Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Irony of Rational Thought as a Me...

The Irony of Rational Thought as a Means to Faith

Pierre Bayle was by far the most widely read thinker of his time. He was controversial in his own time and by the 18th century was claimed by groups as diverse as the Free Thinkers who claimed him as a closet atheist on one hand and the most conservative Calvinists who saw him as the clearest defender of traditional Calvinist thought on the other. After that Bayle's writings were, by and large, forgotten until scholars revisited his work in the 20th century.

Bayle's ideas are of particular interest in light of the line of thinking that is also pervasive throughout equally diverse fields today. Everyone from devout atheists to conservative evangelicals stake out a belief based on what they believe to be sound rational erudition.

Bayle's most well read work was the Historical and Critical Dictionary. One of his most controversial articles was on the biblical account of David. In it, without defense, Bayle simply tells David's story. While many are familiar with the story of Bathsheba, Bayle goes much deeper. He presents David as a liar, thief, adulterer and murderer. He also presents him as beloved by God.

Bayle was a Huguenot. The Huguenots, as Protestant Calvinists, were considered heretics in Catholic France. Bayle, who had converted to Catholicism and then back to Calvinism, was a considered a heretic of the very worst kind. Bayle's own brother would die in the dungeons of Louis XIV because of his Protestant faith.

Not surprisingly, many Huguenots were bent on over throwing Louis XIV. There was some theological concern for such a belief since authorities are ordained by God but, it was argued, this could be justified. While leaders were ordained by God, the king of France was a liar, thief, adulterer and murderer.

Bayle's David was not well received by those bent on an overthrow.

There was a deeper concern being addressed in Bayle's raw representation of David. Catholic apologists had been quite successful in arguing that pure Calvinism suggested that the worst sinner might be chosen and the devoutest server of Christ might be left behind based on the arbitrary election of God. Many Calvinists backed off from this pure belief and suggested that, while the elect were chosen of God, if they were chosen they would reflect that selection outwardly.

Bayle makes clear that his position is that Calvin and even Augustine before him were right. Salvation was a great and divine mystery and who were we to say who was elect and who was not based on some outward performance. David's life was indefensible and yet he was chosen.

In his Dictionary Bayle also showed that even the most primitive stances regarding the metaphysical could not be disproved employing any form of rational thought. He posited that rational thought could take you so far. We should take rational thought as far as it could go and then recognize that regardless of where it takes us, it cannot prove or disprove what we base on faith.

Bayle found it despicable that Christians of his time were still treating comet sitings and the like as omens from God. He pointed to how much of Christianity had been diluted with pagan beliefs. It is not hard to see how the atheist and the strict Calvinist would see fit to claim Bayle as their own.

So how does this relate to the present day?

The atheist stands solidly behind reason to justify their position. But at the point their position could lead to a complete lack of purpose, the atheist takes up faith to fill in the blanks and make out some reason for existence. Having no sympathy for such a viewpoint it does not seem fruitful to explore it further.

Both the atheist and the Christian are guilty of employing the argument by ignorance to "prove" the opposite point of view is wrong. The athiest asks how can such and such issue regarding the metaphysical be true while the Christian asks how such and such view of nature be true. Both arguments only suggest points that deserve further exploration and never disprove anything.

Atheism is a dying belief spauned by only to be devoured by Christian thought. As a postion devoid of human purpose, atheists have little motivation to build families and, as such, even if they were accurate in their arguments, are destined to extinction. The God Gene, whether it is a product of evolution or a part of our creation, will ultimately prove too powerful to leave room for a view without hope. The atheist deserves sympathy rather than ire from its opponents.

In western culture, the Christian stands at the other end of the spectrum. One wonders what Bayle would think of the rabbit trails we run down to try and prove that all science that appears to weaken Christianity must be proven wrong. Christians pat themselves on the back by regurgitating the same old arguments and wonder that any rational person couldn't see the fact and abandon all other points of view. It is only after satisfying themselves that they are intellectually solid that they acknowledge that the problem must be a spiritual issue.

It would be a sad thing if Christians were really able to so easily use the rational, a tool best left to the consideration of nature, to demonstrate the supernatural. Observations in nature that contradict our understanding of God may cloud our understanding of God and His involvement with creation but they prove nothing about God Himself or anything outside nature.

Christians, it seems, are to quick to defend against scientific positions that contradict their understanding of how nature should be if Christian doctrine is to remain defensible. This has lead to a long list of embarrassing positions beginning as far back as Capernicus.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard said, "...the one who expected the impossible was the greatest of them all." It is to faith that, living with contradictions to that faith, power is given. The greater the divide between rational thought and one's faith, the greater reliance on one's faith one must have.

What of the one who claims that they came to faith after determining that some well argued point had been settled? Given the ability for some to be unconvinced and some to be convinced by such and such argument, it would seem that conversion based on the merits of a rational argument are a tribute to one's weakness rather than a strength in discerning rational thoughts. Bayle was so convinced of this that he demonstrated again and again in his work that even the weakest world views could not be disproved through rational thought.

To consider a faith where we are not in control of our salvation nor able to defend such a view would, it seems, leave the Christian with a great appreciation when called to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling."