The Absurd: Further Reflections of a Christian Existentialist

With this blog I would like to share a thoughtful response that I got from my last blog from Andy Whitaker, who is one of the most one of the most brilliant and affable people I have had the privilege of knowing. His response is in blue and my response follows.

Great blog post Randy, thanks for sharing and happy birthday! I thought I'd message you since sometimes public conversation about faith and politics can be more inflammatory than constructive. I have a high degree of respect your faith and the personal and professional choices it has led you to make. I am fascinated by your journey through Christianity and existentialism and would like to push back on a couple of points.

We come from different upbringings. Mine was vaguely Catholic but essentially agnostic, and after reflection on my beliefs in college and as an adult (though probably not at the level of scrutiny you describe) I have remained agnostic but lean atheist. I took a class on existentialism that covered Descartes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, at least briefly. I appreciated Descartes’ arguments and my reaction to them was similar to yours. I have not read any Harris or Dawkins (maybe snippets here and there), and what Hawkins I have read was scientific in nature, not philosophical. So I’m not sure how my ideas fall in terms of the modern atheist authors.

Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" left a strong impression on me. I took it to mean that faith must exist outside of reason, since any attempt to reason out one's faith indicates a lack of faith. It left me with a belief that no one can be faulted for their faith on rational grounds, and similarly no rational argument should be influenced by faith.

I’d like to probe you especially on two of the points in your blog post. First, the Chesterton passage, and second, the idea that your leap of faith to Christianity is a smaller leap than the leap to atheism.

First, you quote Chesterton saying “to abandon faith entirely is to abandon reason as well” and say that this idea led you down a road of despairing. What is your interpretation of the meaning of faith in this passage? Is it a narrow faith, a faith in reason alone? I can agree that to abandon faith entirely is to abandon reason, but it seems a trivial conclusion; one might abandon faith in all but reason. Simply abandoning faith in god, or faith in Christianity, does not require abandoning reason.

Second, you say that the atheist authors have “reinforced my belief that the leaps of faith they've chosen to make have crossed greater chasms than my own”. Do you think that these atheists were less correct to make their leap of faith than you are in making yours? Measuring the chasm strikes me as an exercise in futility. It implies that from one side of the chasm, it is possible to look across and see the other side. To my mind, a calculus metaphor is more appropriate than a chasm. Any gap in reason is an infinite, impenetrable uncertainty. Some infinities may be larger than others, but they are still infinity. This infinite uncertainty leads me to acknowledge that we are all on similarly shaky logical grounds when it comes to questions of belief and how we should live our lives. I realize that this leads to big questions about moral relativism, but I think that can be left to another conversation.

Happy birthday and thanks again for the blog post!

Thank you for your thoughtful response! Forgive my wordiness and roundabout manner of addressing your questions, but I felt it necessary. It is true that I am rarely applauded for my brevity!

In any event, your impression of Kierkegaard seems accurate to me and reminded me of the concept of "the Absurd," which most likely came up in your studies on existentialism. In the words of Kierkegaard, “What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.”

My position is that beyond, “I think, therefore I am,” every belief is absurd—including the belief to put faith in reason. Either consciously or not, we all must act; we all must make the absurd leap of faith to either reject reason (and head to the asylum) or to embrace it. I say asylum because to reject reason as a means of knowing—that is, to embrace the wholesale skepticism raised by Descartes—is precisely the recipe for insanity. Yet there are no rational grounds for one to place faith in reason; indeed, what makes such faith all the more absurd is the fact that such faith is influenced by, as Kierkegaard stated above, “my reason, my powers of reflection.” So after reasoning and reflection, one chooses to place faith in reason? Such cyclical thought is entirely absurd. Thus, given that even putting faith in reason is absurd, indeed we are all on similarly shaky grounds—but not just from a moral standpoint as you stated. Even more so! The individual in the asylum is now on the same grounds as the Rhodes Scholar.

I think you are correct to parse out different sorts of faith in the sense that I think each act of faith requires its own absurd leap—some of which are predicated on others. The “first faith” is then that absurd act of faith upon which one places faith in reason itself. Chesterton was concerned that in the modern era, the trend was to abandon such faith, leading to the “suicide of thought.” I share Chesterton’s sympathies and believe that in our post-modern society all too many have chosen the asylum (e.g., Miley Cyrus). Yet I reject the asylum; I choose to place faith in reason. Why? For no other reason than because “this is what I must do, I cannot do otherwise.” I accept that there are no rational grounds for making such a leap of faith, yet I cannot do otherwise; placing faith is an absurd leap that I simply must make.

Now, with any leap of faith one chooses to take, one must consider the possibility that one is wrong. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that placing faith in reason is in error. To dwell in that possibility is exactly what it means to despair in perpetual skepticism. Yet there is also the possibility—dare I reject your calculus of infinite doubt and say the probability?—that my sense of reason is connected to reality. To believe in such a possibility is where sanity begins; it is the first step out of the chasm of despair—that is, hope.

Now in the sense that the Rhodes Scholar and the insane man are each on shaky logical grounds as you more or less stated, to this I cannot disagree. Yet once one takes the leap of first faith towards reason, at that point one can distinguish between the sane and the insane. It is from this vantage point that I assess Harris, Hawking, and Dawkins and find them wanting. These men do not believe in faith in all but reason—they simply believe in reason alone. This much is clear simply by reading no more than the title of one of Sam Harris’ books, that is, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Further, Hawking stated his belief that “philosophy is dead” because it has not “kept up with the modern developments in science.” A brief perusal of quotes by Dawkins makes his position on faith clear. Yet all of these men, at least to me, seem to fail to realize that the very foundation of the reason they laud is the faith they deride. While my position is absurd, it is at the very least plausible and internally consistent. The same cannot be said of the aforementioned, who project the same baseless certainty of the fundamentalists they frequently deride.

So to answer your first question, I agree that abandoning faith in God or Christianity does not require one to abandon faith in reason as well. As for my faith in Christianity and why I have gone beyond faith in reason alone? I am tapped out for now and will save that for a blog post to come soon. In the meantime, meditate on 1 Corinthians 2 if you should so desire as it will more or less be the basis of my next post.

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