Training in truth

It seems clear that knowing God involves both analogies and disanalogies with other kinds of knowing, such as knowing other minds, etc. One of the more important disanalogies may center around the kind of training it takes to come to know God. Coming to believe in the existence (and saving presence) of God is not a simple one-off evaluation of arguments and counter-arguments. Rather, it may involve being trained to see the same 'facts' of experience from a different angle, or 'crossing a threshold' in William J. Abraham's terminology. As Stanley Hauerwas says in relation to Christian formation, " not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed in order to see the world truthfully." (Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p.33)

A recent exponent of this view is John Cottingham. He argues that truths about God have a very peculiar metaphysical status, because of their unique object. There is a significant disanalogy between 'proving' a scientific hypothesis and 'proving' the existence or attributes of God: "...because metaphysical claims about God refer to a supposed transcendent entity that is wholly other than the natural world, there are, even if we can achieve some understanding of how such a mode of existence could be humanly conceived, considerable difficulties as to how it could be established in any way remotely comparable to that used to establish a scientific hypothesis." (Cottingham, "The Nature and Significance of Theistic Belief", p.418) Theologian David Ford also insists that "God is 'always greater' and this has a direct consequence for any attempt to prove God's existence: there can be no larger framework within which God's reality can be assessed. The one who seeks God does not have any neutral criterion or any overview of the evidence. God is the ultimate framework and has the sole overview." (Ford, Theology, p.43)

What, then, is the epistemic status of belief in God? Cottingham suggests that "intimations of the divine presence might be available, not universally, or in the detached context of dispassionate scientific scrutiny, but only to those in an appropriate state of trust and receptivity." (Ibid.) This notion goes at least as far back as Blaise Pascal and his suggestion that inquirers who are 'on the fence' should engage in theistic practices (such as taking Mass) together with confirmed believers, so that gradually they would come to see the truth of Christianity: "Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe..." (Pascal, Pensees, 233) Similarly anthropologist Tal Asad comments on Augustine's emphasis on the importance of teaching or eruditio in Christian formation: "It was not the mind [for Augustine] that moved spontaneously to religious truth, but [God's power] that created the conditions for experiencing that truth...although religious truth was eternal, the means for securing human access to it were not." (Asad, Genealogies of Religion, p.35)

This on the face of it does not seem an unreasonable suggestion. As Cottingham remarks, many other truths about the human condition and about relationships can only be accessed through trust and sustained commitment: "truths about the trustworthiness and loving responsiveness of a spouse or partner...can never be disclosed or accessed from a position of cold skeptical assessment, but only as part of a process of trust and commitment." (Cottingham, "The Nature and Significance of Theistic Belief", p.419) Nevertheless there is at least one significant objection which can be raised against this idea. Richard Norman in responding to Cottingham on this issue argues that we must distinguish between two very different cases:

(a) S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to believe p, where this is a case of self-deception or unthinking habit, inducing a belief which remains ungrounded
(b) S acts as though p were true and thereby comes to see what it is that makes p true

Norman's argument is that, in the case of coming to being committed to another person, "there is at any rate something that the person can say about what makes p true-what makes the other lovable, how she knows that he is trustworthy. Admittedly, the point of the 'Gestalt switch' [i.e. 'crossing the threshold'] account is that what makes p true is more difficult to recognize for someone who has not made the commitment. Still, there has to be something which S can say, and which can convey to others what it is that grounds the the case of the religious believer, if the belief is induced by the practice, and if there is nothing that he can say about what it is that he is now aware of which supports his belief, then his position is indistinguishable from that of the self-deceiver in cases of kind (a)." (Norman, "The Varieties of Non-Religious Experience", pp.491-492)

But of course no reflective theist would ever concede that there is nothing to be said concerning the rational warrant for her commitment. Even Pascal's suggestion was directed at those who have seen "too much to deny and too little to be sure" (Pascal, Pensees, 229), with emphasis on having seen too much to deny. This implies evidence of some sort. And of course there are all kinds of evidence which can be adduced in support of theistic belief, including various design arguments, the reliability of the testimony to Jesus Christ, contemporary accounts of religious experience and miracles, etc. But Cottingham's idea here is that such considerations, important though they are, cannot of themselves bring a person to true belief in and acceptance of the reality of God. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that training is necessary in order to perceive the force of the above evidence rightly (cf. William J. Wainwright, Reason and the Heart). Even here the analogy with scientific knowledge may not be useless. It takes years of training in theoretical physics, for example, before being able to appreciate the full scope and validity of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Why should the situation be any different with the ultimate 'theory of everything'?


Tal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993)

John Cottingham, "What difference does it make? The Nature and Significance of Theistic Belief" Ratio XIX (2006), pp.401-420

David F. Ford, Theology: a very short introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004)

Richard Norman, "The Varieties of Non-Religious Experience" Ratio XIX (2006), pp.474-494

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1660, Trans. W.F. Trotter (accessed at


BK said…
Excellent post, JD.

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