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Obstinate Faith

Obstinate means stubborn. While we shouldn't have a stubborn commitment to abstract truth claims, such as Einstein's theory of General Relativity, (the evidence should dictate our beliefs on such matters) we should have a stubborn commitment to trustworthy persons in the face of contrary evidence.

God is a person.  

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In 1955, C.S. Lewis penned the essay The Obstinacy of Belief, in which he addressed a misunderstanding about the rationality of Christian commitment. The misunderstanding is that,


Christians are irrational in maintaining their trust in God in the face of counterevidence.


After all, isn’t a scientist irrational for discounting contrary evidence of his pet theory to maintain his belief in it? Lewis says that when it comes to the scientist we should criticize him for discounting contrary evidence to his theory, but not the Christian who discounts contrary evidence against his belief in God. In ignoring contrary evidence the scientist is being intellectually shady, whereas the Christian is being intellectually virtuous. Admittedly, this sounds very counterintuitive. But it’s not as crazy as it initially sounds.


To make sense of what Lewis is saying, it is important to take note of the distinction he makes between how an individual – scientist or Christian – initially forms their belief (in a particular theory or the person of God) and how they adhere to their belief afterward. These must be carefully distinguished or what Lewis is saying will make no sense.


Lewis is clear that we should initially come to hold our beliefs, be they scientific or religious, based on their evidential support. When the scientist initially forms a belief that a particular theory is true, he does so based on the evidence in support of the theory. Likewise, when the Christian forms the belief “God exists” he does so – or at least should do so – based on the evidence in support of that claim. Lewis says:


The man who accepts Christianity always thinks he had good evidence; whether…physical or metaphysical, historical evidence, evidence of religious experience, authority, or all these together. For of course authority, however, we may value it in this or that particular instance, is a kind of evidence. All of our historical beliefs, most of our geographical beliefs, and many of our beliefs about matters that concern us in daily life, are accepted on the authority of other human beings…


The difference between the scientist and the Christian comes in how they maintain their beliefs afterward in light of disconfirming evidence. The reason for the difference is due to the object of their belief. One believes that a proposition is true and the other that a person exists.


Now, Lewis does admit that in a sense, Christians do recommend a certain discounting of apparently contrary evidence. Believers warn one another that apparent contrary evidence will, at times come their way and tempt them to doubt their commitment to God. He acknowledges that such behavior at first seems shocking and even irrational. If a scientist discounted contrary evidence to their favorite theory, we would rightly criticize them. In fact, we expect the scientist to invite doubts and challenges to their theories in the pursuit of truth.


But do scientists always seek counter-evidence to what they believe? What about when they’re not doing science? When they’re not in the lab researching a theory, but in their everyday life as people. How do they go about maintaining their beliefs then, especially when they have to do not with propositions but with persons? Here they act more like Christians do. Lewis provides an illustration:


If, for the first time, a doubt of his wife's fidelity crosses the scientist's mind, does he consider it his duty at once to entertain this doubt with complete impartiality, at once to evolve a series of experiments by which it can be tested, and to await the result with pure neutrality of mind? No doubt it may come to that in the end. There are unfaithful wives there are experimental husbands. But is such a course what his brother scientists would recommend to him…as the first step he should take and the only one consistent with his honor as a scientist? Or would they, like us, blame him for a moral flaw rather than praise him for an intellectual virtue if he did so?


Clearly, Lewis thinks that it would be silly, a moral flaw even, for the scientist to treat a doubt about his wife in the same way he would treat doubt about his favorite scientific theory. Lewis does admit that the evidence might accumulate for the wife’s infidelity to such a point that the scientist would have no choice but to believe she is unfaithful. But given the fact that it’s the scientist’s wife who is under question and not a scientific theory, he is justified in discounting the doubt given his experience of her and her character over the lifetime of their marriage.


Lewis believes that Christians are entitled to do the same with their doubts about God. But he goes even further, admitting that Christians not only think it right to discount some evidence against their original belief in God, but they also seem to praise an adherence to their belief despite any counterevidence whatsoever. Is doing so reasonable? Lewis says it is and argues that the Christian’s continued belief in God despite counter-evidence is a logical conclusion to hold based on the content of the Christian’s original belief. But how?


Lewis helps us see that the Christian is rational to maintain their belief in the existence of God in spite of contrary evidence by pointing out situations where we ask others to believe and trust us despite the evidence to the contrary. He says,


In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child's finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can't, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their senses, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw further back into the trap is the way to get it out, that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger from hurting, that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body, that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking, that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. Now to accept the Christian propositions is ipso facto to believe that we are to God, always, as that dog or child or bather or mountain climber was to us, only very much more so. From this, it is a strictly logical conclusion that the behavior which was appropriate to them will be appropriate to us, only very much so.


To simplify, what Lewis says is that it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where we might require another to believe in and trust us, based on what they believe they know about us, in the face of very convincing evidence to the contrary. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. No one says afterward what an unintelligent dog or child or boy that must have been to trust us. If the young mountain climber were a scientist, it would not be held against him, when he came up for a fellowship, that he had once accepted a belief with strength greater than the evidence available to him. Therefore, if it’s appropriate for them to trust us, based on their previous experience with us, then it is appropriate for Christians to believe in, and trust God based on our experience with him in the face of very convincing counter-evidence.  


Lewis claims that if human life is in fact ordered by an all-good being whose knowledge of our needs and of the way in which they can be satisfied infinitely exceeds our own, we must expect that God’s ways will often appear to us far from good and far from wise, but it will be to our advantage to give him our confidence in spite of this. Doing so makes even more sense given the fact that when we accept Christianity, we’re warned that apparent evidence against it will occur, evidence strong enough "to deceive, if possible, the very elect."


Nevertheless, our belief and trust in God are made reasonable by two facts.


First, despite the contrary evidence, we do seem to have positive evidence for God’s existence. Some of it comes in the form of external events. For example, Lewis once went to see a man, moved by what Lewis felt to be a whim, and discovered the man had been praying that Lewis should come to visit him that day. Other evidence is more internal, like that on which the mountain climber or the dog might trust his rescuer, the rescuer's voice, look, and smell. Like the mountain climber or the dog, Christians feel they know God. We continue to believe in God because from experience we have found him trustworthy.


The second fact is this; we think we can see already why, if our original belief is true, such trust against apparent evidence, is demanded of us. For in our case, the question is not about being helped out of a trap or over a difficult place in a climb. We believe that God’s intention is to create a certain personal relationship between himself and us, a relationship that is unique but comparable to brotherly love. Complete trust is an ingredient in that relationship. Such trust can only grow where there is room for doubt. To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence.


A person isn’t our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they’re proven. A person is our friend when they are slow to accept evidence against us. Such confidence, between one person and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious person is blamed for the cruelty of character for not trusting his friend, and not admired for the excellence of his logic.


For Lewis then, there is no real parallel between the Christian’s commitment to God in the face of counterevidence and the commitment of a bad scientist trying to preserve a theory in the face of counterevidence. The Christian and the scientist are in the same boat as long as they are investigating a speculative question. At that point, evidence should be our guide. But once the question of God’s existence has been answered in the affirmative, the Christian is in a different boat than the scientist. To believe that God, at least the biblical God, exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a person. You are no longer faced with an argument that demands your assent, but with a person who demands your confidence.


Lewis offers an illustration to help us see his point.


If an acquaintance of ours told us they were planning on coming over for a visit this evening, it’s one thing to ask if the acquaintance will really be joining us this evening if the time passes and he has not arrived. It would be reasonable to expect him less and less as time ticked by. But what if the situation was different? What if our friend swore to us on his honor that he was coming by later this evening to bring us the antidote to a poison we had ingested? The proper and reasonable response to our friend would be to continue to expect his arrival far into the night due to our friend's character since we had found him reliable before and given the urgency of the situation. Who wouldn’t feel slightly ashamed if, the moment after we had given up faith in him, he arrived with an explanation for why he was late? Wouldn’t we feel that we should have known better than to doubt his word?


Lewis acknowledges the challenges that can be raised to an approach to belief in God like the one he suggests. On the one hand, if God exists then a stubborn faith in him is a proper response. On the other hand, if God doesn’t exist then our obstinate belief in him is misplaced. The question is, how can we tell which it is? The demand for our confidence that a true friend makes of us is exactly the same that a deceiver would make. The refusal to trust, which is a sensible reply to a deceiver is ungenerous and shameful to a friend, and deeply damaging to our relationship with them. But asks Lewis, what other choice do we have? When asked for your trust, you can give it or withhold it. But you cannot wait to give it until the state of affairs has been demonstrated to you and you have certainty. At that point, no trust is involved in the decision. But if God does exist, then trust is of paramount importance in having a relationship with him.


Lewis concludes by maintaining that opponents of Christianity, have a right to dispute with us about the grounds of our original belief in the existence of God based on the evidence. But they must not accuse us of sheer insanity if, after the assent has been given, our adherence to it is no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence. They cannot of course be expected to know on what our assurance rests since it is grounded in our relationship with God. Nor can they be expected to see how the quality of our experience causes us to conclude that if we are deluded that nothing in the universe is as satisfying as our “delusion.”


In the end, knowing a scientific claim like “water is H20” and knowing a person such as God is not the same. In the case of the first, we are irrational to hold onto that claim if the evidence tips the scales in favor of water not being H20. But that’s not the case with trusting a person such as God. We are well within our rights to continue to trust in a person we believe is trustworthy even in the face of contradictory evidence. In fact, it can be praiseworthy to do so. Especially because we do occasionally encounter positive evidence for God’s existence and have also been warned that we will encounter contrary evidence of God’s existence.


Therefore, before throwing in the towel on your faith in God out of the desire to be intellectually virtuous, recognize that you are not just disbelieving in a truth claim by abandoning your faith, you are also rejecting a person and severing a relationship. Before you do, I encourage you to ask yourself if the evidence of God’s nonexistence that you have discovered since your conversion is so overwhelming that it both precludes the chance of his existence and that he is worthy of your trust. Until then, in the face of contrary evidence, you should continue to give God the benefit of the doubt, just as you would a friend who has demonstrated their character to you.


But, you say,


“I question God’s character. He has let me down too many times to continue to ignore the evidence and give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems more likely that he doesn’t exist than that he does. Even If he does, why should I trust a God who has the kind of character he has? He seems more cruel than loving."


If that’s how you feel, I get it. Click here.  

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