On the Epistemology of Faith

Phillip H. Wiebe reviews John Bishop’s Believing by Faith:

Bishop revives the idea advanced by William James more than a century ago of following one’s passions in religion when intellectual issues cannot be decided. Bishop offers a sophisticated statement of the conditions necessary for a responsible act of “taking as true” some claim for which evidence is incomplete or ambiguous, and in the course of so doing not only engages some recent interpretations of faith in James’s famous “The Will to Believe,” but also clarifies recent advocacy of the view that belief in the existence of God can be properly basic. He describes the book as arising out of an attempt to examine alternative concepts of God to the classical one in which God is considered to be the “supernatural, omnipotent, omniscience, omnibenevolent Creator ex nihilo” — the omniGod” (p. ix). Although he keeps classical theism in view, Bishop attempts to set out conditions for embracing virtually any theistic stance. His frequent reference to evangelical Christian faith, which requires putting faith in God as revealed in Jesus the Christ, suggests that he expects this version of theism to be familiar to his readers. Evangelical Christianity arouses strong passions — for and against — and it is often presented by adherents as something one might “believe by faith,” so it serves Bishop’s objectives. I will return to this topic.

One of the merits of Bishop’s work is his drawing attention to the felt difference in human experience between such broadly cognitive-affective states as taking a claim to be true in practical reasoning, and other related states of mind such as believing a claim, trusting it, and accepting it (35-41). His discussion of the limited circumstances under which we can generate beliefs lends credence to the view that a central concept in understanding religious commitments is holding claims as true, rather than believing them. Bishop’s phenomenological analysis of human acts belonging to religion adds to the knowledge of ourselves as unique, natural agents. Bishop is not the first to draw attention to important distinctions embedded in facile uses of such terms as ‘faith’ and ‘believe’, but his remarks strike me as especially insightful. The title of the book might lead one to expect an articulation of religion using these overused terms, but he does so without them. “Believing by faith” is not an effort expended in order to “make oneself believe” some claim for which the evidence is inconclusive, but consists of taking a claim to be true for practical purposes. This is the fideism that Bishop defends for those he describes as “reflective believers,” that is, people who are interested in justifying their religious acts.