Taking Faith on Faith

The Washington Post web site contains a religion group blog called “On Faith,” the contents of which are mostly inane. There’s a post up today that might serve as the catalyst for a real discussion, however. Susan Jacoby writes,

There is a huge difference between asking questions about whether a candidate’s church affiliation will interfere with his or her duty to uphold the constitutional separation of church and state (the question that John F. Kennedy was asked in 1960 by Protestant ministers) and asking questions about intimate faith. If Hillary Clinton’s faith did help her cope with her husband’s infidelity, for example, does that tell us anything about her capacity for presidential leadership?

We now know from his personal correspondence that Abraham Lincoln’s faith was dealt a permanent blow by the death of his young son, Eddie, in 1850. Fortunately for Lincoln and for the nation, he lived at a time when no one would have dreamed of asking questions about how a candidate had dealt with such a painful event in his life.

The underlying assumption of many of these intrusive questions, it seems to me, is that people who rely on religion (or say that they rely on religion) to help them through life’s crises are better qualified to lead the nation. In view of the foreign policy disaster created, in part, by President George W. Bush’s assumptions about God having assigned him a mission to spread American-style democracy around the world, this assumption seems highly dubious.

Wouldn’t you respect a candidate who replied, “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God?

I’d stand up and cheer, but I’m not sure I’m representative of the electorate at large on this matter. I also think anyone who genuinely believes he’s on a mission from God to spread American-style democracy all over the world, especially by means of war, ought to be under psychiatric supervision and not in the Oval Office. But that’s me.

It’s fine for people to rely on religion to get them through personal crises. But faith and wisdom are two entirely different things. Which leads me to the problem I have with using the word faith as a synonym for religion. I can see how that sorta kinda works for the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but it doesn’t work at all for other religions. In Buddhism, for example, faith is a means, not an end. Faith in most of the Asian religions is faith in practice, not faith in doctrine or God. Doctrines are not to be “believed in,” but understood. Faith and doubt working together can lead to wisdom, or not, but faith is not wisdom itself. In fact, faith without doubt is a dead end as far as the quest for wisdom is concerned. Faith without doubt means you’ve given up the quest and filled your head with an ideology instead of genuine understanding.

As many people are beginning to notice, and as Glenn Greenwald writes in his new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) , we’ve created a society that rewards and celebrates absolutism and black-and-white thinking. This is unwise. Essentially, we’ve somehow decided that great leadership comes from an inability to think.

And this, children, explains why America is bleeped.

We’ve made a fetish of faith. As I’ve ranted about in the past, America is infested with people who express great faith in the Ten Commandments but who can’t name more than half of them. So what, exactly, is their faith in?

Some years ago, in an online religion forum, a conservative Christian was asked what he expected to find when he got to Heaven. Oh, it will be wonderful, he said. There will be faith. I swear, that’s what he said. Dude, I replied, if you’re in Heaven, what do you need faith for? Clearly, this guy had never thought about what faith might be; he just accepted that it was a good thing he was supposed to have.

This is not religion; it’s brain death. That’s what Saint Anselm said, in fact.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

This is why I think it’s unwise for Christians to fall into the habit of using faith as a synonym for religion. Although faith can mean a lot more than just “believing in” something, it feeds into the current popular notion that religion all about “believing in” things, in the same way that a child “believes in” Santa Claus.

But the faith fetish isn’t just about religion. Three centuries after the Age of Reason, America is being run by people who cannot reason at all. The only thinking going on is of the magical kind.

I believe I understand how this happened. Our society and government have been overrun by right-wing paranoids, religious and political, who for the past 40 years or so have been able to promote their world view over all others by dominating mass media. Richard Hofstadter foresaw what might happen in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1962, but in those days he was optimistic that the worst would not happen.

It is possible, of course, that under modern conditions the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible, but in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it is not to be so.

Happily for Hofstadter, he didn’t live to see how badly his faith in reason would be betrayed.

Right now, if a presidential candidate really did answer “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God he’d be crucified in media. Conventional wisdom says that candidates are supposed to honk about their faith on demand, like trained seals. If candidates are saying what they think they’re supposed to say instead of what they really think, that’s surrendering to theocrats and religious totalitarians. Whatever happened to “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man“?

15 thoughts on “Taking Faith on Faith

  1. Good piece, Maha. I would concur that I have no problem with politicians (or anyone) finding solace or even guidance in their faith, but that there is a dramatic and harmful difference between that and being commanded by faith at the expense of reason and intellect.

    I have long been fascinated by the strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that runs through this country. I must confess that in the end I just don’t understand it. I WANT the smartest people possible running the country and I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t. I, like you, would love nothing better than to see this faith fetish disappear from our public discourse, but I have no idea how that might be accomplished. The pendulum has swung so far in favor of this nonsense that it seems no candidate can possibly get elected without pledging allegiance to it. I fear that things will have to get much worse before the wishy-washy center realizes that this is not a good basis on which to select a government.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  2. Dear “mad-maha.”

    I enjoy your thinking. It ask readers to do “far-reaching” in a complex and multi-colored world. Black and white photo images with some brown sepia-tone are beautiful and add to a onlooker’s imagination.
    People are in-relation even if that is not admitted on an awareness capacity level of consciousness. It is always urgent that people try to mend hat is ill. Individuals are who they are…But no one can live in isolation. I realize you sense too we are all connections and composed of connected elements.
    To see the world in only fragments and ignoring the significant importance of respecting the entire whole…the “cut-off’ parts in isolation will eventually ‘wither’ and die from NOT recognizing the bonds.
    I say, “A human race can’t underestimate the value of the inclusion of the holistic-whole…The human is a bouquet and an invisible chord connects us all together- I forget the Mahas (sp) word for the Sanskrit ref: The connection…

    The connection is secular and sacred, and includes this generation, the last one, and also the future requires people to become aware of this beautiful realization. The other days mindful thoughts about present moment focus…helped bring me be ‘dragged’ from a darker abyss place, so, by me calling ya’ “mad-mara-farm-garden- weeder” it was only intended as a ‘pure-intentional’ bow. Why so many folk are quick to hurl rot-fruit…a dark mystery? Yes. I love to whisper.

    All Life interconnects…”interbeing”…and that means allowing spaciousness to occur. With a empty heart, empty of all illusions, comes compassion, courage, wisdom, and boo-coo, bow-wow, a bowed heart full of love and adoration. A brain is not just one’s grey-matter lodged between two-temple ear-lobes. I love to scratch my ears. A simple joy? I believe. I need to whisper and tickle a ear.
    Now, I need to go say, “Wow-wow, brown-eyed girl, …’bella.” She will love it but she always says, “Stop Papa!” Tell me another secret? okay. Lend me your ear. pssst!

  3. Thanks for that post. Nice to know there are others out there.

    My personal belief is that a person’s relationship to his or her god is one of the most intimate and personal relationships of all. I find people who loudly trumpet their ‘faith’ to be as distasteful and repellent as I do people who loudly trumpet their sex lives. It just feels crass and cheapens something that ought to be special and private.

    I’m happy to hear that the candidates have happy faith-lives that they find fulfilling, but I don’t want to hear them boasting about it, and I wouldn’t ask them about it more than I’d ask what happened in their bedrooms.

    I’ve come to feel that this is some weird archaic attitude, but it’s mine and I’m keeping it.

  4. There’s another pole to this discussion, which is labelled Direct Experience, of transcendence, of God, of whatever you will. You kind of touched on it when you say faith is a means, not an end.

    You don’t need faith if you can experience God in a flower, a skyscape, or in the smile of the cashier at the 7-11. (Or, as you pointed out, eyes a rollin’, once you get to Heaven).

    Faith is for people who experience themselves as being separate from God or the Infinite. This sense of separation is variable – some feel utterly separate and alone, some feel very intimate with God, and many of us move between these two extremes, sometimes even in the same day. This sense of separation has enormous repercussions in how we interact with each other and the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is precisely why the world is in the mess it’s in. I kind of touched on this here, but this subject is vast and has been written about in many books.

    “Faith” let alone “religion” are words I practically never hear among the spiritual people I’m familiar with – this is somewhat a Left Coast thing – and so postings like the one in the WaPo seem to be written from another, more primitive dimension.

    “Faith” as you’ve pointed out is too often just putting your hope in an ideology, a set of ideas, often ideas that are poorly understood, to wit those Christians who missed the part where Jesus says to love your enemy and stop being so greedy.

    Although their ideas and dogmas are to me hopelessly narrow, absolute, and often outdated, I have often found this personal, direct experience of the transendent in various members of the most fundamentalist churches imaginable. They just interpret these direct experiences through the lens of their dogmas and holy books, confusing the two. It’s their confusion of personal experience with dogma that leads to My God is Bigger Than Yours, Are You Saved? ™ and all manner of religious wars. But their experience nonetheless is genuine, and it’s a great and unfortunately common mistake on the part of others to discount it.

    But the politicizing of all this stuff – the chief concern of your post – yuck. The world awaits that politician/spiritual giant who can cut through this nonsense and be unafraid to explain that it’s mostly all baby talk.

  5. Maha,
    I wish you would take a look at the Wikipedia entry for
    Hofstatder’s “Anti-intellectualism…..” I believe it needs an
    “intellectual” rewrite and who better to do it than you?
    Tanna Nicholson

  6. I really enjoy your blog, Maha. Keep up the great work.

    In relation to this post, all I have to say for Christians who think their “religiosity” must be shouted from the rooftops, put on a bumper sticker or t-shirt, or whatever is this: Matthew 6:6.

  7. Maha,

    I was thinking about the different meanings of “faith” yesterday myself. Specifically, the contrast between

    (a) “faith” as in “I have faith that God will answer my prayers” -and-
    (b) “faith” as in “I have faith the God knows best and will do what is best even if it means NOT answering my prayers”.

    No matter how I look at it, the first type of “faith”, which seems to be the meaning of many fundamentalists, is so shallow and childish. Its like the “faith” you might have that the elevator cable wont snap and send you plummeting downwards as you ride up to work in the morning. I have that “faith” because Ive ridden it so many times and accidents like that are uncommon, but I certainly dont credit the elevator with intelligence or wisdom or anything close to “Godliness”. Taken to the extreme it becomes the opposite of faith – the “faith that God will defer to my superior judgement” is NOT what was meant by “faith in God” in any way, shape, or form. Sadly, it seems to be the faith that is most popular.

    anyways Im rambling and have to get back to work.

  8. Political movements become anti-intellectual because they understand at some level, perhaps unconsciously, that their beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny. I am reminded of the Maoists and their attacks on “stinking intellectuals.”

    What is really amazing is that the journalists in this country go along with this. Do they really think that they will be exempt just because they participate in the destruction of the intellectual underpinning of their craft ?

    And, just for me, the more a politician talks about faith, the more they decline in my evaluation.

  9. There is a lot of childish thinking in American Christianity. Grown up people who have been going to church for decades think of God as a cross between 1) the source of all good power 2) a stern parential figure and 3) Santa Claus. The ‘faith’ in the ‘Santa Claus’ feature of God’s personality leads Christians to seek spiritual politicians (a contradiction in terms, I admit)..

    The hope is that a leader who is favored by God will be able to manifest (magical thinking) peace, prosperity & good health for all. Thus people who will select a plumber or A/C repairman based on reputation & qualifications throw logic out the window when voting??!!!

    So when I vote, it will be an action as informed as I can make it, with a study of the problems we face and the proposed solutions the candidates have put forth. When I am done, I will pray I made a good choice, but I promise, it will be an informed, reasoned and deliberate one.

    I am in favor of God stepping in and sloving the problems of poverty, global warming, and injustice in the same way I favor aliens landing and using technology and the knowledge of 1000 different worlds to lead us to reason. I’ll take either one, but I don’t expect it nor will I plan on it.

  10. Which leads me to the problem I have with using the word faith as a synonym for religion.

    The reason why Christians use the term faith as opposed to religion is to distance themselves from the shameful history of Christianity. The now in vogue term is a “relationship” with god..that way one can circumvent collective responsibility for the behaviour of the religion. Much like people who pride themselves in the Confederate battle flag, and call it heritage. But when asked about the smallest detail of historical fact concerning the Confederacy..they’re willfully clueless.

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  13. I see true religious faith as closer to commitment than to belief. It is essentially a mental move away from identification with the personal ego and toward the unknowable holy Other. It’s an abdication of will and desire, not of intelligence. (It is incidentally a relinquishment of all certainty.) The utter unknowability of the object of faith is generally a given, so ultimately true faith has no particular content.

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