What is Faith and Critical Reason – Response

After re-reading my first reflection essay, I now realize how much a mind can change in three months. It’s actually quite unnerving; who knows what I’ll be thinking three months from now? Despite this uncertainty, I have come to understand that it’s not about ‘the right answer’, but ‘a right answer.’ There are many different interpretations that are seemingly correct, and the one we buy into doesn’t fluctuate in an indiscriminate way. It fluctuates because we’re keeping our minds open. In my first essay I tried to nail down definitive terms for faith, religion, and critical reasoning; I failed miserably. Here, I am going to discuss some of my favorite points of view and show that there are not only different ways up the mountain, but there are different mountains and planets with no mountains at all. In every reality there is reality.

David Foster Wallace attacks a multitude of fundamental issues specifically noting that the “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water’” (7). When was the last time you looked up? Walk outside and look up. We are in empty space on a huge chunk of rock spinning and orbiting a mass of hydrogen that has collapsed in on itself. This is my water; my effervescently still water that has me grounded, literally, on a ground I cannot trust. I don’t realize my water every day, but I swim through it nonetheless. My overarching desire in this life is to know the truth of reality, but as I have come to understand this is a seemingly impossible goal. Not because there isn’t truth, but because there may be multiple truths. Paul Tillich says in Dynamics of Faith that “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned,” and that “if it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name” (1). I think what Tillich says is correct, and it’s a great answer to what faith is, but I don’t think it’s ‘the answer.’ This understanding of faith does project itself onto my overarching desire, making my want to know the truth of reality my ultimate concern – my faith. In my previous paper I defined faith as the underpinnings of our thoughts; the unshakable beliefs held suspended by nothing. Our blind conceived or learned facts of reality. After some thought I now realize that faith isn’t believing the sky is green when it’s clearly blue, it’s the ultimate desire to understand the sky. If the sky is our ultimate concern and we learn that the sky doesn’t actually exist, but it’s just an area of air between earth and space, our faith isn’t lost. We haven’t been stripped of our ultimate purpose leaving us in a sky-less depression. The sky still exists just as it did before, and the inherent risk of it not existing also exists as it did before. Creating a mutually exclusive dichotomy is as easy as picking a side and both practices are wrong. There are three sides to a coin, the middle part, which is full of a multitude of possibilities, is just very hard to land on.

If what I’m saying so far seems a bit ambiguous, that is not my intention. However, I’m trying to get at the fact that things aren’t always what they seem. Every question can be answered easily, but no question can be answered certainly correct. In my first reflection essay I wrote about a sort of mental map that starts with imagination and ends with religion. My argument was essentially that imagination is tested with critical reasoning, which could be some sort of logical test using mathematics, experiment, observation, etc. If the thought passes the logical test, then it is considered a truth/fact. If this thought does not pass the logic test, but is still held to be true for a reason that extends further than logic, this thought is considered faith. This cyclical logic can be applied to religion and I made the statement: “Religion attempts to prove faith through critical reason.” At the time I didn’t know what I meant by this but now I do. If one declares stories and ideas to be factual, such as the bible and God, and people believe these stories and ideas without proof, faith has been loosely created. This faith is then strengthened through subjective critical reasoning provided by weekly meetings (going to church, synagogue, etc.). In essence, I was saying that every faith is based on some illogical idea that gets strengthened through groupthink in some cult-like setting. While this is no longer my belief, it is ‘an answer,’ but not ‘the answer.’ Alister McGrath in The Twilight of Atheism spoke about Feuerbach’s desire to rid the world of God in the same way Copernicus changed our view of the solar system. He wanted atheism to be so much of a fact that “no king or mob could sway this judgement, which was held to be grounded in the reality of the world” (56). Feuerbach thought God and certain religions made people live for a tomorrow that doesn’t exist. Sigmund Freud, another venerable figure, agrees with Feuerbach and says that “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that is falls in with our instinctual desires” (68). I tend to agree with Freud here, and I think he’s on to something. It’s unfortunate he ends up over-focusing on the paternal aspect and turns his theory into a phallic battle with ‘Dad,’ very strange indeed. Karl Marx takes a ‘more real’ approach by noting people’s social position – a very empirical phenomenon. He thought that religion made people complacent to the hardships of life, an idea that in some situations sounds like a good thing. The argument cannot be stated better than from he himself: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions” (66). This seems a bit like a chicken and an egg sitting next to a straw man. Was it religion that caused the condition or the condition that caused religion? Regardless of the answer, is religion even relevant in this equation? The answer if probably no, but he is arguing against religion, so the reality of the ideology will likely be realized differently depending on one’s preconceived notions. For an atheist this is a no brainer, for a religious person this is ridiculous, and for me, I’m just pointing out a logical fallacy. To Nietzsche, God can be dead, sure, but he makes a point that I think sort of sums up everyone else’s. Nietzsche said “’Morality is the herd-instinct in the individual.’ Moral and philosophical truths are simply beliefs that we create to enable us to cope with the world.” He goes on to sum up one of my firm beliefs that “there are no facts; simply interpretations – and those interpretations are to be judged by their utility in coping with a meaningless world” (151). All of these thinkers have done a great job critically reasoning their theories. The problem is that religion extends deeper than this. The earth does revolve around the sun and no matter how hard you think, you’re not going to change that. No one knows if God exists, but what’s at stake isn’t the future of science, but the future of one’s human experience.

John Caputo in On Religion says that “any religion is better off without the idea that it is ‘the one true religion’” (110). I think Caputo makes a great point here, and it would certainly stop a lot of conflict occurring in the world if people would adopt this ideology. I want to take this a step further though. Religion is often mixed up in a footrace with science that it’s not going to win. The people who engage in this race on the side of science think the religious people are stupid, and the religious people who engage in this race think the scientists are naive. In my opinion they’re both ignorant. Science is attempting to understand patterns and universal truths. They want to observe reactions and achieve the same result every time. The intended goal is not happiness or fulfillment, but progress. I personally think the purpose of religion is fulfillment. Every religion or faith is ultimately in your heart to fill some gap. Some people, like Stephen Prothero, beg to differ. We cannot put religions under one roof, and we certainly cannot understand them unless we do so on their terms. What everyone “fail[s] to see is religious diversity. Rather than ten thousand gates they see only one” (334). Sure, each religion is different, but are they each affecting a different portion of the human mind? If there’s a place for thoughts of the infinite, or simply things that extend further than our basic human necessities, can they all be that different? Prothero has a clever 4-step technique in which he categorizes religion. There is a problem, solution, technique, and exemplar. For example, in Christianity the problem is sin, the solution is salvation, the technique is faith and good works and the exemplars are saints or people of faith. Another quick example: In Buddhism the problem is suffering, the solution is nirvana, the technique is the Noble Eightfold Path, and the exemplars are Arhats, Bodhisattvas, or Lamas (14). Religions are definitely different and it would be ignorant to say they’re all fundamentally the same. Prothero gives us another great answer, but it is not ‘the answer.’ Religion is only relevant if brains follow them, and what is their effect on the brains? What is the 4-step technique to understand the human experience? Using Prothero’s model I would say our brains’ problem is that our unconscious feels a lack of fulfillment, the solution is filling this gap, the technique is a belief, deep interest, study, or practice of something ‘more’ (religion, science, some ultimate concern), and the exemplar is our conscious mind. This is my opinion and thought, and it is just another answer.

We have journeyed through the general thoughts of many different great thinkers, as well as my own (an average thinker). Although a firm conclusion has not been, and cannot be, made, I hope the pattern has made itself apparent. There are many realities, many truths and many interpretations of these realities and truths. If there is a goal, it’s not to pick one but to notice the merits of each. Everyone’s minds work a bit different and we’re all missing different pieces to a puzzle that has no instructions, nor form. The way up the mountain of fulfillment, if your reality has a mountain, is as real and true as anything else.