What is Faith? – Part 5
We have been examining the Thomist view of faith, as characterized by Richard Swinburne in Faith and Reason (FAR).
In order to avoid the implication that one must reason in a circle in order to have ‘faith in God’, a supporter of the Thomist view of faith can draw a distinction between beliefs about God that are implied by the statement ‘God exists’ and other beliefs about God that are NOT implied by this claim. For a Thomist, belief in the existence of God is (or can be) based on reasons or arguments, thus some beliefs about God can be based on reasons and arguments, while other beliefs about God are (for a person who has ‘faith in God’) based on divine revelation.
The use of this distinction to rescue the Thomist view of faith, required that the analysis of ‘faith in God’ be modified slightly, as follows:
Person P has faith in God
IF AND ONLY IF
(a) P believes that God exists, AND
(b) P believes that God has various properties (divine attributes), AND
(c) P believes that God has performed various actions, AND
(d) any beliefs that P has about God’s properties or actions that are not implied by the concept of God are accepted by P because P believes that God has revealed those beliefs.
Swinburne gives two examples of beliefs about God, taken from the Nicene Creed, that are supposed to be based on divine revelation:
(MHE) God made Heaven and Earth.
(RTD) God will one day raise the dead.
Both examples are, however, problematic.
Swinburne’s analysis of the claim ‘God exists’ involves the identification of a person who has several divine attributes. One of the divine attributes used to identify a person as being ‘God’ is that of being ‘the creator of all things’ (The Existence of God, 2nd ed., p.7). If one can make a case for the probable existence of God, then that means that one has shown that there probably is a person who is ‘the creator of all things.’ Such a person must obviously also be a person who ‘made Heaven and Earth’. Therefore, if one can show that God exists on the basis of reasons and arguments, then in doing so one has also shown that (MHE) is true. There would thus be no need for divine revelation as the basis for the belief that (MHE) was true.
Now (RTD) is not so directly and obviously implied by the statement ‘God exists’, but it does have a very close connection to a rational case for the claim ‘God exists’. Any rational case for the claim that ‘God exists’ must deal with the problem of evil to be successful. Swinburne’s case for the claim ‘God exists’, for example, involves an extended examination of the problem of evil (see The Existence of God, Chapters 10 & 11). One aspect of the problem of evil that is particularly challenging for belief in God, is the fact that some people appear to have lives that are very miserable, lives in which the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the person appears to outweigh any pleasure, happiness, and comfort that person has experienced.
Swinburne believes that human suffering could be allowed by a perfectly good and omniscient and omnipotent deity, but that it would be unjust for God to bring about a human life in which the pain, sorrow, and suffering of that life outweighed any good aspects of that life. The key response to this particular aspect of the problem of evil is that God has the power to grant further life after death to such persons, so that in the long run there is more good than bad in that person’s experience (The Existence of God, p.262).
So, although resurrection of the dead might not be absolutely necessary to ensure justice to those people whose lives were filled with pain, sorrow, and suffering, some sort of afterlife appears to be required in order to make sure that every human life contains more good than bad in the long run. The claim ‘God exists’ does not directly imply that there will be life after death, but given the sorts of evils and distribution of evils that actually exist in this world, it would be difficult if not impossible to defend the idea that God is perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient apart from the supposition that God will provide a life after death, at least for some people who got the short end of the stick in this life. Thus, given that the supposition of a life after death is a necessary component of any halfway plausible case for the existence of God, rational belief in the existence of God will involve belief in life after death, and it is only a short step from that belief to (RTD). So, in arriving at belief in the existence of God on the basis of a rational case for God, one will already have good reason to believe (RTD) or that something similar to (RTD) is the case.
I’m not saying that there are no beliefs about God besides beliefs that are implied by the claim ‘God exists’. But the fact that both of Swinburne’s examples are problematic, provides some support for my view that the central and most important beliefs about God’s properties and actions are already contained in the concept of ‘God’ and implied by the claim that ‘God exists.’ One example of a belief that goes beyond the claim ‘God exists’ is the belief that God is a Trinity of three persons in one being. Aquinas did not think that one could prove that God was a Trinity. This was a belief about God that one must accept on the basis of divine revelation. I’m inclined to agree with Aquinas that the Trinitarian nature of God cannot be established on the basis of reasons and arguments. However, Swinburne puts forward a philosophical argument for the Trinity in his book The Christian God (see Chapter 8), so for Swinburne it is possible to base belief in the Trinity on reasons and arguments.
There probably are some beliefs about the properties and actions of God that go beyond the concept of ‘God’ and the belief that ‘God exists’, but it seems to me that most of the central and important beliefs that Christians have about God are contained in the concept of ‘God’ or implied by the claim ‘God exists’ or are implied by essential parts of a rational case for the existence of God. If that is so, then the Thomist view of ‘faith in God’ delegates most of the central and important beliefs that Christians have about God to REASON, and leaves a secondary and rather less important role for trust in divine revelation, for TRUST in the truth and correctness of what God has (allegedly) communicated to humans.
Furthermore, the TRUST that believers who have this sort of ‘faith in God’ have in the advice and information that they think comes from God is itself based on beliefs about the properties of God, such as that God is omniscient and perfectly good. Those beliefs about the properties of God, are (from a Thomist viewpoint) based on REASON. So, the Thomist conception of ‘faith in God’ seems to be very heavily grounded in REASON, since even those theological beliefs that are accepted on the basis of divine revelation, are accepted on the basis of beliefs about the knowledge, character, and motivations of God, which are in turn based on reasons and arguments that are independent of divine revelation.