According to Hebrews, it is by faith that we understand. And of course, if Christianity is actually true, that understanding requires knowledge of the invisible. By faith we know who God is, the truth that He created all things in the beginning and will judge all things in the future, and even present unseen realities like our union with Christ, our nature as Image of God, and the moral order. These invisible realities and their interconnections are at the heart of Christianity. Faith, therefore, is necessary for grasping the Christian vision of the world: it is by faith that we understand reality as it really is.
The things I love deeply are also the things that irk me most easily. And most profoundly. This makes sense: when we love, we care. (Likewise, indifference breeds apathy.) For nerds like me, this applies especially to books.
Let me first say that I love Luc Ferry’s little gem A Brief History of Thought. It’s a gem because it succinctly if simplistically traces through the whole history of the Western intellectual tradition by articulating four major epochs; and it does this by charting the ligaments between metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. So, so helpful.
But as this is the internet, we must race past vague, general praise toward concrete, specific, detailed, brash criticism.
Allow me, dear reader, to explain what irks me about Ferry’s book. Ferry thinks of philosophy as an attempt to construct a theory of salvation without recourse to divine revelation. In religious traditions, the divine brings salvation to humanity. In philosophical traditions, humanity seeks salvation on its own. In the introduction, Ferry puts it this way: “Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far as our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith.” (p. 6) I happen to think this is an unhelpful way to differentiate religion and philosophy, but what really irks me is that word ‘blind’…
Ferry is, of course, not alone in insinuating that religious faith is an agent of blindness, that to have faith is to shut oneself off from some aspect of reality, that faith requires persistent belief without evidence or even in the fact of evidence to the contrary. Both outside the church and, more troublingly, inside, Christians are often told that the claims they are meant to hold most dear, the claims they ought to order their lives around, are either irrational or, at best, a-rational. Anyway, the central, credal claims of Christians throughout history aren’t subject to the sort of careful, reasoned investigation that, in the physical universe known to humanity, only humans can undertake. We must simply believe.
1. Seeing the Invisible
The Scriptures paint a different picture of faith’s relationship to sight.
In the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul connects faith in God to Christians’ ability to suffer well. He writes:
For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. … Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believe, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. … So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. … So we are always of good courage. … [F]or we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 4:6-10, 13-14, 16-18; 5:6a, 7)
Notice that Paul runs headlong into a connection between faith and knowledge: we believe by faith, and so speak, because we know we will be raised. This connection between faith and knowing, which is not unique to Paul, eliminates the idea that faith is opposed to knowing, and therefore to reasonable belief. Notice that Paul includes the faith-sight contrast in this very context. In whatever sense faith is opposed to sight, faith simply is not opposed to knowledge.
We can go further.
The author of Hebrews toys with the idea of knowing by faith through seeing the unseen as well. Moses is said to have endured the wrath of Pharaoh “as seeing him [that is, God] who is invisible”. (11:23) Moses looked to his unseen future reward. (11:22)
Hebrews goes beyond Paul: “By faith we understand”, it says. (11:3) The things understood are themselves invisible: the creation of the world by the Word, the promises of God fulfilled, Jesus seated at the right hand of God. This goes further than mere knowledge because understanding requires knowledge but is more than knowledge. Understanding is knowledge organized and applied. To understand is to systematize what you know and be able to utilize that knowledge in the right circumstances.
2. Understanding by Faith
In the context of religion—or, more broadly, any perspective on the whole of reality—understanding involves not just knowledge of certain religious facts, but the systematization of those facts.