Highways of the Heart
Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith
reviewed by Louis Markos
It has been two decades now since such writers as Alasdair McIntyre, Mark Noll, and Lesslie Newbigin (and, before them, Francis Schaeffer) alerted us to the fact that we are still living in the Enlightenment. Starting in the eighteenth century, and picking up speed in the nineteenth, Western thinkers began to drive a wedge between reason and emotion, logic and intuition, history and myth, science and religion. For each pair (or binary), the first word was privileged over the second as the proper vehicle for seeking truth. The upshot of this Enlightenment split between empirical facts and spiritual values was to slowly edge Christianity out of the universities and the public square and into a tight, private, self-referential box cut off from the concerns of analysis, research, debate, and “real” life.
Thus things remained until an Oxford English professor named C. S. Lewis bravely challenged the reigning orthodoxy of the Enlightenment: an orthodoxy so pervasive and invisible that it had come to be taken for granted as “the truth.” In his apologetical writings of the 1940s and 1950s, Lewis dared to suggest that Christianity represented a rational, consistent, and testable worldview that had never been disproven and that deserved a place at the table. In his wake, an ever-growing cadre of Christian thinkers, both inside and outside academia, have similarly wrested their minds free of the Enlightenment split to champion the intellectual integrity and fruitfulness of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The result has been stunning: a steady stream of carefully constructed, powerfully argued, cutting-edge books that have mounted a logical, systematic defense of Christ, the Creeds, and the Church. From miracles to the problem of pain, the historicity of the Resurrection to the reliability of the Gospels, these books have marshaled the critical tools of the secular university to address issues and answer questions that have long been used by Enlightenment-minded academics to dismiss the truth claims of Christianity. Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Gary Habermas, Chuck Colson, Alister McGrath, J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, N. T. Wright, and dozens of others have fought the good fight, using their apologetical arguments to help restore the intellectual reputation of Christianity to its pre-Enlightenment status.
They have done well indeed, but they also have, it could be argued, made a methodological error. In their praiseworthy campaign to champion the rational side of Christianity, many apologists have bought into the very Enlightenment split they set out to rectify. That is to say, they have taken for granted that the truth of Christianity rises or falls on the appeal it makes to reason. “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity,” Lewis assures us in Book III, Chapter 11 of Mere Christianity, “if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it.” Though there is much more to Lewis than this, the statement embodies well the goal of most modern apologists: to prove that Christianity is not an emotional, feel-good religion but a logically consistent belief system.
Reclaiming Existential Apologetics
Enter Clifford Williams, a professor of philosophy at Trinity College (Deerfield, IL) who specializes in the work of Kierkegaard. In Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, Williams, following in the footsteps not only of Kierkegaard but also of Pascal, challenges apologists who would too quickly accept the facts/values split. While admitting that it is a good thing to possess rational proofs for the existence of God, Williams argues that many people are drawn to God for reasons that have little to do with reason. Yes, Christianity makes sense, but it also meets our deepest needs for love, forgiveness, meaning, and what Williams (partly after Freud) calls “cosmic security.” Nearly all people experience at least some of these needs, which extend beyond our life on this earth to take in our ineradicable longing for heaven.
Williams refers to these in-built, cross-cultural desires as existential needs, and reminds us that while some of them are directed toward the self, we also possess “other-directed needs,” which impel us to love others, to feel awe in the presence of magnificent objects and heroic people, to delight in goodness, and to yearn for justice to be done in the world. When these needs are not met, we grow restless and sick at heart and are plagued by sorrow, anxiety, guilt, and a sense of inadequacy. Although some of these needs can be met by a belief in a vague higher power or a pantheistic spirit that pervades all of nature, only a personal God who is holy, loving, and beautiful can satisfy all of them. Indeed, the observable and experiential fact that our unfulfilled needs push us toward the kind of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ lies at the core of Williams’s existential argument for God.
Well, not exactly. To call it an argument for God is to misunderstand the subtle distinction that Williams makes between fact-based evidential apologetics and need-based existential apologetics. Whereas evidentialism seeks out proofs that God exists, existentialism “says that faith in God is justified solely because it satisfies certain needs.” In Mere Christianity (and elsewhere), Lewis argues that our desire (or need) for things that our natural world cannot supply points toward a “super-natural” source of those desires. Though Williams approves of this line of reasoning, he makes it clear that what Lewis offers in his argument from desire is still an evidential, rather than existential, apologetic. “The role of need in an existential argument is simply to move one to faith, whereas the role of need in an evidential argument [like Lewis’s] is to provide a fact that needs explaining.”
The distinction may seem a bit labored and arcane, but Williams’s entire book is built around it. His thesis/mission is to convince his fellow apologists that the “drawing power of need” (existentialism) and the “certifying ability of reason” (evidentialism) can and should work together in unison. When one side is demoted or ignored, we are left with an unbalanced apologetic that cannot speak to the whole person, for “need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.” Our reason may tell us that God exists, but it is our needs, and the desire to satisfy them, that justify our having faith in the God who exists.
Pascal argues that each of us has an empty place in his heart that yearns to be filled. Though the Fall has rendered us incapable of filling it on our own, our craving to do so persists and will not be satisfied until the aching, God-shaped vacuum within us is filled with Christ. Williams helpfully takes us through Pascal’s famous argument, quoting the relevant passages from the Pensées as he goes. He concludes by offering the following reconstruction of Pascal’s existential argument: “This, we think, is as good a ‘reason’ to believe in God as any. A need has been satisfied, an inclination appeased.”
Having made his case for existentialism, Williams devotes most of the remainder of the book to answering objections—many of which I felt forming in the back of my own mind as I read his opening chapters. Most of the objections rise out of our post-Enlightenment sense that emotions are inherently unstable and unreliable. If we ground our faith in feeling-based needs, the facts/values censor within us cries out, then won’t we risk putting our trust in the wrong object? Couldn’t our needs drive us to any number of “gods,” or to no god at all? How can we possibly trust our emotions to distinguish right from wrong, truth from error?
In reply, Williams repeatedly reminds his readers that he is not advocating an apologetic based solely on needs: “neither logical rationality nor need rationality alone is sufficient for faith in God. The two must coalesce.” Our emotional need for God, after all, forms part of the data that should be considered by anyone seeking after truth. Jung, Williams explains, broke with Freud in great part because the materialist Freud refused to give any credence to the observable link between religious experience and emotional well-being. Surely if believing in God can be shown to help “heal our neuroses because it gives us meaning, beauty, completeness, satisfaction and splendor,” then the intimate link between needs, faith, and healing deserves to be taken seriously.
As for those who object that not everyone feels existential needs for love, forgiveness, and cosmic security, Williams reminds us that such critics are not always as objective and impartial as they would like us (and themselves) to believe. Many people allow anger, anxiety, and pride to impede their natural desires. Their resistance to God is not based, finally, on intellectual problems but on an emotional refusal to admit their need, lest it bring them face-to-face with the accountability-demanding God they have sought to avoid. Many of these people, Williams argues, would feel existential needs if they would only be honest with themselves and open their hearts and minds.
At several points Williams makes reference to a lesser-known work by Cardinal Newman, The Grammar of Assent. “The heart,” writes Newman in a passage not quoted by Williams, “is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” This is so because “man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.” More than simply calling on his fellow apologists to take account of our existential needs, Williams sets himself the worthy task of championing the emotions as an essential part of our makeup, a part through which “deep calls out to deep” and the core of our being is drawn toward the God who alone can fill the vacuum
Flaws & Benefits
Williams’s book is both challenging and timely, but it is not without flaws. Though his prose style is lucid and straightforward, it is also almost maddeningly repetitive. His logic is sound, but his arguments circle around and around, continually falling back on the same points. The reason for this is, I believe, quite clear. Williams is doing philosophy as if it were a branch of sociology, psychology, or anthropology—all of which disciplines have increasingly emasculated themselves with unnecessary qualifications. We live in an age when large numbers of professors, in both secular and (I am embarrassed to say) Christian universities, find themselves incapable of accepting commonsense statements like: There are essential differences between the sexes. In academia today, such a statement is either rejected as naïve and illusory or loaded down with so many qualifications that it ceases to have any explanatory power.
I did not choose that example randomly. Williams’s refusal to inscribe his arguments within a biblical, commonsense understanding of the sexes prevents him from addressing one of the most destructive of all the Enlightenment binaries: that between masculine and feminine. Today, academics label as misogynists people who dare to link masculinity to reason and femininity to emotion, but the real misogynist is the one who refuses to affirm the essential link between femininity and emotion. If Williams really wants to draw together reason and emotion, if he really wants to affirm both logic-based and need-based arguments, then he would best begin by encouraging husbands and wives to value the God-given makeup of their spouse. If a male apologist—and nearly every one of the major apologists today is male—cannot appreciate his wife’s intuitive powers, if he cannot accept as positive her more emotional way of interacting with the world, then he will never be able to give real credence to Williams’s existential argument. Had Williams been willing to affirm the complementary link between masculine reason and feminine emotion, his book could have helped heal a rift between logic and desire that runs much deeper than apologetics.
Still, though Williams misses the chance to honor and celebrate our God-given masculinity and femininity, his book does offer an important corrective to the excesses of the Enlightenment. In the midst of an age that has grown increasingly mechanistic and reductive, he nobly defends the full dimension of the human person. The Old and New Testaments alike call on us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The major apologists of the last several decades have helped Christians reclaim the mind; Williams would help us do the same for the heart.
For the heart, as Pascal did well to remind us, has reasons that reason knows nothing about. •
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“Highways of the Heart” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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