Stanley Fish has penned one of the best op-eds I’ve read in some time, responding to critics of his last op-ed on religion. Fish eloquently and gracefully explains that everything—including science—is founded on the foundation of faith. We cannot reason or observe anything in a vacuum, without perspective (which requires a starting point of faith), so it is simply an issue of what we establish as the object of our faith. Fish makes a persuasive case that those who take a theistic starting point are able to consider important questions that simply cannot be in view for those taking the opposite view. The article is essentially par for the course for Fish, who has made a career out of explaining that the nature of human interpretation and reason are inescapably subjective, but there are some great quotes in this one. A couple of my favorites:
“A mind without chains – a better word would be ‘constraints’ – would be free and open in a way that made motivated (as opposed to random) movement impossible. Thought itself — the consideration of problems with a view to arriving at their solutions — requires chains, requires stipulated definitions, requires limits it did not choose but which enable and structure its operations. MB asks, ‘Why is it not possible to reason simply as a gratuitous exercise.’ Why, in other words, is it not possible to reason without anything in mind? Just try it; you can’t even imagine what it would be like.”
(To this I would add that any theist would consider this simply part of the design—even the practice of reason testifies to the necessity of a starting point, i.e. God.)
“What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s ‘Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,’ Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.”
“So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.”
As the second quotes hint, Fish does an outstanding job of defending the criticism that religion is simply a positivist escape from dark reality. Instead, he explains that the religion with which he is most familiar is in constant dialogue with this darkness, reaching out beyond the void for supernatural help and hope. The article he links in the final paragraph is also well worth the read.