April 24, 2014

Daniel Jepsen on “Promethean Faith”

Promethean Faith
by Daniel Jepsen

* * *

I saw the SF movie Prometheus last week.  I won’t review it or summarize it here except to note that it featured a creature far rarer than aliens in Hollywood’s universe: a practicing Christian.  She is even portrayed in a positive light, and is, in fact, something of the heroine of the story.

Not that this is in any sense a movie advocating Christianity or even religion.  Indeed, we never see Elizabeth Shaw engaged in prayer, worship, seeking guidance from scripture or really anything that could be described as spiritual. How do we know she is a Christian at all? First, because of the cross she wears around her neck; It is so symbolic that at the end of the movie she even pointedly demands it back from the robot who took it from her (long story). Secondly because when challenged how she can still believe in spite of all the…mess…that has hit the fan, she says explicitly, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

There is a bit of backstory to that statement. Earlier we see a dream sequence flashing back to Shaw’s childhood, where she is sitting with her father (who appears to be a missionary, if I am not mistaken).  Some of the local people are waking in a funeral procession, grieving their dead, and the girl asks her father, “Can’t you help them?”

“They wouldn’t want help from me”

“Why?”

“They believe different things.”

“Well, how do we know they are wrong and we are right?”

The father answers, “It’s what I choose to believe”.

The adult Shaw, then, has learned this lesson well, and repeats the type of faith she inherited from her father.  This is the extent of her Christian belief portrayed in the film: wearing a cross, and clinging stubbornly to a faith that she simply chooses to believe.

What do we make of this?  Are Christians (or religious adherents more broadly) simply those who “choose to believe?” Or, as I have seen in put in more insulting terms, do religious people simply believe without reason or evidence? An atheist columnist in my local paper put it this way: “Christians don’t need reason. They take everything by faith”.  It seems the writers of Prometheus, in spite of their good intentions perhaps, have pretty much the same view. Are they right?

I think they are very much in the wrong. The error, however, is rather easily understandable.  Did not Kierkegaard speak of a great leap of faith?  And was it not the mighty Augustine who set the course for medieval thought with these words, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou may believe, but believe that thou may understand”? Yes and yes, but also no. Let me explain.

The view that we must simply choose what to believe, and that reason and evidence form no part of this choice, is called fideism (from the Latin word for faith, fides).  Philosopher Alvin Plantiga defines it this way: “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”. I would only add to this definition that technically perhaps it is better to speak of a fideistic viewpoint as one that pits faith against evidence rather than reason (since reason is utilized even in choosing to go against reason).

Let us begin by noting that fideism has never been in the mainstream of Christian thought. Indeed, it is difficult to even find Christian thinkers of the past or present who would claim the label.  At the same time, two related themes have indeed been present in Christian thought from Tertullian in the second century to thinkers like C. Stephen Evans in ours. The first theme is the idea that reason (or evidence) by itself cannot prove the claims of Christianity. The second theme is that certain Christian doctrines go beyond reason in some sense.

It is important to realize that affirming both these ideas (as I do) does not make one a fideist, nor does it make faith “something I simply choose to believe”.  An analogy comes to mind.

A young woman falls in love and becomes engaged.  She eagerly begins planning the wedding (the groom being “not into details”) and her subsequent life joined to the man of her dreams. All is well until a week before the wedding.  She receives an anonymous note, claiming that her fiancé has been cheating on her this past year.  No proof is given, but its tone seems convincing.  She shows it to her fiancé, who denies the charge with indignation.

Question: does she call the wedding off?

Well, if she believes her fiancé really has been cheating on her this last year she certainly will. But does she now believe in her the man’s faithfulness? That is the question.  One the one hand, she has evidence, in the form of the note, that would argue against his faithfulness.  And she cannot prove his faithfulness (for that would have required 24 hour video surveillance). It is certainly rationally possible that he is a cheater and deceiver.  But on the other hand, she knows the man.  She has been close to him and observed him in a number of situations over the course of several years.  She has found him honest in other areas without fail.  And his response to the charge was not the sheepish look of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but something like the anger and indignation she herself would feel if she were the subject of the accusation.

Again, the wedding is a week away. The invitations mailed; all the preparations made. Does she call it off?

What would you do?  If you, in her situation, went ahead with the wedding, then in some sense you have made a decision that goes beyond evidence.  You are making the decision to believe in something that goes beyond what you can know.

I have a friend who is getting her Ph.D. in epidemiology.  She also has a two-year old son. What happens when she takes him to get vaccinated, and he sees the fearsome needle approach? Does she explain all the facts of the immune system to the child, hoping he will make a rational decision based on those facts?  A child that age would not understand. It is not that he has no reason, but his reason has limits.  The reason he does have, however, has shown him that his mother loves him and can be trusted.

This, I believe, is the essence of Augustine’s famous quote cited above.  As he says elsewhere, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity”.  Even Kierkegaard, I believe, should be understood this way: the step of faith is not a call for rejecting reason in favor of faith, but rather a call to radically live out the implications of our faith, even when the choices go beyond our ability to see outcomes.

This type of faith, I believe, is what the best Christian thinkers have always tried to model, and that most believers I know seem to have (though most could not articulate it as well as Augustine).  They have many questions. Some things may not make sense. But they have also experienced the goodness of God, and learned to trust his words.  Their faith is without reason, but it may believe things reason cannot prove, just as the non-religious person believes many things he cannot prove either.

So I was happy to Elizabeth Shaw, a Christian alien in the universe Hollywood has constructed. May her tribe increase. At the same time, the type of faith portrayed is the shallow, easy to dismiss kind that ultimately is not reflected in Christian teaching or practice.

But then again, perhaps that is not the final word.

The name Prometheus became associated with human striving. This could be striving against ignorance, tradition, or (originally) the gods of the Greek world.  The movie’s title, then, reflects not just the name of the space ship, but the attitude of the lone human who survives, and who, as the movie ends, plans to seek out and question those “gods” responsible for her life and her great pain.  When David, the robot, asks her why, she seems confused by the question.  To be human is to seek understanding, whatever the cost. Her stubborn faith that there is an answer to why, and that the answer matters, is contrasted with David’s cold and limited rationality; and it is this that makes her human.

Here we come, it seems to me, to the heart of true religion: To not be content with the facts, but to use the facts to ask the one question whose answer we can never prove, but can perhaps know: why?

Ultimately, the universe (including human life) either exists as a bare fact, requiring no explanation, or it exists as a thing with meaning.  It is the stubborn, promethean faith of Elizabeth Shaw, clinging to her cross as she boards a new ship to search for the gods, to search for meaning, that we can both celebrate and emulate.



Comments

  1. In defense of Hollywood a movie isn’t a great venue to explore these things – you have ~2 hours where you need to define characters and move plot. So the format requires a kind of thin definition (and in terms of marketing it isn’t probably wise to get too specific about a character’s religious views unless that is what the movie is pointedly about).

    Fideism fits the formats constraints.

    Aside: But any religious character is better than the one who insists that they see meaning in *everything*. “religion” in film is so often conflated with a belief in “destiny”. The character insisting that whatever event occurred has “meaning” [often very obliquely]. As a religious person I’ve often wanted to stand up and scream: “I’ve walked away from car accidents, into and out of burning buildings, and walked out of the ER after arriving in an ambulance… and in those situations I did *not* invoke the concept of divine providence. It was just crap that happened and stupid decisions made.”

    >Here we come, it seems to me, to the heart of true religion: To not be content with the facts

    I think the same notion could be applied to the true heart of science.

    • Science is the facts. But the facts themselves have no meaning without a subject to give them meaning. Some are happy to believe there is no subject, just chemical reactions. Christians obviously reject that.

      • Science is the facts.

        I would adjust that to science has an interpretation of the facts, often a particularly goof approximation, but still an interpretation.

        • That is supposed to be ‘good approximation’

          • Atheist Gladiator says:

            Well, they say there’s going to be a director’s cut with an extra 20 minutes or so. Who knows, maybe this will clarify her theology.

            Alien 3 (the one set on the prison planet) had religion in it, too. (Just not your kind of religion.)

  2. For any action decision, there must be a point where discussion ceases, and one says it may be right or wrong, but here we go. The Mother (superego) says to the child (ego), “you have to hold still for this shot because I say so.”

    When you say “they” are wrong, it isn’t clear whether you are referring to Shaw and her father or atheist columnists. I think Shaw is quite right in that “this is what I choose” is where Christian life must begin and the only answer that can be made to persistent challenge. And the atheists are wrong because that isn’t where it stops; the Christian faith has meaning and relevance which develops after one commits to doing the work. My experience in my Christian walk is that having chosen to put my trust in Christ and Scripture, I come (middle voice!) to understand how the words and stories relate to things I see around me (…evidence…) and how they can operate to feed my hunger and free me from my captivity of fear and loneliness.

    I think the problem is in the use of “belief”, which has gotten mixed up with assertions about empirical fact, rather than taking the sense of “having trust in”. It’s the truth that many people get stuck at “faith” and don’t seem to be willing to go on to “understanding”, choosing instead to go to whatever level of denial is necessary in support of very narrow and naive assertions about the natural world, the social world, and scripture. The atheists are likewise exercising preemptory denial, but that’s not an excuse to deny their criticism.

    John 3:15: “… whoever believes in him my have eternal life.” Whoever follows the Master, chewing on his words and taking on his yoke to put them into practice, will find that his understanding grows and his life will change in an open-ended way as he becomes a part of vastly larger things.

    … Haven’t seen Prometheus (looking forward to it), but I wonder if could be taken as a “Pilgrim’s Progress” … an initial assertion received as externally given nourishment, a quest-journey requiring sacrifice and courageous persistance in the face of real danger, physical hardship and spiritual uncertainty (loss of the cross) and isolation, ending in spiritual restoration and a renewed commitment to the quest at the next turn up the spiral. Or maybe I’m reaching too much.

    • > For any action decision, there must be a point where discussion ceases,
      > and one says it may be right or wrong, but here we go.

      We are all subject to the tyranny-of-the-urgent; we cannot deliberate forever.

      I believe this metaphor applies even to coming to initial faith. The mother says the injection is good. I know that when I looked around myself and considered who impressed me the most, who I would most like to be like, which writers seem to provide the best books. It was the religious people, Christians, or their writings that I encountered seemed most relevant, they seemed to have something the great majority of the non-religious lacked [I know much is made, especially here, of the failling of Christian community, the bumbling efforts of 'the church', etc... but I know *I* could see a difference]. Religious people were mostly kinder, mostly gentler, and dramatically less crude [and crudeness and cruelty soon find themselves to be room-mates - I grew up amongst the criminally crude, there was no deception there]. I followed the evidence to faith.

      As C.S. Lewis once defined faith: it is keeping to what you once determined to be true until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary.

      Yes, I’ve been profoundly disappointed (and injured) by ‘the church’. But scriptures taught me what to expect from the endeavors of men, so I’m not really surprised. I was prepared for failure by my faith. Despite those failings the evidence remains, the contrast is still clear to me.

      It is what I choose to believe. I also do not believe that decision is without merit.

  3. Cedric Klein says:

    I have thought & felt it through & have definitive reasons I think a Creator exists, He is Yahweh of the Bible & Jesus is His Incarnation/Word/Son/Avatar & through Their Holy Spirit the Church is Their Agency. I also know there are strong rational & emotional arguments against every one of these- a Creator existing, Him being Yahweh, Jesus being Divine with Him, The Church being Their Agency. Yet ultimately I choose to believe both because the reasons are that strong and because that’s how I want it be.

  4. Atheist Gladiator says:

    Is it so terrible to admit that religion is fundamentally a matter of opinion, which no amount of reason can ever resolve (or even clarify very much, in view of its tendency to make counterintuitive or paradoxical claims)?

    The question “is he or isn’t he having an affair?” suggests two answers on a similar order of plausibility. Our experience has made us familiar with both fidelity and infidelity (as well as with vaccination, as in the other example). We cannot say this about religious claims.

    To make the analogy perfect, we should imagine the woman receiving a note saying that her fiance has been having an affair with Bigfoot.

    • AndreaBT says:

      AG, I think you may be misunderstanding the analogy. The affair is not the religious claim (that would be the engagement); it’s the claim that her faith is unfounded. If you want to throw Bigfoot into the mix, that’s like someone telling me my faith is wrong because God is a giant turtle and we are just his poop.

      My own faith could be, and has been, challenged by issues such as the age of the earth, and seeming contradictions in the Bible. But instead of losing my faith, it has only been strengthened as I see each challenge either complementing what I already believe, or having no real ultimate relevance to the “end of the story”. It’s true the faith of others doesn’t stand up to such things. Maybe, to go back to the analogy of the engaged couple, the bride didn’t know her groom very well to begin with, so her confidence in him did not stand, despite lack of evidence of his betrayal.

      • Atheist Gladiator says:

        Jepsen’s blogpost goes like this: it’s wrong to say that religious people (or at least Christians) believe things based solely on faith–rather, it should be faith plus reason. I see this as exaggerating the role of reason, since none of the reasons commonly given (or that can be given) are worth very much, and a hundred bad reasons do not amount to one good reason. It is opinion all the way down. (The notion that God is a giant turtle is no more inherently outlandish than many things you probably do believe–at any rate. it cannot be proven to be false.)

        Suppose the poor woman of our example discovers a long hair on her fiance’s lapel, and concludes from this that he was indeed having an affair with Bigfoot. Would that be an example of faith informed by reason? (Yes, I realize that I have reversed direction of skepticism–perhaps we should imagine her maintaining her faith even after discovering another woman’s panties under the pillow, or even after stumbling upon them en flagrante.)

      • You are right, Andrea, that athiest gladiator missed the point. The analogy was not designed to make a parable of religious faith, as if it pictures the proper balance between competing claims. Rather, it is intended to illustrate one thing: that we are sometimes justified in believing things we cannot prove.

        • Atheist Gladiator says:

          Sure, we are sometimes justified in believing things we cannot prove, such as the love and fidelity of our significant others. However, religious claims are not like this–if they were, they could hardly serve as litmus tests for belonging to an identity group. Rather, religious claims by their very nature require us to embrace beliefs which are tedentious and improbable, if not flat-out impossible, self-contradictory, or hopelessly vague. It is not like a woman believing/disbelieving that her husband has been having an affair, in which each option is of more or less equal plausibility. It is like the woman who believes that her husband has been having an affair with Bigfoot.

          Think about it–why would God be so interested in what we believe, let alone in making us believe things for which no good reasons can be given? The answer lies not in the nature of God, but of group membership. A club made up of people who believe in gravity would lack sufficient boundaries to serve as a coherent group identity; a club composed of people who disbelieve in gravity might be viable!

    • > Is it so terrible to admit that religion is fundamentally a matter of
      > opinion, which no amount of reason can ever resolve

      Do we really believe in this harsh dichotomy of opinion vs. reason? This to me is classic fallacy-of-the-disambiguated-middle. We demarcate regions in the middle of this space every single day. Even for ‘pure reason’ one has to judge what inputs are valid, illegitimate, tendentious, etc… There are informed opinions, considered opinions, opinions of extreme bias, etc… To name something ‘just opinion’ is simply disingenuous.

      This construct discards the weight of the women’s past experiences, strength of here relationships (provided that strength has been earned), here ‘rational’ understanding of naturalism [where does Bigfoot live in the lower 48 states where one cannot ever be more than 27 miles from a maintained road?]. These non-rational [intuition, past-experience, etc..] inputs are inputs to her reason [thinking about what to do about the evidence]. So is her judgement ever really “reasonable”? Placing an individual’s reason on so lofty a pedestal where it appears to be far removed from the non-rational components of the psyche, IMO, will reveal that the pedestal is made of sand. However, in no way does that invalidate the person’s judgement. Intuition serves us well every day.

      Aside: Generally I find claims of “just {anything}” are suspect. My kindergarten teacher told me about “red words” like “just”, “merely”,. and “only” which should always immediately raise suspicion – experience has proved her a wise women: “it is *only* this once”, “merely a kiss”, “it is *just* this once”, “it is *only* a small thing”, “IBM’s Watson is *only* a machine”, … “it is *just* a trifle that Sauron fancies”.

      • AndreaBT says:

        >Do we really believe in this harsh dichotomy of opinion vs. reason? This to me is classic fallacy-of-the->disambiguated-middle. We demarcate regions in the middle of this space every single day. Even for ‘pure >reason’ one has to judge what inputs are valid, illegitimate, tendentious, etc… There are informed opinions, >considered opinions, opinions of extreme bias, etc… To name something ‘just opinion’ is simply >disingenuous.

        Good point. And to take it further…At one point, what I believed might have been based on opinion, probably when I was a child and believed it because my parents told me it was true, much like Elizabeth Shaw. At some point it became my own (maybe when I realized certain aspects of what I believed differed from that of my parents? Maybe when I experienced God’s grace personally?), and then it became faith, which is neither opinion nor reason.

      • Atheist Gladiator says:

        Fair enough. But surely some claims are more probable than others. Religious claims, by their very nature, tend to be highly improbable (e.g., miracles) when they are not inherently unverifiable / unfalsifiable (e.g., belief in supernatural beings). They also encourage their followers to delude themselves as to what is probable or improbable (e.g. adopting uncritical approaches to scripture).

    • How much is religion an opinion though? I call myself an agnostic because I firmly believe that the question of the existence of God is both unknowable and irrelevant (I know plenty of people who call themselves atheists with this view, but potato, pomme de terre). However this is not a choice. I cannot make myself believe. As an experiment, I have tried in the past. It is just not in the makeup in my brain. Given what I know about reality and myself, I cannot bring myself to believe. I am fascinated by belief, but often when I read about it I feel like I’m reading about someone’s experience with synesthesia. I would be surprised if you could make yourself believe with a quick decision. Why should it be any different for people who believe in a supernatural being?

      While I do not think faith is as hard-wired fundamental personality traits (otherwise, why would we have conversion stories in both directions?), it is a deeper part of a person’s being than the word opinion would indicate.

      • I’m not sure that metaphysical beliefs are really all that mysterious. We believe in God in the same way that you believe that justice is important.

      • Atheist Gladiator says:

        It is true that religion is not only a matter of belief. Judaism and Hinduism do not even emphasize belief, but are more matters of group identity and praxis. If one belongs to a group long enough, its beliefs will seem natural and reasonable–that’s just human nature.

  5. God’s active participation in our lives is what creates faith. That is not our keeping of the rules and doing ‘christian’ things. That is the reverberation of Him in our being. That is the flow, the egress of the Spirit rushing through the bushes and us hearing the sound. The thing is, we concentrate so much on belief in concepts and ideas that we miss The Living Christ inside our being. This is really two different conversations. One to be had with the world who rejects Christ and is without faith. From their point of view faith is foolishness and what else could it be. That conversation has all of its own interest and various parameters but the other conversation is amongst people who have an experiential participation in the faith. That conversation has nothing to do with whether or not faith is the most logical alternative. That conversation has to do the the real rapture of going, as the scripture says, form faith to faith. Leapfrogging, based on the empirical actions of God in our lives and in our being ( again foolishness to the world) to ever deeper, broader and richer experiences of Christ . I feel somewhat defensive of that conversation and frankly will not have it with one outside the faith. Jesus put it rather harshly – “Do not throw your pearls before swine.” That is figurative language to be sure but the point is clear. Our conversation concerning the warmth and love and the touching moments that are born out of the life of faith are deeply personal building blocks of that very faith. To the world they are so much illogical rubbish.

    • JoanieD says:

      “Our conversation concerning the warmth and love and the touching moments that are born out of the life of faith are deeply personal building blocks of that very faith.”

      Very true, ChrisS.

  6. Walter Bruggemann said something once that’s been rattling around in my head for awhile, and I think underscores the point here, “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity.” The idea that Ridley Scott, or at least one of this film’s writers, may get that is pretty amazing.

  7. The thing is, knowing Ridley Scott, Shaw probably is not a Christian but is what she is because of her sentimentality to her father and his token (the cross necklace), she believes in god. We can script some iconography (being so jealous for the cross necklace is her continuing to bear her cross; her faith being because of her father is well, because of her Father) but I think we’re importing that into it.

    Shaw is most likely a Balien (Kingdom of Heaven) who loses his faith to find out the spokes on the wheel are point to the same hub (vis. his speech on the ramparts of Jerusalem). This isn’t a teaching from Christ but the non-descript theistic pluralism that Scott always has at the ready.

    That said 2 things:

    1) As for reason and faith, I’d say one of the bones of contention is that we lump all in the same category. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. Christianity is historical and revelatory, not principles but person. I have faith because I trust Jesus and I believe He did indeed rise from the dead. The de-historicizing of faith with Bultmann (it doesn’t matter if Jesus is still in the tomb, He “resurrected” in the hearts of His disciples) is wrong.

    2) I thought the most profound thing about Prometheus was the dialog between Vickers (I think) and David over what he wants. And his response, not that he has wants, but if he did, doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents and thus have freedom? It was like I was hit with the whole story of humankind in one fell swoop. We all seek to do away with our creator and put ourselves in that position and Jesus reversed that in obeying His Father unto death. Good stuff there.

  8. cermak_rd says:

    I think religion is obviously an opinion. I chose my religion, out of all of the readily available ones, just as well as I chose my house and with quite a bit more research! I chose not to be a Christian or a Hindu or a Buddhist. Others have clearly made other choices.

    The ARIS study that came out a few years back showed that there was considerable fluidity in people choosing their own religious faith (rather than the faith of their fathers). That would seem to indicate a what I choose to believe mindset.

  9. Loved the film. There has been a lot of speculation on the religious themes in the film and I did like the inclusion of Shaw. It may be as igets older the sort of pessimism that he expressed in the first Alien, where the alien monster represents a soulless cosmos (the alien has no eyes) that fights the equally soulless cogs of a soulless corporation is giving way to desire for some hope that there is meaning. I think that is where Shaw comes in. After all that happened we might think that she, like Weyland would lose faith that someone out there cares or that there are anyanswers to find, but she doesn’t. Ithink all of us are faced with the prospect that the universe is meaniless and there are only questions, given the size of the cosmos as we now understand it. Still I choose to live my life as thought it matters even though it is totally possibl;e that we are a petrie dish in some incredibally advanced aliens science experiments.