Friday 30 August 2013

Given that there are grounds for doubt, what should tip the balance between faith and unbelief?


From Lightning out of Heaven by Terryl Givens

Some people seem born with faith. And many people die with a full complement.

My own grandmother spent her last months pining for death because she was the last of her generation, she “missed her people” to an excruciating degree, and she grew more and more disconnected from a world she saw as simply irrelevant. Faith did not seem a choice for her. It descended upon her as naturally and irresistibly and encompassingly as the heavy snowfalls on her upstate New York farm.

But such a gift I have not found to be common. And it would seem that among those who are committed to the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and rational inquiry, faith is as often a casualty as it is a product.


The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart... with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and have reasonable, but not certain, grounds for believing to be true.


I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment.

The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.


We are... always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial.

We are acted upon... by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our ego.

What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love.


That is why faith, the choice to believe, is in the final analysis an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

Men and women are confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for God as a childish projection...

But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious divinity presides over the cosmos...


There is something to tip the scale, however.

There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief.

There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance—and only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, ... is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.



It is possible for someone to remain in a state of agnostic balance - poised between belief and unbelief, unable or unwilling to choose - for a long time: for years, decades, until overtaken by death...

This is better than embracing the secular mainstream of hedonic nihilism, but is seriously deficient, because it is to commit to weakness - because it is to reject any possibility of spiritual progress. 

Certainty may come after choosing, but certainty does not compel choice - not in this world.

To wait for certainty before choosing faith is therefore a significant and substantial moral defect - itself a negative decision in the face of the human condition.

To fail to choose is a failure to engage the heart: it is a failure which is both self-revealing and self-defining. 



Nicholas Fulford said...

The difficulty with belief is that it imposes a template or filter on things as they are in an attempt to constrain and define what is best experienced. The type of belief I am referring to is the a priori / axiomatic variety which is protected from challenge by the believer because it has been cultivated into being foundational to whom the person is. It often becomes conflated into a supra-existential form upon which one's eternal fate is determined.

This is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is how vulnerable it makes people to radicalisation. If beliefs are to avoid this severe deficit, they need to be held loosely, contingently, and in constructive-dynamic plurality with other views so that the dynamic tension allows creative engagement in the process. (For me, a good question is far more satisfying than an answer.)

God, if God, is not reducible, and to attempt to cast God within the template of belief is the perfect way to create an idol. Hence, the way of negative theology, which seeks to strip away layers as opposed to build them up is the preferred way, (in my experience.) It enables people to occupy a similar state without the imposition of having to pass through one and only one gateway. In the state there is no disagreement, only the common ground of being, but when returning to the "normal", interpretation supplants experience. If that interpretation is taken as more real than the experience, it can impede returning to a state of ineffable apprehension. (And hence the interpretation / belief becomes an idol.)

I have no problem with talismans as tools to bring a person or people back into the state of common and ineffable apprehension, so long as there is no attempt to impose that in places and upon people to whom it is alien and ineffective. Gazing at the image of my Beloved will transform my state, while having no such effect upon another. But, any person gazing upon an image of their Beloved is able to transform that person. The specific instance of Beloved is different, whereas the Class "Beloved" is common.

Belief is often an impediment, as Faith is a matter of what is gained through being immersed in the deep still waters of Presence. An idol is anything that impedes being drawn into that state, wherein all conflict dissipates.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - I think this posting is addressed to your condition.

My guess is that for someone of your kind, negative theology is more likely to be a snare than a spiritual path.

Negative theology/ the via negativa is primarily for those who are excessively susceptible to spiritual (hence demonic) communications - people such as ascetic monks living in continuous prayer - and this is extremely rare nowadays.

Anonymous said...

It's a lot more complicated than that, and a lot harder. For many it is impossible to believe. Jesus saved people who believed, but he also saved who were in no position to even ask for help, those possessed by demons, particularly the man with the legion of demons. Per the Gospel of John, he doesn't judge those who don't believe, only those who specifically reject him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - I believe the decision to have faith is not really a matter of being 'saved', since my understanding is that salvation is a gift of Christ which we merely need to choose to accept; so much as a matter of enabling theosis or 'spritual progression'.