Meghan Sullivan, “Faith, Practical Reason, and Risk”

February 13th, 2018 by

Christianity, as traditionally construed, requires its adherents to believe (or at least accept) a number of propositions.  The faithful adult Christian, for example, should normally believe that God is Triune, that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, that Christ atoned for our sins, and so on.  Such beliefs, we might say, are “creedal beliefs”; they are beliefs in the propositions central to a particular faith tradition, in this case Christianity.

The University of Notre Dame philosopher Meghan Sullivan raised a number of issues pertaining to creedal beliefs in her talk at Fuller Seminary on January 17, 2018.  The issues she addressed included the following three:

In discussing these issues, Sullivan’s goal wasn’t to arrive at any firm conclusions about these matters.  Rather, her goal was to invite people of faith, specifically Christians, to think about some of the puzzles that creedal beliefs generate, with the hope of ultimately acquiring greater insight into the role that creedal beliefs play in our lives.

Consider the last issue above, (c).  There are different senses in which a person can be considered responsible for her creedal beliefs.  Sullivan focuses on rational responsibility, but I believe the point she is after is better illustrated by thinking in terms of moral responsibility.  Christians typically hold that people are morally responsible for believing, or disbelieving, at least a certain subset of creedal claims.  For instance (and the following is my example, not Sullivan’s), Christians maintain that people should believe in God, and some Christians (but by no means all) would even go so far as to say that the convinced atheist is, in the normal case, morally culpable for his false belief that there is no God.  The trouble is that beliefs look to be involuntary.  If you doubt this, pick a proposition that you don’t currently believe and bring it before your mind (e.g., that there is a big pink elephant in your room, that Casper the friendly ghost exists, that your high school prom date really was secretly in love with you even though he/she said “I want to remain just friends,” etc.).  Now try to believe the proposition before you.  Really give it a go.  (No cheating here, pick a belief that you can’t bring about by manipulating your evidence base.  Sure, you can “force” yourself to believe that you see a red object at the moment by putting something red before yourself.  But that is not you choosing to believe something in the sense at issue.  Try a belief that has an evidence base that you can’t so easily manipulate, similar to standard creedal beliefs.)

No luck?  You’re not alone.  Humans just don’t seem to have the capacity to form beliefs at will.  The most they can do is look for evidence, or situate themselves such that certain beliefs are likely to emerge.

But if beliefs are involuntary, then creedal beliefs are also involuntary.  Certainly, however, one cannot be morally responsible for that which is involuntary.  (Normally, one cannot be held morally accountable for aging and eventually dying, for instance, and a good explanation for this is that such a process is involuntary.)  So, why do some Christians regularly suppose that people are morally responsible for holding, or not holding, certain creedal beliefs?

The notion that individuals are morally responsible for holding (or not) certain creedal beliefs becomes all the more puzzling if we agree that the reasons supporting the relevant creedal belief aren’t overwhelming in the sense previously explained in (a).  Now (i.e., when (a) and (c) are combined), to condemn a person for not having the right creedal belief is to condemn a person for not having some involuntary belief that is underdetermined by the evidence.  Such a condemnation hardly seems appropriate, however.

Again, Sullivan’s purpose was not to tell those present at her talk how one might save (c) from the kinds of threats just noted.  That she intends to do in a book project she is currently constructing.  But her talk did challenge those present to think more deeply about important issues related to creedal beliefs.  And for that she can be thanked.


Jordan Wessling (PhD, University of Bristol) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol and was the Frederick J. Crosson Fellow at Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame.

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