John Pittard: that elusive thing called certainty

Ray Waddle

Does God have emotions? Does God know the future? Does God exist somewhere beyond time? Does God exist, period?

The 21st century can claim no particular breakthrough on the rational quest for answers, pro or con. Despite the certitudes of certain evolutionary biologists, physicists, pastors, theologians, atheists, and other interested parties, the philosophical questions are no more settled in 2014 than they were in 514 BCE or 1514 CE.

John Pittard, assistant professor of philosophy of religion at YDS, doesn’t run from the questions. He runs with them, inviting students to join the adventure.

His Christian faith gives him the freedom to press rational arguments about God, for and against, as far as they’ll go. His faith also allows him to live without that elusive thing called certainty.

“I don’t think either side has a knock-down argument about God,” he says.

“I don’t keep a running tally on who has the advantage these days. The arguments for God have force, but my commitment to my Christian faith is not entirely dependent on my engagement with any particular philosophical argument.”

An old lesson from Kierkegaard comes in handy.

“There’s a personal existential element that gives faith stability,” Pittard says. “I think Kierkegaard is right to warn against grounding faith in what he calls ‘objective certainty,’ since such certainty can never quite be achieved. The philosophical search for objective certainty could proceed indefinitely, but in the meantime, we have to live our lives. We have to decide whether we will try to relate to God or not. I do think it is possible to relate to God, and to be part of a community that does this together, while continuing to explore philosophical questions about God in an open-minded and serious way.”

The themes of Pittard’s courses, whether for YDS students or Yale undergraduates, suggest the ambitions of his field—including “Rationality and Christian Belief,” “Does God Exist? Classical and Contemporary Arguments,” and “Epistemology of Disagreement.”

Not everyone has the sense of calling, or the stamina, to live daily with civilization’s heftiest philosophical questions. But Pittard got accustomed to such intellectual horizons during childhood. Questions of philosophy and religion engaged him at home and at church, a Church of Christ congregation in San Antonio. His father, a psychiatrist, kept books at home—titles like “Did Jesus Exist?”—that hinted at a big world of high-stakes debate about sacred matters historical and personal.

“In the Churches of Christ, the priesthood of all believers is an important idea: Everyone should take on the challenge of working out one’s theology and be able to explain it.”

A good dose of philosophical seriousness accompanied him to Harvard, though he did not pursue philosophy formally. Instead he took a degree there in economics (2000) and became a management consultant after college for a time.

“But I discovered I had a passion for reading and thinking about theological issues, and the consulting work I was doing was naturally keeping me from that,” he says.

So he made a change and went to Princeton Theological Seminary. In his studies there, Pittard discovered that the questions that most consistently engaged his attention were philosophical ones. After receiving an M.Div. in 2005, he moved on to Yale, completing a Ph.D. in 2013 in the departments of philosophy and religious studies. His committee included YDS professor John Hare.

One area of special interest for Pittard is religious disagreement—the significance of intractable disagreement between people when both sides have informed, reasonable arguments. Can there be a resolution to the stalemate, a rational solution? Should one interlocutor see fit to admit the superiority of the other’s position? When is it more reasonable to stand one’s ground and not relent? The problem of disagreement looks especially urgent in a political era where so many debates around morality and values are marked by ideological gridlock and competing sets of facts.

The question of God, meanwhile, has adopted an unusually high profile in recent years with the outspoken rise of the New Atheists and the responses of their theological counterparts.

Much of the debate, says Pittard, is a rehash of old arguments and conundrums. Skeptics continue to argue that the existence of evil is a blow against the existence of God. They can also point to the persistent issue of rational disagreement as a sign of the futility of ever knowing truth.

“Yes, those are big reasons for questioning my beliefs,” Pittard says, “but on the other hand there are some intriguing, compelling arguments for God. Darwinian evolution took the steam out of the design argument in the 19th century, but the 20th century breathed new life into the idea that our universe is fine-tuned in very specific and complex ways that allow life to occur—raising the probability that the universe is a product of (divine) intention.

“I also think that theism accounts for the trustworthiness of human cognitive capacities, something other views struggle to do. For example, if our minds are the product of naturalistic evolution, then it is hard to see why we should be especially confident that our moral intuitions are a good guide to moral truths. But if we are the product of benevolent divine intention, then there is more reason for confidence in our moral views.”

Pittard joined YDS as a lecturer in 2012 and became assistant professor last year, with a secondary appointment in the Yale Department of Philosophy.

Tackling the big questions of Western tradition, Pittard hopes students experience not frustration or intimidation but a sense of liberation through their exertions. They are invited to use their own reason and skills in order to join humanity’s long, unfolding conversation about ultimate truth.

“In any philosophy course, one thing I hope students leave with is the realization that questions that look simple might be more complex than that.

“Does God dictate moral truths? What kind of authority should scripture have? People come in with solid opinions but discover these are not settled questions. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it is also exciting and liberating to learn that everything hasn’t been figured out, and these questions continue to be asked at the highest levels of thought.”

November 3, 2014