Cosmolosophy: Why is Faith Important

Faith. It is a word that gets tossed around a lot in discussions of philosophy and belief systems. Religious folks automatically think they understand it, and rationalists automatically dismiss it. The interesting thing from my perspective is that the question might be more deceptive than either rationalists or deeply religious folks might think; at least at first glance. The problem, it seems to me, is that we don't understand it most times any better than we understand ourselves.

Automatically dismissing it, of course, is silly given the fact that it shares so much with the notion of hope and trust. How can you have hope if you don't also allow for a little faith, as well as trust, in some outcome, or person or whatever else. But perhaps I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Lets first establish how we can say that rationalists are the ones who are quick to dismiss it. In this effort lets look at two recent expressions of the rationalist view. First from Christopher Hitchens. In criticizing a speech given by Prince Charles of England (see the "Charles, Prince of Piffle" piece in Slate—posted 6-14-2010) he states:

"Discussing one of his favorite topics, the 'environment,' he announced that the main problem arose from a 'deep, inner crisis of the soul' and that the 'de-souling' of humanity probably went back as far as Galileo. In his view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, 'where mechanistic thinking is so predominant,' and which 'goes back at least to Galileo's assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.' He described the scientific worldview as an affront to all the world's 'sacred traditions.' Then for the climax: (italics mine for Prince Charles quote J.V.)

As a result, Nature has been completely objectified—She has become an it—and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo's scheme.'

"...We owe a huge debt to Galileo for emancipating us all from the stupid belief in an Earth-centered or man-centered (let alone God-centered) system. He quite literally taught us our place and allowed us to go on to make extraordinary advances in knowledge. None of these liberating undertakings have required any sort of assumption about a soul. That belief is at best optional. (Incidentally, nature is no more or less "objectified" whether we give it a gender name or a neuter one. Merely calling it Mummy will not, alas, alter this salient fact.)
...So this is where all the vapid talk about the "soul" of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The 'vacuum' will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now..."

One can certainly appreciate this point of view. Empiricism and the scientific method gave us great practical advantage over the simplistic behavior modes implicit in the superstitions of old folk lore. One would have to wonder, however, if Galileo himself might not have been willing to argue a point of distinction with Mr. Hitchens (see "The Faith of Scientists. In Their Own Words" by Nancy Frankenberry, "Part 1 Founders of Modern Science"). That just because a questioning mind might seek to utilize that very power of observation and consideration, would not necessarily imply that it would also automatically abandon the desire to seek out that which transcends all of what can be measured objectively; with love itself, of course, being a prime example (there is also a component of the “Clash of Civlizations" here. I would strongly recommend looking into Samuel P. Huntington's argument and the response by Edward Said). I'm going to have more to say on all of these points, but I would ask the reader to please bear with me here. We need to express one more part of why faith is looked upon derisively. And in this context I can think of no better example than that presented by the documentary "Religulous."

I certainly can't present much of that video here. I do recommend checking the video out of course (a transcript of the dialogue can be seen here). It is about as complete a presentation of the extremes of religious dogma as has ever been compiled. And in as much as any belief system can be criticized for its outlandish statements of fact, this is good stuff. But then he sums up at the end:

"This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. It says in the last days there'll be wars, rumors of wars. The Bible prophesies from the Book of Revelation they're going to be fulfilled! Can this be accomplished without violence? - No.
- Islam ruling the world, global jihad. - Who will win out? - We'll win. That's for God to decide on Judgment Day. If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a Mafia wife, with the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was: That we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up or die."

I certainly understand the worry he expresses here. Nearly anything taken to extremes poses real dangers, and blind adherence to a set of dictums, often at odds with each other (as with the essence of Jesus juxtaposed with the God of the old testament), is especially worrisome. Having said that, however, does anyone think that very much is going to be accomplished by trying to shame people out out something that they feel they need? And in this I want to emphasize the word "feel" in that last sentence. A strategy made all the more absurd when the argument is only rationally based, not to mention so starkly emphasized over the line drawn (in the sand as it where) between intelligent rationality and stupid irrationality. The need for religious explanation is nearly as old as time. I also think that there is evidence to suggest that the very evolutionary structure of the mind predisposes humanity towards this "irrational" mode of explanation. One also needs, I think, to make another distinction. Just because fallible people are the ones who create the dogma; people subject to the biases, prejudices and fears of their time, who make this stuff up, does that necessarily make the need to believe in a transcendent explanation automatically wrong?

But now, of course, we must ask those who are centered in a faith based understanding of life, and their place in it, why any deity (who presumably wants us to make good choices) would give you so essential a faculty as a questioning mind and then expect you not to use it. As well as to ask how faith can exist at all if a thing is held with fixed certainty.

One way to look at the latter question is by siting a contemporary example from popular culture. I site this example not because I think that any TV show might be the end all and be all authority on theological matters. I think, rather, that such a show can represent a reasonable take on what might be considered an even handed view of Christianity. And in that context I can think of no show more even handed than "Saving Grace," a very enjoyable vehicle for a favorite actress of mine, Holly Hunter. You certainly couldn't say this show was anti-God in any way, and the character Ms Hunter plays expresses much of usual arguments against belief.

In any case, Ms Hunter plays a very complicated veteran police detective, Grace Hanadarko. The complications arise from the heady mix of passion, free spirit, and more than a little recklessness of a woman wanting to do right but not always sure what right is in a world where people end up doing things like blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building. The tag line of the title of course comes from the fact that an angel has been assigned to help her, whether she wants that help or not (as well as whether she fully accepts the idea of God or not). In one of the episodes from the first season, venting one of many recurring tirades of frustration against God on Earl the Angel, she asks why she can't have all of the answers as to why God does what she does (or more importantly for Grace, what she avoids doing that might seem reasonable to a caring human). And Earl tells her that he can't give her the answers precisely because that's not how faith is supposed to work; the implication being that if folks knew God's answers as a fact there wouldn't be any doubt and thus nothing actually required of the believer in taking on the commitment of accepting God's word. By the same token, how can you say you've actually chosen to make that commitment if you don't truly think it through for yourself; balancing both what your feelings and your intellect tell you. Certainly Earl goes through great lengths to get Grace to think seriously about the choices she's been making, arguing that she will have to face God's ultimate judgment at some point. A lot of people pray for her because she has good in her soul but too many of her choices are hurtful of others, and way too focused on immediate gratification. In this, I think it's safe to say, she is not leading anything close to a life of loving balance (entertaining though her extremes are, even though the show makes it clear these actions cost her).

In the context of the first question mentioned above, though, is a more fundamental question. Why should taking a critical view of what was written a thousand or so years ago automatically be regarded as questioning God's existence? Even allowing for the fact that the men who wrote those scriptures were moved by the spirit of God to put forth these stories and proscriptions, does that alleviate all possibility that they were still subject to the same frailties that men have always been subject to? There may have been a completely sincere intent to dutifully present what they felt was the word of God at that time, but would these men not still be subject to their ability to separate their own desires, fears and concerns from those that they felt they received from God? How many times throughout recorded human history have good people, with great pious sincerity, gone forth with actions they thought were God's will, but that turned out to be immoral, hugely destructive and certainly against what Jesus taught? Why should it be so frightening for spiritual folks to reconsider what ought to be God's scriptures in the here an now? I know that change of any kind can be frightening, but if you have faith in God, can you not have faith in his guidance for making those changes so as to have balance between reason and the essential things that lay beyond reason? Is it God you are actually listening to or the interpretations of men just as frail as you? Interpretations that may or may not have been relevant a thousand years ago, but which you take as actual answers from God now. As if Earl the Angel's explanation of how faith works, and why God can't give actual answers, had no merit at all. Just remember this the next time somebody asks you why God lets so many people die so needlessly. If you say that he works in mysterious ways and we cannot know his purpose, but only have faith, and yet at the same time say the scriptures are the absolute word of God then your are either deluded or quite mistaken. This is so because you can't have it both ways. You can't say that he has given us a set of the answers and yet not know any of the really big ones. It also shows that you have much to learn about what faith really is.

So let us now review before we move forward. Faith, it seems to me, involves not only a willingness to allow for the transcendent, but also a willingness to accept the doubt that must come from a mind willing to use our ability to question and reason. Certainty, in this context, must be seen as a questionable abstract at best, for even with Scientific method do we see how it is to be avoided. Because the problem is, as usual, the tendency to go overboard with one side or another of any given set of alternatives.

Faith is also important in how we strike a balance between the use of reason and the use of our need to seek answers beyond what reason can provide. The explanation for why this is so is where I would now like to begin.

I mentioned before that I think there is evidence to suggest that the very evolutionary structure of the mind predisposes humanity towards an "irrational" mode of explanation. To support that premise lets now consider the work of Robert Ornstein; in particular from his book "The Evolution of Consciousness." According to Dr. Ornstein we have the brain structure now current because something like 200,000 generations of adaptive selection, and the reproductive success therein, built it up. This resulted in an overall system of amazing adaptive breadth (but little depth). In essence the potential for a thousand or more different minds; able to adapt to a planetary range of physical environments; any one of hundreds of different languages, and the specific behavioral requirements of a bewildering array of cultures, sub-cultures, sub-subs, and the unique familial expressions of any one of these dependent nodes. Because of the structural layering of these brain adaptations we come pre-wired with innate neural response strategies. What Dr. Ornstein calls simpletons that do a great deal of neural processing automatically. Because of this automation; because so much of the tremendous wash of sensory data never rises to the top level of self awareness, and because biological survival required quick reaction, we are forced to responses that are based on a "Semblance" of the world around us. A down and dirty best guess that works most of the time. Because of this semblance creation:

" We live in a dream of our own making. Some try to get around the dream. Some Succeed. Our experiences, percepts, memories are not of the world directly but are our own creation, a dream of the world, one that evolved to produce just enough information for us to adapt to local circumstances..." (p. 160)

What this then adds up to is the fact that:

" Many systems determine consciousness. Although language, poetry, philosophy, and the building of computers may seem to be the most important functions we have, what the brain, and hence consciousness, is doing most of the time is quite different.
Consciousness is involved when deliberate, rather than automatic, control or intervention is needed. The main operations of the brain do not really include thought and reason, but blood flow, blood chemistry, and the maintenance of the milieu interieur... Very few of our decisions get shunted up to consciousness; only those that need a top-level decision about alternatives. We thus live our lives without knowing how we are doing it and what is happening to us. The simpletons just go about their work.
So, William James's famous statement on the workings of consciousness can be seen as more prescient than even his fans have given him credit for: (italics mine for Mr. James's quote J.V.)

'Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it , is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and atr a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.' …" (p.227-228)

Near the beginning of this tenet I quoted Christopher Hitchens, using his article on Prince Charles as an example of the rationalist point of view. I want to be clear on the fact that I have great respect for Mr. Hitchens. Not only does he reason well, he lays down the expressions of same in exemplary fashion. I have certainly had cause to disagree with his conclusions, but you have to admire his ability formulate and put forth an effective position on his topic of choice. I picked his article as an example not only because of the fact that Mr. Hitchens has declared himself as staunchly Atheist (see "God Is Not Great"), but also because of the obvious feeling you take away from it. This is the underlying feeling of anger he expresses towards not only a person of authority, who he feels is acting foolishly (especially as it concerns the strategic aspects of a monolithic "Others" belief system, and the automatic conflict that must underlie it's relationship to an amalgamation of the West's belief system), but for someone so stupid as to be seriously considering going back to the superstitions of old.

I have to say that, when I am confronted by good people expressing their frustrations towards other good people (however flawed this particular member of the British Royal family might be, I have to believe that he is a good man who takes his role very seriously) in this manner, it really breaks my heart. And I say that knowing that stating my reaction in this way risks the very same rationalist condemnation as was displayed here toward the prince. I think that what this anger really expresses, however, is an underlying theme that goes back to at least Melville. Mr. Hitchens anger only echos that of Captain Ahab who is, as some have already argued, the precursor to today's modern Atheist (see "Atheists and Agnostics Compendium," a view of Moby Dick as interpreted from the book Herman Melville's Quarrel With God by Lawrance Thompson). I say that because I see Atheists as those who have lost faith with faith. They were both lovers once you see, and the offspring of same. A Lover, and its issue, who had surrendered themselves completely to the thing we now call nature... Or God... Or Gaia... The Mother/Father source of our biological re-formation. They were the lover, and the child, who felt betrayed. And through that betrayal came to hate not only the reverence and submission given, but their stupidity for being so easily seduced.

Let's look again at what the prince said. As Mr Hitchens summarized:

"In his (the prince's J.V.) view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, 'where mechanistic thinking is so predominant,' and which 'goes back at least to Galileo's assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion...' 'As a result, Nature has been completely objectified—She has become an it—and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo's scheme.' “

What I think the prince was trying to express, and perhaps not very well, was the idea that, whereas once we had a very deep connection to the biosphere around us, being so ignorant on the one hand, but also so directly connected to it for every day existence, everything was sacred. Everything was part of the Mother/Father source, us included. And in our ignorance we had to create our own symbolic systems to explain the things we observed through the generations. That these explanations would be simplistic, child like, and often fear based should not be surprising. In growing up a bit, though, an evolving brain began to question whether the bones we wore, the sacrifices we made, and the rituals performed had any actual relation to the cause and effect we thought they did. This sort of reality based testing took a while to really get going, but once it did, the feeling of betrayal was a force to be reckoned with. A betrayal based on the assumption that, if we were wrong on what our initial symbolic explanations had us doing for the Source; behaviors that looked pretty stupid in retrospect, then the feeling of connection we had with the Mother/Father must be wrong as well.

Of course, this reality based testing went hand in hand with advances in how we moved and stored experience. Not only did objectively derived knowledge create new words, but the techniques with which to represent, and preserve those words expanded. And when that advance finally came upon moveable type, not only was knowledge democratized, it encouraged a whole new way of thinking. And thus do we return to the McLuhan view of media and how the major means of experience retrieval has a tremendous influence on how we conceptualize things. Mechanistic thinking, as well as the industrial revolution, can be argued as a natural progression. I think that when you combine this dynamic with the feeling of betrayal already discussed, you can begin to see why it became so easy for newly willful, as well as defiant, men to see nature as something to be conquered and overcome:

But what's this long face about, Mr. Starbuck; wilt thou not chase the white whale! art not game for Moby Dick?"

"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

"Nantucket market! Hoot! But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer. If money's to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!"

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines."

Of how the vast set of interconnected elements that make up a complex system like a planetary biosphere would become just individual resources to be exploited; with each exploitation seen in complete isolation from the other.

What's interesting for me in examining things along these lines is what is represented by Captain Ahab's missing leg. A lot of interpretations are available surrounding Ahab in general of course (as well as his particulars), but I like to see it as a metaphor for something that had to be cut out or dismembered because it was a part of what linked us to the Mother/Father source. And naturally, this was a part that helped support us in a very fundamental way.

Reason is important but it is not enough by itself. Just as a total surrendering without any reason would be incomplete. We are what we are for a reason. And that reason was the selection process of evolution. We have to remember what this resulted in however. As Dr. Ornstein has indicated, this is a brain that has many minds, most of which are much more orientated around emotion, as opposed to the small part that allows for rational oversight. As such, we must come back to trusting our feelings. And if we are to come back to that trust (amid an array of sensory onslaught that we can never be fully aware of) we have to come back to faith. If we are ever to trust in love we must come back to faith. We must never abandon reason for it would be of equal folly of the one already discussed. But in as much as love is irrational we must learn to find the balance. And in that balance we need to reconnect to the irrational energy (or spirit) that was our link to the Mother/Father source; a more mature and understanding bond of course. An understanding that recognizes the loving quality of that source even as it recognizes the practical limitations of the connection. It does not matter how we envision this source. Whether we view it as a deity, group of deities, Nature, or the Entirety as I like to call it. It is a part of what made us, as we are a part of what makes it. To separate ourselves from it is not only self directed violence, it is folly of the highest order.

I cannot help but think that love, trust and faith may become one of our greatest challenges in attempting to seek out where the human adventure goes next. Moving forward with a mindful type of directed mental evolution; creating the self sustaining mobile biospheres that will become the seed ships for humanity to embark on the much needed new frontier (giving every conception of how one should live it's own space to be); and the attainment of enough accommodation to allow this planet to become a no conflict zone so that all of these possibilities can be addressed, are but a few of the journeys we need to seek out. If we do not have faith for faith's sake, I do not see how we can ever trust enough to love. Loving Structure hangs in the balance.

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