Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gathered around the Great Unknowable

I like The Religious Case against Belief by James P. Carse (The Penguin Press, 2008). In my last post, I explored one of his key arguments about the nature of argument, and what happens when the advocates of different belief systems clash. Here I will explore the central theme of the book, namely that there is a difference between "belief" and "religion" and that there is a "religious case against belief."

I first learned of Carse's religious case against belief by reading an interview between Steve Paulson and James Carse about his book on I was, of course, already familiar with a religious case against belief that comes from within my own faith, and from within the Bible. That religious case was made most succinctly by a different James, and goes something like this:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. (James 2:14-18)

The term that I prefer to describe what Carse calls "religion" is "faith."1 As a young, naive child, I easily confused "belief" and "faith." This is natural, since when people discuss religion they almost always focus first on the distinctive belief systems of people who adhere to those religions. Thus, what people "believe" becomes synonymous with their "faith." This is also natural, because in general parlance, many people use the terms "belief" and "faith" interchangeably (e.g., "I believe in Christ" and "I have faith in Christ."). But the terms are actually quite different in meaning. Understanding the difference is crucial, because, I have learned from hard experience, confusing "belief" and "faith" leads to severe distortions, misunderstandings and, more significantly, bad behavior.

As I have come to understand these terms as a mature adult, I understand "belief" to consist of intellectual assent to some proposition. "I believe that the earth is in orbit around the sun." Or, "I believe that Jesus Christ was an actual historical personage." Or, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God." All three of these statements are statements of something that I accept as true in some objective sense, but that I cannot personally attest to based on direct observation. I do not, in practice, differentiate much between knowledge that comes through personal observation as opposed to many things I know by some other way. Most things that form my reservoir of beliefs about the world are things I have not directly observed myself.2

In the LDS community, we frequently also use the term "know" interchangeably with the term "believe," depending upon the source of our "knowledge" or "belief" and the relative strength with which we hold it. Since Mormons hold direct revelation of spiritual truth through visionary experience or through the testimony of the Holy Spirit as the most reliable source of knowledge, when we assent to some proposition as the result of that kind of testimony or witness, we almost always say, "I know." But as I will emphasize later, in terms of the function played by belief in our lives, there is no significant difference between "belief" and this kind of "knowledge." From the viewpoint of those who have difficulty experiencing the kinds of spiritual gifts that permit "knowledge" of this sort, this is good news because what it says is you are not seriously disadvantaged in relation to those who have such gifts. From the viewpoint of those who claim such "higher," "more spiritual" knowledge, it suggests the need for humility.

If belief is intellectual assent, faith on the other hand, is the ability to apply what we "believe" or "know" in the real world. Faith is where the rubber of belief hits the road of the world. This is more than to say simply "faith is belief in action." That truism is applicable if we also accept that faith is where the validity of belief is put to the test. Faith is where we learn that certain beliefs don't hold up. Belief is the road map. Faith is the journey itself. As I learned getting lost in Iowa last summer, road maps don't always give us the whole picture, even fancy, high tech, GPS-based road maps! Belief tells me who Jesus Christ is. But it is only through faith that I come to know Jesus Christ. Again, the support from within my faith tradition and from within scripture for this understanding of faith is ample, but one of the most commonly cited formulations comes from the book of Hebrews: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (11:1, emphasis is mine).

Faith, it should be clear by these working definitions, is far superior to belief or "knowledge." But now here's the rub: is it possible to have faith without belief? Faith without knowledge? Can I profess that I do not "know" if Jesus Christ is the son of God and still walk faithfully in his footsteps? And the answer of course is yes. We always walk by faith. Belief is nothing in comparison to faith. Belief is sitting around and jabber-jawing. Faith is getting up off your ass (pardon my French) and going somewhere. The only value of belief/knowledge is if it somehow sparks in us the desire to get up and "practice" what we know. And we always engage in that "walk" more or less in the dark, more or less having to feel our way along and learn by experience what is right and what is wrong. We're always putting belief to the test through faith.

OK, so back to Carse. Now Carse is concerned about the more destructive manifestations of "belief." Carse points out that not only are "belief" and what he calls "religion" not the same thing, but belief can actually be corrosive of religion. Belief can undermine and destroy religion. Carse makes no attempt anywhere to distinguish between "true belief" and "false belief" or "true religion" and "false religion." That is because whether the proposition being believed in is in some sense objectively true or false bears no relation to its destructive force. What matters is the extent to which the upholding of a proposition requires us to suppress doubt in ourselves, and to project that suppression of doubt on the world around us. In other words, belief becomes destructive when we refuse to approach it in the open-ended fashion that is enjoined by the walk of faith. It is when we treat belief as a closed system which must be defended at all costs, when we treat it as a given that cannot be questioned or explored or subject to the on-going verification of the walk of faith, that belief becomes a bane and a curse, the source of all the most bloody and destructive conflicts in the world, both past and present.

Carse's approach to religion is interesting, and potentially off putting if you focus on the surface definitions he puts forward. But I find his approach fundamentally sound. Carse posits that it is actually impossible to truly "define" religion, because religion is always built up around some great mystery, some "unknowable." Because religion is defined by this relation to the "unknowable," it is itself in some significant sense undefinable. Knowing that his readers will get impatient with a refusal to define religion in a book that has as its core concept the differentiation between "belief" and "religion," he takes a stab at it by suggesting that, like great art, we might not be able to "define" religion but we will know it when we see it. He offers some clues as to when what we're looking at is religion.

He suggests, for instance, unlike "belief systems" which come and go in relatively short time frames, a religion will be very old, its age measured in millennia rather than years or decades. That is because only a truly powerful and engaging mystery can hold the attention of believers long enough for their interest to last thousands of years. A religion will never be defined by the boundaries of a single community, because even when believers divide into rival sects or excommunicate one another, the larger mystery always draws them back into a common path. Interest groups and communities of scholars not sponsored by the official hierarchies of religious communities or institutions will form on the margins of every great religion. A religion spawns numerous educational institutions and communities, as people of faith and intellect seek to explore the great mystery to which that religion points. Religion attracts great poets and artists, who find it grounding them in a source of untiring fascination and inspiration. In fact, religion itself is, Carse suggests, a kind of poetry. Like great art, religion defies singular definitions.

Mormons might be annoyed to learn that James Carse is not sure whether Mormonism is actually a religion. That despite the fact that it seems to display all of the classic "signs" of a true religion (by his definition) except great antiquity. It is not that he does not think Mormonism is a religion, but simply that he does not know if Mormonism is a religion yet, since as an organized community it has only existed for slightly less than two centuries. But that should not be off-putting to those of us Mormons who, in relation to "the Restored Gospel," confess with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life..." (John 6:68). For myself, despite the fact that I am gay and excommunicated, and stand little chance of full acceptance in the LDS Church for as long as I live, I cannot turn away or deny my testimony. So let that stand for what it may.

I love Carse's book because, in a time when there is so much violence, conflict and confusion between believers, Carse encourages us to dig deeply within the riches of faith in order to respond. The solution to the problem of religious violence is not the denial of religion, but the right application of religion. Denial only digs us more deeply into the conflict we're trying to avoid. In other words, we can't get out of this mess going backward, only by moving forward. But even more, I love this little book for what it reminds us of the nature of our life journeys, pointing out that we are never truly lost until we refuse to take in and enjoy and be grateful for life's inexhaustible wonders.

1. Carse prefers the term "religion" because it is more applicable to systems like Buddhism or Hinduism in which the term "faith" is rarely used, or seems inapplicable. I use it because I am speaking from within my own tradition, where it makes eminent sense to use the term "faith" as a synonym for "religion."

2. Even knowledge acquired through direct observation, as the philosophers warn, can be suspect. How do we know what our observation is actually telling us? What if we're only seeing part of the picture? Furthermore, what we observe is always interpreted by us. So it may not relate to the "truth" that we think it relates to. Knowledge based on observation always depends on what kinds of observation we consider to be authoritative and convincing. We usually bring to our observations a set of rules that tell us how to differentiate between an authoritative observation and one that is not authoritative, so, it could be argued, it is our epistemological rules that tell us what we "know" as much as what we observe.

Science provides us with a set of epistemological rules that has proven very powerful. Those rules include experiment (ability to verify a proposition through tests), objectivity (verifiability from more than one point of view), and reproducibility (the same circumstances will produce the same observations every time). But even these epistemological rules run up against limits in situations, for instance, where we have learned that observation itself has an impact on what is being observed, and that observation may have an effect on an experiment's objectivity. Also, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, scientists operate with a set of assumptions (or "paradigms") that govern what they count as valid observations, and what they consider to be "anomalies." Scientific paradigms typically change, he points out, when what was once assumed to be an "anomaly" is considered as data requiring explanation.

Nevertheless, this is not to undermine the validity of science as a source of knowledge vis-a-vis religion. All of the difficulties that apply to the acquisition of knowledge within a scientific paradigm apply with equal force to knowledge aquired within a spiritual or religious paradigm. Rather, such an awareness of the problems inherent in "observation" should caution us to be humble in relation to all knowledge, no matter what the source.

As a Latter-day Saint, I trust that eventually all sources of truth will converge into an appreciation of the truth as one great whole, in which there will be no meaningful distinction between scientific and religious truth.

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