeur we lack a criterion by which we can definitively ascertain whether our contingent religious choices are correct or not. This doesn’t mean that there is no investigation into the plausibility of them, but rather that any investigation will necessarily start from and in important ways remain within the throwness of our particular, contingent existence. Ultimately, for Ricoeur, the religious decision comes down to a wager, even if an informed one. I agree with Ricoeur, but I am always curious as to how informed this wager can be.

If you’ve ever found yourself curious in a similar fashion then Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp’s wonderful, accessible, and insightful book The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy and Faith is a great place to start. Beginning with both their commitment to the Christian tradition and their belief that contemporary science grants us reliable access to the physical universe, as well as the reality of religious pluralism they attempt to “seek out the most plausible version of Christian theism that is still consistent with what (they) take to be the tradition’s core commitments.” (24)

Why is this important now? According to their analysis there are five main reasons to doubt the legitimacy of one’s Christian (or religious) commitments in the contemporary world. The first is the immense, and immensely impressive, progress of science over the last couple of centuries. Science proceeds with the methodological naturalistic assumption: whatever happens one can find a natural explanation – that often slips into a metaphysical assumption. Further, the understanding of the universe made possible by the progress of science, coupled with the problem of evil, makes belief in miracles highly suspect.

Before preceding to the other four a brief digression is in order. I like this book… a lot!. There are a lot of reasons, but the most important is that it was written for me. What do I mean to convey here if not narcissistic delusion. Well, for one, being a rational agent myself “I want to know just how far I can go in justifying my beliefs and actions before I conclude that the project of rational justification has run its course and nothing is left but mystery.” (80-81) In addition, while I’m definitely not closed to the possibility of a (to use their nomenclature) not-less-than-personal Ultimate Reality (46), I often find myself wondering if my distinctively Christian belief is plausible in an “age of science and religious pluralism”. (24) Put differently, I often ask myself if I’m f-ing crazy for believing in some of the stuff that I believe in. Thus, it is delightful to encounter an incredibly clear, rigorous and analytical exposition of the problems confronting contemporary belief coupled with an attempt to address them. That being said I do have some issues, or at least some questions one of which will be addressed below, but first back to the challenges confronting faith.

Lets do this as quickly as possible so we can get to the delectable conflict. The second challenge is the classic problem of theodicy: if God is good, and by (the classical) definition all powerful, then why is their so much suffering in the world? Clayton and Knapp are right to point out that this problem has both an intellectual and emotional impact. (8-9) Their analysis of the third problem, religious pluralism, is one of the most compelling that I have read. It is often, and rightly, pointed out that Christianity began in a land of religious pluralism. The inference that the conservative draws from this is that religious plurality in the contemporary era should not be a problem. Clayton and Knapp’s diagnosis (10-11, 69-78) suggests otherwise, and I believe that it is right on target in doing so.

The fourth problem revolves around the reliability of the historical record-testimony concerning the particularity of Jesus Christ. Issues of historical accuracy, canonization, heterodox writings, and even the differing accounts within Scripture are addressed. While this section takes up a large portion of the book, it is by my personal and limited opinion the weakest section. This is not to say that it is not worth reading, but when compared to the elegance, breadth, and clarity of other sections (“The nonlawlike nature of the mental” section, pgs. 53-59, alone makes the book worth purchasing) one is left wanting more.

The last problem concerns the claim of the resurrection. The issue is complicated and depends on more than just the plausibility of a miraculous in breaking of divine power enabling Jesus physical resurrection. However, if it is decided in advance that this miraculous in breaking is implausible, if not entirely impossible, then the other questions become mute. In light of the fact that by the time Clayton and Knapp get to this question they have already decided that the type of miraculous in breaking that the resurrection would require is out of the realm of possibilities it is worth asking how they got here. What we will see is that this revolves around one of my biggest problems/questions with the book.

Clayton and Knapp argue that God cannot intervene even once in the physical universe. They present two reasons for this. (52) The first is that a high degree of regularity is required for the evolutionary development of rational agents. (47-50) The second is the claim that if God intervened to cease suffering even once he would be ethically obligated to intervene at all times. (50-52) There is both a metaphysical and an ethical dimension to this double sided claim. The metaphysical dimension revolves around the fact that the autonomy of the universe is dependent on its actual development apart from (though in some way within, language runs into a challenge here, especially if the universe is conceived panentheistically as Clayton and Knapp conceive it) God. (50) The ethical dimension, necessarily and dialectically intertwined with the metaphysical one, is that God’s understanding of suffering is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from human understandings. As they suggest, “God sees… a vast continuum of suffering far more pervasive, intense, and immediate in its need for relied than we could ever allow ourselves to appreciate.” (51) In light of this, they suggest that a benevolent God would have to intervene at all times, destroying the regularity of the universe, if (s)he were to intervene even once.

Now I think that it is possible to challenge this not-even-once principle. There may be reasons for God to highly limit her interventions, such as the evolutionary development of rational agents, and for her to be ethically justified in doing so in ways that do not nullify her benevolence. To simply throw this out as a possibility seems a bit disingenuous to the massive theological work that has been carried out in this arena. However, my objection comes from an entirely different trajectory.

It is my firm belief that the question of theodicy, as least as it has been posed since modernity and as Clayton and Knapp pose it, is the wrong question according to the Christian tradition. Since modernity philosophers have posed the question skeptically, that is as a way of questioning God’s existence. This is in contrast to the way it is posed in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. In the Biblical account the question is posed relationally. What I mean by this is that it is posed in a way that assumes God’s existence and indeed his concerned presence in the life of a people and even in the life of individuals.

We can call it the WTF question.

It goes something like this, “WTF YHWH!!! Where the hell are you in the midst of my pain, in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of this incredibly messed up world? You claim to be good. You claim to be powerful. You claim to be caring, but all your claims appear to me to be a bunch of bullocks because from where I’m standing you couldn’t be more absent, more unfaithful, more uncaring.” Or it might sound like this, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”. (Mark 15:33)

Through the Psalms, Lamentations, the book of Job, and most definitively on the cross, where as Slavoj Zizek reminds us Jesus becomes the second Job, the response to suffering is not metaphysical maneuvering that attempts to get God got off of the proverbial hook, but accusation, lamentation and wrestling. Indeed, the only Christian response to suffering is the cross: in the cross God takes responsibility for the brokenness of her creation and enters, personally, physically, and psychologically into its (our) suffering.

Now, this gets into a whole mess of methodological and disciplinary issues: are Clayton and Knapp doing theology, which I would argue should eschew the modern theodicy question, or analytic philosophy of religion, which has a place for it? It seems to me that they are, for the most part, doing the later. However, when so much weighs on this question (their commitment to the not-even-once principle leads them to reject the physical resurrection among other important Christian doctrines) it is worth asking if the way that Clayton and Knapp have posed it is proper for the inquiry they wish to carry out.

I want to be clear about what I am not saying. On page 138 Clayton and Knapp claim that the case of one who affirms in faith that God has his reasons for allowing suffering is a, “Job-like response (that) is often presented as the only acceptable Christian answer: God sometimes intervenes and sometimes doesn’t, and faith requires that one not ask any further questions.” I am not claiming that we should stop questioning – it would be hard to get any further from what I am after – and I think it is a pretty bad reading of Job that would lead to this type of claim. In fact, the type of questioning that Clayton and Knapp carry out may be the very type of wrestling that is deeply faithful and appropriate. What I am nervous about is the theodicy question, as it is often posed, as a whole: I have never seen an intellectually or existentially compelling answer (Clayton and Knapp’s included) and am thus skeptical to whether or not there is one, and from the perspective of Christian discourse, which I admit is not uniform but is highly multifaceted, I am not convinced it’s the right question.

Nevertheless, the book as a whole is an exceptional peace of analytical, theological and metaphysical labor and well worth the time it takes to get through its 158 (including the preface) pages. Clayton and Knapp’s labor of love is a welcome contribution to the intellectual questioning of human reason. It is one that deserves a wide readership, one that will likely lead all who read it – theist, atheist, or agnostic – to a beneficial and rewarding intellectual wrestling, and one that has helped me to continue (for now at least) to affirm my contingently chosen destiny.

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