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.

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8 Responses to Credo ut intelligam: an approach to modernism

  1. me says:

    You start with belief as evidence and run from there. It provides no corrective for confirmation bias.

    Actually, you’re incorrect. Starting with faith doesn’t mean that understanding goes out the window. Understanding impacts belief; as I said, the process is circular.

    I wonder if Avalos ever applied skepticism to modernism, which most atheists seem to accept without question?

    And by the way, Steve’s definition of worship is not off at all. The root words = “worth-ship.” Whatever you ascribe the most worth to- where you draw your values or get your most satisfaction, you worship.

  2. One of the stupidest definitions of worship I have ever run into, Steve. But I have come to expect that from you, so no surprise. I am aware that it is not original with you, because I used to use that myself when I was a teenager.

    Nothing, Alden, that you say when you start from a circular position such as San Anselmo’s “I believe so that I may understand” precludes the active process of using doubt. You start with belief as evidence and run from there. It provides no corrective for confirmation bias.

    I’ll paraphrase an e-mail that Hector sent to me yesterday:

    That logic could as easily apply to my statement that I believe that “undetectable martians are speaking through Steve Martin,” and I will take whatever evidence that confirms this and accept it while discarding whatever evidence disproves it. Does that make it any more acceptable to you as “proof?”

    I can also just as easily call you a fool for dismissing modernism so easily, and that you have a chip on your shoulder against it because it doesn’t confirm your beliefs, and in fact shows your religion to be no more specially endowed with veracity than any of the others.

    But, then, that would be “poisoning the well.”

    Avalos’ approach to religious studies is an independent outside observer, something valued in the fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology. The early schools of sociology involved self-examination and then developing corollaries turned out to be unsatisfying, because there was no means to test observations; this is also a larger criticism of Freudian psycho-analysis. There was no way, for example to cross-reference the meanings of dreams, and the analysis really amounts to no better than reading tarot cards.

    The process of independent study of a phenomenon such as the historicity of scripture doesn’t and shouldn’t depend on the beliefs of the student; and if your only serious complaint is that they don’t start from faith then you are merely howling at the moon.

    If there were no scholars making claims of the veracity of the Bible, then there would be no need for those such as Ehrman and Avalos to approach it and they would be doing something else with their time.

    I think we can place a great deal of trust in modernism because it proves itself time and again, regardless of whether ou believe in it.

  3. Steve Martin says:


    “I don’t “worhsip” anything…”

    We all do.

    That which you pour your time and energy into, and have your primary focus…that is your god.

  4. me says:

    By your standard, this is meaningless, isn’t it. because it is just a matter of faith.

    Not at all. I’m saying precisely the opposite. Faith matters, to everyone – whether they know it or not. As far as being justified in your beliefs, I believe we were given (or developed, in your case) the ability to reason for a reason… That doesn’t mean “reason” is the ultimate authority, but it’s something, as is experience and material evidence. What we do with these things will depend on what we put our faith in, but will also affect what we put our faith in. It is somewhat circular.

    But by your standards, of course, nothing can be “known,”

    Isn’t that your position? Certainly it’s not mine.

    Re Ehrman and Avalos, I don’t presume they lost their faith in the Bible first- I presume that they put their faith in modernism first, without realizing that their conclusions are still matters of faith. And, I am not misunderstanding Avalos’ book (which I haven’t read), I am quoting Avalos talking about his own book. And, if his book is anything like Ehrman’s, it is as biased as anything out there, and will be incredibly flawed because of his “faith.”

    By the way, I believe in his case, “Biblical studies” should be named “anti-Biblical studies.” At least then students would know what to expect from his classes.

  5. I don’t “worhsip” anything, and that is why I think you’re brain is engaged in the wrong direction.

  6. Steve Martin says:


    I couldn’t care less if Avalos finds my praying for him amusing. That is his problem.

    That you worhip many things other than the Living God is your problem.

  7. I have a great deal of faith in many things, and it is largely because through experience the probability that I am wrong is so miniscule as to be less than meaning less.

    For example, I have a large degree of faith without direct evidence that the sun will set tonight. A large measure of this faith is based on 48 years of experience that the sun has set every night in my life. Another part of this is the supporting evidence that the earth spins at a well-known rate which is approximately 24 hours per term. By your standard, this is meaningless, isn’t it. because it is just a matter of faith. I have no absolute knowledge of the future, do i?

    By your standard, the flat-earthers are just as justified in their beliefs as I am. I also have “faith” that pure waqter will boil at 100c, and freeze at 0c and expand at 4c contra to any other known substance. I know how this works because of “modernism,” or experimental testing, and it is faith because I can’t “see” the molecular structure of water and its peculiar bonding patterns at specific temperatures. As Sean Carroll says, we can be solidly certain that in Antares one million years ago two hydrogen atoms fused to form helium. One may call that “faith,” or one may call it knowledge and prediction based on data, observation and testing.

    But by your standards, of course, nothing can be “known,” so all is “faith” and has equal value. Of course, by holding on to this view you stand on a dangerous precipice and accede to Ecclesiasties 12:8, that all is vanity.

    And you largely miss the entire point of Hector’s book (I can call him that because he calls me Mike,) which is that he examine the historical “evidences” of bibilical researchers and found them entirely lacking and insufficient in making the case that they purport to make: that the Bible is a historically accurate book which can be relied upon, and because of the holes he and others have found in the work of the researchers (and the shoddiest of justifications for accepting its accuracy.)

    What you harp on is the mistaken belief that in both the cases of Avalos and Ehrman, they lost their faith in the Bible before approaching their studies when in fact what happened for both of them was that they lost their faith after years of study through which they were trying to justify their faith; and they found too much was wrong with the historical value scripture.

    I am sure, Steve, that Hector will find that you are praying for him is amusing. Have you been to a doctor yet to find out why your brain is stuck in reverse?

  8. Steve Martin says:

    For those without faith, the Bible is whatever one wants it to be, or it is nothing at all.

    It is the infallible Word of God for those whose hearts and minds He has opened to discern His Truth.

    Avalos is right. For him and those like Him, there is no value in the Bible. For Him,and those like him, there is no Living God.

    I’ll pray that someday the Lord may see fit to make Himself known to Mr. Avalos, as He has made Himself known to me, basically an unbeliever at heart. But God has literally made a believer out of me.

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