Wednesday, May 07, 2008

the Primary Intuition

During my brief run as a Philosophy professor, one of the more interesting of my standing discussions is why people make a faith leap. Honestly, I do not find the "God-proof" arguments terribly compelling, and the good ones end up begging the question. For instance, I think the arguments from Religious Experience and Kierkegaardian Existentialism are persuasive, but not exactly "logical" in the sense of justifying the type of belief that religious conviction entails. If it was a purely intellectual decision, I believe that I would classify myself as an agnostic.

And yet my faithfulness is there. So I am left with the connundrum - how is it that I am drawn so strongly to a belief that is not based on the kind of empirical evidence that my secular beliefs are found upon?

In this little mini-quest of mine, the best thing I have to offer so far is a little reflection on the definition of faith from Hebrews 11:1-3

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

When I have presented this as an object of reflection to my classes on the nature of faith, I find that more often than not they get from it "faith is just a blind trust." The part of this analysis I find lacking is the "just" part. Honestly, the post does say that faith is blind, in that quite literally, it is not based on that which is seen. As a corollary, I would also have to say that it implies that if your faith is based on A,B,C proof-texts, it may not be the biblical faith that one really holds.

It's easy to focus on what the verse negates. It's easy to just say "ok God wants blind followers." It seems to excuse the problem of faith and reason in the minds of both believers and unbelievers alike, giving no real guidance as to what it might mean for a person to come to faith. But I think this is a bit lazy. If I'm reading it correctly, the verse actually DOES give a couple of really big hints.

First, it says that faith is based on hope, namely hope in the idea that there is an unseen reality that is, nevertheless, fully real. It can enter into our lives and affect us.

Hope is often the least emphasized of the three theological virtues (the other two being faith itself, and of course, love, the one most often emphasized). Yet I think that hope may be precisely what opens the door for faith and love. It's as if God is saying "Ok, I am telling you that there is a spiritual (read: immaterial) reality that is a counter-part to all that you do see. You can either accept or reject this proposition."

I call this call to hope the "Primary Intuition" of faith. If my reading of this verse is accurate, a person must hope for God. They must be open to the idea that all we see, hear, do, and encounter has a divine and sacred as well as a mundane significance. As we come to know God more fully this is fleshed out and developed in a more specific way, but I think it remains a pre-requisite for openness to God that we be fundamentally hopeful people. We have to be able to look at the world around us and say "This is not enough. There is more."

One might then ask "well don't we all hope for that?" To this I must answer in the negative. In all honesty, God is rather inconvenient for us much of the time. To truly believe that there is a force watching out and caring about all of what we do and think is frightening (or should be). It means that we are constantly accountable to another standard. There is never really a time when we are "alone", however much we may prefer to believe that we are. In short, we have no choice but to hold ourselves accountable to godly integrity. By integrity I mean, as I posted from coach Dan John, that we must always be true to ourselves in every situation. We cannot close the door and lose our responsibility to God. We cannot hide behind our rights as autonomous citizens, nor our conveniences of life. We cannot merely assert that we are the center of our own little one-person universe. We cannot persecute without fear of judgement. We cannot cheat and not get caught. We cannot lie and not be found out. We cannot hate our brothers and sisters without consequence. And perhaps most importantly, we cannot really believe that we are in complete control of our own (or even our collective) destiny.

I think the point here is that it establishes the Burden of Proof in the God question. If we look at reality and say "I want to believe that there is more", then God is a de facto answer. Because we yearn for a greater presence, we will choose to weight those things that support divine existence more heavily that those things which cause us to question.

Many I know who have chosen not to believe do so largley on the grounds that they would rather give up the pressures of living under the reality of God than the pressures of living under the nihilism of life without Him. This is not to say that they are immoral. Indeed I think some actually start out with a very humanitarian, ethical impulse. They want to believe that parts of their lives only have the values that they assign to them. Certainly our sexual ethics can be much looser if sex is only as important as we want to treat it (thus opening the door for the idea that it can be "harmless fun" or something of the sort).

Also, I think non-hope is a great temptation for those who wish to believe that we can assert a greater level of control over the visible world. Many humanitarian crusaders have difficulty (in my experience) coming to grips with how limited our little moral crusades really are. They wish to believe that somehow if we could just increase our education, think more clearly, and institute the right political mindset, that we could really change the way people are, and thus the normal functioning of our world. It's much easier in some ways to have this atittude that to understand that we are called to be better people out of love for our common creator, and not because we can expect to see immediate large-scale results from our undertakings and sacrifices.

Basically, it's a hard pill to swallow that the light has to shine through the darkness, but the darkness is often prefered by people. It's difficult to buy into a system that tells you up front "look, people are a rough lot. The more you love them, the higher and thicker your cross is libel to be."

The second difficulty of faith is to believe that this unseen reality is not only co-real, but actually MORE real than the concrete instances of our lives. Now, I am not saying that we should simply opt out of things of the flesh as if they were unimportant. What I am suggesting is that we have to act on the priorities of the unseen world first, and let them dictate how we live in the world we can see. For example, when we say that "marriage makes the husband and wife one flesh" we are clearly not talking about a literal mixing of DNA. What we're saying is that "as far as God is concerned, your salvation is now a matter of co-striving. Everything that happens to one happens to two. You are one accountable entity in the eyes of God." Further, you could no more break this bond before God than you could cut your own arm off. You must treat the other, with all of their faults in place, as if they were part of you, inseparable in spirit, mind, and pleasure.

But it is a joyous message too. It allows us to hold that, in spite of the seeming mundane and trivial lives we lead, we are of cosmic importance to the creator of all things. All of our life is covered in divine concern, and therefore everything we do has divine significance. All can be beautiful or ugly, all can be clean or unclean, all can be worship or idolatry.

Basically, it is the choice to believe that we matter beyond what we seem to. That we are paradoxically so insignificant to the cosmic order, and yet so meaningful to the cosmic King.


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