January 22, 2008


Caption: Cats have little need for faith. They're already there.

El Cabrero is musing on the (nonsectarian) nature of faith this week. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post.

Faith is something I have trouble with, although I'm a fairly religious person by temperament. I'm kind of like a car with an old AM radio driving on a curvy mountain road. Sometimes I pick up a signal and sometimes I don't.

Faith is a pretty complicated ball of twine to unwind. Philosophers such as William James (an official Goat Rope patron saint) pointed out that faith can create facts, at least in the sense that believing something is possible can make it so. Psychologists like Erik Erikson have argued that attitudes toward faith are shaped in early infancy, when a baby does or does not learn to develop as sense of "basic trust" in the world around him or her. Faith is even a part of non theistic teachings such as Buddhism, although here it means something like trusting in those who have gone down the path before.

One of the most interesting and compelling non-sectarian treatments of faith I've come across were developed by the great theologian Paul Tillich in his little 1957 book, The Dynamics of Faith.

For Tillich, faith is a state of being "ultimately concerned." We all have relative concerns, like food, human relationships, work, etc. But the deepest concern that abides when all others have been met or foregone is the ultimate concern.

Another way of putting it might be to say that regardless of the things one professes to believe or not believe, one's real faith is the core value around which one's life is built. As Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew and Luke, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Faith for Tillich is the centered act of the whole person. It's not a purely intellectual thing such as subscribing to the truth of the tenets of some creed, Nicene or otherwise. Nor is just an act of will or an emotional state, although it gets confused with those quite a bit these days too. It can't be coerced by external or unconscious forces. If either of those is the case, the result is despotism or obsession/compulsion, not faith:

For faith is a matter of freedom. Freedom is nothing more than the possibility of personally centered acts.

Faith also implies risk and even doubt. It is always possible that the foundation on which one builds a life is a false one. When something of relative importance is elevated to an absolute status--such as one's own sect, race, a political creed, nation, money, or anything else--faith is idolatrous or, in Tillich's own term, demonic. By "demonic," he didn't mean little supernatural bad critters with horns but rather what happens anytime something relative is treated as an absolute.

Even the highest religious traditions and the most exalted human ideas can become demonic and idolatrous when they are regarded as absolute rather than limited and conditioned. To use an expression from the Buddhist tradition, all teachings are a finger pointed at the moon, not the moon itself.

Alas, there's an awful lot of finger worship in human history...

SPEAKING OF IDOLATRY, as Paul Krugman noted yesterday, the Reagan-as-God hypothesis is weighed in the balance and found wanting. (GR trivia question: to what book of the Bible does that allusion refer?)

IN KEEPING WITH YESTERDAY'S observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day observations, here's his famous Riverside address. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. It tolls for thee and for tens of thousands of Iraqis.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Here's an item on what could have been done with the wealth squandered on the unnecessary war in Iraq.

TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM. Here's something from Science on the functions of sleep.

ZOON POLITIKON. Check out this item on animal politics. Hint: some of them may be better at it than we are.

TWO COOL WEBSITES that will show up here in the future are bookforum.com and History News Network.



Rebecca Burch said...

Great post! It is a tricky thing. I think that all too often, we expect faith to just be there. We're quick to condemn others when their faith wavers. But faith is delicate, and I think that it requires maintainance. You can't take it for granted -- just like you can't take love for granted, or inspiration, or all those other tricky things we try to keep in our lives. Having them takes work.

This post inspired me to nominate you for a blog award:


El Cabrero said...

Thank you so much! You have a really nice blog. I love the format with pictures and music. I need to figure out how to do some of that at some point.

By the way if you like philosophy and such, there are series here on Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Machiavelli, the Iliad, game theory, etc.

I'm trying to gear up for one on Dante but that's pretty intimidating.