Philosopher Jerry Martin asks whether faith is possible for a ruthlessly logical, hard-headed, no-nonsense guy in the 21st century.
In general, men also like to be mentally tough. No nonsense. Just the facts. Shoot down bad arguments. Only believe what can be proved.
Why? We don’t like to be conned, to get the worse end of a deal, to be talked into something against our better judgment. It’s basic martial arts. You have to have your feet firmly planted – on what? On the facts. On reality—as it is, not as we or others wish it to be.
So where does that leave us with regard to the God question?
We think, if only physics could prove there’s a God … But, even though a guy just won a Nobel Prize for discovering the “God” particle, when you look at it, all it turns out to be is a bit of matter that clears up apparent anomalies and validates the standard model of basic physics. Very nifty science, but no God there.
And we think, if only there were a proof, like in mathematics … and now we read that a computer has confirmed the great logician Saul Kripke’s ontological argument for the existence of God. That’s the sort of argument that says, if we can think of a being so great that none greater can even be conceived, it must exist, since otherwise a greater being could be conceived, namely, one that does exist. But all the computer told us is that, if you accept Kripke’s premises, the conclusion follows. The premises are themselves unproved and highly debatable.
We need to go back to basics. Define our terms. What is it to be tough-minded? Is it the same as hard-headed and, some suspect, hard-hearted?
In material science, hardness and toughness are unrelated. They are simply two different things. Hard things can be brittle. Like people, they can snap. When I was in junior high, I fancied I was, not the smartest guy around, but the most purely logical. I could spot a fallacy at 50 paces. My friends used to say, “Martin has a mind like a steel trap – closed.”
If hard things can be brittle, and hard-headed men can snap, what is toughness? In material science, it is something that you can’t break. A strong plastic is hard; a steel cable is tough. You can try to poke it, crush it, bend it, it is unfazed.
Did you ever know one of those guys (maybe you had him as a boss once) who is hard-headed — everything by the book, stick with the rules, the job description, cut and dried, won’t anticipate a problem until it is smashing his skull? I am a Civil War buff, and there were a lot of bad generals like that. Generals like Grant and Lee didn’t have to have proof that the enemy was up to something. They took in the reports, read between the lines, psyched out their opponents, trusted their instincts, and improvised. McClellan, on the other hand, could have an army twice the size of the enemy but, since there was no advance proof that he could win, he held back. In a less bloody context, a battle royal for academic freedom, I asked a veteran of such combats, “Do you think you can win?” “I don’t know,” he responded. “I never ask that question. I do not have to know I will win in order to fight.” He knew that, if you fight, you might win. If you don’t fight, you never will.
Maybe if you believe in God – call it the willing suspension of disbelief – you might get somewhere but, if you don’t, you never will. But, well, we guys want to be tough. We sometimes forget that what takes nerves of steel is not to keep your feet and your mind in concrete but to launch into the unknown, the unproved, the speculative, into things that have to be taken on intuition or a hunch or a gamble.
My favorite American philosopher, William James, saw the question of religious belief in this way. He wrote a rebuttal to the premier hard-head of his day, British scientist, William K. Clifford, who had argued in a very influential piece that it is always wrong to believe something for which there is not sufficient evidence. He had religion in his cross-hairs.
Not so, said James in “The Will to Believe.” If a questionable belief meets three criteria, it is perfectly rational for a person to accept it. First, it has to be a “live hypothesis” for that person. Scientists often believe things that haven’t yet been proven. By exploring a hypothesis, they show that it is a live option for them.
The second criterion is that the belief has to be one for which the evidence either way is inconclusive. It can’t be proved but can’t be disproved either.
Third, whether or not you accept the belief will shape your whole life – shape it one way if you accept it, shape it another way if you do not. You cannot remain neutral. Not to decide is itself a decision.
In such cases, it is perfectly rational, absolutely tough-minded to believe — or not to believe. It is your choice.
The belief in God is like that. Living your life in a believing way will be completely different from living it in a scoffing or withholding way. You will see the world itself differently, as having a meaning for example. And you will see your life as having a purpose, even if you don’t know what that purpose is. But each day, you will try to orient yourself Godward and look for the guiding thread in your life.
When Columbus sailed westward, there was no proof and no guarantees. He had to be tougher than the guys who hewed to the shoreline. When Einstein came up with relativity, there was no experimental confirmation and, in fact, some of the first experiments went against him. He trusted his scientific instincts.
The trapeze family, the Flying Rodleighs, taught the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen a lesson in faith. When the one who lets go of his own swing flies through the air, he must not grab for the hands reaching out to him. He must glide on the air of faith and let the other artist’s hands take his.
Faith is not easy. It may be the hardest thing in the world. It takes a tough man to believe in God.
Photo: Flickr/Greta Ceresini