The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XII

In the first post of this series I objected to the use of the word faith as a synonym for religion. Faith is a component of religion, to one degree or another, but not religion itself.

The other problem with faith is that it conveys the wrong message about religion. I found an example of this in an essay by Christopher Brookmyre at the Comment Is Free Guardian web site.

The notion that faith – belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence – is a form of mental and moral fortitude needs not merely to be challenged, but to be given the full point-and-laugh treatment, so that we can see afresh how this” absurdity deserves ridicule rather than reverence.

From here Brookmyre goes on to discuss the occult practice — known as “spiritualism” — of using “mediums” to contact the dead. Spiritualism became a big fad in the 19th century after two sisters claimed they could communicate with peoples’ loved ones who had passed on. The “dead” responded to questions with rapping sounds, which the sisters were making with their toes. Brookmyre concludes,

The story of the Fox sisters and the rise of spiritualism illustrates that belief in the face of the evidence is at best a retreat into intellectual infantilism, and at worst dangerously irresponsible.

The Glasgow would-be bombers believed faith itself was a virtue, a sufficient reason to murder hundreds of innocent people. I don’t think being nine hours too early on June 30 disqualifies me from saying that such faith is a self-indulgence we can ill afford.

The problem with this essay is Brookmyre’s definition of faith — belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. That’s not faith in a religious sense.

I wrote in the last Wisdom of Doubt post that some things can’t be explained with words, and I’m about to plunge into explaining something with words that can’t be explained with words. But let’s start with words. The American Heritage online dictionary gives these two definitions of faith —

1. Mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something: belief, credence, credit. See OPINION. 2. Absolute certainty in the trustworthiness of another: belief, confidence, dependence, reliance, trust.

Neither of these definitions work for me. That’s the problem with using words to explain religion. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.

Faith and doubt in the religious sense are both about openness. A Christian might put his trust in God’s love, and that trust enables him to live a more open-hearted and courageous life. Although life may bring him grief and disappointment, his trust in God’s love enables him to accept what he can’t change and move on. When the time comes, he accepts even his own death.

So where does doubt come in? Doubt in the Zen sense is not knowing. A Christian might use the word humility instead of doubt to mean about the same thing. Doubt means you don’t know with any certainty who or what God is, or what’s going to happen next, or how your plans for yourself will turn out, or even what happens when you die. But though you doubt, yet you trust. This is faith.

Doubt also means you are open to all possibilities, all understanding, because you haven’t filled up your head with certainty. Zennies sometimes use the phrases “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind” to mean the same thing. That’s why this kind of doubt is about being open. The other kind of doubt, the one that causes people to fold their arms and say religion is just superstitious crap, is closed.

As I’ve written this series I find myself going back, again, to the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (d. 609).

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

“Hsin Hsin Ming” is variously translated into English “The Mind of Absolute Trust,” “Verses on the Faith Mind,” and even “Inscribed on the Believing Mind.” Normally, in our culture, if you said someone has a “believing mind” it’s assumed that person has a head full of dogmas he “believes in.” But Seng-Ts’an says that to have faith “hold no opinions for or against anything.” Be open, and trust that openness.

Religious fanatics approach religion in exactly the opposite way. To be a fanatic is to be closed. For an explanation, let’s go back to Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

This is not being open-hearted and courageous. It’s being closed and fearful. The fanatic is closed to himself and to any Truth or Reality he might happen to trip over. If what the fanatic attaches to is a religion, he clings to that religion rather than follow it.

Fanatics have no doubts. Hoffer again:

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. They have no doubts. They are closed. That’s why they have no faith. They may “believe in” God, but they don’t trust God as far as they can throw him. They close themselves off in enclaves of the faithful and fear everything that isn’t Them.

Because they are fearful, religious fanatics imagine a God who is something like a cosmic superhero. They are weak and helpless, but he is strong, and he will come and smite the feared Other and make it disappear. Or worse.

Let’s go back to this excerpt from Glenn Greenwald’s new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) in Salon:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. …

… Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

This is the road a fanatic walks. The fanatic goes from believing that, for example, someday Superhero Jesus will return to rescue him from whatever he fears, to thinking that he has to take action himself on Jesus’ behalf to make this happen. Consider, for example, the Christians United for Israel. Max Blumenthal writes,

CUFI has found unwavering encouragement from traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and elements of the Israeli government.

But CUFI has an ulterior agenda: its support for Israel derives from the belief of Hagee and his flock that Jesus will return to Jerusalem after the battle of Armageddon and cleanse the earth of evil. In the end, all the non-believers – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, mainline Christians, etc. – must convert or suffer the torture of eternal damnation. Over a dozen CUFI members eagerly revealed to me their excitement at the prospect of Armageddon occurring tomorrow. Among the rapture ready was Republican Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. None of this seemed to matter to Lieberman, who delivered a long sermon hailing Hagee as nothing less than a modern-day Moses. Lieberman went on to describe Hagee’s flock as “even greater than the multitude Moses commanded.”

The fanatic can’t wait for Jesus to come; so, he’ll initiate steps to kick start Armageddon. This is not a true faith in Jesus, but the opposite. Or, the fanatic thinks he has to send suicide bombers to destroy the World Trade Center as part of the Holy Plan to establish true Islamic rule. Or that it’s OK to shred the Bill of Rights if it enables True Conservatism to dominate American government. Or whatever. The point is that when you have no doubt you are right, then you are ready to bullshit yourself into doing anything –including acts of genuine atrocity — and calling it Good.

This is, in part, what sets religious fanaticism apart from religious faith: A sincerely religious person practices his religion to calm and resolve his fears. The fanatic thinks his religion gives him permission to destroy what he fears.

Of course, without doctrine or teaching there is no religion. This is one of the inherent paradoxes of religion, along with the use of words to explain things that can’t be explained with words. For the most part, doctrines are conceptualizations of things that are beyond conceptualization. But everybody’s got to start somewhere. If you think of the words and the doctrines as training wheels, and not the whole bicycle, you’ll be fine.

It does seem that many religions aren’t much more than lists of “facts” about God, morality, or the afterlife that one is supposed to “believe in.” And these doctrines are all items one must accept on faith, in the dictionary sense of the word. Adopting a set of religious beliefs is what makes one “religious,” in our culture. I didn’t realize how bleeped up that was until after I’d gotten serious about Buddhism, and someone who said she was writing an article about Buddhism asked me “what Buddhists believe.” I was struck dumb by the question. Truly, it is a question that doesn’t have a simple, 25-words-or-less answer. The snotty Zen answer would have been something like “not putting a head on top of my head,” or even “as little as possible,” but that wouldn’t have told her anything. I fell back on the Standard Answer, which is that Buddhism is more of a practice than a belief system.

But I think that answer could apply to most of the world’s great religions — it’s more of a practice than a belief system. Religion, sincerely practiced, is a practice of openness.

If I had any advice for Christianity, I’d suggest — every 500 years or so — dumping all the doctrines and starting over. Forget you never heard of this Jesus guy, and you know nothing about him, and then read the Gospels. With a pair of fresh eyes and plenty of don’t-know mind, the Gospels might surprise you. Christianity has been cranking out doctrinal minutiae for two thousand years, and in some cases — eschatalogical dispensationalists like the CUFI do come to mind — Jesus completely disappears under the muck.

Doctrines are fine as long as everyone is clear they are guides to the truth, not the truth itself. The hand pointing to the moon is not the moon, and all that. Believe it or not, in times past many great Christian theologians and mystics understood Christian doctrine that way.

Back in Part IV I quoted 20th-century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248, emphasis added]

The “through a glass darkly” passage comes, of course, from St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, King James version. This chapter also says “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” So why isn’t the proper synonym for religion love instead of faith, I wonder?

I think fundamentalism will eventually dissipate, if it doesn’t get us all killed first. Because fundamentalism is closed, it has no where to go except to break itself into more and finer bits of dogma for people to argue about. At some point the “faithful” may start to notice that they’re sitting in a dark basement arguing about the nature of sunshine when they could just go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

A long time ago I wrote a poem that compared the spiritual journey to getting lost in New Jersey. You’re driving around looking for the way to Manhattan, and you’re completely lost. Then you see an exit sign by the road that says “Route 4 East to the George Washington Bridge.” The George Washington Bridge will take you across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

Now, the sensible thing to do would be to follow the sign and head toward the bridge. But in the world of religion, for some reason people don’t do that. Instead, they pull over, get out of their cars, and begin to worship the sign. They try to get other people to stop and worship the sign. Pretty soon the sign becomes so strewn with flowers and prayer cards no one is actually reading it any more. Eventually priests appear to explain the “true” meaning of the sign. Then the sign worshipers hear about people praying to the Lincoln Tunnel toll booths. Heathens!

Sooner or later they’re all arguing with themselves and even starting wars in the Name of the Sign (or the Toll Booths). And nobody is getting any closer to Manhattan.

Or, you can read and take to heart what the sign tells you, and follow it.

Stay open, and good journey.

18 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XII

  1. I continue to enjoy your “Wisdom of Doubt” series; it’s what brought me here, and to be honest the only posts I actually read. But then that’s the joy of blogging – you can pick and choose.

    Like you, I find it somewhat tedious that “faith” is oft taken to mean “believing what is false”, or something similar. Echoes of Logical Positivism…

    To have faith is to trust in the unknown, even the unknowable. That is the heart of religious faith – to have certainty is the death of faith, for if you know with certain confidence what room is there for faith? Every person of faith must wrestle with doubts, as Kierkegaard was only too aware.

    You ask why the proper synonym for religion isn’t “love” and not “faith”, but of course not all religions prioritise love or compassion – it is central to Christianity, and nearly central to Buddhism, but it is more tangential to, say, Taoism, Wicca or shamanic practices. That said, every religion has something very close to “the Golden Rule” at its heart.

    Raimon Pannikar says that religion has three central roles – to connect us to the infinite, to connect us to nature, and to connect us to each other. For me, this is the essence of religion.

    Anyway, I could rattle on for ages, but I fear in a high traffic blog like this it would be so much dust in the wind. I just wanted to share my appreciation for another voice who believes in rescuing religion from both its internal fanatics and its external opponents.

    Take care!

  2. At some point the “faithful” may start to notice that they’re sitting in a dark basement arguing about the nature of sunshine when they could just go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

    🙂 I love it!

  3. I enjoy your thinking about religion, but feel you ignore uncomfortable facts, as well as history and the place of religion in society, and are being sentimental in your reduction of everything to a vague spirituality in which there seems to be little difference between religions. It’s all very well to talk breezily of jettisoning Christian dogmas, but when these have been jettisoned, why should we speak of Christianity at all? It really isn’t good enough to suggest that the history of Christianity is only a history of accretions that obscure the pure and harmless springwater of Christ’s words which everybody would understand if it weren’t for those theologians getting in the way – just look at those words, which differ from gospel to gospel and include some fairly blood-curdling fulminations, as well as sories in which bad servants get their come-uppance by being killed or cast into…

  4. (sorry -continued) stories in which…or cast into outer darkness or eternal fire… Jesus is not a type of Sakyamuni and Christianity is not ‘really’ a kind of Buddhism.

    May I recommend, to Chris and Swami as well, David Sloan Wilson’s thought-provoking ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’, whose virtues include looking very clearly at the actual nature of religions (which are often predicated on making a very clear distinction between believers, who may benefit from ‘loving-kindness’, and non-believers, who may well be treated with the very opposite of loving-kindness), analysing how religions work in the real world and how they are connected with human societies, and NOT dividing religions into some kind of spiritual essence that floats eternally free on the one hand and a set of arbitrary dogmas and practices that the indulgent thinker can dismiss as irrelevant on the other.

    Perhaps I should add that I am not a Christian, and that I do not belong to any organised religion, though Buddhism interests me immensely. And the Tao te ching is a book I admire hugely.

  5. I enjoy your thinking about religion, but feel you ignore uncomfortable facts, as well as history and the place of religion in society, and are being sentimental in your reduction of everything to a vague spirituality in which there seems to be little difference between religions.

    That’s fair, but the point of the series is not to conduct a comparative religion course, but to address the role of religion in contemporary society generally. If I wanted to, say, draw out the distinctions between the religions I could go on and on about that, too, but that isn’t my point. I have no interest in telling people what religions to follow, just that they should follow them sincerely.

    In my life I’ve been both a devout Christian and a dedicated Buddhist, and there are some very profound differences in these two religions. I am well aware of that. I did chose one over the other, notice.

    I am, in fact, a big advocate of what Buddhists call “taking the one seat” — pick one religious tradition, stick to it, and see where it takes you. However, it doesn’t bother me at all when people pick different religions from mine. I think all roads do, eventually, get to the same place.

    It’s all very well to talk breezily of jettisoning Christian dogmas, but when these have been jettisoned, why should we speak of Christianity at all?

    Maybe we wouldn’t. Or maybe people would go through a process of re-evaluating all the doctrine, and deciding what to keep and what to pitch. I don’t know. I do suggest the exercise of pretending you’re from Mars and reading the Gospels as if you’d never heard of them before. You might be astonished at what you discover. I know I was when I did it.

  6. I was raised to be a fundie, but now I don’t attend any church. I often say I don’t believe very muchm because believing gets in the way of learning.

    One thing I do recall from my days at the Holy Roller Derby is that sermons consisted of relatively few scriptures and then a minister telling us what those scriptures meant, often referring to “facts” that are not present in the Bible.

    What I never recall seeing, was anything resembling the “Socratic Method,” where the students are encouraged to think. Such practice seems to be commonplace in Buddhism. Instead, members of fundie churches are TOLD what to think.

  7. It’s all very well to talk breezily of jettisoning Christian dogmas, but when these have been jettisoned, why should we speak of Christianity at all?

    Actually I think that’s not a bad idea. In my years of trying to come to terms with Christ + Christianity, I wound up dividing the problem space into three or four areas:

    1) Christ the person, which includes his utterances both generally accepted (the four gospels) and the unconventional (the Gnostic gospels and other works). Apart from direct experience of Christ (which I believe happens but are highly individual) these are the closest and truest artifacts we have of the man.

    2) Everything the exoteric church did, from writing the New Testmament, participating in the ecumenical councils such as Nicea, to the works of Augustine, the Reformation and beyond. These have to be understood in their context, and I don’t pretend to have that kind of encyclopedic knowledge. I’m aware however of how very human this history is, of how very much tied the actors and writers were to their historical context. This is very much a human effort, and so anything these people say is suspect. Take with a grain of salt.

    3) Everything the esoteric church has experienced and written about, meaning Christian mystics. Often at great odds with the institutions and accepted dogmas of #2.

    4) Finally, the thick frosting on the cake, what the church in my home culture, America has contributed, over, say the last one or two hundred years. All the weird and wacky, mostly homegrown latter day confections that I’ve personally dealt with because I’m an American: The Rapture, dispensationalism, Fundamentalism, The Social Gospel, the Prosperity Gospel, and all the rest. The great fervent fog that amplifies certain historical aspects but mostly obscures everything that came before it, all the while claiming to be the Original Christianity, while Made in the USA (mostly).

    I’m a lot more interested in #1 and #3 than any of the rest of it. I look at the rest of it as mostly training wheels – when you get to a certain point in your spiritual journey, it’s my opinion that it’s not that necessary, in fact it becomes limiting.

    This might sound very flippant toward the rest, but I should add that our time is unique in history. At no other time has the world shrunk to the point where we can know about heretofore unknown spiritual traditions. Reading Maha say that she was once a devout Christian and is now Buddhist would’ve been uncommon if not incomprehensible only a few generations ago. It’s an extremely exciting time to be alive, for this and for many other reasons. There is an enormous freedom to be able to pick and choose, to mix and match, especially as you evolve. We’re in a time of enormous change, which is evolving the human race (if it doesn’t destroy it), and this tremendous accessibility to this wide variety of traditions is there to be used for human evolution.

    So yeah, go ahead and feel free to dump the dogmas, when you’re ready. They can give one a good foundation, like learning the ABCs or the multiplication tables. In so doing they function like training wheels that could then lead one to this great cornucopia of spiritual teachers and teachings, if one is inclined.

    I also concur with Maha in #5, of “taking the one seat” – finding a tradition that works for you and sticking with it.

    And yet I’m also a big picture person and want to know how it all fits together. I also want to know where it is all going. Spiritual traditions themselves are dynamic (if they’re healthy) and they evolve, and they are definitely being influenced by this convergence I mentioned. I’m certain Maha could tell you about American born Buddhists who have achieved great respect in the Buddhist world.

    By the same token, I personally know a few American born meditation teachers who have achieved nirbikalpa samadhi, an advanced state of consciousness, fomerly only known to advanced adepts in Asia. We’re at a point where scientists are studying this sort of thing, to see if it can be boiled down and systemetized and made more widely accessible. (I have an idea for a movie where, in a not so distant future, you can order enlightenment on a CD. Of course there are certain prerequisites…).

    My advice to anyone is to take advantage of the time we’re in. Don’t be hamstrung by dogmas (unless they are useful), which were invented ages ago and are really second or third hand thought. Their authors were not aware of all we know today. Ultimately everyone must travel their own unique spiritual journey alone, and draw their own conclusions.

  8. maha, glad you wrote this because i have a question for which i cannot get an answer. regarding the second coming and how glorious it will be!!??? what happens to those who have died prior to the second coming, who have been good christians like jerry falwell (tongue in cheek)??? is he going to miss the gloriousity (a word? seems to fit though)? if he will experience the rapture, even though he is quite dead, then why are these christians waiting for the rapture, the real one (ha, ha)??? why do they bother going to doctors to live when there is a better place for them when they die and they will still experience the rapture?? seems to me the best deal is not to live if you have something much better waiting for you. never have understood this “thinking”. could someone explain??

  9. I agree that calling a religion a “faith” is a misnomer – or, let’s say, an exaggeration. Sometimes a church or a congregation does indeed keep the faith; but sometimes they do not. In the latter case I suggest that we call them, not ‘faiths’, but ‘prides’. As in a pride of lions, and also as in the sin of pride.

    Fundamentalism is very much a Pride. In your Hoffer quote, he anatomizes the shame within the pride.

  10. Loved the stuff about fanaticism. Their behavior reminds me of a compelling strategem for treating addiction: regard addiction as the way an addict radically simplifies their life and takes away the decision making process.

    At the end stages, addiction boils down to three aspects of a cycle: want the thing, get the thing, have the thing. Repeat. (I say “thing” because gambling, for instance, can be used as a drug is used.)

    So it’s easy for me to see slavish devotion to the tenets of a certain religion as the same thing as an addiction. It serves the same purpose; not thinking. Not making decisions. Not taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

  11. The flip side of the “Wisdom of Doubt” is perhaps “The Logical Necessity of Faith” – the rational mind, if it is honest with itself, must conclude that there will always be some things that are beyond its ability to understand or control. (I suspect that Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem says the same thing, in a way.)

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  13. #12: Yes, that is in fact literally the case, and I say this as someone who survived a doctorate in mathematical logic. Specifically, Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorems say that 1) any logical system is either inconsistent or incomplete; and 2) any system that proves itself to be consistent is in fact not consistent. In maha’s terms, the 1st incompleteness theorem restates that words do not capture truth; and therefore it is wise to doubt; and the 2nd incompleteness theorem implies the downfall of pride, and the sin of fanaticism.

    The point you are making – the necessity of faith – is encoded in _another_ metamathematical theorem; Loeb’s Theorem, which says that a logical system which states its own provability is, in fact, provable. Faith in self is valid.

    This is because self-proof is semantically void; it carries no information, and therefore cannot cause a contradiction. Self-confidence rises because, like a bubble, it is unburdened by weight. Faith in self is valid because, unlike pride, it does _not_ make any assumptions.

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  15. This has been an excellent series.

    I’m guardedly hopeful that just maybe we’ve seen the high water mark of fundamentalist Christian influence on American politics. Some key players have been outed as crooks and/or hypocrites. There seem to be an increasing number of churches offering a more liberal, socially-conscious brand of Christianity — a la Rick Warren. I also think the rise of fundamentalism can be seen as in part a reaction to the upheavals of the 60’s, which are now a second-hand story to anyone much under 50. I don’t want to downplay the threat these people still pose to our democracy, but I do think there may be cause to be somewhat optimistic.

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