Austin Farrer and Where Knowledge of God Begins

One of Anglican theologian Austin Farrer’s interests was the nature of religious truth, that is, the form knowledge of God takes in the human mind. Many of his writings try to work out a theory of religious epistemology. This question is of some importance for teachers, especially of those of religious persuasion. After all, teachers are in the truth business. But is religious truth like other truths, and can it be conveyed in the same way? The Church, facing arguably the most serious credibility crisis in her history, is watching her young people depart in droves and her voice in Western culture submerged within a greater cacophony. Her “truth” has not been obvious for a long time, even to most of her members, and it is difficult for the faithful to know how to talk about this truth without falling into fallacy or obscurantism.

Farrer lays out the challenges unflinchingly in his chapter “Faith and Evidence,” from Saving Belief (1964). Inquirers into Christianity soon encounter the “strange assertion” that they can only find the truth by faith. This idea is difficult to make sense of. Faith is an attitude of mind, and “it is an awkward job to take up an attitude, until you are face to face with the object which calls for it.” In other words, it would seem that before one can have faith, one must first know the God in whom one would have faith. And how do we come to know God? It begins with being told of or directly inferring, for any of a multitude of reasons, a Creator. But as Farrer notes, these reasons cannot go unchallenged for long; other, opposing reasons, will rear their heads. Worse, “there seems to be no simple logical method for deciding conclusively between the pros and cons.” Farrer points out, further, that top philosophers come to radically different conclusions on the matter of God, suggesting clear-cut logic or evidence in themselves cannot be the issues at heart. The starting-point of faith is not in these things, but in whether or not we find a story persuasive enough to hold on to despite the counter-assertions of its rivals, much like we choose to put our faith in a political party despite recognizing our trust may prove misplaced, knowing that inaction may be worse than this kind of commitment. But the story that God exists is a very different kind of story than, say, that the Democrats can be trusted to help the poor or the Republicans can be trusted to boost the economy.

“The difficulty of religious faith may be put in a nutshell,” Farrer writes. “How can an attitude of trustworthiness, evidently appropriate to God if he exists, be appropriate to a decision whether he exists or not?”

This problem has led religious believers in many different directions. Some, notably the scholastics, have insisted that God’s existence is not a matter of faith at all. Reason proves God, and faith trusts him who is proven. But Farrer finds this line of thought “utterly useless.” It would require us to accuse “all well-informed atheists either of mental imbecility or of intellectual dishonesty, or of both.” Farrer is unwilling to give this possibility credence; so he must conclude that the bias that turns the atheist away from God “is not the sort of bias that turns away from cogent reasons. It is just that subtle and elusive bias which leads to misjudgment in matters of faith.” That is, faith does not simply follow on belief in God, but must be present in some mode from the start.

This mode of faith must be of a different kind than when we speak of faith in God’s promises, for here we are talking of his very existence. Farrer proposes the analogy of an apparent orphan who comes to imagine he has a mother. “The suggestion that there might be a mother is not an isolated factual hypothesis; it is a picture of the world, with an attitude built in; it is filial existence in place of orphan existence.” It is the same way with God, who is not a formula or discrete existent; belief in God inherently comes with a whole revolution in perspective and demands a new way of being. If one begins to think of oneself as a creature before the Creator, one takes on the attitude of a creature. Farrer describes an oscillation in the heart as this possibility is considered; the “faith attitude” is taken up and put down again repeatedly as we consider without commitment. For us to have faith in the full sense, we need simply let that attitude win out.

The question, then, is why we should let faith win out. After all, in the previous analogy, the interest of the orphan in the possibility he has a mother cannot be taken as evidence he actually has one. And the analogy itself breaks down pretty quickly. The orphan may be convinced he has no mother, but he can never be persuaded he had no mother, for he can observe motherhood instantiated elsewhere. Atheists however maintain the case that we never had nor needed a Creator, and we cannot overturn this argument simply by observing creation elsewhere, for the question of a Creator stands over the rest of nature as much as it does ourselves. We must be able, as Farrer says, to appreciate the fact of God’s creatorship if we are to acknowledge it. God is by definition transcendent; the One we infer must be of a totally different mode of existence than the sensible world, though he may also pervade and reveal himself in that sensible world. We may claim to find signs of God all around us, but without appreciation, the evidence will never convince.

Unless we have light, we will not see what is right in front of us. This is not a flight into unreason, where we simply believe what we want to believe, but acceptance of a mental attitude that makes apparent what is already there. Is this analogy of any use? Do there really exist facts which can only be recognized as such by sympathetic appreciation? Farrer says yes.

“There are many true facts sympathy appreciates, to which suspicion closes our eyes. I am not denying that sympathy lies open to imposture, or that suspicion is a necessary guard. I am saying what everybody knows—that the place of suspicion is secondary and subsequent. Without the initial venture of sympathy, suspicion has nothing material to criticize.”

Again, this is an analogy with limitations. Knowledge of persons—of their interiority, their personhood as such—is of this type, but it is unshakeable because we share a human nature. We can fail to understand another, but we cannot fail to recognize another as another. But God is not of our substance; we are at most “the remote offprints of his likeness.” For this reason, absent the necessary attitude of faith, we can shut God’s whole being out of our minds. Farrer is conscious of the skeptic’s objection that it would seem unjust to expect him to have faith before he can be in a position to acknowledge God’s existence. But Farrer argues that this would only be a formidable objection if faith were not natural to us, and in fact, it is. “Sympathy is natural, mistrust and cynicism are vicious.” Some people are warped by bitter experience, but no matter whose fault it is, cynicism and mistrust will still destroy their ability to understand or come close to other persons—unless they are cured. So too with faith; not everybody is immediately capable of it. And of this incapacity, Farrer adds, “God will cure them, whether in this life or hereafter.”

If faith is natural, in the sense that it is built into our human condition, it can only be denied when one is victimized by an “unnatural habit… an ingrained prejudice, a subconscious resolve.” Faith convinces simply because it shows us things in their true colors. Yet there must always be those who turn from faith simply in fear and recognition that allowing the existence of God would require them to admit of my God, that is, the obligation of relationship between Creator and created. God is not an explanatory hypothesis, one among many, that may be studied and provisionally embraced or discarded. Real faith is personal, and it will never arise from treating the idea of God in this way.

This is the note on which Farrer concludes at length, and it answers (without fully satisfying) the question we started with about the nature of religious knowledge. We make a mistake if we assume a robust presentation of, say, the cosmological argument is all that is necessary to satisfy honest skeptics. Even the cosmological argument can only point one toward a reality which cannot be discerned without the posture of openness which is a type of faith. So this reality is accessed through, and not outside of, our own personhood, our own experience of the quality of our existence. Farrer points out that we only know what it means to exist through our own experience of existing; and so if we have a Creator, we can only recognize this through a realization of our own creatureliness. It is solely at this point, where Man relates directly to his or her Creator, that we can first truly begin to believe in God. Everything the Christian religion describes as faith flows from this first step.

Antoine Caron, Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers (1570s)

What Farrer has written here does not yet justify the whole apparatus of religious knowing: creeds, scriptures, sacramental orders, etc. It does not address the sensitive issue of upaya or “skillful means”—that is, which of the truths of religion are simply provisional means to some greater realization, and which are true in themselves. It only indicates how the most basic and universal religious truth, the existence of God or the divine, might be received.

C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” God-loving teachers must realize they will never nurture faith by a battery of reasoned argument or suspicion of the other side; only atheists can be created that way. If we seek to enclose students in rigid walls of contention and self-satisfaction, we risk blocking the very faculties which allow knowledge of God in the first place. A harder work is required of us: to live in the truth that we witness, and to take every opportunity to help our students be more sensitive to and at one with the reality beyond them and in them.

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