Faith and Doubt After "The Cognitive Turn"

In my second class on doubt at church I focused on what I called "cold" or "intellectual" doubt. This doubt is less about lament and the absence of God than it is about intellectual skepticism, having difficulty believing, epistemologically speaking, in the existence of God.

I began with the observation that intellectual doubt has become particularly acute for many Christians due to the fact that there has been a hollowing out of faith in many sectors of Christianity. More specifically, for many Christians faith simply means "belief." Further, "belief" is taken to mean "I think proposition x is true." Thus, having faith means something like "I believe God exists." While atheists are defined as those who say "I don't believe that God exists." Faith becomes reduced to asserting (or denying) propositions.

Needless to say, this is a thin and hollowed out notion of faith. Faith becomes an abstract, intellectual, cognitive, and rationalistic process. And the implication is that if you can't get your intellect in line then you don't have faith.

This formulation has many problems. First, it suggests, by definition, that doubt is a lack of faith. If faith means confidently asserting propositions doubt is found to be incompatible with faith. Unshakable intellectual confidence becomes the mark of faith. No doubt can be admitted into the faith experience. Such a situation is worrisome on many levels. First, in the bible faith is never understood to be unshakable intellectual confidence. In the bible faith is more similar to perseverance, obedience, covenant faithfulness or worship. Additionally, if faith is "unshakable intellectual confidence" religion becomes inflexible, intolerant and dangerous.

A second problem with a rationalistic notion of faith is that the believer has nowhere to go when doubt emerges. If doubt is the opposite of faith then when intellectual questions emerge the believer has to conclude that she has "lost faith" in God. But, as we all know, intellectual questions come and go. Our ability to assert anything about God waxes and wanes, often for years or decades. So we need understandings of faith that allow us to engage with those questions without the whole house of cards being thrown up into the air. Faith needs a stable foundation that can support intellectual exploration, questioning and doubt.

So how did we get into this situation? How did faith get hollowed out?

In my class I told the story of what I called "the cognitive turn" in Christianity. Specifically, I walked through church history noting how faith became reduced to a banal intellectual assent, the rationalistic model of faith many Christians work with. According to my story there were two moments in church history that pushed faith into this intellectual mold.

The first stage of the cognitive turn occurred with the establishment of the Christian creeds during the reign of Constantine. With the establishment of the creeds being a "Christian" became a matter of assenting to the propositions listed in the creeds. This was a hollowing out of faith. Faith was no longer participation in the life of the counter-cultural Christian sect declaring that Jesus was Lord in the face of the Roman Empire. For these early Christians "faith" was more akin to allegiance, rebellion and revolution, a declaration that you were not a citizen of this world. That Caesar was not, in point of fact, your king.

But in the wake of the creeds all this was lost. "Faith" became the public endorsement of a list of religious propositions. Being a "Christian" became equated with orthodoxy (asserting the correct propositions) rather than political allegiance.

The second stage of the cognitive turn occurred during the Protestant Reformation and the notion that salvation was secured sola fide, by "faith alone." The doctrine of sola fide had two negative consequences. First, it doubled down on what the creeds started. Salvation was secured by intellectually "believing in" Jesus. Second, sola fide marginalized texts like the gospel of James where blunt statements like "even the demons believe" and "faith without works is dead" are found. Sola fide completed the cognitive turn. Faith became radically dislocated from anything political or behavioral. Faith was reduced to a mental exercise.

The cognitive turn has left us in quite a predicament here in modernity. After the cognitive turn faith was hollowed out. Faith has become confident intellectual assent. But this kind of faith is very fragile in modernity where the intellectual pressures upon faith have grown extraordinarily acute. Modernity makes faith intellectually more difficult. And if faith is 100% intellect then no wonder people feel that they can't "believe" in God. The cognitive turn made faith hollow and fragile, an egg sitting on a wall. And modernity came along and pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall.

Given this situation I suggested to my class that we recover a richer, fuller, more biblical notion of faith. Faith as bouncy ball rather than egg. This biblical notion of faith helps overcome the weaknesses of the intellectual Humpty Dumpty view of faith. First, a richer and fuller view of faith allows room for doubt. Since faith isn't dependent upon intellect alone the Christian can still "have faith" even when intellectual doubts are at their most extreme. This goes a fair way in reducing the emotional distress associated with doubt, in both the doubter and the loved ones of the doubter who are looking on. Doubt should and can have a jolly facet to it. The whole world shouldn't be at stake. Second, a more biblical view of faith allows us to be more open to outsiders. Eschewing unshakable intellectual confidence as the mark of faith we are in a much better position to listen to people who disagree with us. Maximally, this means that we are protected from the violent excesses of "faith." Minimally, it helps us not be assholes. (Sorry for the language, but that really is the best word for it.)

So what is this richer, fuller view of faith? That would take a much longer post, but I pointed the class in two directions. In contrast to a purely intellectual faith I suggested two other kinds of faith:

Sacramental faith:
A faith with and through the body. This is the faith of the book of James, the faith of obedience. It's the faith of discipleship, moving one's body through life the way Jesus moved his body through life. It is the faith of orthopraxy ("right practice"). The first Christians were called followers of "The Way." This is the faith of the path, what Eastern religions call the dharma.

Doxological faith:
The faith of worship and allegiance. The early Christians confessed that Jesus was Lord, a radical political claim That is, regardless as to whether you believe in the Incarnation or the Resurrection, a Christian confesses that Jesus is Lord, the telos of her ethical and political existence. Doxological faith is the claim that, at the end of the day, the teachings of Jesus are the authority in my life, what monastics call the "rule." Everyone has to make choices in life, big choices and small choices, and we make those choice in light of some conception of what is "good" or "best." Doxological faith makes Jesus that criterion.

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17 thoughts on “Faith and Doubt After "The Cognitive Turn"”

  1. Love this post. As a cold doubter myself, what continues to bother me is that even your very generous definitions of faith still depend on at least some degree of intellectual belief. For example, how can I have adequate doxological faith if I am unconvinced that the gospels' accounts of Jesus' teaching is even accurate? How can I cede that authority without at least staking a claim on what it is Jesus taught. For example, I have a tough time believing the demons cast out into pigs story. And if it all boils down to my best judgment as to what Jesus actually taught, its historical context, etc., then at the end of the day, how does it differ from humanism?

  2. I find when the Church is used as "the universal" on does injustice to ethnic identity, internalization of cultural norms and values, and dismisses the real questions of Jewish roots, and pagan faith being "sanctified" as Christian.

    You speak as an evangelical, which tries to have an apology for the church. Apologetics are trumped up "beliefs" whether these are lifestyle claims, or belief systems...and today, it seems in vogue and politically correct to affirm lifestyle as the claim to "christian truth". And this way of thinking is very undemocratic, because it uses the political realm to define and defned what believing is and should mean...individuals are the only ones who can have faith...and that is personally meaning making.

    If people are interested in the poor, and social justice, then don't whitewash it as universal or the 'only way to believe or understand faith"...everyone knows that the hierarchy or the ones "calling the shots" are the ones who pad their pockets, while using others to do their dirty work. This is unethical, no matter how moral...

  3. Pither,
    That's a good point. Let me narrow in on what I'm saying.

    My focus is less on the historical accuracy of the "gospel accounts" and more on the teachings of Jesus. That is, Jesus as a teacher rather than a metaphysical belief object. So when I encounter his teaching such as "turn the other cheek" the issue isn't about metaphysics at all. It's about looking at something like the Sermon on the Mount and asking, "Will I trust (have faith in) this teaching? Will I adopt this path for my own life? Will I use this teaching to define what is 'best', 'good' and 'praiseworthy'?" That is what I mean by "having faith in Jesus."

    Pigs or no pigs. :-)

  4. God bless you Angie, that might have been the first time in my life someone has labeled me "evangelical."

    As always, I do appreciate the time and effort you take in reading and responding to what I write.

  5. What I am saying is that the "Gospel" now means doing works of charity. The "good news" is humanitarian aid. Why Christianize it? I imagine the reasons are similar to when the Church Christianized Easter, Christmas, etc...

    I appreciate your affirmation as I get angry whenever I think someone does not support differences of values...whether believer or unbeliever...

  6. Fair enough. But how does this differ from your take on the teachings of Buddha or Ghandi or any other ancient wisdom? Without metaphysical beliefs about Jesus (which I lack) how is my "faith" in Jesus any different than my faith in any other human wisdom? Maybe I should phrase my question this way: How does a humanistic view of Jesus and his teaching differ from a faith-infused view of Jesus, as you define it? The only answer I can come up with is metaphysical beliefs, but you rule that out in your definitions. Color me confused.

  7. Your "doxological faith" is very close to what James advocated:

    "In every being that is real, there is something that is external to, and sacred from, the grasp of every other. God's being is sacred from ours. To co-operate with his creation by the best and rightest response seems all he wants of us. In such co-operation with his purposes, not in any chimerical speculative conquest of him...must lie the real meaning of our destiny." ("Reflex Action and Theism")

    Yesterday in a conversation I described myself as a "free-thinking Christian," but regretted the tag afterward, even though I couldn't come up with a better one to describe my belief that deliberative engagement with doubt is crucial. "Doxological" is much better, for all the reasons you provide. Thanks.

    BTW: James held this view till the last year of his life, when he publicly disowned it after un-named Christians attacked the view as false, to which James replied that faith "is true in no way then..." (Preface to "The Meaning fo Truth") A depressing story that still awaits the right Christian academic to right...

  8. I've come to think that faith got hard when western society got very infatuated with a culture of timeliness, measurement, exactitude. Scientific proof. It's good, but elements of the church let their understanding of what had been revealed to them through tradition and reading to come in conflict with observable evidence.

    Evidence of evolution contradicted presumed biblical truth.

    It didn't have to, but that's what the leaders chose.

    That put about the need to basically provide conclusive evidence ... hard factual observable evidence upon any artifacts that we had.

    Let's be honest, our forebears are as inaccurate as we are. We can't even tell our own history today without outright lies and so it would be hard to imagine that everything in the artifacts we have would be completely perfect.

    Does it have to be?

    This is one point where post-modernism is a help. Returning the truth back to subjective brings the mysticism back... it brings the faith back. You really need faith to tell yourself, "It's ok."

    We (the common reader, not perhaps the academic) spend way too much time evaluating scripture from our own cultural lens and miss that for instance... the people of Moses never intended for the creation story to be hard and measured fact. It's a nice way to remember things. It gets the important parts right. It contains poetic truths. It fits the language and state of thought of their day. Natural history it ain't.

    Do we have to be in complete understanding of love to feel it?

    It's that notion, however fuzzy it may be, that wraps everything.

    We have placed too much weight upon language like "firm foundations" to the point where we say, "we can't be fuzzy!" "It's only true or false!" That's not life. Not at our limited conception. That kind of firmness is a crystal lattice whose structure is all too easily broken.

    You remember in that movie "A Christmas Story" when the major award broke and he tried to glue it back together? That is unfortunately what much of "modern" Christianity looks like. It's a goofy prize. It's not the real thing. It's a bit embarrassing. And it's broken and even in worse shape than it was. Not to be crass, but a better time would've been spent with his wife's company. That's where the love and reward is. Not in some "major award" cooked up by the powers that be.

    We would probably be more persuasive if the love of Christianity spoke for itself through our actions as opposed to being spoken through logical proof and archaeological evidence. If people have to look to the bible for proof of God's love, the church is failing miserably.

  9. RB

    Good stuff. I think that you're right to narrate a history that over time made faith about intellectual assent. I would qualify it just a bit. The creeds were not an attempt to intellectualize faith. Theology, for instance, was still seen as a habitus, or a way to support Christian life and practice, not the construction of an intellectual system. The creeds certainly got the ball rolling a certain direction, but I think this business that faith is primarily intellectual assent is far more modern, even more modern than the Reformation. (I'm convinced that Luther would object to the characterization that faith was reduced to a mental exercise). Just like the "turn to the subject" had antecedents in prior philosophical and religious impulses, so I think it would be fair to say that "a cognitive turn" had antecedents but came full flower in the enlightenment.

    You are absolutely right that this ups the ante on doubt in ways that are unfortunate, especially given the pressures on belief in a scientific age. It's certainly the thing that is always most problematic for me.

    I also really like your two options at the end, but I might label them differently. I don't think many people would see James as being sacramental, and is sacramental really what you are after? The sacramental came increasingly with the creeds, the same impulse created both in many ways. I like the sacramental, but its different, I think than dharma, I think, than what you are proposing. But maybe I just don't see the connection.

    Anwyay, you've got me to thinking here. My instincts are always to integrate not proliferate, so I'm weighing the merits of qualifiers for faith. But types have a lot of clarifying value. I think this has a lot of pastoral possibility.

  10. "It's about looking at something like the Sermon on the Mount and asking, "Will I trust (have faith in) this teaching? Will I adopt this path for my own life? Will I use this teaching to define what is 'best', 'good' and 'praiseworthy'?" That is what I mean by "having faith in Jesus."" (Richard)

    Now that's a great summation of what you were pointing out in this teaching. I generally agree with every single thing in that statement and also search for a deeper definition for 'faith' that includes intellectual assertion to one's actions as definitive of their actual beliefs - regardless if they maintain orthodoxy or not.

    I find that faith has become such a joke (in some senses) when it becomes about holding the right beliefs about 'the faith' and not about one's 'actions in regards to the teachings' (their experience with actually following something)...following being an 'action' word.

    I examine this a lot to on some personal level...true faith is something we try and test - has some meaning to it...experiantially. Anyone can say 'God is this or that'...but that doesn't change much of anything without some actual substance we live out. My opinion anyways.

  11. This discussion is helpful to me. My doubt is the cold, intellectual type of doubt. I feel estranged from those I share a pew with who always seem to be so certain. I decided that despite doubt I would choose to believe that the Christian life is a good life for me. Largely because I grew up in a Christian home. However, my faith seems cold too--an intellectual choice.


  12. Yep, we've got to retain the cognitive, intellectual element. Jesus, to be credible, must be master not only of ethics, but of reality itself; that is, he must be able to see things as they really are. Only there, bolstered by an accurate account of reality, does ethics find coherence. Even if we see only through a glass darkly, the shadows and contours and silhouettes must conform in some meaningful sense to the world as it is, to life as it is. What good is a "savior" who doesn't really know what he's talking about?

  13. "It's about looking at something like the Sermon on the Mount and asking, 'Will I trust (have faith in) this teaching? Will I adopt this path for my own life? Will I use this teaching to define what is 'best', 'good' and 'praiseworthy'?' That is what I mean by 'having faith in Jesus.'"

    So am I Christian? I no longer believe in any gods, nor that there was a crucifixion, an actual, historical Jesus to crucify, or a Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. However, I still think in terms of, say, the sheep and goats parable as an ethical guide. I still find the Sermon on the Mount motivating and I still believe that Love is patient, kind, etc. Am I a Christian? I'm honestly asking. It's been a while since I've been inside a church.

  14. Justin,
    There is an important sense in which the designation "Christian" is as self-designation. It's difficult for any third party to make that call. Notoriously so.

    As a self-designation I'd pay attention to issues of intentionality. Does a person, every day, intentionally follow Jesus? If so, I'd say they would call themselves a Christian.

    I tend to think being a Christian is like a master/apprentice relationship, like learning a trade. If you feel like your relationship with Jesus is best described as master/apprentice then, again, my bet is that you'd self-identify as being a Christian. "Christian" here meaning something like "intentionally learning to be Christ to my friends, family and the world."

  15. Disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. I've always wondered who gave them the moniker ... themselves or others?

    Did they live out lives that spoke so much of Christ that their pagan neighbors gave it to them?

    Or did the give it to each other because the wanted to be so known? Both? Neither?

    In some ways, I think followers of Jesus - disciples - lost a little something when they became known as Christians. They lost the picture of walking with their Teacher, listening to and talking with Him, watching and participating in the good things He did for others as He went. "Disciple" describes that picture to me. "Christian" sounds more like a voting bloc or philosophical affiliation.

  16. I like the Master/Apprentice analogy. There seem to be a lot of Masters to learn from, though. Christian and non-Christian thinkers pull their inspiration from a lot of the same sources. So maybe the word "Christian" is a declaration of which teacher one primarily studies and primarily seeks to emulate. If that's the case, then I guess I'm still a Christian after all since my guide tends to be the Jesus stories.

    A lot of the ecclesiastical ex-pats I know are on the same page as Mainstream Christianity. Most of us call ourselves Humanists, but maybe there's not much difference a lot of the time beyond terminology. Christian - Humanist - Potato - PoTAto... you know. (Excluding extreme cases of course.)

  17. I agree with some of what you and others have written here. Certainly, facing our doubts honestly is a good thing, and being charitable toward those of a differing persuation is noble and right. However it is interesting that you provide no clear definition for faith. I am not sure how those who fail to make a clear distinction between faith and doubt can ever do so. Yet all we need to do to get a clear, working, useful definition of faith is open a dictionary. When we do so we find that it contradicts what you are saying. I think something is seriously wrong here.

    Those of us who have experienced faith as a gift of God know that we are no better than anyone else; we are not arrogant or presumptuous, but genuinely humble, joyful and thankful for such a gift. We know that we could never produce such confidence ourselves, but we also know better than to rest in unbelief. No one needs to live content in doubt, especially about eternal life.

    It is true that doubt is an integral part of our existence because we are human and we are broken. But this is not to be accepted as an ideal in every facet of our existence. True, there are many things that we may always doubt, but let it not be so in our relationship with God and our eternal destiny. To live in doubt here, with any prospect of being wrong, is to live in either insanity or terror. This is not a choice we can afford to live with. There is a better way.

    I encourage you to reconsider what you are teaching here. You may find my own article on the subject of interest: God bless you.

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