Two Roads You Can Go By

I want to connect some dots between the audiobook I mentioned yesterday and the book I’ve been reading this past week: James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

In the audiobook, Guelzo contrasts two different approaches to epistemology: voluntarism and intellectualism. Jonathan Edwards was an example of the former in that he placed emphasis on the will as the key to knowledge. As part of a tradition that goes back at least as far as Augustine, the idea is that if you believe the right things, you will find the truth. Or as Anselm later paraphrased it, “Unless I believe, I cannot understand.”

The other approach comes from the Enlightenment via Descartes and Locke, and that’s the belief that reasoned skepticism is a better approach to knowledge. If you only believe what you can test and verify, you’re less likely to have false beliefs and more likely to arrive at knowledge.

I’m only a few chapters into Smith’s book, but it clearly comes down on the voluntaristic side, but with a postmodern flavor. Having been disappointed by the Enlightenment, we should focus on correcting our loves rather than expecting study and rational inquiry to change us. And rather than study changing your heart, it’s your habits that need work. Smith repeatedly affirms the importance of reason and intellect and study, but they seem to play a small role in his system.

When I was a seminary student, I was warned to avoid two opposite extremes: fideism, the idea that all we can do is take a leap of faith in the dark; and rationalism, the idea that it is wrong to believe anything without evidence. I was given a model of faith and reason working together, and I still cling to this.

But at the same time I was trained in this more voluntaristic tradition, and it took me a while to realize why I felt so conflicted. Voluntarism and fideism have much in common. How can I believe in order to understand (which I affirm wholeheartedly) without first understanding what it is I am believing?

When I teach on worldview, I liken it to discussions in apologetics between evidentialists and presuppositionalists. Evidentialists believe that you should change your beliefs to fit the evidence, whereas presuppositionalists believe you should evaluate the evidence based on your beliefs. (I’m dramatically oversimplifying here.)

But I really, honestly think it’s both. If your beliefs are impervious to facts, you’ve wound up a fideist. You’re white-knuckling your faith and hoping it will deliver. If you think you should follow the facts wherever they lead, you’ve wound up a rationalist, failing to appreciate the role of your values in the process of finding, validating, and interpreting facts.

Your beliefs have to be tested. They have to be open to refinement. So does your evidence. When your beliefs and the evidence collide, it takes great wisdom to know which should bend to which. This is the uncomfortable place I’m convinced we have to live in.

I want a system that recognizes the power both the will and the intellect have in our seeking knowledge and virtue. Voluntarism and intellectualism (at least in their simplified forms) both seem incomplete. Smith’s book is a helpful corrective to a people who have bet the farm on study as the road to success, but I’m concerned it may go too far.

In fact, I could propose a third road that is a player in these conversations, and I don’t mean the happy medium I hope to find someday. The third road is naturalism. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel, all that matters is the biochemical processes that dictate every aspect of your life.

On this view, your will is simply a manifestation of your programming combined with your environment, and your reason is no better. I’m a bit concerned that Smith’s book may be heading that direction when it talks about the power of habit, as though unconscious processes are the most potent of all. (As though we don’t have millennia of precedents that going through the motions is not enough to please God.)

I realize it’s dangerous for me to say anything before I’ve finished the book. This is a good time to remind you that this isn’t a book review, just a journal entry. The sort of thing I would have only put in my notebook in 2017. I may change my mind. I may write a more thorough treatise. I don’t know yet.

For now, all I’m doing is thinking out loud. There are streams running through history that draw us in different directions, and I’m concerned about where we are as a society right now. I believe a better way is here somewhere.

One final note: it’s sometimes seen as arrogant to believe you’ve found “the way” or “the Truth.” To believe that you’ve happened on the story that makes sense of all other stories, or the system that should trump all other systems. I think those are two separate issues. I can be arrogant about almost anything. (I’m kind of talented that way.) But searching for conviction is not arrogance. Finding something you’re willing to stake your life on is necessity. Searching for solid ground on which to stand is just stewardship. I hope I am not arrogant in the process, but I may be guilty of worse if I don’t try at all.

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