Thursday, July 18, 2013

Taking Faith Seriously


What does it mean to take faith seriously? Is it important?

Having recently written about notions of spirituality as well as of prayer that are primitive, that is, that precede the specific notions of particular sacred tradition, that I might have something to write about faith. But that one is much harder.

It's not hard to be dismissive of the idea, either through ridicule or through firm devotion to an unexplored and undeveloped notion of faith. Taking faith seriously is a challenge.

There's a ton of material on describing or defining faith on this blog alone. But let's keep it simple. It's a form of trust and anticipation about something or someone that cannot be explained in a strictly rational, logical, or empirically verifiable way.

That isn't to say that there aren't rational, logical, or empirically grounded reasons for faith. There may be plenty. An overabundance. But faith stretches out beyond such standards of verification and prediction. Faith is a risk that one takes, which is why it is sometimes compared to a leap into the unknown.

We all take small risks like that everyday, taking common assumptions for granted. We can call those experiences little leaps of faith if we want, but they don't require nearly as much trust nor do they engender the same level of anticipation as what we're talking about. Having a big leap of faith every so often is also common in human life, but that's not what I'm getting at here either.

In the context of spirituality (and religion), faith is a constant endeavor along a trajectory toward something far greater than oneself, however that may be conceived of or represented. It may also involve regular small leaps as well as bigger ones now and again, but it is part of a larger process or path. As you go along, you may even have to let go of the regularity and familiarity of the process. The path may seem to shift or even to disappear, requiring even greater faith. Dark nights of the senses and the soul.

What is the point of following such a path? Why bother with faith at all?

I can't say. That is, I'm not sure that I know.

The way it tends to work is that the person writing gives out suggestions or advice, based on experience or imagination, which challenged or reaffirms what you already thought and felt about the issue at hand. This isn't one of those times.

I have lingering semantic allergies towards faith, and like countless people before me, I have issues with just what is required to get (or keep one) on track. I am interested though, as faith seems to have great transformative power for the individual and those whose lives that individual touches.

No easy answers

Faith can be based on many things, but it seems to boil down to social and phenomenological factors. The social influence would include being taught by the example of people you hold in esteem or who you admire, particularly at a young age but possible at any time in life.

The phenomenal impact comes from an immediate and powerful experience one beyond their conventional or comfortable perspective on reality. These may be referred to in many ways, as mystical experiences, as the sense of the numinous, as peak experiences, or as mountaintop events.

It's an interesting issue, how we know what we think we know and why we think we know it. I'm a big fan of such questions. Technically this kind of reflection and speculation would fall primarily under the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, but it's not just a topic for philosophers (thank goodness).

When to comes to spirituality and religion, questioning the assumptions behind faith can really cut deep. Many of the assumptions involved are fragile from an intellectually/logically grounded perspective because the associated myths and rituals were originally framed in content meant more for the heart than the head.

That means those who want to rely on the contemporary cultural currency of logic and empirical evidence as the primary basis for their faith have to cling very tightly to certain key assumptions that can be a fixed and unyielding as bedrock.

It's a mess when that rock cracks.

"Would you have really believed X, Y, Z in another life in another place and time? How then can you really be certain this isn't just culturally shaped wishful thinking?" Et cetera.

I suppose the two more obvious outcomes in such a case would either be to enter into a perpetual skepticism or even cynicism about things treated as sacred/transcendent (especially with regard to the tradition in question) or to enter into a perspective where the trappings don't matter and assumptions don't feel necessary, just the ineffable experience of being.

Of course, having belief shattering experience isn't necessary to enter such states, but it seems likely to be a major contributor in the current times. I wonder if any of the three, the blind faith ("bedrock"), the non-committal skepticism, or the transcendence of tradition/ritual, are the actual states that the major sacred traditions are really aiming for.

Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps some kind of split/integration of elements of each for different situations or levels of awareness? Even peak experiences beyond words, concepts, and conventional perspectives have to be framed in some kind of context after the fact, and those who claim to have experienced them don't generally seem to view the larger context of a sacred tradition as completely irrelevant.

So what do you think? What is important about entering the path of faith? Why does it matter? if you are on such a path, how did it begin? Is it relevant to anyone else? Or do you think each person must find their own way?

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