Other late twentieth century apologists discussed by Dulles include Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, having learned a great deal from his dialogue with Karl Barth, accented the dangers of anthropological thinking and reacted against Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” between necessary truths of reason and contingent historical events. Lessing’s dichotomy represented Idealism at its worst, sanctioning a priori limits on God’s action in history, thereby rendering itself incapable of recognizing Christ as the image of divine love. Resonances of Balthasar’s thought may be found today in Jean-Luc Marion, especially in Marion’s denunciation of those philosophies that reductively and unimaginatively seek to limit the impossible, the excess, the unexpected Gift.
from "Apologetics, Unapologetically" by Thomas Guarino
Copyright (c) 2006 First Things (March 2006).
This is in response to an open query Brandon Dahm put on his blog concerning Lessing's challenge to faith in light of the distance of the historical past in which religious events take/took place. He asks in the combox:
"…given the above difficulties - the contingencies and distance of history - it seems unreasonable to base one's entire life on such information. How do I reasonably cross the ditch and make Christianity my own?"
I can't make a substantial contribution here, now, but I think the issue is amenable to a phenomenological analysis. The confusion is to treat man as an ever burning eye of pure present consciousness, rather than as a substantial being rooted in biological and historical reality. Man's entire perceptual awareness of each present moment only survives in conjunction with an 'historical' faith in his past experiences. The field of perceptual awareness is a kind of historical record. Only by recognizing our own background can we rationally and peacefully choose to live a certain way in the present. This act of appropriating the past for the present is but an analogy of the act of faith. We are not radically separate from 'religion' since religion is an intrinsically human reality. Hence, the question is not whether to base our lives on distant history but to choose how MUCH of man's inescapable religious consciousness one is willing to appropriate in each concrete Present. Historical debate about the veracity of the Christ-events are secondary to how we interpret them in the larger field of religious sensibility.
Further, I think the epistemological weakness of Lessing's problem is that it takes natural induction as so much more obvious than historical induction when in fact science is just a form of the latter. The only way we can coherently integrate new data with our scientific theory (or vice versa) is to base them on a massive implicit background body of knowledge about the entire cosmos reaching back billions of years. This background is not observable and not repeatable. We can "do science" only by simultaneously holding together, or actively 'knowing', a huge faith in the physical consistency of the universe for all time and a phenomenological belief that the event we are presently observing accords with the same laws, and is not describable by some other law (sort of like Kripke's quus-plus or Goodman's grue cases). Much the same goes for faith. There is a symbiotic relationship between historical-scientific assumptions, or kerygma, and ongoing experiments, or steps in faith. Just as our background knowledge (or working meta-knowledge) of the reigning scientific Weltanscahuung contextualizes, or theoretically determines, how we interpret each new experiment or physical anomaly, so too our basic stance towards the historical signs of the magnalia Dei heuristically contextualizes our religious experiences and skeptical arguments. As each scientific experiment is meant to confirm or disconfirm our implicit picture of the world, so religious and theological knowledge can be used to strengthen or weaken our basic religious position. And just as anomalies or error-ridden experiments can not derail a whole scientific paradigm, neither can existential disjunctions (between creed and experience) or doubt in and of themselves overturn a whole religious conviction. Religious data is not explained by reference to historical 'proof'; it is only interpreted in parallel with it as its own kind of legitimate 'data'. Hence, it is no more out of place to use present religious experience and theological knowledge as a confirmation of an implicit historical faith in Revelation than it is to use experiments to retroactively describe or illuminate how accurate a broad physical theory is.
There's been a little action in this debate, mostly in the combox on Brandon's blog, so I'll add it into this post:
John Loftus said, "An 'existential leap' as I mean the phrase, is a leap beyond what the evidence leads you to...ultimate commitment. If the most that Christianity offers is a certain degree of probability, then that's all the commitment you should have toward Christianity."
To which I replied (with some corrections and alterations here added):
Given the above explanation I must ask what Mr. Loftus would consider suitable of claiming ultimate commitment. Commitment is an intrinsically volitional term, so as soon as you say ultimate commitment requires absolute proof, you've denatured commitment as such, rendering it into a sheer cognitive response to an a priori. We don't commit to believing 2 + 2 is 4. We have no choice in that ultimate commitment. Refuting the validity of commitment based on a lack of less than absolute proof is really just an attempt to refute nearly all aspects of human life, a relentlessly theletic affair. If, given our natures, we follow truth where it goes, that is really all we can ask of cognitive warrant. The task Mr. Loftus has is to prove a commitment without absolute, deductive proof is in fact cognitively, epistemically unwarranted.
Then Brandon replied, here at FCA, to this post:
I have one objection. You wrote "Further, I think the epistemological weakness of Lessing's problem is that it takes natural induction as so much more obvious than historical induction when in fact science is just a form of the latter."
But history is different than the natural sciences in that the kind of historical research we are talking about, whether or not X happened, doesn't abstract from the particular. Natural sciences consider particular beings in motion, for example, and induce to a general theory of beings in motion. We can repeat the observation over and over to better induce.
But with history, we can't do this because we are worried about the particular as particular. This doesn't allow us the same kind, or at least the same route to the same kind of certainty as general or abstracted sciences allow.
and on his own blog to my comments there:
I agree that absolute certainty cannot be required for an ultimate commitment. But do you think that the principle "There should (rational 'should') be some proportion between evidence and commitment" is completely false? The merits of this principle are part of what I am trying to figure out. It at least has some intuitional import, but I'm not sure if it stands up to scrutiny.
Whereupon I answered:
First let me speak to your objection to what I was saying about science and history. I agree that history mostly deals with the particular as such, whereas science aims to abstract general laws from many particulars. My point is that the very device we use to evaluate a historical particular is itself an abstraction from other particulars which dictate for us how likely or unlikely the particular we're examining is. The inductive background of historical laws and probabilities is an abstraction from particulars. What gives that inductive background any grounding other than a decision to weigh some facts more than others?
The nature of commitment depends on the object of commitment, not the quality of our epistemic certitude. Commitment to Christ rests on the nature of His person. There is no brute judgment on the historical reasonability of a personal/philosophical commitment, since how we parse the historical evidence depends on a number of other commitments in different fields of knowledge. We may be convinced of the existence and goodness of God (for metaphysical and moral reasons); we may also be mesmerized by the lives and testimony of the Apostles; and we may believe the nature of human existence makes sense only in light of a final vindication of triune love over wrath and guilt (as Cornelius van Til and René Girard have, in different ways, argued in numerous places); all of which will in turn 'calibrate' how we assess, not the historical soundness of the Resurrection as historical event, but its heuristic meaning as a revelation of the true nature of the world and God's will. The temporal gap between us and the Resurrection can, as you said, be filled with good historical evidence. But then, what we will do with the Fact of the Resurrection? Committing to the Resurrected Christ means converting, or seeing converted, the Fact into the Truth. And it is a moral imperative to commit to Truth, even when the noetic bases for action are murkier than we'd like.
I can't do it right now, but I suggest doing a retorsive analysis of the ditch-claim itself. Are there cases or conditions in which the "evidence α commitment" clause is not applicable? Is it subject to the same internal contradiction that dispels positivism? As I said in the notes I sent you by email, I see Lessing's take on history as just a form of positivism and thus in fact subject to the same weaknesses as logical positivism.
The basic problem is about induction, not about raw facts, since our conception of induction determines how we respond to historical data. If John Foster's work in The Divine Lawmaker: Lectures on Induction, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God is any good, it seems the nature of induction itself has theistic implications, which of course transfigures the entire debate.