Parish the Thought
In his legendary set of Gifford Lectures of 1901, William James placed a strong accent on what he referred to as the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’. More than anything else, it is faith that demands this existential oblation, for faith must ultimately forego the act of questioning. And even if, as I have suggested elsewhere, the ability to question may in fact be the ‘residuum of faith’, it is certain that faith alone drives reason outside of all contemplative life.
But what is the character of such a sacrifice? How does it play out in our contemporary social scene? And what would possess a being endowed with reason and the language to facilitate its ongoing development, to give up what appears to be the essence of its make-up? Could it be that notoriety within reason is simply a difficult proposition, and thence that unreason should call to us the more strongly? Is it simply an easier thing to become something larger than life by depriving that very life of its unique contribution to the consciousness which otherwise might feel small in the face of the cosmos? Human existence, its ‘nature’, though mutable, is yet based upon the faculty of a reasoning intellect. Faith bereft of reason seems not merely counter to our collective character, our ‘species essence’, to speak with Marx, or the ‘Dasein that we are and which I am’, to speak with Heidegger, but as well appears as a kind of limitation, even an historical regression. This said, is it entirely a fair definition of faith that shaves itself of all capacity for critical thought?
James seems to think that, while religious belief is itself based upon the not idle curiosity about origins – How is it that I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to existence and more pointedly, to my specific existence? – and thus in its own development and proto-doxa, one finds reason at work, that in the end faith only comes into its own as a visceral veridicity when reason is fully abandoned. Akin to the act of love, perhaps, when two separate beings surrender their individuality for a few moments and unite in the bond of earthly rapture, the attainment of a faith undaunted by doubt and freed from any internal critique and self-reflection, surrenders not so much the body but rather the mind. In love, in regaining our distinct senses and thence our specific sensibilities, we realize that we have given ourselves over to the beloved other; this is the goal of human adoration. But in religion, we give ourselves body and soul not to a human other, but to a non-human Being who we imagine to be Otherness uplifted and made transcendent. From the divan to the divine, so to speak, this willingness to forsake our own paltry beings for a greater sense of existence, whether in love or in faith, also marks us as quite uniquely different from all other known forms of life.
So if reason is necessary to attain an unreasoned faith, why presume such a faith to be no less of an essence to the human character than should reason itself be? For James, it is because faith is itself a mere vehicle for transcendence. If reason is the motive force behind the dynamic of human existence as reflective consciousness and as historical being, then faith is that which is ‘alongside’ reason, providing it with its ahistorical foil and its idealized selfhood. We would like to think that unreasoned faith is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, but clearly we are faced, in the day to day, with a diversity of types of ‘blind faith’. Such a catalogue might not be worthy of a Gifford Lecture – ‘the varieties of unreasoned experience’, say – but this in fact is part of the core argument James makes regarding religion in general. The key to understanding the chief difference between a mere critical compendia of such misadventures and a reasoned and profound analysis of them can be found in his subtitle: ‘a study of human nature’.
Now this claim radically upshifts the content from mere contemporary ethnography – you owe yourself a prayer, you owe yourself a soul – into the ontological sphere. It is part of our very being that we have the ability to experience religion. Faith may be ultimately unreasoning in order to preserve its function over against the world and against the history of that world, but it remains the near side of the coin which is consciousness as we have thus far known it to be. To study ‘human nature’, however diverse and changeable – James never claims, in what is still an all too prevalent shibboleth, that this or that is ‘simply human nature’; this type of response itself unreasoned – is to engage that very essence in the process of self-understanding. How does reason understand itself? What is the reason of reason, why does it itself exist and how is it made manifest? Reason is, in short, a gloss for human divinity.
Until our modern period, reason was understood as a gift. It was what made us the imago dei under the skin, as it were. It is surely yet our most profound gift, Promethean in its scope and daring, ravenous in its Raven-like acquisitiveness; nothing novel can escape its sharp-eyed vision. But is it not as well the case, given the unreasoned tempi of human history, that we must maintain a kind of faith in reason itself in order to enact it, to return to it, to know of its perennial presence? For can we be apodeictically certain that our reason will always come to our rescue in the face of historical or yet cosmic happenstance? It is too trite a dyad to shrug this off with a ‘faith in reason, reason in faith’ kind of nod. For in reminding ourselves of their uneasy partnership, any balance that is struck within our consciousness which asks of both to remain present in the presence of the other presents to us a kind of intellectual miracle. On the one hand, reason in itself does not admit to faith of any kind. It is thought alone that carries it forward and faith, in its uncritical and even unthinking character, is at best an irresponsible diversion, at worst, a temptation. On the other, faith can neither reason itself nor for itself. It floats above the fray of the conflict of interpretations and it takes knowledge to be within the truth of things only when knowing is no longer associated with reason-inspired devices, such as science, method, criticism, and analysis. If reason sees faith as a half-way house for the febrile minded, faith sees reason as the professional artist sees the amateur. In the latter, reason can only take one so far, while in the former, there is no ‘farther’ place into which consciousness can travel. Hence the idiom, making a ‘leap’ of faith.
Why not instead take one of reason? For James, such reasoning connects consciousness with cosmos, hence his near post-Broca musings about the architecture of the aspects of the brain about which we yet know little enough. Since reason does not itself require faith, but rather thought, and faith requires of us a reasoned appreciation of chance rather than the contrivance of a fetish surrounding risk – and on both counts, mind you; the shill of the thrill and the faux sage that sells to us ‘security’ – the unthinking chestnut that attempts to unite them is both unreasoned and faithless. Instead, we become aware not through philosophical inquiry but rather by virtue of quotidian experience that human life requires a kind of practical wisdom which includes what I would refer to as Phronetic faith. For James, this is one of the hallmarks of pragmatism, and even his most read work works itself into the service of this sensibility. Phronesis is itself based upon a practicality of ‘faith’ that recognizes the simple limitations of human insight and our dependence upon prior experiences which may, or may not, aid us in the nearest future, that which will be and that which can be known in spite of our ownmost presence as a ‘here’ and not a ‘there’. This is the faith by which we live.
But this simpler and half-calculated faith addresses life only as we know it. It is, after all, reasoned, though in the moment of action reason must depart, even if only momentarily. And just as thoughtless action should not be carried on as if it were a kind of ‘tarrying alongside’ Dasein’s authenticity, nevertheless action requires of thought that it carries within it an element of faith to be discharged in the act, allowing it to occur and thence humanity to make good on its existential thrownness. Seen in this way, the wider faith that is both bereft of and exempt from reason could only take hold in another realm. The essence of unreasoned faith is that there is an object that itself cannot be reasoned, and this object is God or the Gods. For the theist, then, the ‘death of God’ reduces the entire concept of faith to mere guesswork, more or less confident, based upon a biographic quantity of personal experiences and lacking any wider quality. But I think this aspersion is overdone. While there is no reasoned atheism, in spite of the claim that reason has always been godless – God is, after all, the very metaphor of Reason and remains, even in Its afterlife, Reason’s apical ancestor – there is also no reason to sneer at the everyday existence of Dasein’s closest-by and nearest-to. It is its own uniquely human experience and it presents just as much of a challenge to any potential God on earth as the transcendental realm would present to a mere mortal. Immortal being is brought into unreasoned existence by everyday life, just as we imagine mortality to be uplifted by a faith knowing only in itself.
All this said, the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ is today mostly either a convenience or a contrivance. The marketeer assuages the consumer by her own feigned idiocy, the parish pirate invites the listless into his own fraudulent faith. It is exceedingly rare, in my estimation, to discover an authentically latter day saint. But the ignominious fate of faith in our own time is mimicked by the corresponding downfall of reason, which in its turn is mostly used to calculate social control, warfare, or at best, economic trends. Could it be, for the first time in the history of human consciousness, that both reason and faith, in the face of their respective sacrifices, need one another more than ever, the separated siblings and estranged lovers that they are?
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.