Ash Wednesday Reflection: The Soul of Faith

Meditations. Ash Wednesday.
Meditations. Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About four years ago I was at a conference for the Evangelical Philosophical Society, a parallel group to the Society of Christian Philosophers that meets in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society.  If I’ve already lost you in the maze of religious studies academia, my sincerest apologies.  Suffice it to say, this is a group of evangelical scholars who study philosophy and get together every year to “nerd out” over their latest research.

At this particular meeting, William Lane Craig was speaking.  Craig is a giant in the world of evangelical philosophy, an apologist for the evangelical faith par excellence.  So when he speaks at a conference like this, the room fills up.

At the time I was a young student of philosophy at Southeastern Bible College, an evangelical school in Birmingham, Alabama, and so of course I wandered into this lecture and found a spot in the packed hall sitting on the floor near the back.

After the lecture there was question and answer time.

What you need to know is that as incredibly popular among evangelicals as Craig is, he’s also a tad controversial, the reason being that he is also an Arminian.  Which means that William Lane Craig, perhaps the most vocal defender of the evangelical faith, believes in human free will, not a point to be taken for granted in evangelical theology.

Craig defends his belief in human free-will through a pretty complicated theory known as Molinism which hinges on an equally complex idea called middle knowledge.  To put it in as basic of terms as I know how, middle knowledge refers to knowledge of possibilities instead of actualities (knowledge of which would be real knowledge).  So the idea of Molinism is that God knows, via this middle knowledge, what every human being will choose of their own free will to do in any and every possible circumstance that might ever occur.  This incredibly expansive knowledge of all the possibilities of the history of the universe is then what God uses to create an actual universe, one in which people will freely choose to do what God wants them to do so that the divine plan is carried out exactly as God wishes and yet every human decision is done freely and without divine coercion.

Like I said, this theory is complicated.

So back to the lecture. We’ve just entered question and answer time:

Someone asks a question to the effect of this:  “On your model, Mr. Craig, how do we know that the plan God has chosen for us will really work out for our good in the end?

Craig’s answer: “we have to have faith that God is loving and chooses what is best for us.

Most people in the room thought that was a beautiful answer, including the question asker.  I was less enthusiastic.

René Descartes at work
René Descartes at work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my head I heard the voice of Rene Descartes.  Not the character from the TV series Lost, though at the time I was pretty addicted to that show, so that wouldn’t have been out of the question.  I’m thinking instead of the 17th Century French philosopher, and what I heard in my mind was one of Descartes’ skeptical hypotheses.

Descartes is famous in the history of philosophy for the maxim, I think, therefore I am.  That maxim is the end result of a long process of doubting everything Descartes could doubt to come up with the last thing he could be absolutely sure of: his own existence as a thinking being.

One of the skeptical hypotheses that Descartes considered in this process of doubting everything is called the evil genius hypothesis.  Descartes asks: what if there is an evil genius out there who has managed to manipulate all my experiences so that I see the reality he wants me to see and experience what he wants me to experience?  How could I ever possibly rule out such a situation being true?  Or, in more modern terms, what if I’m actually trapped in the matrix or in a dream world or some other twisted reality concocted by some monster with incredible powers?

After considering this hypothesis, Descartes concluded that even in such a world I would still know that I existed because I could think.

These were the thoughts poised in my mind when I heard the question presented to Craig and his answer that we have to have faith that God is a God of love.

And the question that then occurred to me was this:  what if God is the evil genius?  And how could I ever know that God wasn’t?

This wasn’t the first faith crisis in my journey and it wouldn’t be the last.  But one of the significant things that emerged from this particular crisis was a realization that knowing and thinking aren’t everything, and that in a way, Craig gave the best answer possible to the question posed to him because he didn’t try to give a rational argument.

Descartes did a great disservice to us all, I think, when he decided that the proof of our existence is that we think.  There are plenty of other things that could have carried the same effect: I feel, therefore I am.  I experience, therefore I am.  I desire, therefore I am.  I will, therefore I am.  I love, therefore I am.  I believe, therefore I am. I hope, therefore I am.  The list could go on.  There are plenty of aspects of the human condition that demonstrate our existence and constitute a significant aspect of our being.  Of all of these things, Descartes chose thinking as the quintessential marker of human existence.  Of course, this wasn’t totally out of the blue for a western philosopher, but it helped define a tone that persists to the present day, a tone that colors our view of the world such that for many if not most people in the west it is the rational world of thought that is the true measure of being and nothing else.

This is especially true when talking about faith.

Whether it be evangelicals caught up in the apologetics movement or mainline Christians determined to have a faith devoid of the manipulative effects of emotional worship, faith is very often presented in our world today as something rational and systematic, something we draw conclusions about based on evidence and present in the form of a logical argument or a colorless sermon from a manuscript heavily imbued with historical-critical and rhetorical analysis of the biblical text chosen for us by the lectionary.

But this cold rationalism only gets us so far.

Descartes project is scary if we are relying on thinking and knowing to be the foundation of our world.  That’s because at the end of the day, Descartes’ project failed.  Sure, Descartes could claim certain knowledge of his own existence as a thinking being.  But when Descartes tried to argue for the existence of anything beyond himself he fell into circularity and could never fully escape the haunting specter of skepticism.  Descartes’ himself tried to claim that a good God must lie behind our experiences of the universe, but even this argument from Descartes could not ever fully get away from the question: how do you know this isn’t the evil genius?

At the end of the day faith has to rely on something more than thinking and knowing.  It cannot be purely rational because if it is it will fail to be compelling.  It has to also be grounded in experience, in feeling, in desire, in will, in love, in belief, in hope!  It has to move our hearts as well as our minds.  It needs a soul.

Ash Wednesday - 3 candles
Ash Wednesday – 3 candles (Photo credit: yumievriwan)

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the season of Lent.  This is a season of intentional reflection and preparation for the yearly celebration of the centerpiece of our faith: the passion and resurrection of Christ.  Lent is a season about walking together through dark times, sharing in the loneliness and rejection that Christ felt on his march to the cross, and sharing in the pain and suffering of one another as we prepare to rejoice at the victory of Christ over sin, and death, and pain for all eternity.  This is not a season for cold rationalism, it is a season filled to the brim with experience, feeling, desire, will, love, belief, and yes, even hope.  It is a season with a soul. 


A Prayer for Ash Wednesday:

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen
– St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)


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2 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday Reflection: The Soul of Faith

  1. Alex, as usual I love to read your writing and as usual I get lost somewhat. I am thankful for your explaining what you “theology Nerds” learn and for your honesty in sharing.
    I would also reflect during this season of Lent, that it is not just that Christ prepared and died upon the cross and rose again, but on the personal side that it is for my sin that He went there! So thankful that we can know His forgiveness and His victory!

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