Credo ut intelligam: an approach to modernism

Credo ut intelligam is Latin for “I believe so that I may understand,” St. Anselm’s famous quote, who also used the phrase fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.”  The full quote is actually, “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

Anselm, like Augustine, believed that faith and belief preceded understanding, not exactly a respected position among modernists.  Ironically, an analysis of modernism would reveal that they, too, depend upon the credo ut intelligam formula.  For example, look at Hector Avalos, a good example of Romans 1:22.

Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, and author of a number of books, including The End of Biblical Studies. He is also a former Pentecostal child evangelist (meaning he was an evangelist as a child, not that he necessarily evangelized children).  He appears to have quite a large chip on his shoulder when it comes to Christianity.  In a current post at Debunking Christianity, he  restates his belief that “the field of biblical studies is still permeated by religionist biases.”  Yes, that’s a Romans 1:22 moment if ever I’ve heard one.

Now, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that the study of the Bible is permeated – even dominated – by “religionist” biases.  Avalos, however, seems to believe that it shouldn’t be.  He states:

I want to end THE WAY the Bible is studied. In fact, I provide three scenarios on that page:

1) Eliminate biblical studies completely from the modern world.

2) Retain biblical studies as is, but admit that it is a religionist enterprise.

3) Retain biblical studies, but redefine its purpose so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world.

Of these 3 options, he prefers the third.  One of his goals, as a professor of religion, is to eliminate the influence of the Bible in the modern world, so “there should be no function or value left to the Bible anymore than there is to Homer’s Iliad in modern society.”

Back to Epistemology

Here, I think, is a modernist example of Anselm’s maxim.  Avalos has chosen to believe – I would say ‘to have faith in’ – modernism, meaning a naturalist, materialist, rationalist worldview (there are other views of modernism, but his is prevalent within the scholastic community).  As I’ve argued elsewhere, atheism, scientism, materialism, etc. have to be taken on faith; at some point a Kierkegaardian leap made from whatever set of data he relied on, to a conclusion that modernism with all of it’s baggage is truth, as far as it can be known.  Epistemologically, this position cannot be proven; rationalism, science and the rest require belief in order to go anywhere.

Avalos cannot use the tools of modernism to show that modernism is superior to any other worldview; it is inconsistent even from within modernism.  He must start with a choice to believe; once he believes in modernism, in logic, in reason, then he can begin to understand. It does not – it cannot – work the other way.

Credo ut intelligam.  Understanding can indeed assist belief; but, in the beginning, we must believe.

Bertrand Russell and the limitations of reason

If there is one thing that sets the so-called “New Atheists” apart from the old atheists, it is perhaps the general ignorance of philosophy, and specifically of the philosophical foundations for their own stated positions.  I will hear Hume quoted (for his atheism and specifically for his arguments against the Design Inference), while ignoring the fact that Hume’s arguments also challenge the concept of causality; for Hume, science and reason cannot ever be predictive.  I have also heard Bertrand Russell quoted, as perhaps the most well-known atheist of recent years, having authored Why I Am Not A Christian.    Russell, however, presents even more problems for the New Atheism.

I thought that I had mentioned the great series of posts, “The Limitations of Reason,” that have been appearing over at Sophie’s Ladder, but perhaps I haven’t. In any even, if you have any interest whatsoever in philosophy and epistemology, this series (now at 10 posts) provides a nice overview.  Number 10 in the series deals with Mr. Russell and his inability to refute Hume.

The New Atheists all tend to lean towards science and specifically evolutionary theories as the “answer” to Christianity and faith in general.  Daniel Dennett stands out somewhat as he is primarily a philosopher, an empiricist who focused on the phlosphy of the mind. I don’t know how he defends his epistemology, if he does. (Perhaps Sophie will address this at some point.)  Russell, however, would not have fit in at all with this group, though he may have wanted to.

Russell’s conclusions include, as quoted by Sophie:

“Although our postulates can … be fitted into a framework which has what may be called an empiricist ‘flavor,’ it remains undeniable that our knowledge of them, in so far as we do know them, cannot be based upon experience…In this sense, it must be admitted empirism as a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate….”

Thus, science is “at war with itself:  when it most means to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will.  Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.  Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.”


“If we are to hold that we know anything of the external world, we must accept the canons of scientific knowledge.  Whether… an individual decides to accept or reject these canons, is a purely personal affair, not suscpectible to argument.”

Atheists tend to get upset when I point out that the validity of the scientific method cannot be substantiated by it’s own rules, and that their belief systems are based on choice.  Scientism, which places scientific knowledge above all else, and rationalism are therefore nothing more than other faith or belief systems.  John Loftus at least admits his thinking is based on  a set of foundational assumptions, though he doesn’t seem willing to discuss the validity of those assumptions.

To my knowledge none of the New Atheist discussions get to a foundational level, as Russell’s did. I am assuming this is because 1) they are unwilling to admit they have these assumptions (as science is supposedly totally objective), or 2) if they did, they may have to face Russell’s conclusions. Sophie concludes:

In the end, Russell’s movements through philosophy is an iconic testament to the futility of reason.   His beliefs that the objective world is encountered directly were soon shown to be false.  His attempts to establish mathematical logic were determined to be incomplete.  His attempt to refute Hume and establish inference were admittedly failures.   Yet, for all the crumbling of his towers, “rational” atheists still hold to his basic beliefs, which show that they themselves do not base their beliefs on rationality but cling to them because they desperately want them to be true – the very thing they accuse Christians of doing.

Are modernism and Christianity incompatible?

John Loftus claims that modernity is the Achilles’ Heel of Christianity, something I’ve discussed before, and addressed again in my “teacup” analogy.  Could he be right?

Of course, Loftus believes that modernism (the operative Western worldview which is based on rationalism, a belief in progress, and which depends heavily on the scientific method) is good. He would believe this, because he is as modern as can be, and this is what modernism teaches. It is all very circular: Modernism presumes that progress is inherently good. We as a species know more today than we did yesterday (but not as much as tomorrow).  Evolution is progressive, not regressive. Every day, in every way, we get better and better. It’s all a load of hooey, but even though you realize this, if you take time to really think through what you believe about a great many things, you will find that you, too, think this way. It’s in the water, it’s in the air – every day of our lives we eat and breathe modernism. Even what is being passed around as postmodernism is 90% basic modernism.  As Loftus once pointed out to me, even I’m modern.

However, I am aware of it.

I don’t think that everything about modernism is bad; for example, reason and logic are good, in its place. The scientific method, as a tool, is also good. However, what modernism did was to shrink the worldview around these elements, and added a belief in the inevitability of progress and a disdain for anything pre-modern, other than as an object of study. Progress says that the worldview enlarged; however, in reality, by dismissing everything it didn’t want to deal with, in actuality the worldview shrunk. (See the aforementioned Teacup Analogy).

As I have expressed in my Teacup Analogy, it is my current hypothesis that if you try to shrink Christianity to fit within the constraints of modernism, you’re in trouble, because in order to do so, the terms of modernism require you to not just shrink Christianity, but rather to chop off the corners of Christianity to fit within modernism’s round hole (sorry for switching metaphors). The problem, as I see it, is that modernism is an inadequate and defective worldview, and in order to address Christianity completely within modernism as Loftus does is to render Christianity inadequate and defective as well.

I am not sure, however, that the great apologists would agree with me.  I would be very interested to hear what someone like William Lane Craig (who I would tend to place at the top of that list) would say about my hypothesis.  Loftus, in the post I linked to above, has challenged Craig (and any other Christian apologist) to debate him on the issue of Christianity vs Modernism, which I think would be very interesting. Are Christianity and modernism incompatible, or can a complete Christianity survive entirely within the confince of modernism?