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Theo Hobson's treatment of faith is a thoughtful and engaging meditation on a problematic and troubling concept. Much of the monograph is taken up with a succession of narratives, about the Bible, about existentialism and about the renewal of hope in political life at the time of Barak Obama's election. There are heroes (Kierkegaard and Luther), villains (Richard Dawkins and John Gray) and there is, not exactly a happy ending but at least the hope and belief that, in the end, all shall be well. Some of the narratives don't look right to me but I dare say that my own version of events past would raise some eyebrows.
At the heart of the text is a treatment of the relation between faith and reason and a firm rejection of any attempt to base the former on the latter. Three core claims run through everything that is said. Firstly, that having faith is part of what it is to be human. Secondly, that a sufficiently rich concept of faith (one that makes sense of the kind of faith that humans crave and need) will always resist secularization. And finally, the claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Christianity in particular, provides a uniquely valuably way into an understanding of the concept of faith that we need. Faith, here, is something beyond mere aspiration, beyond hope. It involves conviction or belief, not so much a belief in supernatural beings, but rather a belief that all shall be well.
I find the claim about the special standing of Christianity the least convincing of the three. Not because Christianity is obviously lacking in a rich concept of faith, but rather because other religious outlooks may also claim to fare reasonably well on this score. Hobson defends his Christian exceptionalism by suggesting that the ancient pagans of Athens lacked any genuine concept of faith. But this view requires some selective reading. Plato is cited by Hobson as a champion of reason (rather than faith) but his mysticism (which is the model for a good deal of Christian writings on faith) is not mentioned, Aeschylus and the later Sophocles are also missing, and so too their view that ultimately, in spite of appearances and setbacks, the gods must in the end be just. Instead of faith the pagan ancients are credited with hope and with a conception of religion as a kind of commerce with the gods, their piety is rendered in return for rewards and security of life. (A view of religion that Plato explicitly rejected.)
However, this is the kind of thing that I might be expected to say, and not simply because I have a soft spot for Athens rather than Jerusalem. In Hobson's defense it may be pointed out that I lack a nuanced grasp of what Christianity is all about. And such a defence might not be too far from the truth. I look at Christianity from the outside while his view comes from the interior where, no doubt, there are aspects of it that can be seen, aspects that outsiders such as myself cannot recognize. Hobson does try to remedy this by offering a middle chapter that runs through the books of the Bible. Well paced and useful stuff to those of us whose familiarity with the text is not what he might desire.
Be that as it may, Hobson's other central claims do not require any specialist Christian commitment. The claim that faith, involving some kind of contra-evidential belief that all shall be well, is something that humans need, seems like a reasonable generalization. He detects the operation of this kind of faith in political life (in spite of everything that we know about politics) and in the commitment of some secular supporters of science to an ideal of what science can bring to the world. They are, surreptitiously, adherents of faith in some kind of future. And it this respect, they share something important with religious adherents and even with the Old Testament prophets.
However, it is a little problematic that Hobson ties this human need for faith to an account of original sin that he (rightly I think) sees also at work in the existentialist tradition's sense of unease with the everyday business of being human. My concern here is not so much a stubborn determination to assert that everything in the world is rosy and perfect, but rather a sympathy with the familiar claim (made for example by Iris Murdoch) that there is something artificial about the atmosphere of gloom that pervades existentialism. Hobson's deep point about human need and personal awareness of flaw may not be well served by his fondness for existentialists such as Kierkegaard. It leads him, at times towards formulations that suggest the impossibility of feeling at home in the world, that it is alien to an important part of our being.
Hobson's other core claim, that a sufficiently rich concept of faith (one that matches our human need for contra-evidential conviction) resists secularization is set out via an interesting and useful contribution to the discussion about how a range of traditional but seemingly indispensible moral concepts operate. He is emphatic (even in point of a style that is sometimes quite assertive) that faith exceeds reason and may in certain respects clash with it. This is not the 'natural theology' of religion within the bounds of reason alone. It is something else. 'Christianity is faith based all the way down, and we moderns are always tempted to try to make it more reasonable.'
Hobson ties this defiantly unreasoned faith to Christian socialist aspirations. The future hoped for by prophets and socialists is part of what he has faith in and it is, self-confessedly, a 'utopian' and 'idealist' faith. It is utopian because it involves an acute awareness of the shortcomings of the world and a conviction that they can be removed. It is stridently idealist, according to Hobson's own way of stating matters, because human agency could never realize the dreams of utopians (Biblical and secular). I wonder here, given his fondness for existentialism, why he doesn't deploy that old Heideggarian quote that only a god can save us. This, after all, is pretty much the bedrock of his position together with an identification of the god in question. But what we are given instead is clear enough, a reassertion of Hobson's core commitments, 'Christianity is the only grown up utopianism. It is the only form of historical hope that is also realistic. How so? Because it knows that the absolute good it hopes for can come only through God's miracle, not by human action.' This takes the understanding of faith in a direction that many readers might not wish to follow, but the background discussion is engaging and controversial.
© 2010 Tony Milligan
Tony Milligan is a Teaching Fellow with the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. His doctoral research focused upon Iris Murdoch and his current research interests are in ethics and the emotions.