Q of the Week: Faith and Belief

Well I completely enjoyed Kaleidoscope this year! Remember when I said that my attendance at KG had nothing to do with elephants? Well, in fact there was an elephant at KG this year. I helped to make it (although Jeff and Auz did almost all of the work, really).

Not too much other than that going on. Two weeks ago, I had an interview with a temp agency here in Ottawa, and I left it feeling very confident and enthusiastic about being placed in a good position in the early fall. I’m also going over the manuscript of Loneliness and Revelation for the last time, and I will probably upload it to the publisher later today. I’m looking forward to the work weekends on Raven’s Knoll (those who attended KG know what this means), and also looking forward to a visit from my lady from out west…

Ahem. So, on to the question of the week.

Do you “believe” anything? Have you “faith” in the gods, or in impersonal spiritual forces like fate or destiny, or the like? I ask partly because I’m not sure if I do. I find myself swiftly coming to the view that concepts like faith and belief might not be the right kind of concepts to describe my spiritual life. I don’t have “faith” in anything. But I do have certain cultural, philosophical, and spiritual commitments. For instance I find myself committed to a certain tribe of people who surround me. I’m also committed to certain values and ideas which I have learned from Celtic mythology, from my own examination of nature, and of my own mind and heart.

Faith, as perhaps most people understand it, is like a belief in the existence of things which you otherwise have little or no reason to believe in. St. Paul himself seems to confirm this: he defined faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1.) In many ways this notion of faith enables people to entertain beliefs in things, ideas, people, spiritual realities, etc., for which they have no rational argument, nor any empirical evidence; the emotional and perhaps irrational wish for such things being the only evidence that the faithful person needs. It sounds simple and elegant. Leo Tolstoy wrote in his “Confession” that such simple faith enabled him to avoid suicidal despair. But I think that Richard Dawkins might be right when he characterises faith as a form of non-thinking. I simply cannot have that in my own spirituality. I need to know things before I can commit my life to them. And before anyone stigmatizes and attacks me for being a doubting Thomas (a classic case of the adversariam fallacy, and a sign of a dogmatic mind), let me observe that useful and reliable knowledge can come from many sources: the sensory organs of my body, the work of my hands, and the contemplations of my mind, just as a few examples.

Other, less dogmatic understandings of the role of faith exist, and need not imply a confrontation or a rejection of reason. An op-ed piece in The Guardian a few weeks back, entitled Metaphysical Mistake, described how mythos and logos were two fields of knowledge with well-defined and distinct roles to play in human life; I found the author’s argument persuasive. To understand the world, live in it, use it, and even change it, we need reason, scientific enquiry, and the like (designated by this author with the word logos); for our social values, our artistic directions, and the like, which logos cannot supply, we have mythos: the stories of the doings of our gods, ancestors, predecessors, and heroes.

And so, friends, I put the question to you. Does faith and belief have a role in your spiritual life? What is that role? Or, like me, do you instead have commitments?

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