On Faith

You cannot live without believing any more than you can live without breathing.  To be human is to believe.  It is inherent to our condition.  Believing is what gets you up in the morning.  It is what inspires you to live as if your life has purpose, to think that there are yet new and better things to experience on the horizons of your existence.  Believing is what motives you to move, to act, to do anything, for you only pursue what you believe is in someway worthwhile.  No one wastes precious energy doing something he does not believe is worth doing.  What we most profoundly believe about life orients and calibrates every other function of our being: our thoughts, feelings, motives, memories, imaginings, relations, actions, aims, and concerns.

A person without the smallest shred faith would become painfully inert and unmotivated.  This is a basic quality of severe depression: the agonizing inability to believe there is anything worth living for.  Deep depression is frequently described as a kind of psychological darkness or fog, because those who find themselves in it struggle see a reason to go on.  An individual suffering from depression can become stuck in a dreadful abyss of hopeless despair.  Performing simple, ordinary tasks—like getting out of bed, getting dressed, having a shower, or going to work—can be immensely draining, since a depressed individual cannot see any real purpose in doing them.  Life seems pointless.  And life is painful.  So living becomes an intolerable burden.  But believing your life has purpose can make suffering its pain worthwhile.  Nietzsche insisted “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  We believe, as we breathe, to live with vitality.  To live without faith or hope is to live in hell.  It is to live in an overwhelmingly dark and painful place, void of motive and purpose.

James Fowler writes “faith is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is a dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide a person’s life.”  Wilfred Cantwell Smith likewise describes faith as “an orientation of the personality to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.”  So for Smith, “faith is a quality of human living.”

Faith is not simply assenting to some conscious, abstract idea, and believing is not simply an intellectual or cognitive act—though belief and faith have often been reduced to this over modern history.  Nor is faith merely some optional religious commitment to metaphysical conjectures.  Faith originates in our core.  It is an intuitive, gut-level trust formed out of unspeakable knowledge of the soul.  Though faith may be expressed in abstract beliefs and ideas, faith reflects the deepest dispositions of the psyche. It ascends into the mind from unconscious depths.  Believing therefore involves our entire self.  But Smith acknowledges that this differs from typical modern understandings of faith:

There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

Hypocrisy complicates understanding the dynamics of faith.  You won’t understand the full nature of faith if you expect to restrict it to consciously assenting to propositional beliefs.  To be human is to be capable of saying one thing and doing another.  As a human I can also say I believe one thing, and perhaps even convince myself that I do, while unconsciously believing something quite different.  For example, David Benner points out an individual’s assumed spirituality may not be the same as her actual spirituality, which is to say what she professes and practices can be different things.  The same rift can develop between what I assume I believe and what I actually believe.  Though the pathway to wholeness involves healing my inner rifts.  Only by facing where I am fragmented can I become a mature, integrated person.

Without absolute omniscience, faith is necessary.  Faith steps out from the ground of what is known into what is unknown.  Faith leans over the edge of life.  Though reasonable faith is not blind, it demands taking trust-worthy risks.  Relationships require such trust, and without it they die.  But faith, forged through past experiences, gives us courage for the present and hope for the future.  Faith is always pressing forward, leaning into an unknown future, an unknown world, an unknown face.

 

On Faith

Everyone believes.  Everyone doubts.  There are no pure believers or pure doubters.  For every belief implies doubt, and every doubt implies belief.  They’re two sides of the same act.  To believe one thing means to doubts its alternatives.  To doubt one thing means to believe an alternative.  Belief and doubt necessarily coexist.  Indeed, doubt never exists in a vacuum, as if doubt is the absence of all belief as some claim.  A particular doubt can only be portrayed as a lack of belief by keeping the doubt’s supporting beliefs hidden, whether they’re simply taken for granted by the one who doubts, or they’re deceptively masked behind false pretences and appearances.

Doubt always exists alongside some belief.  I cannot doubt something without first coming to believe something else.  Perhaps I doubt one belief because I hold a different belief.  Or perhaps I form a habit of doubting by default because I have learned to believe that always doubting is a virtue.  Whatever the case may be, to doubt is to believe.  So whenever a person doubts something it raises the question, what does he believe?   And whenever a person believes something it raises the question, what does she doubt?  Doubts never spontaneously emerge from nothing.  Doubts emerge from the constellation of my experience, learning, and knowledge, which shape my most deeply held beliefs about life.  Doubts are derivatives of beliefs.  In the absence of absolute omniscience, belief is necessary fact of life.  To be human is to believe.  For if I cannot know everything then I must choose to trust something.

Portraying disagreements over higher things in simplistic dichotomies like “belief versus doubt” mischaracterizes and obscures what is actually going on.  Such portrayals only highlights one side of the story, one slant, one angle, and often one agenda.  What is actually going on is one constellation of beliefs is conflicting with an alternative constellation of beliefs.  But the conflict tends to go even deeper than mere cognitive beliefs, ideas, and concepts.  The conflict descends down into tacit sociocultural imaginaries of images, values, stories, and symbols that guide individual and group experience, and which also influence what one assumes to be believable or unbelievable, prior to cognitive or formal reasoning. This tacit level of knowledge is often so assumed, so deeply taken for granted, that it frequently remains unacknowledged and unarticulated.  But there is also a battle of imagination occurring.  Everyone and every group imagines what life is like and lives by what they come up with.

The real scenario is belief versus belief, or imaginary versus imaginary, where “believers” and “doubters” can easily exchange roles depending on which belief is under consideration.

 

On Faith

In some significant respects, faith develops out of a process of recognition. Faith is arrived at through an experience, be it gradual or instantaneous, by which one comes to re-cognize their reality in new way. This re-cognition opens one up to new levels of awareness and new horizons of consciousness that previously went unnoticed.

If faith indeed involves re-cognizing reality in such a way that requires changing one’s basic outlook on life, then faith may absolutely still compliment and not contradict deductive reasoning. It simply goes beyond the boundaries of rationality. Faith involves seeing things differently, or perhaps for the first time, as a result of changed awareness. Understood in this way, faith is not irrational or anti-rational. The development of faith is a largely a-rational or perhaps even meta-rational affair. Faith and reason may still meaningfully coexist and interact to their mutual benefit. But their processes and domains are not identical.

On Faith

Nobody is neutral when it comes to faith.  Nobody has a God’s-eye-view on our situation.  Nobody is truly impartial, detached, and uninvolved in the complexities that accompany life’s ultimate questions.  We are all human beings.  And so, we all have minds, hearts, and wills that cooperatively shape us in on our search for what’s most real and true.

What we each choose to believe about ultimate things is not merely a mental matter because we are not merely mental machines.  Some certainly suggest that it’s possible to just be a ‘mind’, to just deal with ultimate matters logically and rationally without being influenced by any feelings or desires.  But it’s not possible.  We cannot detach our minds from our hearts and wills anymore than we could physically remove our heads from our bodies and continue thinking.  The only way someone can preserve the pretense of just being a ‘mind’ is by being dishonest about their makeup and humanity—perhaps even to themselves.

Thoughtful reasoning certainly has a crucial role in the process of choosing personal views.  But like the pistons in the engine of a car, it is just one part that works with others.  So answers to life’s big questions can be meaningfully sought, but it is a pursuit that involves our whole selves.  And there’s no way around this.  The reality is, our most essential views about life and the world are shaped by our minds, our hearts, and our wills.

We should be careful to not take our wills too lightly, especially in such a hyper-individualized society where we have given our personal wills a godly status.  And thanks to our historical heritage, things like truth and goodness are frequently forced into the domain of preference.   So from personal to political levels, we have become more interested in power than in truth—the power to choose, the power to control, the power to create our world the way we want it.  Because power is all that we’re left with when we totally trivialize things like truth and goodness.

Our preoccupation with power can be seen in plenty of things in our daily lives.  It can be seen in our tendency to explain events that occur in governments or at work or even at home as ‘just political.’  In can be seen in the widespread opinion that personally desiring to do something is reason enough for doing it.  In more extreme quarters, some will even claim that truth is something that our misguided ancestors made up, but it was all an elaborate power play.  Some even go so far as to say that the ‘will to power’ is the key that unlocks every event throughout history.  And those who are ruthlessly consistent with their logic will even say that having and exercising power is the meaning of life.

Now don’t get me wrong: even though I would not go so far as to interpret everything through the lens of power, I think we can learn important things from radical thinkers like Nietzsche about the power of our wills.   What’s more, the ‘will to power’ has definitely been a significant force throughout the history of our species.  People like Nietzsche help us see the real potency of our wills.

Our wills have a powerful role to play in our pursuit of what’s real and true.  It’s not enough for us to simply say we are interested in the truth; we have to really want the truth if we are to have any hope of finding it.  We need to be willing to adjust to reality, because our wills are powerful enough that we can make ‘reality’ adjust to us.  That is to say, we have the power to selectively accept the parts of reality that suit us and avoid the parts that don’t.

All this is not surprising from a Christian viewpoint.  In fact, people are powerful creatures according to Christian thought.  At times our weak and humble position is—rightly—emphasized by Christian teachers so much that we may forget that the Biblical writings also teach that we have been endowed with incredible powers.  The opening of the Christian scriptures tell the epic story of the God of the universe designing human beings to be like him, made ‘in his own image.’  And there is a great deal of significance in God using himself as the blueprint for our human design.  Perhaps the greatest significance is that the ultimate Person surprisingly chose to share the power to choose with human persons.  So though we are not gods, we are the curious creatures that are made of both the dirt and the Divine.

But there’s more essential significance in people being made by God to be like God.  The Biblical writings tell of the ultimate Relational Ruler creating human beings to relate and to rule.  In other words, humans have been designed to experience ultimate fulfillment in sharing love with God and others, and in compassionately caring for everything in the created world—this is a huge part of our ultimate purpose according to Christian thought.  Yet, humans have the power to choose.  And the ensuing Biblical drama chronicles many gut-wrenching stories of the dark and powerful potential of the human will.  It’s stories—along with those of human history—show that we have the power to love and to hate, to embrace and to betray, to create and to destroy, to care and to neglect, to preserve and to pollute.  Even when it comes to the matter of what’s true, it is claimed in Biblical writings that we have the power to accept or ‘suppress the truth,’ including truths that we already know deep down inside.

All of this might provoke the seriously significant question, why?   I do not wish to suggest that I have peered into the mysteries of Ultimate Reality and have all the answers.  But I do find these partial explanations compelling in relation to the question, why?  Because God is Love and he ultimately wants us to want him, since love cannot exist without two-way-choice.  And because God cares for the world he created and he wants us to want to care for the created world, too.  The stories of Scripture show over and over that God will pursue but not impose himself on us; that God remarkably respects our will and our decisions.  We should recognize that this means he treats us with immense dignity—even though we may not reciprocate such respect—and allows us to truly be free, with or without him.

So when we struggle with life’s ultimate questions, we should bear in mind that God’s existence (or non-existence) certainly does not depend on our opinions.  But we should also remember that our wills are incredibly powerful.  So much so that the first and most pressing question is often not, do I think God exists?  No, the most pressing question for many is, do I want God to exist?

On Faith

‘Faith creates conflict.’  I hear this statement and ones like it from time to time.  And there are certainly many religiously-motivated conflicts that rage around the world.  The acts of terror and conquest committed by members of the Islamic State have caught the attention many, especially thanks to the massive amounts of media that has come from people within and outside of the movement.  History tells an uncomfortable story as well.  Past events like the Crusades and various inquisitions disturb the minds of many.  Looking at the past and the present forces us to face the unsettling fact that every religious tradition has blood on its hands.

It’s all enough to make it seem like religion is the problem, like faith is the disease.  Like all these conflicts would disappear and utopia would arrive if we could just eradicate the sickness of religion.  I think this intriguing idea fails to properly identify the issue, though.  It’s prescription is based on a questionable diagnosis.  I think if we are to reach a better dia-gnosis—that is, if we are to know the issue more thoroughly—we need to carefully question the nature of faith and the sources of our conflicts.  We really need to ask, does faith necessarily create conflict?

As I’ve inquired about the nature of faith, I’ve come to this broad conclusion: exercising faith is inescapable.  This notion offends some.  In my experience, it mostly offends people who think they are above faith.  People who think that faith is necessarily a despicable, irrational thing.  But exercising faith is part of our human condition, part of being a limited, finite person.  We each trust in someone or something that becomes our source of guidance and hope, by necessity.  It’s one of the bottom lines of being human.  And there are many different things, persons, rules, ideologies, visions, pursuits, and movements that we may trust in.  That is to say, there are many different faiths.  Each will have its own set of views, practices, and commitments.  Each will provide meaning and purpose to the lives of adherents, whether that be of the objective or subjective variety.  So the real question is not, will I choose to have faith?  No, the real question is, what have I already chosen to put my faith in?

Some just scoff at such a question in contempt and yet avoid engaging in much honest introspection in the process.  But if faith is truly inescapable, then intentionally understanding one’s own faith is a very wise thing.  Not only that, if faith is truly inescapable, then the statement—faith creates conflict—is too ambiguous.  Everyone has put their faith in someone or something and yet not everyone acts violently towards others, at least physically violent.  So is it religious faiths that are the problem?  Do all religious faiths inspire conflict and violence?  For the sake of clarity, my short answer is, no: all religious faiths do not legitimately inspire violence.  But arriving at this short answer requires asking a lot more questions.

For instance, if we wish to understand the motives of a religious radical, we should begin by asking, what is the radix or the root that they are reclaiming?  If we wish to understand the mindset of a religious fundamentalist, we should begin by asking, what are the fundamentals that are guiding their lives?  If we wish to understand the ideals of a religious dogmatist, we should begin by asking, what are the dogmas that form their outlook?  If we wish to understand the faith of any particular person, we should begin by asking, what are their basic views, ethics, and commitments?  And what is the basis of these things?  It is this sort of specific, sometimes messy, work that is required if we really want to thoroughly understand the nature of faith and the role it may have in conflicts.

As we uncover the essential root, fundamentals, and dogmas of a faith, we might discover that certain faiths could legitimately inspire violence.  But in some instances, we might discover that the root, fundamentals, and dogmas of certain faiths do not legitimately inspire violence, despite the fact that some who profess such faiths may commit violent acts.  For example, the root of Christ-ianity is—big surprise!—Jesus, the Christ.  And the fundamentals and essential dogmas of the Christian faith surround his teachings, identity, example, and accomplishments, both within the history of the Israelite people and the history of humanity.  What’s relevant here is Jesus clearly taught his followers to be proactive peacemakers, to love everyone—including one’s enemies—even when it hurts, and to seriously follow his example since he lived out his own ethical teachings.  Jesus would say things like, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’  So if someone becomes a radical, fundamentalist, dogmatic follower of Jesus, they should be committed to becoming a more loving, peaceful, forgiving person.

Really having faith in Jesus—in his teachings, ways, and accomplishments—involves trusting in the power of self-giving love more than the power of violence.  It involves trusting in the power and victory of Life more than the power of Death.  But as history has shown, many people who have professed to believe in Jesus have also committed horrific acts of violence.  Many have paradoxically claimed to be Christ-ians without following the teachings and example the one they believe to be the Christ.  Many have claimed to have faith in Jesus while trusting more in the ultimate power of violence and control and swords and bombs.

So what are we to make of this mess?  One simple thing we can and should make of it is that people can be hypocrites.  And this is really unsurprising.  Being a hypocrite is another apparently unavoidable part of being human.  To be human is to say one thing and do another.  To be human is to be a paradox; to be a living, breathing contradiction.  I have not met a single person, religious or unreligious, who has sincerely told me that they have always followed their own convictions to perfection.  We all mess up, even according to our own standards.  So unfortunately, we should not be shocked to see that people can act against their beliefs.  It is an incredibly common thing.

Some might accuse me of being biased in my thinking since I’m a Christian.  As if I’m trying to exonerate my faith and suggest that all the others legitimately inspire violent conflict.  But this is not my intention or my point.  The same essential point I’m presenting—that people can act against what they profess—could be illustrated by historical events where Buddhists committed violent acts.  A Buddhist who professes to have ‘taken refuge’ in the Buddha and his dharma is being hypocritical if they act violently against another person.  Nonviolence was clearly taught by the Buddha and it runs throughout much of the Buddhist scriptures.  It is central to the tradition.  So much so that the Buddha preached the following in one sermon: ‘Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.’

So I would argue that professed Christians or Buddhists or secular pacifists are acting against the ideals of their faith when they commit acts of unrestrained violence.  What actually becomes increasingly apparent is, the more thoroughly we unravel the threads of violence and conflict, the more obvious it becomes that religious faith is not always their source.  Tracing the many threads of violence often unravels a different problem.  A problem that is deeper and darker and even more pervasive than organized religion.  It is the problem of evil.

If we unravel the threads of violence to their source, we will often find them attached to a host of evil tendencies.  We may unravel greed that inspires us to fight for excessive amounts of wealth and land.  We may unravel conceit that inspires us to use and abuse other people.  We may unravel hate that inspires us to dominate, control, and kill our enemies.  We may unravel many evils that go against the verbal professions we might make.  And in many situations and in many ways, violence exposes a person’s true desires.  Violence exposes a person’s true faith.

Evil is certainly an uncomfortable reality.  But we often avoid staring straight into the sources of evil for fear of finding it within ourselves.  It’s easier to just blame all our problems on ‘faith.’  Or just blame them all on ‘religion.’  But these sloppy simplifications can sometimes just be strategies for sidestepping and blame shifting so we don’t have to face the real issue: that we each have contributed to the problem which is inspired by evils within.

So the real diagnosis is not that our impulses towards faith or organized religions are our most profound problems.   The real diagnosis is that our internal tendencies towards evil is our most profound problem.  This is the disease that needs to be cured.  Especially because it has infected us all.  Now, religion can certainly be used as an outlet for evil, just as things like politics or business or economic systems or abusive relationships can be outlets for evil too.  But in such scenarios, ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ are tools used to validate inflicting damage that is inspired by a deeper disease.  This shouldn’t be surprising, either, because the appeal to get God to endorse one’s hate, greed, and conquest is a powerful thing.

As I reflected and wrote on the statement I began this post with, I couldn’t help but think that much needed to be shared because this topic is controversial.  So my post became longer than I initially intended.  But because the issue is stifled far too frequently with simplisms, I felt the need to expand.  I hope these thoughts offer some clarity for why I think that faith does not necessarily create conflict and why I think the sources of our conflicts are often deeper.  There’s more that I wanted to include in this reflection but have not for the sake of focusing it as much as I possibly could.  So please post your comments if reading this has provoked any thoughts, questions, or disagreements.

On Faith

I’ve been lingering on this question: are reason and faith enemies or friends?  According to some, reason and faith are enemies—they are essentially incompatible ways of knowing.  Reason is pro-thought; faith is anti-thought.  Reason is always supported by evidence; faith is always unsupported by evidence.  Personally, I’ve come to doubt these simple dichotomies.  I’ve come to doubt that reason and faith exist on opposite ends of these sorts of polarized spectrums.  I have actually come to understand reason and faith as friends; as deeply compatible and inseparable aspects of knowing.  As far as I can tell, we cannot know anything or anyone without exercising reason and faith.

In the previous post I argued that all knowledge is supported by a-rational assumptions that must be accepted in faith.  What this means is we cannot exercise reason—that is, we cannot follow the rules of deductive thinking or even the methods of inductive investigation, for that matter—without working with assumptions.  These assumptions may be the premises of logical syllogisms or the principles in philosophies of science.  They sometimes seem elusive and difficult to pin down because they’re often so basic in our thinking, so deeply assumed, that we take them for granted.  Regardless of whether we’re aware of them or we take them for granted, the point is: all rational thought and inquiry is supported by assumptions.  But I want to move on from somewhat abstract epistemological musing to something more practical.  What I want to explore is the role of reason and faith in relationships.

The simple truth is reason and faith have vital functions in any healthy relationship.  They are necessary ingredients in all intimate friendships.  Take a moment to think about it.  Think about the most intimate relationship you have and think about how your relationship developed as you and your friend mutually exercised reason and faith.  My best personal example is my friendship with my wife.

Let me share some of the (surely unoriginal) bits of our story that highlight how our friendship developed as we exercised reason and faith.  Sarah and I met at school.  We had plenty of classes together seeing as we were in the same program.  But plenty of time passed before we started getting to know each other.  That’s mostly because I was doing my own thing; I lived out of town, so I pretty much came to school for class and split campus as soon as classes were over.  So I wasn’t that involved in student life and I certainly wasn’t looking for a serious relationship.  But we gradually—and I mean, gradually—got to know each other while we shared brief moments in the cafeteria or we worked on assignments and projects together.  The early stages of our relationship were slow going.

Eventually we started hanging out outside of school.  Sarah started inviting me over to her place for parties or jam session (we were in a music program).  As you’ve probably guessed since these romance stories are fairly predictable, I started realizing that I liked spending time with Sarah.  Once I realized that I liked spending time with her and, well, I liked her, I started thinking a lot.  We didn’t have a real deep friendship at this point, but we had gotten to know plenty of things about each other.  So I became consumed with thinking about her, with thinking about me, with thinking through our compatibility.  I would think about her qualities and my qualities, about her interests and my interests, about weather we’d be a ‘suitable match.’  At this stage I hadn’t placed any deep trust in her, which is to say I hadn’t exercised much faith.  But I was thinking a ton about what I had learned about her, what I knew about myself, and about the potential for a relationship, which is to say that I had been exercising plenty of reason.

Eventually my reasoning turned into faith.  I was so tongue-tied when I first tried to ask her out on a date.  She picked up on my stumbling—so she asked me out!  The moment we chose to begin dating was a significant moment for our mutual faith: we each made ourselves vulnerable enough to admit our thoughts and feelings, and we put a degree of trust in each other.

We first trusted that it would be worth getting to know each other more.  We trusted that we wouldn’t carelessly hurt each other, even if our relationship didn’t last.  We began to put a great deal of trust in each other, but we mutually extended our trust because we had each provisionally decided that the other was trustworthy based on the knowledge we had accumulated and the reasoning we had done up to that time.  And it’s not as though we used our ‘reason’ in the first stage of our friendship and ever since we’ve just been exercising ‘faith.’  At every time and stage we’ve been exercising both our reason and our faith simultaneously, in tandem.  We continually get to know things about each other through thoughtful reasoning, and we continually get to know each other and strengthen our friendship in other, often deeper, ways through mutually trusting in each other.

It’s hard to say which came first: reason or faith?  Because at the very beginning of our friendship we began exercising reason in little amounts and faith in little amounts, and our reasoning and faith-ing have simply grown—and continue to grow—as they work together over time.

Here’s another epistemological angle: the way we get to know something is much the same as the way we get to know someone.  In other words, the way we go about knowing something, like an idea, in an abstract, theoretical way follows similar patterns to the way we go about knowing someone in a relational way.  When we encounter a new idea, we usually have an initial reaction to it.  Often without giving it much careful consideration, we have an intuitive gut-response to it that either attracts or repels us from it.  If we find the idea attractive, we’ll intentionally get to know it by thinking it over; we’ll do our best to understand it’s meaning, significance, and implications; maybe we’ll consult some other sources and see what our friends, teachers, or published authors think about this idea; we’ll compare it with our own existing ideas and see how it fits with our current philosophies; we might change it slightly in order to fit it alongside our own ideas, or we might change our own ideas, philosophies, or maybe even lifestyles to accommodate and incorporate this new idea into our thinking.

We essentially go through a feeling-out process of ‘relational compatibility’—though its not a real relationship because, no matter how much you might love an idea, it will never love you back.  We go through the process of determining whether we’d be a ‘suitable match’—though I hope you don’t take it too far since ideas are not people and you can’t literally marry a thought.  But figuratively, we couple ourselves with ideas and marry ourselves with philosophies all the time.  School is like speed dating in a lot of ways: as a student, you move around from desk to desk, encountering a bunch of different ideas during a constrained period of time in which you’re rapidly doing you best to become familiar with them; and hopefully it will be time well spent and some of the relationships formed at school will actually last (though that’s unfortunately not a guarantee).

The bottom line is, through both my experiences of ‘knowing’ and my reflections on the nature of relational, practical, and theoretical ‘knowledge,’ I’ve come to conclude that reason and faith are not conflicting enemies but closely-linked friends.  Reason and faith are reciprocally linked, they are symbiotically joined, in all acts of knowing by necessity.  They form the integral supports for all structurally-solid knowledge.

As always, your thoughts and pushback our welcome.

On Faith

What do you know for sure?  What do you know with absolute certainty?  Do you think it is possible to reasonably believe that something is true without being absolutely certain that it is true?  Or are ‘reason’ and ‘belief’ essentially incompatible?

These days, reason and belief are often pitted as enemies.  They are presented as profoundly polar opposites.  Reason is thought to involve air-tight arguments and certain conclusions.  Faith involves silly superstitions and uncertain beliefs.    Reason is the solid and sure way for thinking people.  Faith, on the other hand, avoids all this far-too-strenuous thinking and offers made-up fantasies to dupe believing people instead.  In other words, reason is for the thinkers; faith is for the believers.  And characterized like this, they definitely seem to be opposed.

There’s something at the centre of the controversial relationship between reason and faith that doesn’t get much attention: knowledge.  To be more specific, what is the nature of the knowledge we accept?  What counts as reasonable knowledge?  It is (ironically) assumed by many that knowledge which gets the stamp of approval from reason is sure, whereas faith-based knowledge is sloppy superstition.  But is this a realistic characterization of the essence of ‘reason’ and the essence of ‘faith?’

Finding absolutely certain knowledge was an obsession for some of the most influential thinkers through history.  For instance, Descartes arrived at his famous conclusion, ‘I think; therefore I am,’ in his search for certain knowledge.  He came to think that an individual’s self-existence is the most certain truth a person can know.  And his axiom kick-started a widespread project of pursuing certain knowledge that attracted many prominent thinkers after him.  Since history is on our side, we can see that the inescapable end of such a philosophical project is essentially solipsism.  That is to say that there is a chasm between our internal and external worlds that cannot be bridged with certainty.  We are each so imprisoned in individual subjectivities that we cannot objectively know anything outside of ourselves.  And so, for those who choose to restrict their ‘knowledge’ to what is certain, only one’s self can be known.

Sure, these ideas can be taken to ridiculous extremes.  But our philosophical pursuit of certain knowledge has forced us to face the simple fact that a lot of what we accept as knowledge is uncertain.  Let’s all be honest: we take a risk whenever we claim to know anything that reaches beyond our own internal worlds.  We take a risk because we make a host of uncertain, yet unavoidable assumptions.  To get super basic, we usually assume that other people are real and the world around us is not an illusion, for instance.  We usually assume that our senses provide us with relatively reliable information about our external surroundings, too.  I think it’s very sensible to live according to assumptions like these, rather than, say, assume that other people are figments of my imagination or that the world I inhabit is a virtually simulated reality.  Even though most would agree that it is very sensible to accept the former assumptions, they remain assumptions, nonetheless.  And these assumptions that I’ve given as examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  What might actually surprise some is that if we follow the roots of our various bits of knowledge to their ends, much of our most cherished ideas about life, ethics, beauty, truth, religion, science, and more, rely on tacit assumptions that we accept a-rationally.

So what does this all mean?  I think one thing this means is we should each admit the simple truth that we all make assumptions more often and more readily; that assumptions are inescapable.  When subjected to rigorous scrutiny, the majority of what we accept as ‘knowledge’ is uncertain and laden with assumptions.  We need not consider this a bad thing, but we should be careful enough to at least consider the matter.  When placed under consideration, most knowledge is supported by assumptions that we put our faith in.  Most knowledge depends on belief and makes us vulnerable if we accept it.    Use words other than ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ if you prefer.  But if you use different language don’t ignore the basis of your knowledge, because ‘assumptions’ are really no different than ‘faith commitments.’

If we agree that having assumptions—or  faith commitments—is inescapable, then the question is not, ‘will I choose to exercise reason or faith?’, because, like it or not, reason and faith are inseparable.  It’s only possible for a person to create the appearance that they’re not inextricably joined by ignoring the assumptions that support the knowledge that they’ve embraced, which is carelessly negligent at best and stubbornly delusional at worst.  But if we admit that much of our knowledge relies on assumptions, then more realistic questions might be, what set of assumptions about life and reality do I think are most reasonable?  What set of assumptions seem to be most coherent and seem to correspond most with my experience and surroundings?  And once we’ve begun to ask questions like these, everything can really be boiled down to the question: what will I put my faith in?

What’s most significant is ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ are not irreconcilable enemies.  They are not profoundly polar opposites when we understand them within a more realistic and more honest scheme of knowledge.  In fact, when we examine the knowledge we accept, we should admit that reason and faith are inextricably joined since much of our knowledge relies on assumptions that we believe in.  And if you think you’re beyond belief—well, then you’ve got some more thinking to do.