Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Nature of Faith

Faith is not the same as knowing. At least, in one important way it is not the same. When we know something to be true in the empirical sense, we can observe it, handle it, study it. It is tangible. If we study something enough, we become comfortable saying it is true. We have taken enough baths that we can say, water is wet. But, with few exceptions, even things researched and studied lead us to truth in a tentative way. For years, medical scientist thought that most stomach ulcers were due to nervousness or things we consumed. Then, new research led to the idea that ulcers are due to bacteria. Now, ulcers are often treated with antibiotics. Still, what we can handle, see, measure, and observe lead us to our most sure, though often tentative, definitions of truth.

There is, let us say, a second degree of knowing. This comes from experience with things that are non-tangible. Things like love, and loyalty. I would stake my life on the notion that my wife loves me. At this level, we have evidence. The evidence of my wife's love is apparent in her kindness toward me. She is kind even when I'm not being so kind. She cares for me when I'm sick or depressed. We have had a happy marriage for over 30 years. I would bank on the fact that we share a real, enduring love.

Yet, I know of several folks, many friends, who appeared to have a great marriage for 20 or more years, yet their marriage ended in divorce. Often, one member of the couple will tell me that the divorce caught them totally by surprise. They had no indication it was coming. They thought they were in a loving, enduring marriage. They could be fooled, it seems. You see, you can't weigh and measure affection the same way you can make measurements in a controlled scientific experiment. This level of "knowledge" is not as secure as the first level, yet we often stake a great deal on it.

The third level of "knowing," if we might call it that, is faith. Here we are talking about religious concepts based in myth. There is no way to investigate the truth of these ideas. We cannot even experience them as something outside of ourselves as we can experience a friend or lover in "level two knowing." If we wish to refer to faith as a way of knowing, we must admit it is a completely different way of knowing. It is knowing without empirical evidence. It is knowing with out a direct experience of the other. Even for the mystics, this knowing is mediated by thought forms and belief, as we see when we consider the variety of mystical experiences. They hardly point to the same reality.

Still, it is this third "level of knowing" that is of primary importance to very many people. Religion is the most important aspect of their lives. I would not detract from its importance. I merely point out that it is of a completely different variety than knowledge as we commonly think of it.

I am a firm believer in the resurrection of Jesus. However, what I have is faith, not knowledge. Faith can be wrong because it is not amendable to empirical investigation. There is always a certain risk involved in faith. We often hear of faith spoken of as a leap ("a leap of faith"). Whatever knowledge that comes to us comes by faith in the act of making the leap daily. In refusing to admit that faith and knowledge (at least in the conventional sense) differ, our fundamentalist friends get into all kinds of problems-- some that affect others. In seeing the Bible as empirically true, they adopt its biases, fears, moral foibles, and culture-bound directives as true for times and eternity. In so doing, they make life in a diverse society and world a difficult and dangerous affair.

For more about fundamentalism, check out my new book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist.

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