Sunday, April 02, 2006

An Appreciation of Faith Seeking Understanding

I have come across a few books on philosophy and theology for the past few years. There were some philosophers who actually argued about the nature of God without the Bible or what we called the special revelation. One of them by the name of Plato (427 BC–347 BC) theorized that there is a world of Form from which everything in this world is made of. The natures of goodness, beauty, truth are all pointing to the world of Form. He uses an allegory of a group of prisoners bounded in a cave who were facing away from the Sun and who could see only their shadows and the shadows of the objects outside the cave being projected on the wall. One day, one of the prisoners managed to break free and ventured out in the world and discovered that the shadows formed were actually due to the Sun and he could see everything in the world as they are. Plato used this allegory to illustrate that we are actually the prisoner in the cave and the real world is the Form from which we are made of. Then Aristotle (384 BC –322 BC), another Greek philosopher, deduced that there has to be an Unmoved mover that is the first cause of movements in the world.

Eventually when Christianity spread in the Roman Empire, some Christians borrowed the concept of Form and Unmoved mover to fit the concept of God. In the medieval age, Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033- 1109) used Platonism concept to describe God as a Being which there is no greater being we can ever conceive. Then came along Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who merged Aristotle’s philosophy and Christian theology. He also pointed out that our language is inadequate in describing God. He correctly emphasized that our language essentially divides the world up into parts and categories of things. For e.g.: when you say `This fruit is orange in colour', you are picking out a class of things — fruit — a class of colours, of which orange is one, and saying that there is an object which possesses the properties of being a fruit and being orange. Essentially, we are dividing the world up into objects and lists of properties which objects may or may not possess in our language. In conclusion, our language just does not fit God; it is quite inadequate to the task of describing God. So, we use analogy when describing God. This is termed as the doctrine of analogy. Many people misunderstand that God really is something like people or partners or things we can imagine, whereas in fact what Thomas Aquinas was saying is that God is nothing like anything we can imagine. His doctrine of analogy says that, though God is not like what we think, it is correct for us to speak of God as good and wise and, if not actually a husband, does relate to us as a really good husband should. On the other hand, these things are not true of God in the sense that we understand them.

Saint Thomas Aquinas has changed the way that I should understand God. Then when I continue to read more on philosophy, even my concept of God was shattered by a philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He advanced the theory that our sensory organs can only be used to assess data in our time and space dimensions. Just like a camera is used to record pictures, not to be used to listen to a radio. When we received data, we processed it within our framework and concept which are bounded to time and space. Therefore, when we try to process data which is beyond our dimension, it is essentially impossible. Hence, no one can prove that the God which transcends our dimension exists and neither can any one prove that God does not exist. Even when we received the data, we are receiving it in the form of phenomena. The real form is what he called noumena. This means we may never know the noumena. It is just like when we are wearing red-coloured lenses, we will always see things in red. Our concept inherent within us is the lenses we are wearing in the interpretation of data. However, he argued that the concept of God is still necessary for moral reasons.

Because of his theory, I was stupefied and started to question how I can know God and whether it is valid to speak of God, even if by analogy. My faith in God was shaken. At that point, I am still convinced that Jesus Christ has incarnated in flesh and has died for our sins partly because of the overwhelming evidences I knew from some apologetics books (e.g. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft). At that point, I have already rejected the classical arguments for Christian God. E.g. the design in this world might point to a grand designer, but it is not the Christian God. Even the argument using design is debatable from an evolution point of view. The argument of existing for a purpose or designed with a need for eternity advocated by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity also does not lead to the Christian God.

I realized that I can only come to know the Christian God through the Bible. I was reminded of a story told by an Enlightenment philosopher of a father who had a ring but had three sons. In order not to disappoint the sons, he fabricated two other rings and gave the three rings individually to each son and convinced them that they had the real ring. In the end, the three sons believed that they each had the real ring and they lived happily so long as they continue to believe so. Could the Bible be fabricated by people who believe in a supernatural being and behaved as though it is true? Is it valid if the Bible authenticates itself as the word of God? I was trapped in an intense agony and doubts for about two weeks in the month of January.

Thank God that I have a chance to converse with a preacher during a brother-in-Christ’s wedding. He reminded me that Christian faith is ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’. I believe in order to understand. We have to accept by faith that our Bible is indeed inspired word of God. Later on, when I read a book by the name of Systematic Theology by Millard Erickson, he highlighted that there are many things which even the scientists have to take on by faith. For e.g. they have to believe that the data they perceived is speaking of the real world, i.e. the phenomena is the noumena. Erickson went on to illustrate why we can accept Bible as the word of God and how mistaken Immanuel Kant was when he assumed that the God who transcends our dimensions could not communicate to us.

Gradually, I started to realize that our Christian faith’s starting point has to be based on faith. We have to believe that our Bible is indeed and truly God-breathed word (from 2Tim 3:16, NIV) and from there we can believe that our God is indeed who He said He is and that He has revealed Himself in our human history. We can never know this God through our own concepts and means. Our Christian God is neither the god of the philosophers (just to echo Pascal's sentiment) nor the god who exists in abstract concept. He is the God with feelings, who has a relationship with us and who transcends our time and space dimensions. It is valid to talk about God because He has revealed Himself to us and the greatest revelation is through Jesus Christ.

Indeed, our faith is ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’ and I am starting to appreciate it.


The Hedonese said...

:) Amen! Faith seeks and needs understanding... There is some discussion abt whether Anselm really seeks to 'prove' God's existence deductively. Karl Barth, for example, argues that Anselm starts from faith and prayer, and pursues understanding from that starting point.

In any case, Erickson and Grudem are two reformed theologians who are 'presuppositional', following in the tradition of Van Til, Frame, Bahnsen etc.. that the Bible is the starting point and criterion for truth.

I think their strength is in not allowing christian theology to be domesticated by the current fad in science or philosophy... yet I feel Christian theology oughta be bold enuff to make its claims in the public square.

David said...

Faith Preceeds Understanding (reason), this also what I have learned of the reformed Faith. Nevertheless after reading 1) John Frame apologetic for Glory of God and 2)Doctrine fo The knowledge of God. I learnt that reason which is after faith is "a reasonable one" It is rational and based on the promises and attributes of God. Hence I will say that it is not a blind faith. Faith vs Reason, based on Rev Stephen Tong, our belief is supra rational. And God Words governs of rational, emotional and will. God bless your learning.