Cognitive Voluntarism of James F. Ross

Excerpted from Epistemics of Divine Reality (2009, 2011)

In his paper Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology (1990),[1] James Ross defines ‘Cognitive Voluntarism’ as the view that ‘humans, for  the  most  part,  believe  not because they  are  compelled  by  the  evidence,  but  because  they  want  to  (sometimes  even   being  compelled by wants operating as “convictors”) because assenting appears to advance their ‘apprehended good”.’ Cognitive voluntarism is seen as our willing reliance upon people, feelings and outcomes, directed to our own fulfillment. According to Ross, it has reemerged as a basis for rational certainty, not only in empirical cognition generally, but in the most important commitments of our lives.

Ross begins by saying that rational certainty about God is more plausible than was believed in the fifties. The fact is that, the notion of what constitutes rational certainty is now better understood. The most important achievement, however, has been the rehabilitation of faith. Faith is seen as willing  reliance  on  others thought better placed  to  know, as well as willing  reliance on the regularities  we  find in  nature  and  people,  to indicate what we should  believe. Ross goes on to say that faith is undeniably a source of knowledge.

Faith is undeniably a source of knowledge, often more efficient than finding out for oneself, as the telephone book makes clear.  And  where  faith  falls  short  of  knowledge,  it  often supplies rational  certitude, even about the most expensive and conservatively entered  human undertakings, especially  in  engineering (bridge and theater design),  naval architecture (hull design), applied  science (nuclear power plants), and sometimes  even  in  our  formal  logical and mathematical disciplines. Faith is a foundation for rational certainty, maybe not a rock‑bottom one, but an indispensable one.  In fact, trust is the very fabric of social conviction and the golden thread of science.[2]

Thus, according to Ross, rational certainty finds its basis on faith, and faith is indispensable to it. The truth is that rational certainty is more a contextual thing than a universal thing. Thus, what is handed over down to the next generation is voluntarily accepted as truth with rational certainty since voluntary reliance is part of the sociology of knowledge. Everyone has his own system or framework of rational certainty. Here we may pause to consider that Paul on Mars Hill did not quote the Old Testament Messianic prophecies to the Greeks; the Old Testament was a framework of rational certainty chiefly and significantly for the Jews and not for the Greeks. Therefore, one cannot be in the position to judge anyone unless one is able to see from the other’s viewpoint. As Ross puts it,

You cannot get into a position to evaluate until you become an insider. There is no  access to the reliability of the “system” from the outside, not any more than there is access to the standpoint of musical, philosophical or aesthetic mastery of judgment, except by discipleship, first.[3]

This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s language games and forms of life. One cannot be in a position to even understand, far be to judge someone else’s position, except by participating in the other’s form of life that grants meaning to his position.

In addition to the significance of faith, the cognitive role of feelings to ground rational certainty has also been recognized. Ross says that feelings ‘are knowledge-making.’ It is the satisfaction and stability of deep feeling that ‘hardens belief into rock-bottom commitment.’ Feelings play an important role in both faith and reason. Statements like ‘I feel I can trust him,’ or ‘This argument is elegant,’ or ‘This argument is flimsy,’ demonstrate that feelings are not separate from the cognitive process of faith and reason. Thus, rational certainty is not cold. It is charged with feeling and reinforced with faith.

Ross points out that much of the stuff we believe in, and which is crucial to make sense of this world, is convictions beyond all data. For instance, belief in the origins, salvation-history, final judgment, after-life, etc. all go beyond empirical data but are voluntarily believed to make sense of the data at hand. In other words, a leap beyond is crucial to make sense of the present ground. Such ‘going beyond’ provides rationality to life. However, on finding such convictions directly refuted by experience, adherents do replace them with the ‘nearest tenable facsimile.’ Thus, faith has become crucial to make sense of any knowledge in this world. Further, a sense of the sociology of knowledge as the rationality of relying on those who ought to know has been recognized. For instance, we sit on a train with a feeling of security and satisfaction that we will reach the destination, because we rely on the railways, including the driver as the one who ought to know to drive the engine. This sense of certainty can only be lost by recurrent failure of the railways. Similarly, a worker follows the directions of the engineer, even as a soldier follows the directions of his commander out of reliance in people and the pattern of things.

“Faith”  is  no  longer   the  paradigm of “unjustified belief”  or  “belief  that  contravenes the evidence”, or “belief held against the demands of reason” as Locke and Hume, and even C.J. Ducasse (Nature, Mind and Death. 1948) thought, but  rational  trust in those who ought to  know and, equivocally but relatedly, reliance on the patterns in things.  Even non-thinking animals display what Santayana called “animal faith”, staking their lives hour by hour until they lose.[4]

Hints of Kierkegaard’s ‘infinite passion’ that seeks satisfaction can also be found in Ross’ cognitive voluntarism. We trust because we want something, he says. ‘Reliance is, itself, a mode of satisfaction.’ As an example, he refers to the hunter who relies on the flight pattern of turkeys because he wants to eat some. Thus, an internal urge, the will, for satisfaction may be considered as the engine of believing.

Augustine  says, “nemo credit nisi volens” (“no one  believes  unless  he wants to”); not that you can believe at will or even  disbelieve at will, though the power of the unconscious is awesome  at   rejection,  and  impressive  at  accommodation, regardless of the evidence.  Nevertheless, the will is the engine of believing, not the understanding (except in the few cases of the “manifest vision of truth”, of compelling obviousness, as Aquinas explained it). And even the compelling obviousness of one’s mortal wounds can be willed away, say, as a medic urges one to live, sometimes with success. The rest of the time evidence does not compel belief, the will supplies the commitment.[5]

Regarding the contention that the truth about the existence of God must be demonstrated before being believed in Ross, responds that ‘there is nothing knowable by a demonstration that cannot be known with certainty without one, and that includes mathematical and logical theorems.’[6]  Demonstrability cannot be considered to be the gateway to knowability. Ross argues that a genuine demonstration will rule out all counterpossibilities. However, such genuine demonstration has never been and cannot be given; since counterpossibilities from the other side are expected seeing that belief is more a matter of will than of reason. Further, a common ground regarding the validity of some demonstration is not agreed on because of contextual arrangements.

As has been said earlier, it is not simply data at hand but feelings urged by a desire for meaning that play an important role in the forming of convictions. However, feelings cannot be blindly left unrestrained. The refinement of feelings is important for a proper channeling in of knowledge. Practical wisdom, thus, is the ability to live wisely and well, and is the product of good training and example, internalized by one’s mimesis (imitation, e.g., of father by son) of refined understanding, feeling and even passion. Ross points out that a life without passion is feeble and furtive. Similarly, philosophy without feeling is philosophy without springs. When it comes to making sense of life, it is not science but practical wisdom that is more appropriate. Thus, one cannot ground his life on dry empirical proofs. According to Ross, feeling creates ‘conviction by combining satisfaction (fulfillment in some respect) with reliance (which is itself a kind of satisfaction in dependence, like lovers holding hands) into an outcome that is our conviction.’ Reliance on the community that says it has found out the truth (sociology of knowledge) and personal practice, mimesis, or imitation of it that brings satisfaction and rewards lead to convictions.

There are in-built wants that operate as convictors. Convictors convert data into conviction. Thus, according to cognitive voluntarism, people believe not by the force of evidence but by the force of wants that operate as convictors. Ross contends that this approach to knowledge is not something new but was recognized long back. For instance, both ‘Augustine and Aquinas (with differences) think our cognitive powers have basic drives (of which the rational appetite, the will, is the chief drive), and thus, have a targeted finality that is no natural end, but rather, life with God.’[7] It may be added that this view is also reflected in William James’ concept of ‘will to believe.’ In his The Will to Believe and Other Essays, he wrote:

…our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before and others which come after belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the fair; and they are not too late when the previous passional work has been already in their own direction.[8]

He also adds that in ‘truths dependent on our personal action…faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.’[9] However, James qualifies such freedom to believe what one wills with the condition that this freedom ‘can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve….’[10] In other words, faith becomes inevitable where intellect cannot go on. So, one is compelled to choose from among the living options available. Since religion is a live hypothesis which may be true it cannot be left ignored. James’ view, however, is more pragmatical and similar to Pascal’s Wager. He says, ‘If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish…to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the willing side – the chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.’[11] Evidently, the William James’ view doesn’t sufficiently take into consideration the existential motif of ‘infinite passion’ and the ‘sense of meaningfulness.’ However, it is quite close to the main idea of cognitive voluntarism.

According to cognitive voluntarism, then, the rational certainty of faith in God is more a contextual thing. There is an inner urge in man that attempts to find meaning out of all that he knows. Revelation provides the data, usually in the form of traditions passed on by the community, which makes sense of life. Practical wisdom holds on to such beliefs through pragmatic experience that refine the feeling and passion. Feeling combines with reliance to produce conviction. Reliance on verbal testimony is a very important source of knowledge.

Feeling creates conviction by combining satisfaction (fulfillment in some respect) with reliance (which is itself a kind of satisfaction in dependence, like lovers holding hands) into an outcome that is our conviction. Two kinds of satisfaction suffuse something we assent to. That’s how we, those who did not discover anything or even repeat the inquiries, know that there are micro‑particles, electrons, molecules, atoms.  We rely on the community that says it did find out, and we get satisfaction and rewards by doing so.  Thus we are convinced.[12]

Subjectivity of truth, as in Kierkegaard, thus, is paramount. But, in addition is voluntary belief, in the sense that one believes what one wants to believe, or what one is satisfied with. No one stands in a position to evaluate anyone’s belief unless he enters the ‘form of life’, to use Wittgenstein’s term, of the other. Reliance and satisfaction, i.e., faith and feeling, thus are crucial to the noetic event. Faith is the foundation of rational certainty, and things are believed in because they make sense of life. Achieving this sense and meaning of life is the goal of practical wisdom, which goes beyond mere science and evidentialism.

Critique of Cognitive Voluntarism

Ross’ capture of the spirit of knowledge is excellent. Philosophy without feeling, he says, is philosophy without springs. Surely, ‘deep answers the deep’; humans have an inner and infinite urge that can only find satisfaction through faith in an infinite and living God. Therefore, we do go beyond available data to make sense of the available data. The question of origins, meaning, and destiny are unavoidable. Any nearest hint that carries at least some certainty (within the cognitive contextual framework) is immediately converted into a conviction. However, as Ross has pointed out, the danger of falsity can be there. Therefore, he stresses on the refinement of feeling through mimesis, which is observation and practice of those who can be relied on for knowledge of truth. This, obviously, calls for the openness and boldness to change on finding the convictions refuted by experience.

In conclusion, it may be said that Ross’ epistemology is very much of subjective experientialism. Though it is true that one’s experience can never be refuted by another, it still stands whether someone’s experience can comprise reason enough for another to rely on it. According to Ross, the answer is ‘yes’, if pragmatically satisfaction is visible, and this to the extent that mimesis of it becomes justified. For instance, a son sees his father walking and imitates in order to learn walking; he imitates the experience of his father to become an insider of the experience. Similarly, faith in God as demonstrated in a community life of moral righteousness, devotion, generosity, and other facets of religious life can be experienced through mimesis.

However, what about the possibility of being led into the wrong belief through such imitation? Ross answers that still this does not undermine the value of the social institution as a source of knowledge. Accordingly, a ‘social system that hands along truths about food and mixed truths and errors about health and how to live, and superstitions about God and “science”, might do perfectly well to hand along an improved product.’ In other words, there is no social institution or tradition that can lay claim to perfection in all fields of knowledge. Disagreements among sects over doctrinal points, within the major religions, are ample proof of it. However, some products have only one source and the only way to test the workability of the product is by ‘becoming an initiate and making it work.’ Thus, one can only experience the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ by saying ‘yes’ to the Gospel of Christ. There is no alternative source to it. Practice and experience itself justifies belief.

Though incapable of providing an absolute and standard test for truth, Ross’ cognitive voluntarism does demonstrate the relativity of rational certainty. The star over Bethlehem was proof of Royal birth to the Magi; it might have not been so to many others. The miracles of Jesus were proof of His divine authority to Nicodemus; it might not have been to some others. Proofs and demonstrations are only relatively significant; often, they follow faith. Thus, rational certainty is more a subjective issue. Moreover, Ross’ grounding of rational certainty on the will to believe is a significant step. He has also showed that the will to believe is prompted by the inner urge, feeling, and passion for sense and meaning in life. The existential motif, thus, can also be seen in Ross. Thus, cognitive voluntarism attempts to put faith and feeling into their proper place in the noetic event. This, however, is done at the expense of any absolute criteria for truth. The only reference point is the will. Will is prompted by feelings and wants that act as convictors. Thus, truth is more a matter of the subjective will than of objective reality. But, Ross is at least right in saying that in matters of ultimate value, that is, in convictions that go beyond data to infuse life with meaning, one cannot let go his convictions unless they are directly contradicted by experience and replaceable with some other hypotheses that seem to be more reliable. Thus, a Christian cannot throw away his belief in Jesus Christ, since it not only infuses his life with meaning but he also doesn’t find it refuted by experience. However, even if it is refuted by experience, he will not cast that belief out unless it is replaceable by some other more reliable belief; he cannot do so because the will to believe urged by the infinite passion within cannot rest calm without finding some source of satisfaction. Thus, faith is rehabilitated in cognitive voluntarism.

[1] James Ross, “Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology”, June 1990 (http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] William James, “The Will to Believe,” Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn. (ed. John Hick; Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), p.219
[9] Ibid, p. 228
[10] Ibid, p. 230
[11] Ibid, p. 229
[12] James Ross, “Reason and Reliance: Adjusted Prospects for Natural Theology”, June 1990 (http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40)

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We Have Toiled All Night And Caught Nothing

He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. (Luk 5:4-6)

Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We are going with you also.” They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. (Joh 21:3)

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. (Jam 4:13-17)

And they rose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised, for we have sinned!” And Moses said, “Now why do you transgress the command of the LORD? For this will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be defeated by your enemies, for the LORD is not among you. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.” But they presumed to go up to the mountaintop; nevertheless, neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that mountain came down and attacked them, and drove them back as far as Hormah. (Num 14:40-45)

I returned and saw under the sun that– the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man also does not know his time: like fish taken in a cruel net, like birds caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them. (Ecc 9:11-12)

Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up. But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying,`Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. (Act 27:20-25)

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the LORD and depart from evil.
It will be health to your flesh,
And strength to your bones. (Pro 3:5-8)


This heart, a sail of Your wind
Finds direction and purpose
When You blow in!

We’ve labored all night
We’ve toiled sleeplessly,
But, Lord we’ve caught nothing!

We thought of many solutions,
We came up with many plans,
We’ve toiled unceasingly,
Lord, but we’ve caught nothing!

Our night of labor
Has come to an end,
We’ve come to our end;
Then, we saw You walk in,
Light of God, the Morning Star!
You said,
“Come to me, all you who labor,
And I will give you rest!”

This heart, a sail of Your wind
Finds direction and purpose
When You blow in!

It is not our talents,
It is not our repentance,
It is not our trying to mend things our way;
It is only in our living by Your word
That we find healing and health
For our bones,
And rest for our souls.

The Inclination Towards “Filling In The Blanks”

Gestalt psychologists have pointed out the interesting tendency of human brain to fill in the blanks in order to achieve an understanding of the world or sense data. Humans are incessant interpreters. They are all the time trying to figure out what something means.

Gestalt Closure

One sees a CIRCLE and a BOX. However, these are just lines that could possibly not even be related. But, the brain makes a figure out of them.

This quest and inclination has a helpful hand in enabling man to make a sense of things he cannot understand. He inputs data from his own previous experiences into otherwise seemingly meaningless data. Man is a puzzle solver and his attempt through hypothesizing and associating data with other data has given rise to a plethora of philosophies and ideologies. Especially, when the conjectures appear to be pragmatic and working well, the interpretations usually become sealed for posterity until someone is able to find a loophole in it.
400px-Burr_Puzzles

The negative aspect of this inclination could be false suspicion and negative doubt. This process has been illustrated in many a novel and play of tragedy in literature. It also follows from a desire to make a sense of things happening; however, bad data and a wrong process of reckoning lead to false conclusions.

This is even more important in the context of spiritual faith. The spiritual man compares spiritual matters with spiritual matters. The natural man is not able to make any sense out of spiritual things. The Bible does not encourage blind faith; however, without faith one cannot even know God at all.

Assassins of Faith Vs Keepers of Faith – A Study

Excerpt from the Author’s Explorations of Faith: Studies of the Heroes of Faith in Hebrews 11 (2009)

ASSASSINS KEEPERS
Doubt
Desire
Division
Confession
Conduct
Communion

THE SCRIPTURE warns us not to be slothful but to be diligent in faith (Heb. 6:12; Judg. 18:9). Faith is not only to be guarded (Rev. 14:12) but also to be contended or fought for (Jude. 3); for it is only by fighting that one keeps one’s faith (2Tim. 4:7). The crisis of faith is a condition brought in by at least three faith-assassins: doubt, desire, and division.

Faith-assassins Doubt. Doubt is helpful in the pre-faith condition by narrowing one’s direction towards truth. That is to say, as doubt breaks all the false beliefs of the past one by one, a person is set in the direction of knowing the truth. In this sense, doubt is the precursor of faith. However, the moment faith is torched by truth “all the darknesses of doubt are dispersed”, to use Augustine’s expression. Doubt no longer has any place but its place is taken by the certainty, peace, and repose of faith. But even in the pre-faith condition, doubt cannot be segregated from seeking faith. Absolute doubt, in the sense that the possibility of truth is hung in perpetual doubt, can never come to truth for though it may see it face to face yet its doubt would prevent it from recognizing it as so. A mind committed to doubt can never submit in faith to truth. Therefore, absolute doubt is the greatest enemy of true faith.

There are chiefly seven Greek expressions that have been translated as “doubt” in the New Testament (KJV): aporeo (Jn. 13:22) meaning “to be perplexed”; diaporeo (Ac. 2:12; 10:17) meaning “to be thoroughly perplexed”; meteorizo (Lk. 12:29) meaning “to suspend as in mid-air”; airo psuche (Jn. 10:24) meaning “to keep the soul in suspension as in air”; dialogismos (Rom. 14:1; 1 Tim. 2:8) meaning “to reason” or “to argue”; diakrino (Mt. 21:21; Rom. 14:23) meaning “to judge differently” or “to discriminate”; and distazo (Mt. 14:31; 28:17) meaning “to waver”. We can learn of the different ways in which doubt finds intrusion in one’s life by looking at the usage of these words.

First, doubt appears in the form of perplexity or a loss of answer. This is indicated by the word aporeo. For instance, when Festus introduces Paul the prisoner to Agrippa the King, he says that the Jews were accusing Paul of some questions related to the Jewish religion; but since he was not well acquainted with this religion he was at a loss of answer or doubt (aporeo) how to judge him (Ac. 25:20). Obviously, the KJV would have done better to translate the word as “was perplexed” or “confounded” instead of “doubted”. But, still it is also true that perplexity is a condition of doubt since it contains the element of uncertainty. Festus lacked the confidence to judge Paul because he was confounded by the complexity of the problems that this trial presented to him. Therefore, he doubted about this matter of judging Paul. He was at a loss of answer. An intense form of this perplexity is indicated by the word diaporeo which means to be thoroughly (dia) perplexed. Perplexity indicates the condition of doubt as dilemma. It is the condition of neither knowing nor not knowing. It is the condition of being totally unable to understand something that seems to be significant and demanding an answer. Undeniably, faith does sometimes come across situations that confound and perplex it for a want of answer. There are things that can happen to us that we can’t explain by any rational means, for instance. Or, there can be a question put forth before faith which it immediately lacks an answer for, though it knows that there must be some answer to it. However, in many cases when complexity presents itself to us the temptation is to turn away to simpler things. This is a natural instinct. One tries to avoid unwanted complications, especially when they appear insoluble or even too demanding. One tends to walk around the problem and if incapable of, tries to turn on it. This is what happened with those disciples who turned away from Jesus because they felt He was becoming too complicated for them to get along with (Jn. 6:60, 66). But when Jesus turned to the twelve and asked them if they would also go away, Peter gave an answer which is a classic response to this dilemma of faith. He answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68, MKJV). Peter understood the fact that there cannot be a turning away from something without a turning away to something else. There is no middle ground. Peter knew that this was an either/or situation. One could choose Christ and eternal life or choose to relinquish both. He made the wiser decision to stay with Christ despite the inability to understand several things. A more practically existential situation confronted Job, as seen earlier. It was practically existential because the absurdity or perplexity of the suffering that he went through was thoroughly personal and its answer too evading (Job 7). Yet, he knew that there could be no turning back from God. God was where his world came to an end. God was his no-returning point. Therefore, despite all the confoundedness of his suffering, Job held on to God in faith. And when his wife reprimanded him for holding on to his faith and told him to curse God and die instead of bearing the brunt of this absurd life, he answered her saying “You speak as one of the foolish ones speak. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10, MKJV). In other words, he in turn demanded from her an explanation for considering experience of evil as sufficient proof for turning away from God, even if such evil came from God. The finality of his faith in God could admit no doubt in God.

Another way in which doubt presents itself to us is suspense. The word comes from the Latin suspensus meaning “suspended” (akin to the Greek meteorizo and airo psuche, see above). The word indicates a condition of uncertainty fraught with intense curiosity, fear, or anxiety. Jesus told His disciples to stay away from such a condition (Lk. 12:29). Feelings of anxiety due to uncertainty may come to suspend our souls in doubt, but they should not be allowed to take hold of our lives; in other words, worry or anxiety should not become the condition of our lives. For such anxiety can easily lead to despair and a total shipwreck of faith. Similarly, unwanted curiosity can also be fatal to faith as seen in Eve’s case. For when the devil told her that the forbidden fruit was forbidden not because God sought her welfare but because He didn’t want her to be like Him, she immediately was convinced by his words (Gen. 3:4-6). Her curiosity regarding the forbidden fruit led her obey the devil’s lie. If God has forbidden us something, there is no danger greater than trying to conduct a scientific analysis of the forbidden thing. It is no surprise then why the Ephesian believers burnt all books of curious and magical arts[1] when they accepted the Lord (Ac. 19:19, KJV, Amplified). This is so because such curiosity can lead to a departure from faith. It is in this regard that the Mosaic Law commanded the Israelites to destroy all images and things related to false belief to prevent their influence from corrupting the Israelites (Deut. 7:3-5). The images represent the symbols of false beliefs that stand against the faith of God. They are doors to disbelief. Therefore, sympathetic curiosity towards what is logically known to be wrong must be avoided. By “logically wrong” is meant those ideas that contradict the rational sense. For instance, in the story of Eve she turned towards the illogical belief that she could become like God (who is spiritual and infinite in wisdom) by eating a physical fruit and to the false idea that God was either jealous or afraid of her becoming like Him; as if she could become like Him and that God was afraid of His own creation. Similarly, the sympathy towards idols is absurd since an idol is not only a lifeless object but also symbolic of the vanity and falsehood of man. Therefore, one must guard oneself against any fear or excitement that is both irrational and godless.

The third kind of doubt is more intriguing. It appears in the form of reasoning or argumentation and is indicated by the word dialogismos meaning that form of argumentation that is controversial, unending, or false. It is in this sense that it is sometimes rendered as “imaginations” for its speculative nature is averse to any conclusion. In other words, dialogismos is doubt that expects no final answer. The imagination keeps going on finding no final ground to stand on; thus, hanging suspended (meterorizo) in curiosity and doubt all the time. I think our age understands this form of doubting better than any age before since, in our age, it is this kind of a scholar that is highly appreciated while the one who claims to have the answer is labeled as fundamentalist and narrow-minded. While in the past the wise man was he who had more answers and fewer questions, now he is one who has more questions and fewer answers. The modern wise man is like the Greek sophist who excelled in clever arguments but had no belief in absolute truth: his arguments generated more doubts than solutions. Our English word “sophistry” comes from this “sophist” and means “clever, misleading, and deceptive argument”. Obviously, this form of doubt or methodological skepticism is deliberate, proceeding from the bias that detests absolute solution to any problem. That is the reason why the Scripture warns several times to keep away from such love for show of cleverness and unhealthy disputing that signifies pride and rebellion instead of humility (Phil. 2:14; Rom. 14:1; 1Tim. 2:8; cf. 1Tim. 6:3-5).

The next kind of doubt is diakrino meaning “to judge by analysis” or “to make a difference”. In relation to doubt it means “to make a different judgment”, “to think otherwise”, or “allow for some other possibility as well”. It is in this sense that it is used in Matthew 21:21 when Jesus tells His disciples “Truly I say to you, If you have faith and do not doubt (me diakrithete), you shall not only do this miracle of the fig tree, but also; if you shall say to this mountain, Be moved and be thrown into the sea; it shall be done.” (Mt. 21:21, MKJV). Similarly, James says: “let him ask in faith, doubting nothing (meden diakrinomenos). For he who doubts (diakrinomenos) is like a wave of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed” (Jas. 1:3, MKJV). Obviously, this kind of doubting is antithetical to faith since it introduces a rival element (a foreign particle) into one’s framework of belief. This kind of double-thinking is what leads to distazo or to the inability of holding on to faith, thus becoming unstable (as in Peter’s case when he walked on water and then started sinking due to fear); for the natural thoughts of the mind are set in conflict against the supernatural truths of God leading to a weakening of faith. The imbalance and instability caused by diakrino can be compared to an airplane (on flight) that loses its balance due to some technical failure to keep up with the laws of aerodynamics. That technical failure may be compared to diakrino when the plane wobbles between the law of aerodynamics and the law of gravity, for instance. The loss of balance is due to the plane’s inability to totally comply with the law of aerodynamics. The problem is solved if the airplane keeps to the purpose of its design, which is to be in air till it lands safely on the ground; the tragedy is when it fails to do that by giving in to anti-elements. Now, the anti-element may not be false in itself; for instance, the law of gravity is true as well as the fact that Peter could not naturally walk on water. However, in matters of faith the natural must submit to the supernatural and not vice versa. Even as the airplane is designed to fly in air, a man of faith is designed to sail on the winds of God’s promises. Abraham was a man of faith. He was not a man of a double-opinion or double-thinking. Therefore, there were no regrets about his obedience to God; neither was there any possibility of a return for him. The Scripture testifies about him that “he staggered not (ou diekrithe) at the promise of God through unbelief (apistia); but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20). Apistia is the antonym of pistis which is faith. Thus, Abraham didn’t allow an anti-faith element to make him double-think about and doubt the promises of God.

Desire. The second enemy of faith is false desire. Desire is the drive of the human will. Therefore, it is always seen as desire to do something or to get something in the sense that the mind is set on that particular thing, ultimately leading to action in that direction. In this sense, to will something is to desire that thing. In fact, the Greek word thelo is translated as both “to will” and “to desire” in the New Testament. However, in human experience, desire is often ambivalent as the Scripture says: “For the desires of the flesh are opposed to the [Holy] Spirit, and the [desires of the] Spirit are opposed to the flesh (godless human nature); for these are antagonistic to each other [continually withstanding and in conflict with each other], so that you are not free but are prevented from doing what you desire to do” (Gal. 5:17, Amplified). And again, “I fail to practice the good deeds I desire to do, but the evil deeds that I do not desire to do are what I am [ever] doing” (Rom. 7:19, Amplified). Obviously, there are two kinds of desires at work here and the either one gives in to the other in the struggle for letting out. One is lawless; the other, lawful. One is brutish; the other, rational. One is carnal; the other, spiritual. One is godly; the other, ungodly. One is sinful; the other, holy. While spiritual desire is rationally sound, emotionally stable, and conscientiously clear; lawless desire bypasses reason, corrupts the feelings, stalls the conscience, and captivates the memory. That is the reason why the Scripture says, “Beloved, I implore you as aliens and strangers and exiles [in this world] to abstain from the sensual urges (the evil desires, the passions of the flesh, your lower nature) that wage war against the soul” (1Pt. 2:11, Amplified).

The fatal blow of desire is its luring the mind to justify wickedness. This is when faith is jettisoned and deception sneaks in. Sometimes even a whole nation can fall prey to the rule of passion by rebelling against truth. In his Republic Plato quotes Damon as saying “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”[2] We may not totally agree with Plato’s view against musical innovations; but when one sees the unrestrained wand of passion displaying gestures of rebellion in any art-form, one cannot but suspect that values are being redefined. The Word warns, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20).

The simplicity of Abraham despite the blessings of God on his life is evident from his contentment to live in tents all the days of his life (Heb. 11:9). It is also evident from his contentment with what only God gave to him and not desiring even a shoe lace by any other means. He made a covenant with God to never be blessed except he was blessed by God; therefore, when the king of Sodom came to him offering the spoils of war, he replied: “I have lifted up my hand and sworn to the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor and Maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a shoelace or anything that is yours, lest you should say, I have made Abram rich” (Gen. 14:22, 23, Amplified). Abraham knew God’s promise of blessing to him and wanted nothing more than that. That is faith.

The Scripture warns us that they who are minded to be rich fall into temptation and many foolish, irrational, and hurtful desires that lead to perdition (1Tim. 6:9). One example of it is Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the prophet, who ran after Naaman the Syrian and, in the name of his master, took from him stuff that his master had refused; but when Elisha questioned him where he had gone, he replied “nowhere”. This man had seen even the dead raised through Elisha’s prayer and still found the courage to lie to him. His conscience and memory were smeared by lust and greed to the extent that he believed that everything was okay despite his sinful act (2Kgs. 5:20-26). Similarly, David when captured by the lust for Bathsheba forgot all bonds of wickedness. He not only committed adultery with her (breaking God’s covenant) but also got her good husband ruthlessly murdered. This man, who once was so zealous for God in faith that he single-handedly defeated the giant Goliath, had now fallen prey to a woman’s beauty (2Sam.11). One doesn’t know what irrational justification his mind was framing in order to not lose the opportunity and companionship of lust. But it broke the heart of God. The same was also true of Judas Iscariot who sold the Lord for 30 pieces of silver after being with Him for three and half years. It is foolishness to think that one’s environment or conditions of living determine the strength of one’s faith. Adam and Eve were in a perfectly sinless environment before they fell into sin. Lucifer was an angel of God. Judas, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the chief priests saw Jesus in person and yet went against Him. Many of us often imagine that if we were as close as the disciples were to Jesus much of our spiritual struggle would be solved. Many desire at least one vision of Christ in this life. But one must understand that all such spiritual and sacred experiences put together can easily be suspended by the onslaught of lust; for lust hijacks all emotion, intelligence, memory, and conscience. Therefore, one must guard himself of all ugly desire that, though seemingly fulfilling, is disastrous in the end.

Division. By division is meant the lack of real spiritual fellowship and communion with God. This causes alienation and distancing from the knowledge of God. As a result, faith suffers loss. Division manifests itself in three forms: discord, dissension, and disunion.

Discord. Discord means a lack of agreement or harmony between two persons. While discord between men may be expressed or unexpressed, discord between man and God needs no expression since God knows what’s in the human heart. Discord between God and man is a matter of perspective and will-towards-something rather than ratio-empirical disagreement (as in matters of scientific or philosophical research). This is so because the relationship is not of the nature of this spatio-temporal pluralistic world where things stand divided from each other in space and time. God is unlike the world and its objects; He is not far from us, as the Scripture says, and we live and move and have our being in Him (Ac. 17:27, 28), which means His presence is more real than the world around us. Therefore, discord or concord between God and man is unlike discord and concord between worldly things, in the sense that it is not primarily a matter of ratio-empirical dispute. It is a matter of perspective, a matter of faith. Discord with God is not justifiable since it is not based on rational judgments but on the choice of will propelled by desire. Therefore, the Word says that God has given up those who, falling to evil desire and reprobate thinking, disgusted themselves by abominable practices (Rom. 1:21-28). The Bible says that the carnal mind is unsubmissive to the Law of God (Rom. 8:7). This lack of submission is not in the sense that it has some logical reasons for not submitting to God but in the sense that the intentions and actions of the carnal mind are opposite to the Law of God. The perspective-shift (from carnal to spiritual or vice versa) can be in a split of a second or gradual. It may be a reaction to a temptation or a moral decline through negligence. Whatever way, the perspective-shift is indicative of a shift from faith to practical disbelief.

Dissension. Dissension is the violent and aggressive form of discord in which the disagreement is vociferously expressed. While in the former case, discordant questions may not be expressed for fear of causing obstacle to the faith of others (see Ps. 73:15), in this case all shame and fear is set aside. The Bible uses different words to describe dissension; some of them are: murmuring, complaining, scoffing, mocking, blaspheming, strife of words, evil talking, perverse disputing, railing, speaking in hypocrisy, ungodly talking, etc (Phil. 2:14; Ps. 1:1; 1Tim. 4:2; 6:4, 5; 2Tim. 3:2; Jude 15, 16). Jesus warned His disciples that on the Day of Judgment men will have to give an account of every idle word that they speak (Mt. 12:36). Dissension comes from a heart of unbelief. It was because of such vehement and vexing ungodly talks that the Israelites were destroyed in the wilderness (1Cor. 10:10). All their opposition was based on their lusts and whims and not on any logic. God had shown such wonders to them that He had never shown before. He foiled the skill of the Egyptian magicians, broke the strength of pharaoh and his forces, tore the Red Sea into two, and walked before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. I do not know of any nation on earth as a whole who had seen so much of God and yet disbelieved Him so much. They broke God’s commands whenever they liked and spoke whatever came to their mouth against God’s servants. Jude tells us that God destroyed them because of their unbelief (Jude 5).

Disunion. Disunion refers to a break-away from faith in God, thus from God. This is the severing of relationship with God. This disunion is the final end of a life of ungodly speech and action. It is the moral failure to hold on to faith and a good conscience and is characterized by a blasphemous lifestyle (1Tim. 1:18-20). This is what the Scripture also calls as a departure from faith by giving in to seducing spirits and the doctrines of devils (1Tim. 4:1). The doctrine of the devil is nothing but ultimate rebellion against God and His truth. The life without faith in God is a life of falsehood. It is a life of self-opposition (2Tim. 2:25). Therefore, says the psalmist, the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous (Ps. 1:5). The sinners who walk after ungodly counsel and associate to scoff at the revelation of God will not be justified (cp. Ps. 1:1). But the just shall live by faith (Rom. 1:17).

The Scripture warns believers against this alienation from God’s truth. It is the sin that brings a division between God and man (Isa. 59:2). The sin of willful commitment to unbelief and disunion with God is unpardonable. It leads to death (1Jn. 5:16). The book of Hebrews tells us that there is no chance of renewal for those who, after knowing the irrefutable truth of God, fall away from the faith (Heb. 6:4-6); for it is evident in their case that their falling away from faith is self-willed and not because of weakness in understanding the truth. The truth was crystal clear to them. Similarly, Peter says that the final condition of those who turn away from the knowledge of Christ after having escaped the pollutions of the world is worse than the first; for, he says, it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to have known it and then willingly turn away from it (2Pt. 2:20, 21). Such a life becomes blasphemous, godless, and a willful opposing of the ways of God.

KEEPING FAITH

Faith Leap by Ayan GhoshNow, there are three chief ways in which faith can be kept; they are: confession, conduct, and communion. Let’s look briefly at each one of them and see how Abraham not only kept his faith but grew stronger in it by following these and by refusing false doubt, ungodly desire, and any sin-induced division. We do not say here that Abraham never made mistakes but despite of all his weaknesses and shortcomings he was justified before God because of his holding on to the Lord. He loved the Lord and no matter what he had to go through, he didn’t stagger in faith, since he knew that he could never leave the Lord that he knew as the true and gracious God. For him there were no regrets and no turnings back.

Confession. Confession is the verbal establishment of inward belief (Rom. 10:10). It is the public testimony of private faith. And when confession is heartily and confidently done, then the internal and the external dimensions of human experience are reinforced in the integrity of faith. Abraham’s confession of faith is captured in his single statement to the king of Sodom. He said: “I have lifted up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take from a thread even to a shoe latchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich” (Gen. 14:42, 43). He confessed here that it is God alone who could have the absolute right of claim over all of Abraham’s blessings, that his sustenance came from God, and that everything of him was God’s and what was his was what God had committed to him. This shows his total trust in God and no side-glances at anything else. His mind was steadily focused on God and His promises. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Abraham never sought any clarification from God. But whenever he did that it was in humility of spirit and never in the haughtiness of pride characteristic of the dissenters. For instance, when God told him that He would bless him with a seed that shall become a nation, the Bible says that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). But when God tells him in the next verse that he was going to inherit Palestine, he asked for a way to know how that would happen. He knew that he was living in tents here and that there were little chances that this tent-living could be given up soon since the land belonged to the different tribes that inhabited it. But God showed him how he would do it giving assurance of it by means of a covenant. He told him that his seed would go to a foreign land whom they shall serve but then return back in the fourth generation to take this land into their hands by punishing the inhabitants of it. Accordingly, the next two generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob too lived in tents, went to Egypt and returned after about 400 years to take the Promised Land. Obviously, there were things that Abraham didn’t understand but he confessed what he knew and trusted God for things too difficult for his understanding. And God was faithful to reveal His counsel to Abraham. Similarly, spiritual facts like being saved, being forgiven of all sins, being heirs of Christ’s righteousness and the Kingdom to come must be confessed again and again in faith or else the devil will gain place by introducing guilt-feelings, doubts, and fears in the heart of the believer. One must acknowledge one’s sinfulness and inability to save oneself, submit to God, and then resist the devil.

Confession brings the mind in subjection to the line of verbal reasoning manifest in the assertion of faith-statements. It awakens the consciousness to the truths of God. It enlightens the memory with the optimism of divine assurance. It is the active choice of the believer to set his mind on the things of God. It is this reason why Christ confessed God’s Word and His purposes by quoting the Scripture when the devil came to tempt Him. He told him that “Man shall not live by bread alone” when the tempter challenged His divine sonship. He need not prove anything to either the devil or to anyone. By confessing the Scripture, Jesus declared to the devil God’s counsel of sending Christ as man to this earth; and that this material world is not an end in itself – bread is not the ultimate thing: to turn stones into bread would mean to look at any object of nature with selfish intentions.

Conduct. Conduct is the factual establishment of faith. It is the behavior of faith. It is the phenomena of active faith. It is not mere asserting but the confirming of faith through action. It is the conformity of life with faith. It is the finalizing of the meaningfulness of belief. One can only live out that which one considers to be livable or meaningful and significant. Therefore, conduct is the establishment of faith in fact and in deed. There is not one instance in the Scripture where it is mentioned that Abraham disobeyed God. Whenever God told him anything to do, he immediately did it. We have seen his obedience of faith in regard to leaving Ur and also, at a latter point, sacrificing his only begotten son. His obedience is also seen in the case of sending Hagar away. When Sara told Abraham to send Hagar, his concubine away, we are told that this thing was very grievous in his eyes because of Ishmael, his son by Hagar (Gen. 21:11). However, when God told him to quit feeling grievous about this and do as Sara had said since God was in control of everything and was going to bless Sara’s son, Abraham rose up early in the morning, packed up things for Hagar and Ishmael and sent them away, without grieving, having been assured of the promise of God regarding the maid and her son. Abraham’s emotions were controlled and directed not by any worldly wisdom but by his faith in the truth and power of God. He knew His God very well and, therefore, he followed Him wholeheartedly. Of course, his half-truth about his wife (Gen. 12:13; 20:2) due to fear evinces his use of cleverness in escaping difficult situations instead of trusting totally in God’s ability to protect him. Similarly, his giving heed to Sara in cohabiting with Hagar, according to their custom, in order to have a child was a hasty and humanly rationalized way (Gen. 16). But one must remember that, in the former case, Sara was truly his half-sister and Abraham’s tactic was something to prevent a possible enemy’s foil act. It was not motivated out of a failure of faith at all. Anyone who has read about the tactics that believers of the underground churches employed in order to prevent the enemy’s success in sin should not be hasty to indict them as failing in faith as if God could not protect them. In fact, they did so because of their unflinching faith in God Whom they could at no cost deny. Obviously, no one generally stretches these things to such an extremity to say, for instance that footballers should give up their play tactics or army men should give up their war stratagems in order to walk according to faith. I am here only trying to prevent hasty and unjust accusation against Abraham; not to justify Abraham’s actions. What for me is important about Abraham is that God never accused him of what most people accuse him. Even if he failed, God would not have accused him since God knew Abraham’s faith and it is before his Master that he falls or rises, and even if he falls God is able to raise him (Rom. 14:4). One will also remember that Christ never condemned Peter for denying Him thrice but understood the love that was in the depth of his heart. Similarly, in taking Hagar as wife, this might have been so because God’s revelation of giving a son through Sara, specifically, is revealed only in Genesis 17. Further, Abraham’s listening to his wife to give her as she desired should not be interpreted as wavering from faith; for, even in doing so there was no indication of his disbelief in God about anything; there could not be. In addition, God never treated Abraham’s child through Hagar as the product of a mistake, but instead blessed him as well. At any cost, none of these things were indicative of any weakening of Abraham’s faith; the truth being that in every instance of God’s specific commandment, Abraham was obedient without question, hesitation, or second-thought.

Communion. Communion is the relational establishment of faith; the personalizing of faith in relationship. One can only be one with someone one is at one with; and one can only be one with someone who is like that one, i.e. basically personal then other points of aesthetic and ethical agreement or harmony: therefore, communion is the personal relationship with God through the harmony of faith. Communion with God is the living out of the I-Thou relationship with Him. It is the establishment of the fact of faith as relationality and not just as subjectivity. Communion can never be one-sided. Communion can never be fantastical. Therefore, communion is the objective establishment of faith in a real divine relationship. When Abraham was 95 years old, God spoke to him saying “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). The command to walk before God was the command to be in perpetual agreement and fellowship with Him. The command to be perfect was the command to be wholeheartedly committed to God in this relationship. The Bible tells us that as soon as Abraham heard this voice (he was still called Abram till this point), he fell with his face prostrate on the ground. He didn’t even speak a word. Anyone who reads the life of Abraham can see him not only as a man of few words but also as a man of diligence and great reverence for God. His communion with God was so close that the Scripture calls him “the friend of God” (Jas. 2:23; 2Ch. 20:7); yet, it was only with reverence in heart that Abraham ever approached God. This can also be seen in the case when he intercedes for Sodom. His intercession is not like one demanding something from God by right though he was God’s friend. For instance, when he enquires the second time he says: “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27) and goes on to make his petition. Remember God’s confession about Abraham just before this session; God said “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I do… for I have known him” (Gen. 18:17-19, MKJV). God could trust Abraham as a friend could trust his friend. That was the depth of communion between them because God knew the genuineness of Abraham’s faith and his absolute and indefatigable holding on to the truth of God. Abraham knew God and glorified God as God; therefore, he was blessed by God.

Thus, we see that through faith and obedience to God Abraham inherited the promises of God. The anti-faith elements of doubt, sinful desire, and division could not find place in his heart full of trust and faith in God. Abraham’s words, actions, and feelings were all tuned up with the will of God. Therefore, he only kept moving onward and never turning back in his walk before God. While the world groped in the darkness of unbelief and falsehood around him, Abraham recognized God’s call over his life and followed Him not knowing where he was going.

NOTES
[1] The Greek periergos means “busy about trifles” indicating curiosity about unwanted things. The English word “occult” used for all such curious arts comes from the Latin occultare meaning “hidden” or “concealed” indicating the non-normalcy and unhealthiness of all such practices.

[2] Plato, The Republic and Other Works, p. 113.

Skeptical Fideism

The Enlightenment thinkers felt that reason had come to age and elevated it above faith. But, mathematics is not the book of life. It is impossible to expel faith. As the wise sage Pascal observed, reason has to be find support on something, and that something can’t be reason itself, to avoid circular reasoning. Reason is also based upon faith. Again, he showed that reason cannot irrefutably prove God, but it can neither disprove His existence. It proves nothing.

Spiritual skepticism is the willingness to concede that our minds cannot have certainty alone by themselves. This is not to deny certain certainties that are axiomatic and undeniable. For instance, one can’t contradict the law of non-contradiction. However, it certainly means that one has no confidence in his own reasoning and wisdom. Only this form of skepticism regarding self can truly set us free to find our fullness and certainty only in Him.