Feser on Faith in The Last Superstition 1: Pure Reason and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

1. I first read Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition* a few years ago, as part of an earlier effort at understanding Thomas Aquinas’s attempts at proving the existence of God. Then, however, for a variety of reasons, I relegated that effort to the future. Now, however, that future has arrived: I am engaged in the effort once again. As part of my renewed effort, I first picked up and picked at Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality. A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought.** My ponderings over the metaphysics set forth in Reality, specifically the theory of actual and potential being, led me then to seek out Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics. A Contemporary Introduction.*** Finally, my wanting some background to what I read in Scholastic Metaphysics led me back to The Last Superstition.

I hope to be able, at some time in the relatively near future, to set forth some results stemming from my reading and thinking about Aquinas’s attempts at proving the existence of God; as I do that I will, I assume, have some things to say about that which Feser, as a follower of Aquinas, has had to say on the matter, both in The Last Superstition and elsewhere. In the meantime, however, there are a number of other topics addressed by Feser in The Last Superstition which demand the attention of a blog having as its moniker After Aristotle.

One such topic is that of faith and how it is related to reason. That is, it has long seemed to me that there had to be a significant difference between the theory of knowledge of Aristotle and that of Aquinas, for that of the latter, but not the former, presupposed an acceptance of the doctrines of the Christian faith and therefore included the thesis that faith represents a form of knowledge. I have wondered often over the years what Aristotle would have said had he had occasion, per impossibile, to come across Aquinas’s acceptance of faith as a mode of knowledge; more specifically, I have wondered whether he would have rejected it and thought that he would. It is with this question and that thought in mind that I determined that I would pay some serious attention to what Feser as, again, a follower of the “Angelic Doctor,” has to say about faith in The Last Superstition.

As of now I plan on there being some three posts devoted to the topic of faith as envisioned by Feser. In the present post I will spell out the argumentation he offers on behalf of the rather surprising, at least to me, thesis that (p. 155) “…pure reason … shows that Jesus really was raised from the dead.” In the second, I foresee comparing and contrasting Feser’s understanding of faith with that of Thomas Aquinas, at least as I understand it. In the third, I anticipate comparing and contrasting Feser’s understanding of the role of authority in religious faith with that of understanding of the role of authority in the faith people have in science.

Appropriately enough for a book such as The Last Superstition, one primary focus of what Feser has to say about faith is his trenchant, shall we say, criticism of the major figures of the “New Atheism” movement making its appearance in the early 2000s for their lack of understanding of what faith is. He tells us (p. 4):

[T]o anyone who actually knows something about the history and theology of the Western religious tradition for which [Sam] Harris, [Daniel] Dennett, [Richard] Dawkins, and [Christopher] Hitchens show so much contempt, their books stand out for their manifest ignorance of that tradition and for the breathtaking shallowness  of their philosophical analysis of religious matters. Indeed, as we will see, these authors do not even so much as understand what the word “faith” has actually meant within the mainstream of that tradition.

The specifics of his criticism begin to be clear in the following passage (pp. viii-ix), in which he speaks of the two bases of his motivation for writing the book:

Disgust and distress over the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and his ilk and at the near total collapse of traditional morality represented by “same-sex marriage” and related phenomena were only half of the motivation for writing the essay that follows. The other half was disgust and distress over the largely inept and ineffective (as it seems to me) response to those developments put forward by many religious and political conservatives. Rather than counter the skeptic’s false assertion that religion is necessarily based on “faith” (in the bastardized sense of the will to believe something in the absence of evidence), too many contemporary defenders of religion seem content to suggest that lots of what secularists believe is also based on faith, that religious belief is in any case here to stay and has certain social benefits, and so on.

We see expressed therein the thesis that the faith upon which at least some religions are based is not a “faith” reducible to a “will to believe something in the absence of evidence.” This thesis is given further expression a bit later on in the book (p. 6).

Secularism can never truly rest on reason, but only on “faith,” as secularists themselves understand that term (or rather misunderstand it, as we shall see): an unshakable commitment grounded not in reason but in rather in sheer willfulness, a deeply engrained desire to want things to be in a certain way regardless of whether the evidence shows that they are that way.

We see here a hint that faith as rightly understood has a basis in reason.

3. He does not, of course, rest content with just a hint, but offers some more forceful statements. First, then, faith does not contradict reason; in opening his primary discussion of the topic on the first (p. 154) of the half-dozen or so of pages (pp. 154-161) of fairly dense argumentation devoted to it, he says:

This is where faith of a sort at long last enters our discussion, though not in the way secularists think it would. For faith, properly understood, does not contradict reason in the least; indeed in the present context it is nothing less than the will to keep one’s mind fixed precisely on what reason has discovered to it.

Then, however, there is yet more: for Feser holds (pp. 7-8) that the basic claims of Western religion are not just based in faith but are also “rationally justified.”

Contrary to the caricatures peddled in secularist literature (and which have crept into the popular culture at large), the mainstream tradition within Western religion has in fact always insisted that its basic claims must be and can be rationally justified, and indeed that they can be shown to be rationally superior to the claims of atheism and naturalism. If some religious believers nevertheless manifest an unfortunate tendency toward fideism – the view that religion rests upon “faith” alone, understood as a kind of ungrounded will to believe – that is to a very great extent precisely because they have forgotten the history of their own tradition  and bought into the secularist propaganda that has relentlessly been directed against it since the so-called “Enlightenment.”

They are, as we shall see just below that he holds, rationally justified by two sets of arguments. Now I found nothing surprising in one set, comprised of arguments purporting to prove the existence of God (pp. 90-119), the immortality of the human soul (pp. 127-128), and, moreover, that there is a natural moral law (pp. 132-153), the conclusions to the first two of which will serve him as premises in the argumentation comprising the second set. Before getting to that second set, I will pause here to grant for the purposes of the present post that those of the first set are both valid, that is, that their conclusions follow from their premises, and sound, that is, that their premises are all true and therefore that their conclusions are also true. I of course reserve the right, however, to return to them in later posts and to subject them to an examination as objective and thorough as I am able to muster.

4. But I was surprised indeed to discover that for Feser there are religious beliefs enjoying rational justification beyond the conclusions of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul, and the reality of a natural moral law. Religious beliefs deriving from revelation can also be given a rational justification. He tells us (p. 154) that:

The arguments we’ve been examining, if successful, show that pure reason can reveal to us that there is a God, that we have immortal souls, and that there is a natural moral law. These claims are, of course, elements in the teaching of the main monotheistic religions. But those religions also go beyond those elements, and claim access to further knowledge about God, the destiny of the human soul, and the content of our moral duties, which derive from a revelation from God. Does belief in such a revelation go beyond reason? Is this where faith comes in? The answer, again, is no…or, at least, not necessarily. For the claim that a divine revelation has occurred is something for which the monotheistic religions typically claim there is evidence, and that evidence takes the form of a miracle, a suspension of the natural order that cannot be explained in any way other than divine intervention in the normal course of events.

We can make more fully explicit the argument presented in the passage’s last sentence.

If a miracle has taken place, then a divine revelation has occurred.

A miracle has taken place.

Therefore, a divine revelation has occurred.

The argument, an instance of the argument form known as Modus Ponens, is both obviously and absolutely valid; if, therefore, its premises are true, its conclusion must also be true. The only question then to be asked is that of whether the premises are true. That is, if the argument is valid and its premises true, then the argument is sound and its conclusion is true.

I will, for the sake of argument, but also because I see it as next to evident, assume for the purposes of the present post that the first premise is true, while reserving, if only as a matter of principle, the right to return to it in some later post and to subject it to an examination as objective and thorough as I am able to muster. The question than becomes that of whether the second premise, “A miracle has taken place,” is also true.

5. Feser tells us that Christianity, and, I add, therefore Feser himself, given that he is a Christian, would have it that that second premise is true, at least if Christianity’s claim is true that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead (p. 154).

Christianity, for example, not only claims that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate and that what He taught therefore has divine authority; it also claims that He was resurrected from the dead, and that this incomparable miracle authenticates his teaching. Indeed, Christianity lays everything on this line. As St. Paul famously put it, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” [in, as Feser indicates in a note to the statement, I Corinthians 15:14, Revised Standard Edition]. If the story of Jesus’s resurrection is true, then you must become a Christian; if it is false, then Christianity itself is false, and should be rejected.

We have then the following argument, among others:

If Christ has been resurrected, then a miracle has taken place.

Christ has been resurrected.

Therefore, a miracle has taken place.

Here again, the argument, another instance of the argument form known as Modus Ponens, is both obviously and absolutely valid; if, therefore, its premises are true, its conclusion must also be true. The only question then to be asked is that of whether the premises are true. That is, if the argument is valid and its premises true, then the argument is sound and its conclusion is true.

I will again, for the sake of argument, but also because I see it as next to evident, assume for the purposes of the present post that the first premise is true, while reserving, if only as a matter of principle, the right to return to it in some later post and to subject it to an examination as objective and thorough as I am able to muster. The question than becomes that of whether the second premise, “Christ has been resurrected,” is also true.

6. Feser tells us (p. 155) that the mainstream Christian tradition, and, I add, therefore Feser himself, if he is a participant in that tradition, would have it that that second premise is true.

But the mainstream Christian tradition has also always claimed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument.

But Feser does not go on to present that argument. Indeed, he is careful to point out a page later (p. 156) that he does not in The Last Superstition present the “rational argument” he believes there to be establishing that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event.”

Please keep in mind that I am not actually giving any of the arguments for the resurrection of Christ or for Christianity just now. So don’t say, “Oh, how silly, I can spot a thousand holes in that case!” I wasn’t trying to make the case; that would take a book on its own. All I am interested in doing here is sketching out the general strategy that Christian theology has traditionally used in justifying its doctrinal claims, and the point in doing so is to understand where faith fits in the picture.

He does, however, (in Note 15, p. 283) point to the defenses of the historicity of the resurrection to be found in works by William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne, though he advances no claim that Craig and/or Swinburne have actually proven the case. Moreover, he grants (p. 160) that:

If the arguments we’ve been examining are correct, then the true religion, whatever it is, is obviously going to be a monotheistic one. That narrows things down considerably. Now as I have said, making the case for Christianity specifically is beyond the edge of this book, which is about “natural theology” (i.e., knowledge of God that can be ours via unaided reason) rather than “revealed theology” (knowledge of God based on a divine revelation). But the reader will not be surprised to learn that there is where I think the truth lies.

7. Instead, then, of presenting the rational argumentation showing, as he holds mainstream Christian tradition to have always claimed, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a real historical event, Feser proceeds to outline an argument that would “establish the realistic possibility of the sort of miracle on which Christianity rests its claim to a divine revelation” (Ibid.).

Indeed, the philosophical arguments we’ve been examining so far play a role in the case for Jesus’s resurrection. For that case can only be properly understood once it has already been established that there is a God and that human beings have immortal souls. Given that God exists and that He sustains the world and the causal laws governing it in being at every moment, we know that there is a power capable of producing a miracle, that is, a suspension of those laws. Given that human beings have immortal souls, we know that the death of a person’s body is not necessarily the annihilation of the person himself; for if some power were able to bring the matter of the person’s body together again with his soul, the person would then come back to life. To establish the existence of God and the immortality of the soul through philosophical arguments is therefore to establish the realistic possibility of the sort of miracle on which Christianity rests its claim to a divine revelation.

He then, however, goes on to say (p. 155):

The case for the resurrection of Christ doesn’t exist in a vacuum, then; it presupposes this philosophical background. For without that background in place, the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection might seem inconclusive at best, since any miracle will obviously seem less likely a priori if you don’t already know that there is a God who might produce one. But when interpreted in light of that background, as it should be, the evidence for Christ’s resurrection can be seen to be overwhelming. That, at any rate, is what the mainstream Christian tradition has always claimed.

This is where I simply have to say, “Wait! What? Stop!” Surely the evidence for Christ’s resurrection can be seen to be overwhelming in the light of that background; the history of human thought reveals that virtually anything can be seen, in the sense of “seen” that can be legitimately used here. But there has been nothing introduced thus far that tells us that it must be seen to be overwhelming. Even if we assume, as I am happy to do, still for the sake of argument, that the arguments providing the background of which he speaks are sound, they establish but the possibility that the miracle that would be Christ’s resurrection took place and not at all that it actually did take place.

8. We have seen, then, argumentation which can be boiled down to two arguments, the one argument that:

If a miracle has taken place, then a divine revelation has occurred.

A miracle has taken place.

Therefore, a divine revelation has occurred.

and the other, logically prior, argument that:

If Christ has been resurrected, then a miracle has taken place.

Christ has been resurrected.

Therefore, a miracle has taken place.

The two arguments are both valid. Accepting, if only provisionally, the truth of their respective first premises, the question remains then of whether there is the argumentation which would demonstrate it to be true that

Christ has been resurrected.

Though it seems clear enough that Feser believes there to be such argumentation, he does not present it to us in The Last Superstitution. It still then remains to be seen whether (p. 155) “…pure reason … shows that Jesus really was raised from the dead.”

Until next time.

Richard

*Edward Feser, The Last Superstition. A Refutation of the New Atheism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008).

**Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Reality. A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, translated by Patrick Cummins, O.S.B. (Ex Fontibus Co., 2006-2012)

***Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics. A Contemporary Introduction (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid, Germany; editiones scholasticae, 2014)]

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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2 Responses to Feser on Faith in The Last Superstition 1: Pure Reason and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

  1. gunlord500 says:

    I’m currently reading a reasonably-sized chunk of Feser’s writing (The Last Superstition, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, and Scholastic Metaphysics; the latter of which I haven’t reviewed) and I happened to come across your post. I must thank you, you’ve put into words what I was trying to express a little while ago about the nature of the Resurrection considered as a miracle. Thanks very much for this entry!

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