Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Running the World on Faith

Pondering the Role of Faith in Politics and Life

Catching a little “Fresh Air” on NPR earlier today, I heard a most thought-provoking opinion about faith (George W. Bush’s in particular) and its political ramifications. Host Terry Gross quoted Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor for Ronald Reagan and administrative official for the elder George Bush. Bartlett opined: “The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence, but you can’t run the world on faith.”

Hmmm… Is he right? Is faith an inadequate (perhaps even a dangerous) guide for running the world? My search for an answer goes right to the very heart of what it means to be a person created in God’s image…

I would argue that faith is an essential and irreducible component of every decision every person ever makes. Not necessarily faith in God, but belief in at least something. Why do I say that? Because the human soul is unalterably covenantal. Or another way to say it is that we are all worshippers. Or we could say we are perpetual happiness seekers.

In practical terms, this means we are constantly on the lookout for something or someone bigger than ourselves that we can make an agreement with—a covenant—expecting this thing to bless us and make us happy if we act in certain ways. Our little covenant arrangements can be formal or informal, explicit or implicit. The point is, we all make them and we all live by them all the time.

We go through life asking the question (either consciously or subconsciously): “What must I have for my life to be happy?” When we find something that we believe has the power to bless or curse us, we make a little private covenant with it, and we follow that covenantal arrangement in how we make all the decisions that follow. Ask yourself the question: What must I have to be happy? This thing is your “covenant god.”

So what does this have to do with faith? Everything. We make our covenants, we choose what/who to worship, we pursue our happiness based on what we BELIEVE. None of us has all the empirical evidence on whether our choices will turn out for our good or our bad, so we just have to choose the option that looks the best to us. It’s a matter of belief. It’s all about faith.

So back to our original question: Is George W. Bush’s faith [in the Bible’s God] an inadequate or dangerous guide for running the world? Well, considering that he has to have faith in something to make his choices, let’s answer the question with another question… If he’s going to be running the world, wouldn’t you prefer he have faith in Someone with unlimited knowledge, power, and love? Yeah, me too.


MadMup said...

In answer to your question - no, it is not too "out there."

Good, thought-provoking stuff.

Anonymous said...

This is the Beast of the Caves who is posting anonymously for lack of a blogger account.

I like your premise & your points, & I'd like to ask Mr. Barlett what exactly he suggests as a replacement with which to run the world. Most often folks with sideline critiques have no suggestions. Ironic.

BNick said...

I am going to comment not primarily on your question or conclusion, but rather part of your premise. While people may--in practice--be happiness seekers, I'm not certain that's an appropriate pursuit. Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig points out that a common and incorrect assumption is that God's purpose for our life is our happiness. Craig contends that God's purpose for us, and therefore our highest goal, is the knowledge of God. He argues that the pursuit of the knowledge of God will ultimately lead to happiness, but if I understand him correctly, he believes that happiness is the result, not the goal.

I suspect that people are looking for purpose, and many assume that happiness is life's purpose (as Craig asserts). I realize I'm splitting hairs here (and regarding your premise, no less!), but I think that President Bush is acting upon the question of "what should I be doing?" rather than "what will make me happy?" when he allows his faith to guide him. That's why, in defense of some military action, he talks of liberty being God's gift to every human. It's not that he's seeking what makes him happy; he's seeking to fulfill his purpose. Thankfully he hasn't fallen into the trap of believing that his own happiness is his purpose. If he did, he might not have the strength to stand up to political pressure contrary to his pursuits.

Ultimately, I agree with your conclusion that allowing faith to be one's guide is a safe way to govern at any level. Those who believe otherwise (that is, those who believe that governing by faith is destructive to social good) should evaluate the potential damage that can be done by somebody who pursues their own ambitions--or the desires of a mob--rather than God's purpose. History gives us a clue.

Josh said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, BNick. I’m not directly familiar with William Lane Craig’s ethics, though it sounds like he’s teleological (i.e., what’s right is what fits our ultimate purpose). If this is correct, then he and I are in agreement about the importance of starting with the end in view. I would argue, however, that happiness in God is not incidental to the knowledge of God. Happiness is not a mere byproduct, the “icing on the cake” of life which you can take or leave as you please. If we are not happy in God, our knowledge of God is fundamentally flawed. After all, the problem with demons is not their knowledge of God, it’s their failure to find happiness in what they know of Him (cf. James 2:19).

John Calvin seems to support my premise: “If human happiness, whose perfection it is to be united with God, were hidden from man, he would in fact be bereft of the principal use of his understanding. Thus, also the chief activity of the soul is to aspire thither. Hence the more anyone endeavors to approach to God, the more he proves himself endowed with reason.” I take him to mean: “The principal use of our understanding is happiness, which is only perfected in being united with God.” Charles Hodge agrees that the true knowledge of Christ “involves not as its consequence merely, but as one of its elements, the corresponding feelings of adoration, delight, desire and complacency.” Taking my cue from them, I would contend that our ultimate purpose is to find happiness in knowing God—a hair’s breadth of difference from what you yourself are saying, I think.

Returning to the discussion about President Bush, even his question “what should I be doing?” requires us to inquire about the driving impulse behind his sense of duty. Why is he seeking to fulfill his purpose? Presumably, because if he does it, he will be happier than if he doesn’t. His pursuit of personal happiness drives him to fulfill his obligations well. In short, I think your inquiry needs to go one step deeper. In addition, we should be careful to understand his “happiness” in a way other than his immediate sense of delight at how his pursuits are received by others. His short-term sense of disappointment from political reactions poses very little threat to a deep, settled sense of joy at living by his convictions and doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people (or whatever his source of joy might be).

BNick said...

I figured somebody would raise the issue you raise in the last paragraph of your comment. I could agree with the assertion that happiness is the driving force behind every action (or at least every adoption of a "coventant") if you define happiness broadly enough to include "satisfaction," "fulfillment," or--to use one of Charles Hodge's words--"complacency." I don't think that would be inconsistent with my belief that everyone is ultimately seeking to fulfill his/her purpose.

Agreement on that point may be the resolution to our primary conflict of views, which calls into question whether happiness is indeed a motivating factor for seeking the fulfillment of one's purpose, or "a mere byproduct" of achieving that goal.

I concede that your defense was well argued, and I'll tip my cap and move on to comment on another post from another day (well, eventually; your stuff is too heavy to comment on in 2 minutes).

Josh said...

*chuckle* - My point in responding wasn't to "win the argument" and force you to tip your cap but rather to refine my thinking under the scrutiny of some careful and critical thought from another viewpoint. Thanks for the help!