What do you value: faith in the untestable, the unfaith of knowledge or the nonfaith of discarding reality as illusion? Whatever path you choose, there is no way to approach life without some element of belief behind the attempt.
The Abrahamic faiths, the devotional worship of Bakhti in the Hindu traditions, and many other religions centred upon the numinous experience (the encounter with that which is wholly other) are all traditions built on faith. Faith, the surrender to something that can be experienced but not known, is what many people associate with the word 'religion' itself, although this is a gross simplification. Within the religious traditions of the world there are many paths (including the Buddhist schools of Theraveda, Ch'an and Zen, as well as certain Hindu philosophies) that involve a form of nonfaith: rather than believing in the unknown, it is the known which is disbelieved. The self in particular is dismissed by nonfaith, with the same kind of tranformatory result as faith – the release of compassion. It is almost as if these distinct paths share a common goal, which may explain why Mahayana Buddhism can seem like nonfaith shifting into a faith tradition.
Against the path of faith, we increasingly contrast another form of life, the path of knowledge. Science, referring to procedures of verification and explanatory theories, is believed by some to have invalidated traditional belief systems. There is something dishonest about this view when it is elevated to the status of self-evident truth, for knowledge too rests on foundations of faith, as Nietzsche so presciently observed. While knowing does not escape a necessary element of belief, it generally seems like such a small step to accept this viewpoint (at least when compared to the leap of faith associated with numinous religion) that for many people it feels like no step at all.
We might call this pursuit of knowledge unfaith: just as we talk in fiction of undead to refer to something which is not alive yet still lives in some sense, so unfaith captures the strange underlying tension in a commitment to knowledge. The way of unfaith is essentially an attempt to minimise the extent of faith in one's thinking, and thus attain to certainty (or something close). Undeniably, this approach has its merits – technology and medicine depends upon such levied constraints. However, catastrophic problems emerge when faith and unfaith collide.
When faith ignores its own nature and tries to attain to certainty, it becomes corrupted by unfaith. Creation Science is precisely this kind of muddled nonsense. Christians should be acutely aware of the role of faith in their religion, but it is all too easy to cross from belief into certainty. To know the Bible is true is to betray the role of faith in Christian life, and make an idol of a book. Similarly, when unfaith becomes contaminated by faith it can only lead to foolishness. The commitment to knowledge should oblige one to agnosticism about whatever cannot be tested, in order to minimize the degree of faith entailed. If instead a leap of unfaith is taken, the result is certainty about unknowable matters. What cannot be verified is treated as definitely false, and perhaps by implication dangerous. When this occurs, a twisted kind of faith has polluted the clarity which unfaith strives towards.
Furthermore, it is all too easy to miss the role faith plays in life outside of religion. Marriage – the promise of lifelong commitment between two souls – is a leap of faith. One does not know that love will last; it takes something of the way of faith to make a marriage work. Distorted unfaith does not openly attack this manifestation of faith in life, although corrupted faith sometimes makes an idol of what marriage 'should' be. Love, the earthly manifestation of compassion that traditions of faith and nonfaith both revere as sacred, speaks with its own voice. Its clarity rings so true that even unfaith dare not challenge its claims, despite the centrality of faith to the experience of love.
Traditions of faith, nonfaith and unfaith all rest upon particular beliefs. Even if the enlightened soul of nonfaith is liberated from both faith and knowledge, they cannot reach this state without adopting certain transforming beliefs, as the butterfly must pass through the chrysalis. Belief is thus the inescapable condition of life. To attempt to monopolize its infinite possibilities – whether by faith or unfaith – necessarily betrays one's chosen path. In our diverse societies, perhaps we should accept a role for all three attitudes.
The opening image is Seperating the water from the land from www.shoshannabauer.com, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).