On “Dumb Faith” (or the Faith of the Ignorant)

Rob Kashow has recently posted a rant on ignorance pertaining to the trinity.  I’m glad he did; I find myself increasingly frustrated oftentimes with others who claim to ‘know the answer’ and then go on to recite something from the creeds to me.  Or, worse, they share what can only be said to be terrible exegesis.

Let me clarify: I do not have the answers.  My scholarship is a quest for answers, but I have no grand delusions that I can or will actually arrive at the truth, nor that everyone will agree with me.  Of course there is an element of confidence and rightness that I feel with my own interpretations, but as a good and healthy postmodern, I also can’t say my interpretation is the only valid one.  But what I will say is this: despite my postmodernism, not all interpretations are equal.  Not all are convincing.  Some are just downright poor and depressing. 

I have often struggled with what I call the “dumb faith” of others.  By “dumb faith” I mean an uninformed belief in something . . . . believing “just because.”  I used to be one of those very people.  When I became a religion major I was wholly ignorant of the field.  Yes, we went to church growing up, but I knew nothing about the field, little about the biblical text, and even less about Christianity, let alone Judaism and Islam.  I was quickly disabused of this means of existence by rigorously applying myself to the text, the original languages, and to the scholarly enterprise.    As I have said before . . . . my paradigm exploded.

As a religious academic, I don’t think it is my job to “explode your paradigm.”  We all have our crises of faith, but I don’t think it is my job to shock and awe you away from whatever you believe and into a new set of beliefs (assuming, of course, at that point one even opts to believe; it is often not the case).  My role is to give a student the tools to be a competent and confident reader of Scripture, and to be able to avail herself/himself of the various tools to make sense of the text best they can.  They won’t be experts, but they will at least be informed readers.  That’s all I’m after.

“Dumb faith.”  An example.  If I ask you why you believe Jesus is the messiah and the response is “because the church says so” or “the creeds say so” or “my parents raised me Christian, and that’s what we believe,” that is not an adequate answer in my view.  “Dumb faith.”  If I say (as I do) that God is complicit in Jacob’s many deceptions, and also deceptive himself in Genesis and elsewhere in the biblical text, and your response is an a priori dismissal because “that can’t be my God” or “God doesn’t do that” (see my related posts HERE and HERE), that is “dumb faith.”  I’m not saying you need to agree with my interpretation of these texts, but please read the Bible.  Actually read it.  Please.  And let that be the basis of your faith.  The texts are there.

One of my teachers in undergrad, who remains a dear friend to this day, used to always say, “you are entitled to your own opinion so long as it is thoughtful.”  Without a doubt I agree.  I’m quite open and pretty easy to get along with.  I’m fine if your faith and beliefs don’t match up with mine, and the converse should be true as well.  So long as you can give me an informed answer about why you believe x, y, and z to be the case, I’m fine with that.  I may disagree.  I may think you are entirely wrong.  But if you have convinced me you have put some thought into it . . . . and your thoughtfulness also betrays some level of acumen (in other words, it is possible to be thoughtful yet still ignorant . . . .  then I’m happy with that.  I may engage you.  I may press you.  And I hope you will press back.  Such is the task of learning.  But then, only when you can provide a thoughtful response do you no longer possess a “dumb faith” but rather a faith that is . . . . and this is the most important part . . . . your own.

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17 thoughts on “On “Dumb Faith” (or the Faith of the Ignorant)

  1. Michael says:

    It seems to me that we all read the bible through a distinct set of lenses that nobody else has. These lenses are comprised of:

    1. our childhood and upbringing,
    2. the set of beliefs we were raised with (and the manner in which we were disabused of those beliefs if we no longer hold to them),
    3. our relationships with our parents,
    4. theological worldview (we all have at least one)
    5. etc, etc, etc,

    We rarely deal with the implications of these lenses and some of us deny that their effects or even their existence. Naturally, those people would be sorely wrong. 🙂

    What does this have to do your post? These lenses ought to lead us all to a deepened sense of humility and patience with whom we disagree.

    Nobody is just “dealing with the text.” Though all of us who have left our “dumb faith” would like to be purists; I just don’t think its possible.

    Sorry if I got a bit of track.

  2. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    John, I can’t say that I am typically as generous as you are in your description of “dumb faith,” as one of my previous comments on another post “poignantly” illustrates. Still, when I’m not on a polemical tirade against christolatry, I have found myself at times to be a bit more gracious in my terminology toward other expressions of so-called “dumb faith.” For instance, many who are still a part of my mother’s church mindlessly stake their faith on what I call “false foundations of faith”; e.g., regarding creation theories, the great flood, the red sea tradition, etc. Sadly, for many of these sincere (albeit biblically ignorant) believers, the Bible is either absolutely “true” – which varies depending on one’s criteria for what constitutes “(T)/truth” – or is it simply not Holy Scripture. Consequently, for these believers, there is much more at stake in the factuality of the bible. “If the great flood was not global, like the Bible says it was, then perhaps the Bible is not right about Jesus . . . perhaps I’m not ‘saved,’ perhaps nobody is!”

    While this scenario may sound hyperbolic, I have had numerous conversations with such believers, who ask me leading questions about the Bible – “leading” because they already “know” the answer, and they want to make sure that I know and believe in same answer that they do. Time and time again, pastors and laity alike have shown me that their confidence is but a façade: they say their faith is strong, but they refuse to allow themselves to thoughtfully question their faith . . . even in the presence of a trusted friend offering alternative interpretative paradigms. In the end, I’ve come to realize that their faith is like a “house of cards,” built on false foundations – foundations like “the Bible never contradicts itself,” like “God created the universe and everything in it in six 24 hour days,” like “Jesus was born of a virgin.” Consequently, they can’t afford to allow any point of their theological paradigm to be compromised or even challenged. Should any of these (or other theological) cards slip, their whole system of faith collapses. In the face of such terrifying risks, these believers gladly choose “dumb faith.” They’re simply not ready, not prepared to engage the possibilities, not able to see that faith can exist in any other way.

    So the question I struggle with, John, is what are my obligations as a biblical scholar? How am I to answer these “leading questions”? Honestly? Yes, but how honestly? I must confess that I’ve not perfected any particular approach, but here are a few guidelines that I’ve developed by trial and error (mostly error):

    1.) Never instigate these conversations. Silence is golden; when their ready to engage critically they’ll come to me and normally they’ll be alone.

    2.) Don’t overload the inquirer. Leave them wanting more; give them enough to chew on but no more, and this should definitely include one or two familiar biblical texts. (They typically can’t negotiate or remember more than just two.) As well, I try to convince the inquirer that the conversation should proceed in stages. When (and if) they come back, they’ll have had time to formulate a response and hopefully further questions.

    3.) Demeanor wise, passivity is key. Education can be very intimidating, and the more conversationally approachable I can be the better. I want them to come back and re-engage in thoughtful inquiry.

    4.) Don’t be afraid to say the words “I don’t know.” Of course, as soon as I say this, I explain that it’s OK not to know: “I don’t have to have all the answers in order to have faith” I say, “in fact, ‘I don’t know’ is kinda prerequisite to having faith at all.” This response is both humanizing and honest, but honest inquirers seem to appreciate that.

    Just food for thought, John. But seriously, I would like to read how you (or your readers) handle these kinds of conversations. As I don’t wish to alienate my family or my current non-graduate, church friends, the topic of “dumb faith” is one that I have to contend with on a regular basis.

  3. Michael says:

    For what it’s worth, the lay comments that have been making the rounds on the blogs lately haven’t really bothered me as much as they have others. Apathetic, I suppose. Plus, it’s a blog, not an SBL session. (At least that’s how I tend to approach these things.)

    • John Anderson says:

      Michael:

      Fair enough. I can’t say I’m bothered by them either because I didn’t read the discussion to which you are referring. I am more than glad to have non-specialists reading and interpreting the biblical text. And I have and can learn much from these people. At the same time, though, as I say, all interpretations are not created equally.

      To put it colloquially: don’t come to my work and tell me how to do my job. ha!

  4. John Anderson says:

    Michael: Not off topic at all. Of course we all have our lenses, and as much as one may claim ‘unbiased’ interpretation, one is being dishonest. And I do hope I did not imply I am impatient with those I claim to have a dumb faith (nor do I necessarily mean the phrase “dumb faith” in a derogatory manner; it is simply an unthinking, unreflective, impersonal faith). We all wrestle with the questions . . . . some more confidently, and competently, than others.

    Roy: Good stuff. Every time I think about this topic I am brought back to a story from my undergrad. I don’t recall specifically what I had said . . . . probably something dealing with the historical Jesus at this point in my education . . . . and a group of intoxicated guys who I knew came over to me and asked me to clarify, which I did. One of them then proceeded to say to me, and I quote, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior and when I get to Heaven, I’ll pray for you.” I calmly responded: “No thanks, I think I’ll be ok.” What did this teach me? First, not to hazard theological conversation with the intoxicated! Second, as you so nicely describe, confidence is often a mask for a lack of confidence (or, in the case of these intoxicated Christians who were drunk on some sort of Spirit[s] – – – – get it? get the joke? ok, it’s lame, I admit) it highlights a certain incongruity with how one lives and what one believes.

    Another story: I recall recently when I tried to explain to my parents that the Noah’s Ark story, if it has an historical kernel, was likely a more regional flood . . . . and beyond that, it likely goes back to other ancient Near Eastern traditions that contain a flood story, a righteous survivor and his family, etc. They were astonished that this . . . . this was what I learned in school. At this point I just get terribly confused.

    I think your criteria for negotiating these conversations is spot-on. Honestly, I do lament the divide between the church and academia (as an aside, the Jewish tradition, at least Reform and Conservative circles, seem much more able to integrate the intellectual and faith), and I think both sides only exacerbate the tensions often. Many, though not all, assume that as an academic you are by default a faithless heretic. Academics often assume the church or congregations are not steeped in knowledge of the text and tradition. It has become rote. Both of these are horrible stereotypes, but there is some truth to them as there are with all stereotypes. Ultimately, I think academia and the church are each simply asking different questions.

    Depending on who I am talking to and where I think they are will dictate my level of reservedness.

    I do think there is a value, though–and I hope to be able to do this someday–in being an academic who still teaches in the church. Dr. Bellinger does this. Other blogger-scholars (Chris Heard, Bryan Bibb) do this. Those who wish to come, come. I think it is a valuable exercise.

    In such a setting, though, I see my role as much more ‘passive’ in offering ‘the answer’ (as though such a thing exists and I am privvy to it) and much more active in encouraging others to ask questions and answer for themselves. Wrestling with the text . . . . struggling with the difficult aspects . . . . that is what I see as most important.

    Just musings.

    • Michael says:

      John: No, I don’t think you were being rude or belittling. The presence of lenses (and that so many deny their existence) is, for me, a bit of a soapbox.

  5. John Ottens says:

    I wonder if this sort of polemic is better directed at the church’s leadership specifically than at the church generally. We certainly can’t hold everyone to the standard of learning that a liberal arts education demands; the simple reality is that for the majority of the church, opinions will be based principally on ‘what the pastor says’, and that’s natural and good. But it does mean that the pastor has a huge responsibility to understand his primary sources and to offer good teaching for his congregation. Your confused inebriated friends aren’t the ones at fault; they were acting very appropriately, I suspect. They had just been very poorly equipped to evaluate such a situation, which is the real tragedy.

    Don’t you think?

  6. Richard says:

    I am in full agreement, it is incredibly important to be able to give reasons for believing what we do and those reasons should be well articulated and rooted in reality and I firmly believe that not all interpretations are equal.

    Coming from the Reformed wing of the Church an excellent set of volumes I would recommend is Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. It is an excellent analysis of the Reformed high orthodox and their historical setting. One of great benefits of the Reformers were that they were both great biblical scholars as well as being pastors of people.

  7. John Anderson says:

    John: First off, they weren’t my friends (wink). Second, I’m not trying to fault anyone. I’m simply asking that people have a thoughtful and reasoned rationale for why they believe what they believe.

    And, as I’m sure is the case with us all, we have seen remarkable pastors and very poor ones. What you cite at the end of your post is indeed part of the difficulty.

    Richard: Welcome back. I hope your vacation went well! Thanks for your agreement!

  8. Jill says:

    I don’t its dumb faith to say believe to say I believe something because the creeds say so anymore than saying I believe something because the Bible says so. There are traditions that start with the creeds for the interpretation of faith and the Bible. It may be your own tradition that has the individual read the Bible as the basis of his or her faith. As you know, many Christian and especially Jewish traditions believe that you can’t properly interpret the Bible that way. After all, as the midrash suggests, Moses wasn’t the greatest interpreter of the law.

  9. Rob Kashow says:

    John, thanks for this.

    When you talk about people who are thoughtful but ignorant, I must not classify it as dumb faith. Basically there comes a point in graduate studies where 99 percent of people are ignorant to the many many things you know. The fact that we study the Bible and related material so thoroughly puts others at a disadvantage. And so even though they may be ignorant, they still should have a say. BUT, one should realize he may be in ignorance and approach a conservation with humility and also give solid reasons for his argumentation.

  10. John Anderson says:

    Rob:

    I do think people can be thoughtful yet still not possess the same knowledge I do after two specialized degrees in the area. I’m not asking for a magnum opus from someone not credentialed to do so (i.e., I don’t expect someone to rattle off the many nuances possible for the imago Dei in Gen 1:26), but to expect something thoughtful (and by thoughtful I simply mean something you have put thought into). Put simply, know what you think and why you think it. That’s all I ask. Uncritical thinking and belief is helpful to no one.

    I think people are reading too much into my usage of “dumb faith.” As I say above, it isn’t meant to be condascending. See my comments above to clarify its meaning.

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