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    Faith may be described briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
    H. L. Mencken, Prejudices, "Types of Men"


    In the Middle Ages, faith was not necessary. People knew that Christianity was true. They knew it because God himself proved it every day through the miracles and other wondrous events. Furthermore, all educated people lent their authority to the fact, because theologians could prove it using logical arguments. By the time of the Enlightenment daily miracles and substantive revelations started to dry up, and the logical proofs had started to look less unimpeachable. Indeed the logical proofs of God's existence were already largely discredited, although philosophers like René Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) fought rearguard actions. Logical proofs of God's existence had become largely untenable by the end of the eighteenth century.

    Once all methods had proved the validity of Christianity, now all of them had been discredited or at least become questionable. A new approach was clearly necessary. The arguments used by theologians gradually changed in character, away from conventional reasoning. In the seventeenth century John Locke had already noted that Christians were abandoning reason when it no longer suited them*. In the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant admitted that he "found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to leave room for faith". Christian arguments were no longer to be hard logical structures with agreed premises and clear modes of reasoning that could be tested. The languages of theology and philosophy, which had previously been the common language of educated people, now diverged. The language of philosophy developed into the language of science and reason, while the language of theology took a different line.

    Kant's reaction to the percieved problem of knowledge not getting him to where he wanted to go.

    Bertrand Russell noted that theologians" arguments had been more and more affected by a kind of moralising vagueness*. To many, these arguments smacked of intellectual dishonesty. Theological arguments were beginning to look like linguistic deceits designed to conceal the emptiness within. As a leading contemporary theologian put it "In the eyes of philosophers, the Christian faith has become intellectually disreputable because it no longer asserts anything"*.

    As they abandoned rational argument, many Christian apologists took refuge in fideism — the belief that religious knowledge is not based upon natural or rational information but on faith alone. According to this view, faith furnishes its own unimpeachable proof. God reveals himself only to those willing to make a leap of faith, providing them with a special sort of knowledge, which is different from, and superior to, ordinary knowledge.

    The mainstream consensus now is that God prefers faith. He no longer approves of traditional proofs, and does not therefore provide them any longer. Indeed it would be positively wrong for him to do so. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) put it in No Rusty Swords "A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol". On the face of it this abandonment of reason seems to remove Christianity from the realm of logical argument, and therefore from rational criticism. God's direct revelation is seemingly beyond the reach of logical investigation. In fact this is not entirely true, and for several reasons, as we shall see.

    "Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding" - Martin Luther

    Faith, according to modern Churches, is the main condition for salvation. Without it we are damned to eternal hellfire. For Protestants, faith is not merely the main criterion for salvation, it is the only criterion. So too for the Anglican Church, as confirmed in Article 11 of the 39 Articles. But it is not at all clear why a deity should set so much store by human faith. There are many other human qualities that one might have thought God would find desirable: gentleness, honesty, loyalty, truthfulness, steadfastness, altruism, merciy, open mindedness, and so on. That God should prefer faith over all such qualities, and even to the exclusion of all such qualities, is suspicious in the extreme, particularly since faith also happens to be the quality most popular amongst false gods and fraudsters. Also, if faith were such a desirable quality in itself, why is it not good to have faith in Islam, communism or tooth fairies?

    Again, if faith is really so important, we are faced with some difficult paradoxes as soon as we think about the implications. Here is a thought experiment. Consider two children. Call them for the sake of argument Christine and Diana. Christine is not a reflective girl. She belongs to a large Christian family. She is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of her parents" faith. It never occurs to her to question what she has been told. She believes firmly everything that her priest tells her. She lives her entire life in ignorance of other religions or of atheism. In due course, after a life of aimless vegetation and absolute faith, she dies. Diana, on the other hand, is an intelligent child. Her parents encourage her to find out about all creeds, and after diligent research and long and careful thought she becomes a Buddhist. She leads a blameless life. She does good works, she gives alms to the poor, feeds the hungry, helps the sick, clothes the naked, visits those in gaol, and meditates deeply on the mysteries of life, until eventually she too dies. Is it really credible that Christine's absolute faith wins her a place in Heaven while Diana, with no Christian faith, must be condemned to the outer darkness? Somehow the idea seems unlikely. Furthermore, this is not merely a hypothetical example. With little effort we could find numerous Christines and Dianas around the world. To an objective mind it seems incredible that faith could be the sole criterion for salvation, or even the prime criterion. Indeed, it is difficult for an objective mind to imagine why it should be a criterion at all.

    Another difficulty arises from the various cases where people's faith has been assured by miracles. In ancient times God was willing to perform miracles on demand to convince his followers (e.g. Judges 6:36-40). In Christian times God was still willing to perform to order. Consider St Thomas, the apostle who reportedly missed Jesus" return after the crucifixion. Not having seen the event he was doubtful about the reports of it. He would not believe until Jesus returned again for the express purpose of allowing him to examine his wounds. Thomas, having taken full advantage of this opportunity, was convinced. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that he should have been. Any agnostic given such an opportunity would surely be convinced as well. Recipients of such favours could not fail to believe. Those who witnessed miracles and believed were also favoured, such as the Jews who saw the raising of Lazarus (John 12:11). Down the ages many people have claimed to have experienced or witnessed miracles. The witnessing of a genuine miracle must provide strong grounds for belief. But is this not unfair? No such miracles ever come the way of billions of unbelievers. If Jesus would only appear to them in the flesh and let them poke about in his nail holes they too would be convinced. Indeed, just a small miracle would do. Why should millions in the Middle Ages be given a free ride to faith through witnessing a miracle? And why is the same free ride provided to far fewer today, while billions are denied it?

    For Roman Catholics there is also a difficult problem in deciding exactly when it becomes idolatrous for people to require proof. Faithful Christians had routinely been asking the Virgin Mary for proof of her identity for centuries whenever she appeared to visionaries. And she invariably complied. Right up to 1961 in Garabandal in Spain, she performed miracles almost on demand to "prove" who she was. Already in 1961 many senior churchmen were preaching that such proofs could not be real — not because they were beyond divine powers, but because this sort of thing was idolatrous. Heaven simply did not provide proof. Even to ask for it was blasphemous. Objectively, either it is acceptable to ask for and receive proof, or it is not. There is no doubt that it was acceptable before the twentieth century, so if it is not acceptable now then the rules must have changed at some time in between. So when exactly was this? On what date did this previously acceptable behaviour become blasphemous?

    Here is another difficulty. Some Christians lose their faith because of some action by another Christian. For example, the author Roald Dahl lost his faith as a schoolboy because of the brutality of his headmaster, a future Archbishop of Canterbury*. Was Dahl denied salvation because of the headmaster's actions? Were thousands of Roman Catholics denied salvation when they abandoned their faith following the Pope's behaviour during World War II? Or thousand more after they abandoned their faith in the early twenty first century following revelations that their Church had been aiding and abetting international child abuse for decades?

    Disasters in Christian communities often trigger crises of faith. People start to wonder why God should allow unfairness and cruelty: terminal disease in the young, families wiped out at a stroke, congregations killed by collapsing church buildings, and so on. It seems clear that many Christians never consider this problem until they are personally affected by a tragedy. If they had thought through their faith then these crises of faith would not occur, for the questions they raise would already have been considered and resolved. Christians generally maintain their faith simply because it is never tested. Many allied soldiers lost their faith when they witnessed the horrors of the Nazi death camps as they liberated them. Did they deny themselves the chance of salvation? Were those on potato-peeling duty that day more likely to get to Heaven because they did not witness the same horrors?

    Here is yet another difficulty. In the past, many of the faithful had faith because they witnessed fraudulent miracles — annually liquefying saint's blood, exorcisms of pagan gods, the healing of already healthy people, drug-induced visions, and so on. What is God's position on Christians whose faith is genuine, innocent and absolute, but based on a fraud? Again, this is not merely an academic or historical question. Many people are taken in by bogus Christian faith healers and conjuring tricks. Is their faith real enough to win salvation, while sceptics go to Hell for being more perceptive?

    According to modern theologians, faith itself provides proof of Christianity to those who possess it. Moreover, this "proof" is of a much better quality than ordinary knowledge. It is quite different in nature and cannot be compromised by ordinary reasoning. Those who are prepared to take a leap of faith find themselves in a new world where God reveals himself, and his truths are known with absolute certainty. But there are a number of difficulties with this too. As for the importance of faith generally, one must wonder why theologians never mentioned it before their other "proofs" were all demolished by rationalists. A second problem is that the faith provided tends to correspond to the recipient's existing beliefs. Is it really likely that God would provide different types of faith to members of different denominations? If God was really providing faith to people wouldn"t he provide the same faith to all? A third problem is that of doubt. If faith furnishes absolute proof, then there is no room for doubt. Yet over the same period that faith has become so important, churchmen have started to admit to having doubts about God. Many, perhaps most, bishops will now admit to having doubts — sometimes only small ones, and only for a short time, but doubts nevertheless. Some senior bishops (Anglican and Roman Catholic) have claimed that doubt is important, and even that one cannot have genuine faith without also experiencing doubt. The problem here is that the two stories are incompatible. According to the first, faith provides absolute proof of the truth of Christianity, which precludes all doubt. According to the second, faith can coexist with doubt about the truth of Christianity. There is clearly something wrong when one can still doubt unimpeachable proof. Perhaps the most charitable explanation is that some churchmen do not really have true faith, and that two camps within the Christian community are using the word faith in totally different, and mutually exclusive, ways.

    Aquinas summed up the position, neatly removing himself from the realm of reasoned argument

    Yet a further difficulty is that people who have faith, even the proof-providing type, can lose it again. How can one lose one's faith when it has provided absolute, unimpeachable proof of Christian truth? It is a most curious fact that a high proportion of those who see the Christian light later lose sight of it again. More curious still is the fact that the proportion is much the same as those for other religions, or even higher. It would appear that proportionately fewer Muslim converts relapse than do Christian ones. This is truly a puzzling statistic if we are to believe that Christianity is the one true religion, while Islam is a mere pretender to the title.

    One might have supposed that the grace of the Christian God would be sufficient to ensure that converts remained converted. Yet we do not need to look far to find defectors from the Christian ranks throughout the world. There have even been cases of Christians spontaneously adopting Judaism. A whole Italian village was converted in this way in 1930*. Young, intelligent and newly independent Christians are particularly vulnerable to desertion. One chaplain has reported that among first year university graduates the defection rate is over 90 per cent*. As we have already seen, it is not at all difficult to find priests and other church leaders who have discovered themselves to have been mistaken, and who chose to leave their Church. There are hundreds of thousands of them. Perhaps even more would leave the safety and comfort of their Mother, the Church, if they were more employable. It is a mysterious God indeed who chooses a particular man as a vehicle for his word, who gives him absolute knowledge through faith, who calls him to holy service, and then takes away this knowledge and discards him for the dole queue. It is even odder that God should have recently started calling women in this way as well, and then discarding them too.

    Historically, Christianity has suffered massive desertions by the faithful. Whole countries that were once Christian are no longer so. Many millions have gone over to the Muslim camp. Almost all of the lands where Christianity flourished in its formative years have turned away from it. In Roman times the Christian Church was strong throughout Galatia and other parts of Asia Minor. Now it is reduced to a few small pockets of exotic minority Christian sects. Of the seven Churches of Asia ( Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Laodicea and Philadelphia) to which the Revelation of St John is addressed, not a single one remains. All defected to Islam.

    The Seven Churches of Asia - all disappeared, despite their guardian angels

    So too in Palestine and Syria; in Egypt and other parts of North Africa; Yemen, Nubia and other parts of Arabia; Persia, Mesopotamia and other parts of Central Asia. Many of the cities that had been so important to early Christianity were lost. To take another example of mass apostasy, huge numbers of Christians in Albania defected to Islam after the Turks subjugated that country in 1521. In short, Christianity has been all but eliminated from many areas and countries where it once flourished. This is all the more curious in view of the fact that, historically, Muslims have been remarkable tolerant, allowing Christians to keep their faith, their churches, their schools, and even their own laws. God it seems is content to allow whole countries to desert his one true religion in favour of a false one. More curious still, God is prepared to allow Islam to become the fastest growing faith in the world today. One might have thought that he would support his own side a little more robustly. Mass desertions are difficult to reconcile with the idea that faith furnishes unimpeachable proof. No one who possessed such faith would ever abandon it. Are we to believe that almost no one in all of these areas had real faith? Were all these countries full of pretend believers before the Muslims arrived? It does not sound likely.

    As we shall see later there are many other reasons for suspicion about faith: anthropological (faith is largely cultural), sociological (faith is related to age, class, education and intelligence), psychological (faith is more common among certain personality types), and even psychiatric (absolute faith in one religion is often replaced by absolute faith in a series of others, following successive divine revelations).



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    § Four of the five Christian patriarchies fell to the Muslims: Jerusalem in 637, Antioch in 638, Alexandria in 641, and Constantinople in 1453. Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) are still in Muslim hands, as are other key cities, such as Colossæ, Tarsus and Edessa, which were so important in New Testament times. (The Turkish State has been technically secular since the time of Ataturk, although over 99 per cent of the population are Muslim.) Jerusalem has been under Muslim control for most of its modern history, although it is now back in Jewish hands. The successive changes in control of Jerusalem have mystified Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, since all have imagined that God would protect their most holy city from the others.

    §. "I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly: and where it fails them, they cry out, It is a matter of faith, and above reason." John Locke, Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. IV, ch 18.

    §. Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, p 17.

    §. Michael Goulder in (ed. John Hick) The Myth of God Incarnate, p 48.

    §. Roald Dahl, "The Headmaster" in Boy, 1984, pp 144-6. As headmaster of Repton, Geoffrey Fisher administered prolonged and ritualistic beatings to the naked buttocks of his pupils.

    §. The village was called San Nicandro. See Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version, p 357.

    §. This result was reported in 1970 when more undergraduates would have started off as at least nominal Christians. It was cited by Evans, Is Holy Scripture Christian?, p 40. Current defection rates are difficult to obtain, but the point is not compromised by the fact that the quoted statistic is not current.

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