The Basis of Belief

There are many things that religion has in common with other forms of human endeavor. Religion creates community. It offers support and structure for society. It may even venture into the political and activist arena. However, the one area that makes religion distinctive is its focus on ultimates, the depth of reality. For whatever else religion is, its primary focus is on ultimate foundations and ultimate concerns. Religion asks the deepest questions about reality. Why is there something and not nothing? What is the meaning of the cosmos? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens when I die? These are questions implied by life itself. They point to life’s deepest mysteries. They are the foundational realm of religion.

Because the primary focus of religion is on those things that are most important, believability is important. If religion makes a claim about the nature of reality or the meaning of life, it is not a trivial assertion. It has both existential and practical implications. For instance, if a religion asserts the fallenness and guiltiness of individuals then self image and behavior are affected. If a religion asserts its absolute superiority to other religions, the effects may be far reaching. Claims on ultimate concerns are of ultimate importance. For this reason the veracity of religious systems is powerfully important. This, however, creates a dilemma for religion today. In the present climate, any claim to truth is subject to challenge. The climate of truth has changed in our time. Not only is a specific truth challenged, but the very idea of truth has become suspect. Religions have always competed. The history of religion is littered with religions that succumbed and fell to others more compelling. However, even if a religious ideology seems compelling, the metaphysics that is the foundation of religious thought is inherently fragile. It cannot find the kind of validation commonplace in other forms of human exploration like the scientific methods. In the past religious systems employed various means to obvert the challenges to veracity. Many claimed that they had access to some sort of divinely given revelation. They often tried to shored up that claim by making other claims of supernatural validation by events and deeds. After all why should a person believe someone about things of ultimate importance without some compelling reason?

But what is that compelling reason today? What grants an authority to a religious system? Today the idea of an absolute, uncontested religious truth is under attack from many fronts. We live in an age of unprecedented cultural mixing. No longer are only the cultures of immediate neighbors interacting. With the advent of global travel and global information, there is an opportunity for a multiplicity of cultural exchanges. This, of course, has both positive and negative potentials. When cultures mix they can participate in both the best and worst of each other. What it does for religion, however, as in the past, is create a climate of challenge to authority. For many believers this challenge is not much of an issue. They are perfectly willing to ignore the claims of other belief systems and grant, ipso facto, authority to their own. However, there are today a growing number of individuals and groups who are not willing to ignore the issue of truth. For them the often unintended challenge of other belief systems raises issues of truth that cannot be ignored. Isolation can breed confidence. Exposure can breed doubt. When people of faith meet and become familiar with people of faith from other traditions they see the same intelligence and commitment to a faith that they have as well. It then becomes harder to view their own faith in absolute terms. If others are as discriminating and committed to religious systems that, in some cases, have very different beliefs how can the believer claim some sort of absolute authority for their own system of belief. In isolation the hard questions concerning the basis for believe do not arise. When confronted with other world religions and the faithing individuals of those traditions, it may become impossible to rule out the idea that other faith traditions also tap in to deep reality and may, in fact, have an equal or even superior take on that reality. Also as I said there are several fronts of challenge to authority. Some of these are even internal to a religious system.

The last century has seen an explosion of internal critical examination within religious systems themselves. Scholars within these religions are examining the sources of authority in minute detail with a critical, historical eye. The in-depth study of scripture, in particular, represents an internal challenge of the truth for many belief systems. For Christianity, as an example, often scripture has been granted an almost supernatural authority. This was represented in terms like “inerrancy”, “scriptural authority”, and “divine inspiration”. The Bible was viewed by many as a perfect, almost magical source of sacred information. However, the microscopic view of the historical critical method presents a picture of the Bible as a very human document with flaws, inconsistencies, and with many unknown authors for particular scriptures over long stretches of time. Scripture can no longer be seen as some sort of dictation or inerrant revelation from the divine. It now appears not as unchallengeable sacred knowledge but as a faith treatise of believing individuals. While this shift should be appreciated, it does represent a challenge to the comfort of absolute authority that many found in their belief in the Bible. Did this have a drastic effect on religion? Not in any short term sense but there seems to be a relentless move in at least moderate and liberal circles away from the old view of scriptural authority. And finally, the insidious shift in cultural belief systems, per se, has also mounted a challenge to the objective authority of religions.

In philosophy the enlightenment was an age of optimism. For that point of view, it was only a matter of time until absolute foundations for knowledge and truth would be discovered. Just as science was making unrelenting progress in understanding the natural world, so also philosophy would make unrelenting progress towards the objective foundations for truth. Today that optimism of the enlightenment has been abated. No longer do the vast majority of scholars look to some time when the objective truth of reality is in our grasps. Postmodern thought has swept the landscape of philosophy, art, and even science. Truth with a capital “T” is no longer the goal for many. Instead for many prominent thinkers, the truth to be sought comes with a small “t” that is contextual and contingent. Truth, it is supposed, is relative to the situation and even if it is grounded in ultimate truth there is no method to “prove” it. Archimedes, it turns out, does not have a place to stand. While many people may not be familiar with philosophic terms like “enlightenment” and “postmodernism”, their effect on everyone is undeniable. It can be seen in art, literature, architecture, economic, as well as religion. While some of the claims of postmodern thought are valid, they are not without challenge themselves. The thought of total relativity is disturbing for many. Surely there must be some foundation upon which one can build with confidence. But where would one find such a foundation given the current situation? If it becomes compelling that there is no ultimately objective authority for religious belief what can be a legitimate basis for belief? This is a question that theologians today and in the future must address. This raises the perennial issue of religious knowledge.

All religions claim to have some insight into the ultimate foundations of reality. Many also claim that those foundations transcend this reality. This naturally leads to the question of religious knowledge. How are these truths about the ultimate attained? What is the process? How can religious knowledge of something transcendent be received? Traditional religions answer those questions in varying ways but almost invariably, at least initially, there is a charismatic figure involved, a shaman, sage, prophet, etc. These individuals apparently had special gifts that afford them the opportunity to sense the depth of reality or they are said to be chosen to receive divine revelation. Moses, in spite of his failings, was chosen to receive the word of God. Jesus it is thought had in his being a special connection to the divine. Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, had the skill of meditation and great insight. Mohammed was chosen to be the prophet of God. Charismatic individuals like these throughout time were able to tap into a knowledge about ultimate reality. The Old Testament speaks of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from a burning bush. The prophets speak of special insight into the meaning of life or certain events in history. The mystics talk about altered states of consciousness where they experience the holy.

Does this mean then that only those who have special gifts, skills, or a calling are able to discern something about the nature of ultimate reality? Must religious knowledge be mediated by these special individuals? The Protestant reformation said no. Martin Luther rejected the idea that the experience of God had to be mediated by the priesthood and claimed instead the priesthood of all believers. All religions have practices and rituals through which individuals may experience the divine. So even if everyone has the potential to experience the divine and come to know about it does knowledge of ultimate reality only come through some supernatural means? I believe it does not. I suggest that for all human beings it comes through what I call an informed intuition.  I do not think that theology in the 3rd millennium should appeal to the reception of religious knowledge through some supernatural means. This would require God diddling with neurons, synaptic gaps, dendrites, etc. Instead I think religion and theology can call to mind the insight of various thinkers throughout history regarding the relationship of being and knowing. Plato said there is a unity of being and knowing. Tillich also claimed that to know is to participate in being of the known. Tillich called this the “mystical a priori”, an ontological connection that precedes all learning. Calvin called this “sensus divinitatus”, a sense of the divine. These claims fit appropriately in most theistic frameworks because the created always, in some sense, shares the “being” of the creator. For panentheism this communion is ontologically deep. With this approach revelation can be thought of as purely natural, although the typical definition of “natural” must be expanded to encompass the depth of being found in the divine life.

Now, by intuition I do not mean something precognitive or paranormal. Instead I mean a gestalt of all the natural processes of the thinking and feeling mind. The dictionary defines gestalt as “a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.” One of the problems in characterizing the dynamics of knowing is that from modern neuroscience we find that the workings of the brain are not a serial process but rather a complex parallel pattern matching process among many functional parts. As such it is not possible to draw clear lines of distinction between what might be called an intuition and the parts that make it up including concrete thought, abstract thought, and emotion. In my view intuitional thinking is a gestalt of all these. However, as a gestalt it is a wholistic way of knowing that has not been explicated, at least fully. I think this is in line with what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowing. According to Polanyi’s explanation of the tacit mode of knowing, “we know more than we can say”. It is a sort of “gut feeling” that has not been fully explicated into either concrete or abstract terms. The explicated mode is Polanyi’s other mode of knowing. In this mode the tacit knowing is explicated in both concrete and abstract terms. Think of dancing as an example of this. One can learn to dance very well without knowing dance theory. We know more about dancing than we can say. However, if dance is explicated into the abstract terms of music theory, movement theory, physical theory, etc. we have a concrete and abstract knowing of dance. One can think of religious intuition as a tacit mode of knowing the divine. It occurs in experiences that give us a “gut feel” about reality in its depth. What are these intuitionally feelings? They are often characterized as beauty, unity, harmony, wholeness, connectedness, love, centeredness, etc. The experiences of the mystics represent a profound example of this but religious intuition need not be found only in such dramatic experiences. Many people have had such experiences in nature, in religious services, in art and music, in prayer, and even in the technical aspects of life of science and mathematics. These experiences represent as Calvin called it a “sense” of the divine. These experiences while they are often tacit in nature, beg to be explicated. That is why even the mystics who claim that their experiences are ineffable, attempt to describe them in words. When religious intuitions are explicated what results is theology or religious philosophy. That theology or philosophy attempts to take the gestaltal “feelings” of the intuition and explicate them into language. This is, however, a tenuous task because any gestalt is a mixture of many aspects of cognition and emotion, some of which may even be in conflict with each other. Also theologies emerge not just from the tacit experience of the divine but also from the answers that are sought to existential questions. Seeking certain answers not only focuses a theology, it also can bias a theology in a certain direction.

All this is to say that the process of creating a theology which can be the basis of belief is, by no means, a straightforward, unambiguous one. It is also a process that is susceptible to error. Anyone who has tried to put into words a gestalt of feeling and thinking knows how difficult it is. This is where the “informed” part of an informed intuition comes in. The history of theology has shown a steady evolution of religious thought from animism to polytheism to monotheism and panentheism. It is an evolution that according to religious scholar Michael Horace Barnes results from cultural changes and new insights being formed. In the past couple of centuries there has been an explosion of knowledge both about ourselves, our origins, and the structure and dynamics of the cosmos. This new knowledge and information can and must inform religous intuitions and the past theologies that utilized them. It is a necessary therapeutic for faulty theology. Does this mean that if an intuition about reality is well informed, it is above critique or error? No. In the final analysis even well informed intuitions can still be open to error. No one system of belief is ever above reproach. It is the nature of belief that there is no absolute certainty. But that is also as it should be. Belief is a faithing process. Faith entails risk. Faith requires a leap of courage to be assertive in the midst of our imperfections and frailty. It is a faithing fallibilism. We can, however, continue to work on our beliefs. We can and do continue to experience life, learn, and grow. Changing one’s belief is not only valid but essential. Faithing is not a static process but a dynamic process of trial and error and success. Another obvious question is what place scripture has for a basis of belief? I think it can have an enormous place. After all, scripture has been the basis of belief for millenia. It’s truth is attested by the billions of people who have been gripped by it and based their beliefs and actions upon it. However, I think it is also important to recognize that the individuals who wrote scripture were involved in the very same dynamic of an informed intuition. While the prophets, sages, and holy people demonstrated their connection to realities depth, they too had their frailties and were biased by the context of their lives. The best of them relied both on their religious intuitions as well as the full range of knowledge that was available at the time. Scripture can and should be an important starting point for theologians and adherents as they navigate forming a basis for belief today. Scripture and its claims should, however, be critically examined just as any other source of intuition or theological explication. Many people today are skeptical of any religious view. They may have been burned in the past with a tradition that failed them. The challenges of religious pluralism, scientific expansion or postmodern thought may leave them with a sense of futility about religion. This is understandable. However, for many individuals, in spite of this doubt their core intuition about life remains that there is a dimension of depth, a sacredness to the cosmos. If this is truth, then it is a noble quest to continue to search for a set of beliefs where the authority of those beliefs comes from within and not from some external authority. Some may not feel qualified or confident to weed through competing claims. But in fact, we are all groping for what is true. However, it is perfectly reasonable and valid to trust one’s own intuition and judgment. After all it is all we have. The quest for truth can continue and we may change our minds but the force of the sacred upon us is eternal.

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