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Faith in God versus religious dogma?
The question I wish to ask here is whether there is a contradiction or at least tension between the notions of faith in God and belief in religious dogma. This is a thought that has occurred to me recently, and I wish to pursue it somewhat in this post.
Let me begin by defining by terms. By “faith in God,” I mean: a fundamental trust that God is good and will do good to one in one’s life. Trust is the conviction that the trusted thing will do one good or at the very least not do one harm. By “religious dogma,” I mean: fundamental doctrines that a person must assent to or at least not disagree with openly in order to maintain friendly relations with God. The argument is therefore as follows:
If God is fundamentally trustworthy, then God can be ignored.
If God can be ignored, then it is not necessary to believe religious dogmas.
Therefore, if God is fundamentally trustworthy, then it is not necessary to believe religious dogmas.
Let’s begin by explaining the premises of this argument one by one.
The first premise says that if God is fundamentally trustworthy, then God can be ignored. The justification of this premise is the more general principle that whatever is trustworthy can be ignored. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if a friend can be trusted with a secret, then one does not need to check in on him or her to see if the secret has been shared against your wishes. Or if one’s spouse is trustworthy, then one does not need to wonder whether or not he or she has been faithful. Or if one’s tools are trustworthy, then one does not need to inspect them before each usage. Or if one’s boss can be trusted, then one does not need to worry when being called into the office for a discussion. Or if God can be trusted, then one does not need to despair in not receiving the objects of one’s prayers, as though God were depriving one of good things. Whatever can be trusted can also to that extent be ignored. A thing’s trustworthiness is the extent to which one does not need to worry about it as one goes about one’s business. The same thing can therefore be said of God, as well. The extent to which God is trustworthy is the extent to which he can be ignored and does not need to be “checked in on.”
The second premise says that if God can be ignored, then it is not necessary to believe religious dogmas. The justification of this premise is that the necessity of believing religious dogmas is grounded in the fact that they are necessary for salvation’s sake. God will not save the person who either does not accept the dogmas or at least openly rejects them. But if there is a chance that God will not save persons who fall into certain categories, i.e. if there is a chance that one’s own life might end badly on account of God, then God cannot be ignored. One cannot ignore that which stands a chance of getting in one’s way and interrupting the achievement of one’s goals. And what greater goal to people have than that of being happy? But one’s loss of salvation is surely a block to one’s happiness if anything is.
The argument is logically valid according to the rule of hypothetical syllogism. The premises likewise seem true to me. Therefore, I judge the argument to be sound. If God is fundamentally trustworthy, then it is not necessary to believe religious dogmas. But what does this have to do with the question of the relation between faith in God and religious dogmas? This point can be explained as follows.
Faith in God is founded upon the conviction that he is trustworthy. One believes in him because one is convinced that he can be trusted. But the argument above showed that if it is necessary to believe in religious dogmas, then God cannot be fundamentally trusted. He can only be trusted if one fulfills the conditions he has set for salvation, namely by believing the appropriate religious dogmas. This means that faith in God and belief in purportedly necessary religious dogmas are grounded in opposing impulses. Faith in God is motivated by the conviction that God is trustworthy, whereas belief in purportedly necessary religious dogmas presupposes the judgment that God is not trustworthy. The stronger one tends in the direction of one conviction, the weaker one will be one’s insistence on the other.
One might wonder what this argument is supposed to prove. One may simply say: I grant that God is not unconditionally trustworthy. He is freely so. He chooses to be trustworthy for us and he tells us the conditions on which we can depend on him. But I am myself curious to what end this way of thinking can be sustained. If God is not unconditionally trustworthy, then he really cannot be trusted unconditionally. But if God is unconditionally trustworthy, then one need not worry about his having set conditions within which he can be trusted.
If God is not unconditionally trustworthy, then it is not possible for him to earn trust. Trust cannot be earned stricto sensu. Trust can only be given and then kept or lost. This means that trust is always conditional and uncertain. It is possible in principle for a person whose trust was first given to lose it eventually. But presumably God does not want us to have this kind of faith in him. He does not want us to trust him conditionally or with a measure of uncertainty. There are therefore two things one can say in response to this problem. On the one hand, one could say that God causes us to trust in him unconditionally even though he is not strictly speaking unconditionally trustworthy. The problem is that in this case faith which consists in trust in God becomes irrational insofar as it is disproportionate to its object. On the other hand, one may say that God is unconditionally trustworthy. But then one cannot appeal to considerations pertaining to God’s holiness or other purported attributes of God in order to undermine the argument given above.
One might also question whether it can even make sense for God not to be unconditionally trustworthy. In order for God not to be unconditionally trustworthy to human beings, he must in principle be such that his interests run irredeemably contrary to at least some possible human interests. It must be possible in principle for certain things that human beings might want to impede the fulfillment of God’s own interests. It must furthermore be the case that God cannot incorporate the contrary pursuits of human beings into his own pursuits in such a way as to leave everyone satisfied, since this would still make him trustworthy. In order for God not to be unconditionally trustworthy, it must be possible in principle that God will seek his own interests against those of some creature in such a way as to leave the creature dissatisfied in the end. But all this puts God in competition with human beings as being on the same level as them. It makes God simply one more being among all the other beings that exist. This is contrary to the philosophical notion of God as an ultimate reality. It is also contrary to the Bible’s notion of God as needing nothing from human beings (cf. Acts 17:24–25). The higher notion of God sees him as in no competition with human beings in principle. It is inconsistent with the idea that might not be unconditionally trustworthy. And it is therefore also inconsistent with the idea that God would condition his trustworthiness on the belief in religious dogmas.
All of this is to say that there seems to be a conflict between faith in God and belief in purportedly necessary religious dogmas. To the extent that one has faith in God, one judges him to be trustworthy and thus good. To the extent that one accepts the notions that certain religious dogmas must be believed, one judges that God is not unconditionally trustworthy. If faith is to be unconditional, then it is either disproportionate to its conditionally trustworthy object or else God himself must be unconditionally trustworthy. But if God is unconditionally trustworthy, then it is not necessary to believe religious dogmas. Faith and dogmas thus conflict.