The Value of Faith
Critics of religious faith undoubtedly live deeply satisfying lives based on whatever worldview they adopt, but having faith – living faith – brings an extra dimension.
Experience together with reason gives most of us a reasonably serviceable worldview. Thus we learn to accept for example that good things abound but so do bad things in more or less equal proportion. We learn that doing good often leads to good results, though chance is also at play. We learn that the world and humankind are remarkably resilient, not only surviving cataclysms but thriving; thus there is always cause for hope. We learn that kindness to others is beneficial not only to the recipients but to ourselves as well. And so on.
A humanist or atheist can have these understandings and live contentedly, so why should we bother with faith? What is the value, if any, of a spiritual life? Before proceeding further we need to clarify terms. Whether we are talking about religion or pseudo-religion or New Age, there is a connection between faith and spiritual life. Faith is a mindset, an unconditional acceptance of something larger, while spiritual life is a way of living that is built around that faith. Thus a person may feel a spiritual connection with the wind or the sea or the desert or animal life or ancestors – the list goes on – but that connection is spiritual only to the extent that it implies some sort of faith. Here the notion of something larger comes into play, for as I said earlier, faith is an unconditional acceptance of something larger. In fact, in the context of spiritual life, it is not just something larger but something positively transcendent, that is, beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience.
A spiritual life, broadly speaking, is one that seeks and finds through faith some sort of transcendence. Religion, as we know, entails a spiritual life, but in this democratic age there are also non-religious people who experience spirituality. The distinguishing feature of religion is that it is collective, systematic, and generally organised. We may say that religion is communally or socially organised experience of faith. Many people find joy and comfort in this collective aspect of spiritual life, and this is perfectly normal, for we are all social beings as well as we are individuals. Indeed I think it’s reasonable to say that a spiritual life without human interaction is likely to be somewhat barren. It’s all very well to commune to with nature or with ancestors but this has little value unless there is some connection as well with the here and now, the living, the delightful and less delightful people we have to deal with day in day out.
Faith is not only an unconditional acceptance but also an embracing of something beyond, be it God, Brahma, the Tao, Nature, or abstract ideals like Love and Truth. Faith holds that ordinary rational explanations for the world are not enough, and that they provide us with an inadequate experience of life. Often, death enters the conversation as well, if only because, like deities, death or the supposed hereafter is in the realm of the unknown. The relative merits of all the arguments are beyond the scope of this essay. My focus is rather on whether faith really does enhance our experience of life, and if so how. I might just say in passing that faith is not, as some (atheists especially) claim, devoid of reason. The grounds for faith are clearly various and include perfectly reasonable arguments as well as feelings and all kinds of experiences, not necessarily limited to the mystic.
The life of faith – the spiritual life – is not, or should not be, one-dimensional. We can reasonably expect and indeed assume that it will touch the whole person. It will have rational elements as well as emotional, it will be personal (that is, private) and social, and it will have a presence throughout the range of our activities – work, leisure, eating and personal care, and so on. So much for the quantitative aspect of the spiritual life. More important and more contentious is the qualitative life. I said earlier that a rationalist or someone who rejects faith can live quite comfortably thus, provided that he or she has a well formed worldview. In other words it is not essential to have faith but faith gives an extra dimension to life, and thus an added richness. Faith gives an extra dimension more or less by definition, simply because the transcendent is involved, or as non-believers would say, the supernatural.
Clearly there are people who hold to a faith of one kind or another but who do so in a shallow, one might say one-dimensional kind of way. An obvious example is the fundamentalist who believes in a deity but sees that deity as someone akin to a warlord, for whom the only meaningful path in life is battle and sacrifice, followed hopefully by paradise. Another example is the corporate hot-shot who screws underlings and business rivals mercilessly during the week then sings psalms on Sunday. A reasonable value judgement is that these people (who may indeed love their families) are not in the truest sense people of faith.
Returning to the notion of added dimension or added richness, I confess that this is a sweeping generalisation and unprovable. Just as the existence of divinity is ultimately unprovable, so too is the supposed superior quality of life which acknowledges (some would say bows to) divinity. However, I think at least the possibility of extra dimension or richness can be seen in three areas, which correspond roughly to our understanding of the world and our different ways of relating to it.
Firstly, if we admit transcendence then we also admit a huge amount of mystery, because no one can know how the finite being – in our case the human being – actually connects with the infinite. By allowing the existence of the transcendent we allow all sorts of possibilities and give ourselves a huge minefield for the imagination. Mystery shades into wonder at how everything fits (rather than falls) into place. For some this can be an enormously transformative experience, a feeling of being born again. On the distaff side of this wonder there is acceptance, acknowledgement of the dark side which, so it seems, inevitably accompanies the light.
Secondly, admitting transcendence also brings into our lives the ethical absolute, the all-encompassing imperative to relate to other people, other beings, the Universe at large, in the best way we can possibly imagine. With the ethical absolute comes intensity of different kinds: the sort of intensity that has inspired the self-sacrifice of Jesus and others but also, in everyday life now, drives ordinary people to endless acts of amazing altruism. In personal relationships too, we get constant glimpses of the transcendent – insights which make us value those relationships more and which, incidentally, add to our confidence in a world that is more than mere molecules.
Thirdly and finally, if we have faith in the all-conquering power of truth and love, we have real muscle of the will and thus can take greater risks in our interaction with other people and the world in general. We can go forth and multiply, not biologically but through the endless propagation of good thoughts and good deeds. To honour the divine in everyday life, no matter what we perceive it to be, is a hugely energetic pursuit, but faith in a transcendent power is hugely energising. Such a faith is like boundless optimism, enabling a person to get up in the morning and start all over again, even when the previous day has been smelly as dung.
I have not mentioned mysticism so far because this is alien to my experience, and I have no expectation it will ever be otherwise. This is the intense state where a person feels ecstatically one with the Universe or the sacred or divine. Reportedly this feeling may be just that – a feeling – or it may entail some insights into what are felt to be hidden or ultimate truths. The ultimate goal of mysticism is or should be some sort of transformation, not just experiencing mystical or visionary states. But mysticism is a deep and complex topic best left to experts, including experts in neuroscience, as my cursory reading of Jerome Gellman’s article (“Mysticism,” 2014) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy shows.
If all this sounds a bit extreme, a bit up-in-the-clouds, maybe that’s the price that has to be paid for engaging with the topic of faith, for inevitably the question “Faith in what?” leads to discussion of the transcendent. I don’t mind. I have friends who are people of faith – different brands of faith – who are very down-to-earth and who simply let their actions speak for themselves. They are people who, like most of us, also have doubts from time to time, but they’re prepared to admit that faith is one of the powerful driving forces in their life and something that they wouldn’t want to lose. And in these people I perceive to one degree or another those extra dimensions that I think faith contributes to life: the mystery and wonder, the intensity of relationships, and the creative energy. I prefer not to use the name God for I think it has become debased and largely meaningless, but I am truly thankful that I myself have faith in a divinity which enables me to have at least a small slice of the spiritual cake I’ve tried to describe.
Faith holds that ordinary rational explanations for the world are not enough, and that they provide us with an inadequate experience of life. If we admit transcendence then we also admit a huge amount of mystery, which shades into wonder. Secondly, admitting transcendence also brings into our lives the ethical absolute, the all-encompassing imperative to relate to other people, other beings, the Universe at large, in the best way we can possibly imagine. Thirdly, if we have faith in the all-conquering power of truth and love, we have real muscle of the will and thus can take greater risks in our interaction with other people and the world in general. This gives enormous optimism and ability to counter the negatives of life. Even for those who have not the gift of mysticism – a rare gift – faith is enormously energising and sustaining.