Friday, January 21, 2011

EXISTENTIALISM -- Reclaiming Faith

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. H. L. Mencken[1]

We shy away from it in our speech, masking its potency through the deception of semantics.  Unable to find its certainty within the person of the believer we cast it into the ether and pronounce it vapid – baseless.  Yet as we live and breathe it is inhered within us, forming upon a scaffold of rationality and emotion which hangs the whole of our experiences.  This ineffable reality, more experiential than rational, yet deeply involved in each thought is FAITH.
Its argument has consumed the philosophia of countless millennia, beginning in the primordial ooze that was the sight of our deliverance more than a quarter of a million years ago.  From the first stirrings of intellect upon the savannah, humanity found within itself a certainty beyond the senses – a reality no less sure than its very physical existence, but which spoke to it in terms known only to its very soul.  A surety and fidelity to one’s self and one’s abilities, it brought man forth out of darkness and surrendered itself to man’s inspection.  Was it not faith that catapulted the first hominids to stand erect and venture forth from their natal origins?  Who could argue that faced with the dulling reality of his finitude, man strove to make for himself a place upon the landscape of earth?
Faith is defined for us as belief in the absence of proof, a trust in a reality that is transcendent of the here-and-now and yet entirely steeped within it.  It is a paradox, for as Kierkegaard noted it is what lifts the single individual higher than the universal and defines this relationship to the universal in individual absolute terms .  What else could it do?  This extreme contingency is at the center of human existence.  We are bound heart and soul to the reality that is ours – we cannot escape its borders.  Nothing that can be conceived is conceived from without – as if there was somehow a separate whole than that which we occupy.  To a person, this would presume an absurdity – despite a solemn belief in a First Cause – a God.  Even as man gazes upon the vastness of infinity he does so bounded by his own subjectivity.
To the Deist this is understandable at its core as the great challenge of what is meant by being human.  For those of us that have experienced the magnitude of God, there is no faith – only certainty.  For us the experiential reality of finite existence is bound seamlessly to its origin in the infinite.  We cannot deny this eventuality any more than we would feel comfortable denying the existence of the entire earth even though we can only glimpse the horizon of our own environments.  But this word, this reality of faith, is not merely the purview of the Deist, for it is the inheritance and essence of every human, whether grounded in a belief of the Absolute or not.  Only history has divorced it from us. 
To better understand its belonging, we must first trace its departure.  For ancient man existence was bound inexorably to the time and tides of his needs.  Food, shelter, warmth and continuation soaked his every awareness and rooted it firmly in the present.  Yesterday’s feast no longer satiated his hunger and tomorrow’s meal was neither certain nor promised.  Yet even then there was faith – first in his hands as he chipped stone to fashion tools and later in his bonds to a community that had gathered primarily to ensure each their individual fulfillment.  In time this faith extended to his mind, his ability to scan the horizon and imagine his next move secure in the knowledge of every move that had preceded it.  This thinking, abstract as we might imagine it, had its roots firmly bound to the soil of his life, every waking moment that preceded the present one had brought him here and in his next step he exercised not only this utility of form but also the full weight of incommensurable faith.  For by his experience he had witnessed the inexactness of his science and the unparalleled complexity and capriciousness of his existence.  Yet he did not freeze upon that moment, riveted to a past, but instead stepped forth into his next present moment sure in the knowledge that he would construct what he could of it.
In time these communities worked beyond their imminent needs to establish permanent bases of operations and in that coming together arrived at a measure of safety that allowed for the ideation of the greater realities that surrounded them.  Here too, they exercised faith, as they sought to answer the greater questions of what had brought them to their moment of realization.  Before every new discovery there had to be a fidelity to their ability to perceive and make use of the information.  For one such community – that of the Hebraic tradition – this fidelity took the form of action.  Faith was a lived experience exemplified by actions that kept each of its tenets firmly rooted in the lived consciousness of its individuals.  Yet here again we are speaking, not of an ethereally perceived concept, but a living, breathing expression of a community that felt its commitments upon their backs as sure as any yoke. 
Perhaps it was inevitable that a crack was to appear in this relationship – a fall from grace, so to speak, that became manifest in the Hellenistic tradition of rationality that sought to separate humanity into a collection of selves instead of individuals.  Far from the violent, passion-filled interlocution with the Divine that characterized Hebraic tradition, Greek rationality set man upon himself – a dyad of reality that split desire from mind and made it to obey a hierarchically arranged order with the mind as pinnacle and the lived reality as secondary and, as such, inferior.  For the Greeks it was this objectivity that lifted man beyond his means and allowed him “critical and philosophical reflection upon the gods”. Faith became an object – a thing to be examined and nuanced and from this grew out its appearance as a propositional entity, something bound up in statements, creeds, systems. 
Yet even here can we see that despite the delusions of rationality as having an existence outside of the thinker, their remains the subjectivity that Sartre defined as “existence before essence” because even within the marbled towers upon which the Greek built his philia, it was imperative than humanity “exist, turn up, appear on the scene, and only afterwards, define itself”. Not to offend the Platonists and rationalists, it would seem to me to be a natural outgrowth of such existence that humanity would turn towards contemplation and introspection.  There is something to be said for the detachment they preached, for it is only in the process of detachment that man will ultimately find his most severe attachment – to himself as thinker and introspectionist.  Here perhaps, the Platonic myth of the Cave takes its most poignant meaning.  Once freed from his chains and allowed to walk from the cave-mouth and view the sun unburdened of his delusions, he is left to conclude that this sun – this mighty source of light – is nevertheless contained within his feeble and limited eyesight.  While construed originally as an allegory to underscore man’s delivery from the darkness of ignorance into the light of reason, it nonetheless brings man squarely back upon his beginning – that is, as the one who both perceived the reality of the cave and strove to evade it and as the one who exercises faith in his ability to walk unencumbered through its portal and be delivered. 
 Perhaps it was this acceptance of the unavoidable encountering of the self-that-thinks-as-one-surveys-“rational thought” that brought man temporarily back to a life lived faithfully within the traditions of early Christianity.  Yet the die had been cast for rationalism and it followed humanity into the church.  Was it perhaps the realization of the futility of climbing out of oneself that led to this revival?  Unable to cast off the flesh and blood of the thinker, the Church began the sublimation of that self-of-today in favor of a Divinely-promised tomorrow by its systematic regimentation of faith into a system.  In taking it out of the present tense and casting it far into the future, pinned upon a transcendent and incomprehensible hope, they hoped to contain the power of its passions.  At the same time the Church, under the guise of religion, claimed for itself the right to determine who among its members were of faith and who were not.  Yet, as Barrett observes,

“faith is…vital and indescribable and he who has it knows what it is; and perhaps also he who sincerely and painfully knows he is without it has some inkling of what it is, in its absence from a heart that feels itself dry and shriveled.

So despite the best efforts of both the rationalists to divide it and the Church to conquer it, faith remained within the individual, awaiting its reoccurrence and expression.  It was left to Augustine to once again pronounce faith and reason compatible and co-existent to spur the progress of its recognition forward into a new age.  Yet if we examine the lived reality of those early Christians, we are once again reminded of the physicality of faith – theirs was a literal and costly trust in the absence of surety, because they gave their very lives for its expression.  In the years following such a bloody and visceral living out of belief and trust, faith was held to be beyond reason, but never against or in spite of it.  Man’s ability to think, to reason and imagine would forever be equal to his existence and in many cases superior to it.  In laying these aspects out as equal while at the same time not acknowledging their common origin within the individual, humanity reaffirmed its own dichotomy and in many ways solidified its severance from the vitality of a lived reality of faith.
Banished to the domain of the priest and the enlightened, faith became for many something to strive for, a yearning for deliverance instead of an intrinsic acknowledgement of the scope of their own ability to conceive of their finitude and yet conquer its malaise.  By the time of the Reformation the natural realized faith of humanity had been configured into symbol and ritual alone.  Theologians dominated its discussion, and with the Protestant milieu upon them people of the time felt the nakedness of their existence.  Stripped of their inherent grasp of natural faith, and now rent from the rituals and symbols that had come to personify its echoes, humanity turned once more to the rational and now scientific realm to help fill the void of their longings for a connection to something larger and yet intrinsic to themselves.
Once science stood upon the stage of human endeavor and began to guide its motion forward, faith was soon relegated to an archaic and superstitious definition.  The factual condition of man’s being – man’s facticity as Sartre referred it – became both the subject and object of inquiry and analyses (Barrett, pg. 109).  The divorce was complete, albeit not final.  Although withered under the assault of rationalism and scientific derision, faith remained and blossomed anew with the dawning of Existentialist sentimentality.  How sad that this enlightenment resulted from an almost total annihilation of the supremacy of rationality and man as pinnacle being that was to mark the period of the 19th and early 20th century, a time that saw the world repeatedly shatter and regroup under the torrent of war, pestilence, poverty and despair.   However this rebirth had to follow the reemergence of labor pains – for just as it was originally born out of the danger and despair that marked the prehistoric times of early man, so too this new understanding and yearning had to be brought forth out of the morass of modernity and its incipient re-imagining of what was meant by humanity.  Faith emerges first out of trial, birthed in the depths of one’s soul and purified in the furnace of tribulation.  Only after one realizes the limits of one’s own existence can it blossom as a means of transport – to lift humanity back to its rightful place as the determiner of its own fate.  Comfort, for all it joy, encourages stagnation – an almost dreamlike stupor of bliss that conceals reality instead of marking its purpose.  Although it is unpopular to assert that suffering, in whatever form, is at the heart of progress, the distastefulness of this statement cannot overshadow its veracity.
      Faith implies movement – a stepping out unguarded by certainty, a becoming.  Kierkegaard knew this, stating that the reality of man was that he was at the very same moment rooted in subjective isolation and in the process of “coming to be”.  We must foreswear the quick definitions of religion or philosophy in accepting the challenge of becoming fully human and alive.  As long as we cede dominion over this term, this pregnant word-of-existence we remain infantile and powerless in the vast infinite universe – unable to effect a rescue and unwilling to acknowledge our participation in it.  Yet it is our subjectivity that gives life and breath to the vast chasms of stardust that swirl around us.  It is our meanings that will in the end deliver us to our ultimate destination – that of shaper and maker of our own design.  To remain stuck within the confines of formulaic certainty is to denude the very essence of what is meant by faith. 
As improbable as the dictates of faith may appear on the surface, what could possibly be more implausible than the reality of our own progression through the ages and our continued existence in our present day?  How much greater is the illogic of human emotion and caring than something as visceral and necessary as the exercise of a free and sentient being in the determination – without proof or precedent – of striving for its next moment?  We must reclaim faith from the archives and dictionaries and return it to its rightful place within the mind and heart of humanity.


[1] http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/H._L._Mencken/

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