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Warranted Christian Belief
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A. The Basic Consequence

These are deep and dark (and gloomy) theological waters; fortunately the model need not take a stand on the questions how God’s creatures could fall into sin, and whether it is intellect or will that is primary in sin. Suffice it to say that we human beings have indeed fallen from a pristine state into sin, a condition that involves both intellect and will. It is an affective malaise, a malfunction or madness of the will. But it is also a cognitive condition, and in what follows we will inquire a bit more closely into the cognitive consequences of sin.

According to the extended A/C model, the noetic effects of sin are concentrated with respect to our knowledge of other people, of ourselves, and of God; they are less relevant (or relevant in a different way: see below, p. 218.) to our knowledge of nature and the world. Sin affects my knowledge of others in many ways. Because of hatred or distaste for some group of human beings, I may think them inferior, of less worth than I myself and my more accomplished friends. Because of hostility and resentment, I may misestimate or entirely misunderstand someone else’s attitude toward me, suspecting them of trying to do me in, when in fact there is nothing to the suggestion.254254   There are also beliefs we think no person of good will could come to hold, so that holding them is prima facie evidence of culpability; see my “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 36. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, certain kinds of knowledge—knowledge of how to achieve salvation or happiness—require obedience: one won’t be able to acquire this sort of knowledge without obedience. (“The Call of Discipleship,” in The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Macmillan, 1963], pp. 83ff.) Due to that basic and aboriginal sin pride, I may unthinkingly and almost without noticing assume that I am the center of the universe (of course if you ask me, I will deny thinking any such thing), vastly exaggerating the importance of what happens to me as opposed to what happens to others. I may vastly overestimate my own attainments and accomplishments,255255   “’Tis inexpressible, and almost inconceivable, how strong a self-righteous, self-exalting disposition is naturally in man; and what he will not do and suffer to feed and gratify it: and what lengths have been gone in a seeming self-denial in other respects . . . ; and all to do sacrifice to this Moloch of spiritual pride or self-righteousness; and that they may have something wherein to exalt themselves before God, and above their fellow creatures,” Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), p. 241. consequently discounting the accomplishments of others. I may also fail to perceive my own sin or see it as less distasteful than it really is; I may fail to see myself as a creature, who, if not viewed through the lens of Christ’s sacrifice, would be worthy of divine punishment. (Thus among the ravages of sin is my very failure to note those ravages.) Our grasp of ourselves as image bearers of God himself, the First Being of the universe, can also be damaged or compromised or dimmed. For example, we may think the way to understand human characteristics and ventures such as love, humor, adventure, art, music, science, religion, and morality is solely in terms of our evolutionary origin, rather than in terms of our being image bearers of God.256256   Thus Herbert Simon (“A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism,” Science 250 [December 1990], pp. 1665ff.) believes that the rational way to behave is to act or try to act in such a way as to increase one’s personal fitness, that is, to act so as to increase the probability that one’s genes will be widely disseminated in the next and subsequent generations, thus doing well in the evolutionary derby; this, he thinks, is given by our evolutionary history. But then how do we account for the behavior of people like Mother Teresa, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddel, the Jesuit missionaries of the seventeenth century, or the Methodist missionaries of the nineteenth? Why do they devote their time and energy and indeed their entire lives to the welfare of other people, apparently not giving a fig about the fate of their genes? Two mechanisms, says Simon: “docility,” whereby they are unusually likely to believe what others tell them (1666), and “limited rationality” (1667)—to speak plainly, stupidity. By failing to know God, we can come to a vastly skewed view of what we ourselves are, what we need, what is good for us, and how to attain it.

The most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God. Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects, and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has indeed been damaged.257257   It is no part of the model to say that damage to the sensus divinitatis on the part of a person is due to sin on the part of the same person. Such damage is like other disease and handicaps: due ultimately to the ravages of sin, but not necessarily sin on the part of the person with the disease. In this connection, see Jesus’ remarks (John 9:1–3) about the man blind from birth. Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can even be transformed into a resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant.

In the traditional taxonomy of the seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get the exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements.258258   It is this sloth as blindness that C. S. Peirce finds in David Hume: “Lately, when I was suffering at every mouth through which a man can drink suffering, I tried to beguile it by reading three books that I hadn’t read for a long time, three religious books: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The last one did one most good owing to the utter blindness of the man” (quoted in Edward T. Oakes, “Discovering the American Aristotle,” First Things [December 1993], p. 27). Insofar as sloth (so thought of) is (in part) an element of original sin, it is not something for which one is wholly responsible. And in addition to the general injury due to the condition of sin itself, there is also the possibility of special damage or disease; perhaps in some people at some times, the sensus divinitatis doesn’t work at all. Furthermore, the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis, muffled as they already are, can easily be suppressed and impeded. That can happen in various ways: for example, by deliberately or semideliberately turning one’s attention away from them. Perhaps I am tormented by guilt before God, or perhaps by my desire to live a way of which, as I see it, God disapproves; then I may be inclined (with Paul Tillich) to think of God as an impersonal abstract object (“the ground of being”) rather than as a living person who judges me. Or I may come to think of him as unconcerned with the day-to-day behavior of his creatures. Or I may come to think of him, not as a holy God who hates sin, but more like an indulgent grandparent who smiles at the childish peccadilloes of her grandchildren.

That is just one way in which sin interferes with the deliverances of the sense of divinity. Another way in which the latter can be compromised is by way of testimony (which includes not only the case where someone rushes up and breathlessly tells me that my house is on fire but also the whole course of my upbringing and acculturation by parents and peers). Perhaps I am brought up to think there is no such person as God, that belief in God is a result of superstition, belonging to the infancy of the race. Perhaps I read Don Cupitt (after ingesting hallucinogens) and come to regard serious believers in God as objects of pity or figures of fun. Perhaps I am brought up to think of serious theistic belief as the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity and begin to look upon the rest of believing mankind with a sort of amused condescension. For these reasons or others, I ignore the promptings of the sense of divinity, a little ashamed, no doubt, to note its stirring within my heart. Ordinarily there will be a complicated interplay between guilt and damage, between what is due to my own sin (in the primary sense) and what is due to the noetic effects of sin that are beyond my control.259259   There are also those who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7), despaired of by both St. Paul and Tertullian, like the theologian in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce who finds hell more interesting than heaven on the grounds that it offers more scope for lively and controversial theological inquiry and discussion. (In heaven there is that stultifying theological uniformity. . . .)

An analogy: Thomas Reid and others point out that the idea of truth, as a relation between beliefs and the world, is part of our native noetic equipment. We ordinarily take it utterly for granted that there is such a thing as truth, and we ordinarily take it for granted, with respect to any given belief we hold, that it is indeed true. But the right kind of cognitive environment can squelch and smother our notion of truth, so that some people in some circumstances wind up apparently with no concept of truth at all—or, more likely, with a way of thought that displays deep and buried conflicts. One way this can happen is by way of perverse philosophizing. Following certain postmodern thinkers, I can come to see that classical foundationalism is deeply mistaken, and then (perversely) leap lightly to the conclusion that really, there is no such thing as truth. (There is only my version, your version, and so on; where these differ, there is only an issue of power, not of truth.) It can happen in other ways as well. It is said that one of the most serious results of the long Communist tyranny in eastern Europe was just such a suppression of the idea of truth. The truth was officially perverted so often and so cynically (for example, the official organ of the Communist party devoted to the dissemination of this propaganda was ironically named Pravda, i.e., truth) that people came to lose the very idea of truth. They were lied to at every level in utterly shameless and blatant ways; they knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying and that those to whom they lied knew they were being lied to, and so on; the result was that the whole idea of truth tended to evaporate. One said whatever would be of advantage; the question whether it was true no longer arose. In the same sort of way, the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis can be compromised, skewed, or even suppressed altogether.


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