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Moses and the Golden Calf

Faith, Facts, and Freedom

We often find ourselves profoundly shaped and grounded by secular liturgies without ever fully considering their logical, moral, or spiritual implications.

Over the course of the previous two essays in this series (here and here, respectively), I have been making a case for more careful thinking about the nature of some of the doubts that so many of us seem to struggle with these days, especially those related to our faith and religious commitments. 

In particular, I have attempted to show that many of our religious doubts or faith crises flow out of certain unrecognized assumptions we have about the nature of the world, ourselves, truth, and God—assumptions we tend to absorb from our larger culture by way of its many “secular liturgies.” Sadly, this usually happens without us ever fully realizing that our most basic understanding of ourselves and God is being shaped for us by these liturgies—or that this subtle process of secular self-formation has become an underlying source of our doubts about the truth of our faith and the meaning of our religious commitments. 

In this and subsequent essays, I want to briefly explore some of the ways in which secular liturgies provide the grounds out of which some of our particular doubts and crises of faith arise, as well as critically examine some of the questionable assumptions these secular liturgies tend to nurture in us.

One of the more pervasive (and troublesome) assumptions that our larger culture tends to incubate in us is egoism, or the notion that human nature is fundamentally and inescapably self-centered and self-concerned. That is, we are taught—almost imperceptibly through the ordinary rituals of daily life—to see ourselves as essentially self-contained individuals, continuously seeking gratification in a world of potential costs and benefits, and our relationships with others primarily in terms of the economic exchange of goods and services. 

You don’t need to take a consumer behavior course from an economics professor; wrestle with the political legacy of Hobbes, Locke, or Mill in a philosophy class; or even learn about human motivation in psychology to be initiated into the individualistic worldview of egoism—a worldview in which all human impulse, even our most noble and seemingly selfless, is reduced to self-interest and the unending quest to maximize personal pleasure and benefit. Rather, you only need to turn on the television and watch a few advertisements, take a trip to the local mall for some shopping, enter the workplace to earn your keep, read a self-help book, attend a management seminar, or visit a marriage counselor for a bit of couples therapy. 

We are convinced that some of the most defining features of our identity are things in which we play no real, active part, and before which we are ultimately powerless.

In each instance, the forms of living and relationship that structure and give direction to these social practices, as well as the norms and expectations (both written and unwritten) that serve to maintain and enforce these practices, assume a world of fundamentally independent egos arrayed against each other in a relentless competition for scarce resources. Social life is, according to our modern secular liturgies, fundamentally a matter of competitive negotiation, the weighing of risk and opportunity in an endless dance meant to secure maximum profit, whether in terms of such goods as fame, personal happiness, wealth, security, or the recognition and esteem of others.

In a related way, these secular liturgies nurture a self-understanding in which we come to see ourselves as autonomous agents cast into a world of near-infinite choices, responsible only to ourselves for the choices we make, and uniquely able to define for ourselves the moral quality (if any) of those choices. In so many ways, we are promised that self-actualization and true fulfillment come through the unfettered freedom of the individual will. Life is a vast panoply of possibilities, any and all ripe for the taking should we so choose. The only determining factor is personal preference and desire. 

In much the same way we might choose a particular shirt or pair of shoes from among the various styles on offer in the parade of shop windows at the local mall, we can survey the world around us and select whatever lifestyle we happen to believe most suits us at the moment. Human agency, we have come to believe, is “free agency,” the freedom to do whatever we happen to want, whenever we want, and however we might want (at least, that is, insofar as doing so does not restrict the freedom of another ego to do the same).

Ironically, at the same time, we are also subtly encouraged to believe that certain important areas of our lives fall outside the bounds of our agency and meaningful participation. For example, we are taught that in regards to key features of our identity, we are a species of “things to be acted upon,” beholden to the determinative forces of powerful abstractions, biological conditions, or contingent socio-cultural and environmental forces operating outside of our awareness or active participation in any real way. 

Thus, on the one hand, we envision ourselves as ‘free agents,” choosing how and who we will be in a marketplace of enticing options; while, on the other, we are convinced that some of the most defining features of our identity are things in which we play no real, active part, and before which we are ultimately powerless.

A particularly poignant example of this is how we have come to think and talk about Sexuality—that mysteriously powerful abstraction that our modern world presumes to be the central fact of identity and purpose, the basic source of our deepest desires and feelings. It is increasingly taken for granted that sexuality is that core element of personality that defines for us who we really are, how we must feel, and how we must act—if, that is, we wish to live authentic and fulfilling lives

Our sexuality, then, is that about us that we are encouraged to discover, explore, accept and embrace, but equally that about us which has been thrust upon us, something that just is what it is and over which we can exert no control and in the creation of which we play no part. Sexual desires, we are taught, are not things we do, not personal expressions of meaningful relationships and purposes, but rather simply who we are and cannot help but be. Thus, in our modern world, acceptance of the inescapable fact of one’s sexuality, and seeking the unrestrained expression of it, is often seen to be of paramount existential and political importance. 

Indeed, failure to achieve authentic self-acceptance and full expression of one’s sexuality is commonly thought to be the primary cause of many serious mental health issues, low self-esteem, and even suicide. Thus, the most important reconciliation we must undertake in life is to become at one with ourselves, with our sexual identity, our true self. Reconciliation with Christ, if even ever thought to be necessary, is certainly something that becomes of secondary importance (more on this in the next essay).

Because we often hear arguments that modern beliefs about the nature of sexuality are grounded in the objective facts of scientific research, it is important to have some sense of where our trust in such claims come from and why it is so easy to be persuaded that on important issues like sexual identity the claims of modern science trump religious understandings. Our nearly constant participatory immersion in the secular liturgies of our day can rather effortlessly seduce us into what scholars have termed the “fact/value dichotomy.” This is the notion that there is a fundamental difference between those things that can be known to be true (facts) and those things that are merely matters of personal preference or merely subjective importance (values). 

Intimately related to this dichotomy is the assumption that reason, in the guise of modern (natural) science, is the final authority on what can be known to be true and how it is to be known. On the other hand, faith, spirituality, and religion are held to be more suspect when it comes to real knowledge because these things are thought to be hopelessly subjective in nature, grounded only in personal beliefs and private moral values. 

Indeed, because of this commonly assumed distinction, we often feel an overwhelming demand to hold only those beliefs, engage in only those practices, and endorse only those social policies that can be shown to be valid in the light of the methods and accepted (or popular) findings of scientific rationality. And, should such confirmation not be forthcoming, we feel trapped by the sense that the only viable alternative available to us is something called fideismthe notion that because reason and faith are inescapably hostile to one another, religious beliefs can only ever be irrational, if not in fact anti-rational.

In this way, faith is often said to be little more than a “crutch” for those not strong enough to “face facts.” Religion, it is claimed, is really just a complex psychological coping strategy for those unable to accept the world as it really is in all its harsh, mechanical, and unrelenting pointlessness—a reality the rational mind of the scientist knows to be true irrespective of whatever the irrational mind of the believer might hope to be the case. 

Evidence, we are told, is the currency of reason, and thus the source of its superior authority, while blind faith, belief without foundation, is the essence of religious life. It is no wonder then, immersed as we are at almost every turn in secular liturgies encouraging such views, that there are so many who experience doubt and struggle to know the answers to questions of faith. Indeed, it is perhaps surprising that many more aren’t doing so.

The presumption that reason and faith are antithetical to one another . . . is a presumption that even some firmly secular thinkers point out lacks merit

It is, however, most unfortunate that we so often accept the view of faith assumed in such arguments; a view in which faith is asserted to be simply what you are forced to settle for when you cannot know something for certain. The presumption that reason and faith are antithetical to one another and that only reason (usually in the guise of modern science) can achieve certainty, and thus reliable and verifiable knowledge, is a presumption that even some firmly secular thinkers point out lacks merit

Indeed, it is quite clear, upon careful reflection, that scientific rationality is grounded in much that is taken on faith and that faith has its reasons. More than one careful scholar has shown that not only are faith and reason not diametrically opposed to one another, faith—as a trust born of intimate human experience—is reliable and steadying in ways that human reason and scientific thought are not and cannot be. While there are assuredly areas of inquiry in which we must defer to the methods and findings of empirical science, it is by no means the case that scientific rationality holds the keys to answering all of our important questions. Such a claim smacks more of scientism, the reigning secular religion of science, than of genuine science itself.

Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that the process of our worldview formation takes place without the influence of these secular liturgies ever being fully apparent to us, or the basis for their claims and assertions ever being adequately teased out and defended in any systematic or sophisticated way. Even more troubling, though, is that we can find ourselves having been profoundly shaped and grounded by these secular liturgies without ever having fully considered their logical, moral, or spiritual implications. Nor, I think, do we devote much time or effort, if any, to seriously entertaining possibly viable alternative assumptions. 

Sadly, we can fail to “doubt our doubts” by not sufficiently interrogating our taken-for-granted assumptions (of whatever sort they may be or whatever source from which they may arise) about the world. We can fail to “doubt our doubts” when we think only in terms of the pre-given categories of analysis or established dichotomies provided by secular thought, all of which can lead us to seriously misunderstand our real possibilities, the central issues at stake, and the true nature of the questions fueling our crises of faith.

Another area where people often struggle to make sense of their faith and religious commitments centers on our common understanding of the nature of divine commandments and religious (i.e., priesthood) authority. Here again we can discern the role that unrecognized secular assumptions about the nature of freedom, choice, and authority can come into play, giving rise to our questions and nurturing our doubts about church policies, scriptural teachings, and ecclesiastical counsel. 

For example, it is common for us to approach the question of divine commandments and religious or scriptural authority in the context of the age-old free will versus determinism debate. This is a cultural and political debate, as well as an academic one, in which human agency is either denied at the outset (determinism), on the one hand, or conceived primarily in terms of boundless individual autonomy, on the other. For many people, this dichotomy can seem not only natural, but also exhaustive. 

In other words, we tend to believe that the only two games in town are autonomy or passivity. It just is the case, our secular liturgies teach, that either we are free beings capable of independently choosing to do whatever we wish to do OR we are simply the victims of outside forces, be they biological, environmental, psychological, or societal. Either we are autonomous free agents acting for ourselves, or we are passive objects tossed about by every wind of causality.

For those of us whose religious teachings and beliefs are suffused with the language of moral agency, freedom, and choice, however, it is no surprise that we tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of determinism, even though there is much about it that is compelling and persuasive. Consequently, drawing on the basic categories provided by our larger (secular) cultural context, we tend to think of agency as “free agency,” a sort of mash-up of the secular concept of “free will” and the scriptural term “moral agency.” However, in so doing, we tend to think of agency as the same thing as unbounded individual autonomy, and thus begin to see our agency as primarily a matter of being able to make free, unfettered choices from among the many alternatives and possibilities life happens to have on offer.

While moral agency, as taught in scripture and by many religious leaders and theologians, most certainly requires the capacity to make meaningful choices and act for ourselves, viewing our agency and freedom in terms of individual autonomy can lead to serious difficulties when trying to make sense of divine commandments, religious authority, or prophetic counsel. Thus, it is not unusual to find that some who struggle to reconcile their faith with the teachings of religious leaders do so because they see external authority (spiritual or otherwise) as necessarily infringing on their personal autonomy. 

In their view, commandments are often seen as inherently onerous, burdensome, and constraining, external impositions that place limits on our exercise of “free agency,” on our freedom to do what we want and to seek fulfillment of our desires. Rather than understanding agency as inherently moral and situated in a context of meanings, obligations, responsibilities, and shared possibilities, and, thus, commandments as a vital way of giving both moral texture and guidance in that context, we too easily assume we are primarily self-contained individual egos for whom any external directive is necessarily intrusive and confining. Granted, we may freely choose to accede to such confinement, but the very instance of being commanded by another, even God, for any reason is easily seen to be a burden rather than a boon.

However, if moral agency is not essentially the freedom to choose to do as one pleases, then what else could it possibly be? If we reject the concept of agency as individual autonomy, must we then embrace one or another form of determinism (whether biological, mechanical, sociological, or what have you), along with its inescapable logic of nihilism? 

These are excellent questions and deserve more attention that I can devote to them here. Fortunately, a number of other authors (see, e.g., here and here and here and here) have taken these questions head-on and offered a fruitful and insightful perspectives on human agency from sophisticated perspectives that are both reason and faith friendly. Suffice it to say here that it might be worth considering agency not so much as a capacity for free, autonomous choice—though the capacity to make meaningful choices is not an insignificant feature of our agency—but rather as “having the truth or living truthfully.”

As Professor Richard N. Williams has argued, it is vital to understanding the nature of our moral agency that we take seriously its intimate connection to truth. After all, Christ has assured us that it is the truth that makes us free (John 8:32), and that He is in fact that very truth (John 14:6). Real freedom comes from being even as He is, living as He does, perceiving and understanding and valuing as He does. Williams writes:

Lacking truth, we are prevented from tapping into that within us which inclines toward perfection and beckons us to be like our Father is. Understanding the nature of God, understanding the truth about ourselves and what it means to be the kinds of beings we are, knowing in our hearts the truth of the atoning grace of Jesus Christ, and realizing the reality of our moral purpose on earth—these are the truths that make us free. These are the truths that provide the opportunity for the flourishing of the moral agency with which we are endowed.

In other words, divine commandments, religious authority, and the counsel and guidance that flows from that authority and those commandments, do not constitute an infringement on the self-contained power of our individual autonomy so much as they are an invitation to real freedom—and, indeed, a powerful challenge to the false notion that we are first and foremost autonomous individuals. The truth that is revealed in Christ, and shared with us by means of prophetic counsel and teaching, Williams argues, “gives us freedom from sin, self-deception, and falsity—from all those construals of the world that hold us captive and prevent us from being who we, from a more truthful perspective, really are and what we, from an eternal perspective, might become.”

Commandments are themselves the blessing, gifts given by a loving Father in Heaven to enrich and structure and provide guidance for His children.

Seen in this way, then, divine commands are neither intrusive impositions that limit our freedom to do as we please, nor are they simply specific means to be endured in order to obtain some particular blessing or personally desired outcome. Rather, commandments are themselves the blessing, gifts given by a loving Father in Heaven to enrich and structure and provide guidance for His children, both to protect them from harm and to teach them how to be more like He is—how to be truthful and loving. 

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which there were no Divine guidance, no commandments to enlighten and instruct, and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). What utter chaos and misery would reign in such a world! Perhaps the famous English philosopher Thomas Hobbes envisioned such a world when he spoke of bellum omnium contra omnes, or “the war of all against all.” In the end, once we step outside the very narrow views of human agency formulated for us by the subtle indoctrinations of secular liturgies, we can see divine commandments, doctrines, and religious authority not as constraints on our personal freedom, but rather as providing the very foundations of any meaningful freedom in the first place.

About the author

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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