Unification News For February 1996


Is Critical Academic Study Conducive to Absolute Faith?

by Charles Kannal, January 1996

Seminaries across the country have come under fire from their own denominations. Young aspirants for Christian ministry enroll with high hopes of increasing their faith through scholarly pursuit of the Bible and other disciplines. All too often they come away, their faith reeling from exposure to new doubts. Unificationists are not immune to this phenomenon.

Contested at the Unification Theological Seminary class debate last November, this topic sparked lively discussion among students and faculty. Based on the results of the formal debate, critical academic study is not conducive to absolute faith.

As in any well-run debate, the judges rated the skill and teamwork of the contestants, rather than the validity of the question at hand. Awards rightfully went to the dynamic junior class team of Ron Poppalardo, Iwok Izuma and Narafumi Suganuma. Christopher McKeon, Simon Bedelo and I (Charles Kannal) did a less satisfactory job for the Divinity class team. In spite of the prognosis against academic study, President Theodore Shimmyo happily declared the debate a success, because none of the participants suggested that we close down the Seminary.

The topic itself generates further questions: Absolute faith in what? How are faith and intellectual endeavor connected? What is meant by absolute faith? What is the nature of critical academic study? Can clear distinctions be made between belief, faith and knowledge?

The dictionary calls belief "probable knowledge; mental conviction, acceptance of something as true." And faith is "belief without evidence." The New Testament describes faith as the reality (substance, assurance) of something not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1).

Is absolute faith the same as blind faith? Or is it more like knowledge, something beyond doubt? Epistemology (the study of the nature, limits and validity of human knowledge) admits that much of what we know is based on experience. Yet how completely can we trust our own experience?

It is relatively simple to argue that absolute faith in anything less than that which is Absolute will be misdirected. Absolute faith implies the humility to recognize the limits of one's own knowledge, and the wisdom to trust another who is the Source of all knowledge.

The most powerful faith has been demonstrated by people who never studied academically: Noah, Abraham, the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, etc. Some, like Jesus and Saint Joan, upheld their faith in opposition to the highly respected religious scholars of their day. Academic study, as such, seems unnecessary for absolute faith.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples of great faith among those who were assisted in some way by higher education: early Fathers of the Church like Saints Augustine, Irenaeus, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom; St. Thomas Aquinas; Martin Luther; Calvin; St. Xavier; in more recent times, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. One could argue that none of these had faith that was absolute. Or that their faith was strong in spite of rather than because of academic study. But evidence favors the observation that for these people, critical study was conducive to strengthening their faith.

As for students whose faith was weakened or destroyed by critical analysis or skepticism, we can deduce that such faith was not fixed in the Absolute. Modern academic study is well-suited to tearing down misdirected faith. But does it do anything to help build up absolute faith?

My first impressions of critical academic study as applied to the Bible were not favorable. Science works remarkably well in explaining the physical world. It has proved less accurate but still very valuable regarding human nature and social relationships. But there is something irreverent about applying cold, scientific examination to time-honored holy books. Historical criticism, literary criticism, form criticism, etc.-all seem designed to find fault and destroy faith in God's Word. Can human science rightly evaluate that which is divinely inspired? It is like man judging God.

Challenged by life's difficulties and sorrow, but also rocked by doubts from skeptical academia, my faith has weathered storms, cast aside some misdirected loyalties, and come to rest more fully in the Absolute Reality. For example, at one time I was inclined to call the Bible the absolute Word of God. I have since recognized the limitations of the written Word, and placed my hope in the Living Word Who is beyond expression in human language. That is not to detract from the Bible, for its enduring message leads us to the Eternal Word. "The Christian faith is centered in Christ, not a book, not a code of behavior, not a philosophical truth, not an institution. The Bible is indispensable to the living relationship of Christ to the church. Nothing but the Bible participates in the authority of the living Christ. God's saving work requires an encounter with the Savior. Without the Bible, such an encounter could not take place. One cannot simply read the NT to know the reality of Jesus. There is a transcendent factor. The authority of the Bible is the living Christ speaking through the Holy Spirit." (Professor Henry O. Thompson, Authority, The Bible, Who Needs It? [Delhi: ISPCK, 1994] p. 114; summarizing Herbert H. Farmer's "The Bible: Its Significance and Authority," from the Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (1952) pp. 3- 31).

Ironically, universities-the very institutions wherein religious values are now so stringently questioned-were founded by the Church. The original purpose of critical academic study was to find truth. The primary meaning of "critical" is "disposed to judge or discriminate with care and precision." Only secondary are its implications of "severe judgment" and "faultfinding." Exposing fault burns away falsehood so that truth alone remains.

Frederick Copleston, S.J. observes that "The history of philosophy exhibits man's search for Truth by the way of the discursive reason. ...the search for truth is ultimately the search for Absolute Truth, God, and even those systems of philosophy which appear to refute this statement, e.g. Historical Materialism, are nevertheless examples of it, for they are all seeking, even if unconsciously, even if they would not recognize the fact, for the ultimate Ground, the supremely Real. Even if intellectual speculation has at times led to bizarre doctrines and monstrous conclusions, we cannot but have a certain sympathy for and interest in the struggle of the human intellect to attain Truth." (A History of Philosophy, Volume I, New York: Doubleday 1985, [original copyright 1946] p. 6).

A truly honest critical study will also be critical of itself and acknowledge its own limitations. In fact, every realm of academic pursuit relies upon axioms which are accepted more or less on faith. The skepticism in academia; the antagonism between science and religion; the "inevitable" historical split between philosophy and theology; are manifestations of the mind/body split which has so plagued humanity since the Fall. Academic study itself needs purification and a return to its original purpose.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon consistently addresses this need. "Philosophy and religion are different; philosophy is theory and profuse talk, writing and books. Philosophy can guide us in our search for God, but religion promotes both word and deed-the actual encounter with our Heavenly Father. That is the difference-through religion we can experience God. All great philosophy is eventually connected to religion, because it also searches after the cause of the universe. When philosophy finds God, it should develop into a religion in order to make an impact on human lives." (from his sermon "The End of the World and Our Age," given March 3, 1989 at the World Mission Center). And Rev. Moon's prediction (Divine Principle p. 4) that "The day must come when religion and science advance in one united way," is coming to pass.

For insight into the burgeoning overlap between science and religion, I recommend The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). The author, physicist Paul Davies, acknowledges that logic and empirical science have limitations in "addressing the sort of 'why' (as opposed to 'how') questions we want to ask." (p. 226; cf. p. 15). And he suggests that mysticism or revelation might provide a route to knowledge that bypasses or transcends human reason (p. 24).

The more I investigate, the more I am convinced that true critical academic study leads to God, the Absolute Reality, and promotes absolute faith.

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