Monday, February 16, 2009

What is "Informed Faith"?

One of the things I particularly enjoy and appreciate about my circle of friends (and I'm fortunate enough to have a wide circle of them) is the level of conversation that often occurs, even when we are all kicking back on a weekend night. This past Friday was specifically enlightening as our banter turned to the issue of faith. Given the turn our nation has taken over the last decade or so, faith is a concept that has increasingly assumed a level of pejorative association among certain quarters of society. The reactionary turning toward fundamentalism has turned a lot of people away from the idea. I suppose that this issue isn't specifically contained to the US, but has rather become an international crisis.

Taking into account that context, it's not surprising that someone I would respect would lump all forms of faith together under the same banner, and ridicule all and sundry adherents. Yet I think that this type of generalization can lead to a narrowing of an important dialog. I've come to believe in a wide variegation of attitudes, definitions, and approaches to faith. I've been trending this way for a while, but it's mostly been at a subconscious or an intuitive level. I have to give a shout-out here to J.C. Hallman and (as an extension) William James for helping lead me to the language necessary for framing my thoughts. Ultimately truth is a function of an individual's perspective of the consequences of his/her actions.

As a starting point I'd like to suggest that there is a simplistic but substantial difference between "Faith" and faith. The former entails the fundamentalist variety I mentioned earlier. In the case of "Faith", the individual formation of ideals isn't as important as the level of commitment one brings to them. One determines his/her "Faithfulness" according to how rarely (s)he questions his/her belief system. The individual earns his/her identity with acceptance bred from a revocation of rationality. In fact this is belief beyond reason (in a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith" sense). All of this is well understood and sounds almost cliché to the postmodern reader. I realize that I'm not expressing anything particularly revelatory by spelling this out.

But at the same time, those who embrace a form of pure rational scientific thought seem to be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle... for there is a level of faith involved in the paradigm of cause-and-effect as well. I believe that there are many people that never consciously acknowledge this proposition. The very nature of the empirical sciences entails a quality of mystery. We form our questions about our external reality, and then we seek to study them under certain controlled conditions to isolate a chain of causality. That's all well-and-good. However I think some folks tend to misrepresent the conclusions of such experiments as "ultimate answers".

Even if we have ample scientific data concerning specific phenomena, we still rely on a level of speculation that requires a degree of faith to help us guide our decisions. As soon as we anticipate a time beyond the present, we are unavoidably engaging in the practice of faith, no matter how informed (or alternatively misinformed) our expectations are. So I'm a bit uncomfortable when someone discounts faith outright. We may be able to apply a statistical analysis to a problem (and of course that system itself is vulnerable to a wide range of manipulations), but our understanding is still limited by the constructs of prior experience (and received preconceptions). Just as Eskimos have an expanded language to communicate the different forms of snow, I think we have to honor the idiosyncrasies of "faith".

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Big egos are often deprived of the big picture. JM

1:07 AM  

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