Ross Lonergan reflects on the tension between faith and reason in the modern age.
I am a child of the modern world. On the one hand, I have been educated to think critically and thus do not suffer gladly what I consider to be foolish ideas or foolish beliefs. On the other hand, I keenly desire to be a fool for God in the sense that I seek to submit fully to “that which is greater than we are”— in the Christian tradition, this would be God. Moreover, I long to be fully engaged in a faith community that accepts me unreservedly and unconditionally for the person that I am while seeking to be uplifted by the beautiful liturgical traditions of the Church in which I grew up and with which I have a powerful emotional connection.
The tension becomes even more acute when I reflect on my belief in God. Who is God? Is he the bearded (and somewhat fearsome) figure sitting on a cloud and touching the finger of his creation Adam? Few of us can relate to this Old Testament image. But if the personification of God does not work for us as it did when we were children, who, or what, do we pray to? How do we experience God?
I am certain that there are others who feel, or have felt, this tension. The lucky ones find an individual church or faith community within their religious tradition that supports their personal quest and fulfills their spiritual needs. Others may deal with the tension by becoming secular humanists or “spiritual but not religious” people, by adopting a faith or subscribing to a philosophy outside of their cultural experience, or by simply setting the whole business of God to the side and going on with their lives.
Shortly following my return to Catholicism after many years of “lapse,” I had lunch with a young priest. In our conversation, the subject of faith came up and the priest told me that when he was a teenager, he, like many other young people, was bored with church and did not share the strong faith of his parents. I asked him what had restored his faith so radically that he decided, before he reached the age of twenty, that he wanted to become a priest. He gave me a few reasons, but the first thing he said in answer to my question was, “Well, we all have to believe in something.”
As I had already begun to experience the great tension between faith and reason, I was stunned by this statement. Was all that stood between agnosticism and faith a conscious decision to “believe in something”? Do we just sit down one day and say, “Let’s see now: I have to believe in something, so I guess, since I was raised Catholic and I pretty much know all the doctrines and stuff, it might as well be Catholicism”? And once that belief decision is made we are magically able to accept holus-bolus the body of Catholic teaching. No doubts, no going back, no questioning this belief or that doctrine. True peace of mind.
Despite his years of seminary indoctrination, his conservative cultural background, and the predominance of orthodox Catholicism among clergy and laypeople in the archdiocese in which I live, it is difficult to imagine that doubt does not at some point swamp this young man’s confident and comfortable belief. Can there be no conflict when you refuse Holy Communion to a couple you know is living together without the sacrament of matrimony yet offer it to a “legally” married couple you are 99 percent certain are using contraceptives? In your homily, when you tell us what God wants us to do, do you really believe you know what God wants? I am curious as to what happens to the orthodox believer when new information or problems of everyday life intrude upon the comfort zone of belief.
If we acknowledge God as our creator, surely we must also acknowledge that part of that creation is a brain and that the little creature is simply not content to accept whatever it is told. As modern, educated individuals, we also have to acknowledge the significant body of religious-historical research, biblical scholarship, and theological insight that has formed over the past one hundred years.
Let’s start with the concept of faith. If you asked any Christian the definition of faith, the reply would likely be that faith is belief; the more intellectually sophisticated Christian might say that faith was belief in something for which there is no evidence. When I was thinking of becoming a priest, I had a talk with a spiritual director (arranged by the young priest I mentioned above). The spiritual director, who writes a weekly article on scripture in the archdiocesan newspaper, told me that he had no difficulty believing in God. After all, he said—with a straight face—he had never seen Australia but it is obvious to everyone that Australia exists. (Well, Father, that’s because we all have to believe in something; it might as well be Oz.)
How did we come to adopt this narrowly defined concept of faith as belief?
It turns out that the idea of faith as belief is relatively new. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells us that “two developments account for its dominance in modern Western Christianity.” The first is the Protestant Reformation, which created a number of different Christian denominations, all of which distinguished themselves from other groups by emphasizing what they believed, “that is, by their distinctive doctrines or confessions.” In the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation, Catholics firmly reasserted their version of Christian truth.
Borg says that the second development was the Enlightenment, which “identified truth with factuality” and which “called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings.” So Christians, and especially Catholics, had to defend their territory by declaring the literal-factual “truth” of the virgin birth, the miracles performed by Jesus, the Resurrection, and all the other biblical events; and if you didn’t believe these truths, you had no business calling yourself a Christian.
The post-Enlightenment Church, then, has defined faith for us as belief in the literal-factual interpretation of the Bible and agreement with/adherence to a set of doctrines stipulated by the institution. The Catholic Church has taken a particularly hard line on the issue of faith in the modern era. In so doing it has created an unending cycle of conflict with those who don’t accept the whole package but wish to remain in the church, and it has cast many others out to wander alone in the desert.
So what are the “faithful doubters” among us supposed to do?Marcus Borg expresses his understanding of the tension between reason and faith-as-belief by saying that “we cannot easily give our heart to something that the mind rejects.” In his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Borg offers alternate definitions of faith that have more to do with the heart than with the head. One of these is faith as fiducia, which amounts to “radical trust in God.” Borg says, “Significantly it does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God….Rather, it means trusting in God.” He also defines faith as fidelitas, which is fidelity or faithfulness to our relationship with God; and as visio, “faith as a way of seeing the whole, seeing ‘what is.’”
These are liberating definitions if we accept them; they free us from the constraints imposed by “faith in a box,” the requirement of believing in a predetermined and fixed set of dogmas and doctrines and following a code of man-made laws in order to maintain our status as members of an institutionalized faith community. Naturally, if we are to adopt this new paradigm of faith, we must also free ourselves of the guilt of imagined disloyalty to the faith of our childhood, the faith of our parents. To make such a change requires emotional, psychological, and spiritual adjustment. For some of us it may also mean moving to a new faith community.
Borg’s faith paradigm assumes that we are comfortable with how we perceive God. But many of us are not. We have not made the transition from our childhood belief in a personal, even anthropomorphic God to a more mature understanding and acceptance of a being or entity that embraces and infuses all creation and that dwells within us and is a part of us. We are stuck in our logical thinking mind and are afraid to make the imaginative leap necessary to experience the divine in all of creation.
In his book Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the “spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement,” acknowledges the contradiction between our logical minds and our heart’s desire to experience God in our lives. But, he says:
“Contradictions we can live with. Nothing we can say about God will survive the rigors of logical analysis. But that shouldn’t get in the way of our search for the presence we have felt in our most spiritually open—or spiritually hungry—moments. If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, let’s stay with that tension. If there is a contradiction let us take it upon ourselves. Only let us press on with our desire to experience the numinous and serve the patterns of the universe in a deeper, more meaningful way.”
At the same time Reb Zalman recognizes our very human need for “spiritual intimacy” with an Other, a God we can relate to in our moments of great joy and great pain. After all, we cannot talk to—or pray to—an abstraction or a concept. But Reb Zalman recommends that in order to deal with “the limitations language imposes on our grasp of the infinite,” we create our own names for God and our own ways of speaking to God that reflect our unique understanding and experience of the divine.
What I get from all of this is that for faith to work for us in the modern age we must be able to joyfully manage the tension between the head and the heart. On the one hand, I cannot believe that God would give me an active brain and then ask me to check it at the church door. I am very happy to be a “cafeteria Catholic,” freely choosing what to believe and eschewing what does not resonate. On the other hand, I must accept that an imaginative, childlike approach to God is not a bad thing if it allows me to experience the divine. Perhaps our need for God is as much emotional as it is spiritual.
A friend who read this article shared the following observation: “I sense that your journey is very much head stuff and you need a real blast of heart stuff. Not the emotional stuff that comes from good music, well performed liturgies, moving and meaningful sermons. You need a blast of the infinite.” She knows me well.
“Thinking then having a doubt” fabio @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Blind faith” xurde @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Blind Faith Cafe” Swanksalot @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
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