Thinking About Believing

I consider my students and I consider myself–and I think:  our problem is that we know heaps and heaps of things but we believe nothing, or almost nothing.

A friend of mine asked me the other day about Christian religious belief and being a good person, about whether you can be a good person and disbelieve.  That sort of question I cannot answer formulaically, and would not, I hope, even if a formula came to mind.  What I found myself saying was something like this:

We most of us have no real knowledge of what we believe or disbelieve, in the existentially indexed form of belief I take ultimately to be at issue in Christianity.  What we believe or disbelieve is something that isn’t captured by putting a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ in the blank before, say, “There is a God”, on a True/False test.  Perhaps living a good life–a genuinely good life, not a conventionally good one–is itself to believe.  And perhaps living a bad life–a genuinely bad life, not a conventionally bad one–is to disbelieve.

What I said was something like that.  At any rate, I reckon that someone who has a false understanding of Christ could disbelieve in that Christ without disbelieving in Christ.  So too someone with a false understanding of Christ could believe in that Christ without believing in Christ.  Kierkegaard somewhere attempts to elucidate Christian belief by talking about it as ultimately a matter of the imitation of Christ:  imitation is the sincerest form of belief, we might say.  Does imitation–in the sense at issue, whatever exactly that is–require that one know that one is imitating, who one is imitating?

“No one can come to the Father except through me”, “I am the door of the sheep”:  couldn’t ‘going through’, ‘entering the door’, be a matter of what we are ontologically (salvation as theosis) and not, or not so much, a matter of what we are epistemologically, of what we believe in a non-existentially indexed sense?  “Not everyone who saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…”   Will non-existentially indexed denial prevent entrance?

What significance would all this have for the Church?  Well, that is a huge topic.  But Orthodoxy has taught me to believe that although we know where the Holy Spirit is (in the Church) we do not know where it isn’t. –What the Church does is to help us to live a good life, a genuinely good life, to live in imitation of Christ, deliberate imitation, and imitation of Christ truly understood.

Living a genuinely good life is far harder than we reckon it to be, I think, far harder; a camel passing through the eye of a needle.  Both inside the Church and outside it, people underestimate how hard it is.  Mea maxima culpa.  And it is not just hard to live a genuinely good life, it is just as hard to figure out what one would be, what it would look like.  Especially on your own, especially in situ.  “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, and few there be that find it.”  Travelling the way is hard, yes; but finding it is just as hard.

I know there is much to complain about here–but I am just thinking aloud, quasserting, not asserting.

Unbelieving Believers: The Intended Audience of Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Keeping his intended audience in mind is perhaps the most difficult thing to do when reading Johannes Climacus’ Postscript.  He writes, neither to those who deliberately reject Christianity nor to genuinely faithful Christians.  He is not writing to those who are caught in the throes of becoming a Christian.  Each of these audiences can of course find much in Postscript, but it is not written to them.  And, far too often, Postscript is criticized as if it had been written to these audiences.  (As a result, the book is criticized as if it were apologetics (God forbid!) or as if it were evangelistic).

Now I realize this may seem a strange claim, especially in the case of the last group, those in the throes of becoming a Christian.  “After all,” an objector might say, “Climacus’ controlling question is:  ‘How do I become a Christian?’  So isn’t he writing to that group?”

No.  Climacus’ interest in his controlling question is retrospective, not prospective.  He asks the question, and answers it, not as an exercise in evangelism, not as a tractarian, but for the sake of his intended audience, those who believe that they are believers, but who fail to believe.  His interest in his question is retrospective because, given the confusions of his intended audience, they will think of themselves as on the far end, as it were, of the question, not on its near end.  They need to realize that the way in which they believe they became believers is not a way of becoming believers.  I will call the intended audience the unbelieving believers.*

This intended audience is not wholly homogenous.  Some of the unbelieving believers account for their becoming Christians by believing it as a historical truth; some account for their becoming Christians by believing it as a speculative truth.  But both sub-groups have treated becoming a Christian as coming to be objectively convinced of the truth of Christianity.  To the extent that they have been worried about their subjective relationship to Christianity, their appropriation of it, they have taken it to be precipitated from objective conviction.  But appropriation does not precipitate from objective conviction.  Even worse, objective conviction makes appropriation even more difficult than it already is.  Objective conviction requires the inquirer to discipline out of her inquiry all questions of subjectivity, of how she is related to the object.  That very disciplining out tends to attenuate or destroy subjectivity.—This is one reason why the unbelieving believer who worries about appropriation expects appropriation to precipitate from objective conviction–the conditions of acquiring objective conviction are hostile to appropriation, so if it is to happen, it will look to those who pursue objective conviction but worry about appropriation like something that really can happen only once objective conviction occurs.

In showing what is really involved in becoming a Christian Climacus aims to shock his audience into recognizing that they are unbelieving believers.  Their account of how they became Christians, once they are clear about it and about the way one does actually become a Christian, reveals that they are not Christians.  They may be objectively convinced of something–it is unclear it really counts as Christianity–but they are not really believers, appropriators of Christianity.

That unbelieving believers are the intended audience is part of the story why Climacus is not much concerned about answering the objective question about the truth of Christianity.  (It is not the full story, but I am unsure I can tell the full story.)  His intended audience takes that question as settled.  They expect settling it to have settled the question of their faith too.  Climacus aims at unsettlement.  He will begin with an invitation:  “Tell me, and tell yourself, how you became a Christian…”

*NB  I use this phrase to suggest the simultaneous similarity and dissimilarity between Climacus’ intended audience and the father of the son possessed by a spirit (in Mark 9; cf. especially 9:24).

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