Robert MacSwain’s Solved By Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith is a meticulous account of the twentieth-century British philosopher’s religious epistemology, but it deserves the attention of anyone more broadly interested in the relationship between faith and reason.
MacSwain commends Farrer as a thinker who “never avoided ‘the empirical demand’” and yet did not simply “fit his religious beliefs into a predetermined philosophical system” (234). As an Oxford chaplain writing in not only academic but also homiletic, devotional, and epistolary modes, Farrer engages metaphysical and epistemological claims with a view to their rootedness in faith practice and especially the experience of grace. While he maintains “the possibility of the rational truth of theism,” he thinks being “rational” involves “appreciating reason’s limited function and powers” (91) and he tests his beliefs “not merely by rigorous conceptual analysis but by living them” (234). According to MacSwain, Farrer’s “great insight was that some things can only be known in this way, from within a commitment to them, a commitment which may be called ‘faith’” (234).
Carefully tracing the evolution in Farrer’s understanding of “the evidence of faith,” MacSwain argues for what he calls “moderate methodological fideism”—not only as an apt description of Farrer’s epistemology but also, constructively, as a position that he takes up in the end as his own. By this, he means “faith is not contrary to reason but precedes it” (88). On the way to his conclusion, MacSwain interacts at length with Farrer’s interpreters, namely Charles Conti and Jeremy Morris. While they focus on the influence of Charles Hartshorne via John Glasse, MacSwain is concerned to show the profound impact of Farrer’s hitherto unexamined relationships with Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Diogenes Allen. He argues that Allen, shaped by the later Wittgenstein, eventually helped Farrer “move to the possibility of a non-metaphysical foundation for philosophical theology, indeed perhaps to a non-foundational position altogether” (8, cf. 222). MacSwain makes the compelling case that Farrer should receive at least as much attention as figures such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne who have otherwise “set the agenda” for so much recent Anglo-American philosophical theology (149).
What is particularly striking about MacSwain’s analysis is his observation that Farrer’s “sort of fideism” moves us beyond faith-as-epistemic to something like faith-as-lived (or, in Farrer’s words, “life-in-grace”). As Farrer says in “Faith and Evidence,” “We shall not achieve full intellectual belief unless we live by it” (quoted on 235). In a passage from a sermon that becomes central to MacSwain’s work, Farrer claims the “paradox” of faith and reason is solvitur immolando (“solved by sacrifice”). He writes,
“When the logicians say that there is a certain inevitable division between spiritual thinking and natural thinking, they are in a certain sense right… We see God in pictures, in images only, reflected in a glass and riddlingly says St. Paul: and we cannot fuse our picture of God perfectly with our picture of the natural world. There always remains a certain discontinuity, a certain incoherence on the intellectual level.” (quoted on 226)
What are we to make of this discontinuity and incoherence? As Farrer asks in Saving Belief, “Can reasonable minds still think theologically?” (quoted on 149). He goes on to proclaim, “The saints confute the logicians, but they do not confute them by logic but by sanctity” (quoted on 226). They become “incarnate arguments,” “walking sacraments,” “visible incarnations of grace” (228, 229). “Conduct,” then—or, more specifically, obedient “witness”—is what provides the evidence of faith, what proves its credibility. Thus, as MacSwain writes in his concluding chapter, “this study has reoriented Farrer scholarship away from metaphysics towards epistemology… I would encourage a further reorientation away from epistemology and towards—not logic—but spirituality” (223).
What do MacSwain’s interlocutors make of this twofold shift from metaphysics to epistemology to spirituality? Darren Kennedy believes MacSwain is right to emphasize “the more holistic claim that our acquisition of knowledge is not so much mental as corporal, involving every aspect of our being” (136). Like Kennedy, Olli-Pekka Vainio is appreciative of the careful biographical reading MacSwain provides, which sheds light on the more relational and devotional dimensions of Farrer’s philosophical development. Paul Griffiths also touches on Farrer’s idea of “proving, in life,” but he would like to see further movement away from any account of epistemology that is normative, that is presented as first philosophy, as foundational for Christian belief. Leigh Vicens, by contrast, takes issue with the whole idea that a tension between faith and reason could be “solved by sacrifice,” posing the question, “Can people be arguments?” If by “argument” we mean “argument-as-logical-demonstration,” then saying “the saint is our evidence” (225) entails a kind of category mistake. But it seems the “evidence” in question here is of a different sort. Perhaps this what Griffiths has in mind when he suggests we “permit revelation to cease to be an epistemological stumbling-block, and to become itself an object for philosophical—most likely phenomenological—study, as it has become, for example, in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.” He says the saints are not to be regarded as “epistemic guarantors.” But it’s worth observing that this does not in fact mean they don’t provide “any kind of evidence,” if we keep in mind Husserl’s understanding of Evidenz (which Marion presses in his account of “givenness”). While MacSwain’s discussion of Farrer is understandably situated in a larger conversation about analytic philosophy and theology, in reorienting us from epistemology to spirituality as he does in his conclusion, there are certainly generative connections to be made with more recent continental philosophy as well.