September 07, 2010

Concepts of Faith (MDIV 555)

Third in an ongoing series for my Spiritual Formation class. See the first post, The Faith Delusion, for details.

Journal Entry September 2, 2010

The more I read of Fowler and his predecessors’ definitions of faith, the more I go back and forth from believing it sounds like a the construction of an internal conceptual reality separate from the world as it exists and an experiential manner of knowing that world as it exists through our capacity for intuition. As a Buddhist, I find only the later to be helpful and the former a hindrance to the cultivation of wisdom.

“A strong theme in the theological writings on faith of H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich has to do with faith as a way of seeing the world. Faith for them is a kind of knowing, a constructing of the world in light of certain disclosures of the character of reality as a whole that are taken as decisive,” Fowler explains on page 98. To say that knowledge is “constructed,” as Fowler does more than once in this section, is to imply it is conceptual. Concepts are what knowledge is constructed with.

Later on, Fowler also points out that knowing is an exercise of intuition and the imagination (page 104), the later implying that some things we ‘know’ are self-generated. One of the synonyms listed in the OED’s definition of imagination is ‘expectation.’ Part of the definition clearly states “4. The tendency to form ideas which do not correspond to reality; the operation of fanciful, erroneous, or deluded thought.”

This leads me to fear that, at the worst, a greater part of faith is made up of those things we wish to be true. Earlier I called them delusions. At best, it steeps whatever faith we have in ways of knowing built on concepts. Many Buddhist teachers warn of concepts’ deceptive nature. “Nirvana means extinction – first of all, the extinction of all concepts and notions. Our concepts about things prevent us from really touching them. We have to destroy our notions if we want to touch the real rose,” Thich Nhat Hanh advises in The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, page 129. So in either case, might not this so-called faith do more harm than good?

On the other hand, B. Alan Wallace points out that contemplation is “the silent perception of reality” and a “form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing.” He quotes Christian theologian Josef Pieper as saying “Intuition is without doubt the perfect form of knowing.” Wallace goes on to claim that “…unlike objective knowledge, contemplation does not merely move toward its object; it already rests in it.” (Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, page 1.)

In addition, making up fun fictional realities is not the sole province of imagination. It is also “the power or capacity by which the mind integrates sensory data in the process of perception.” (OED) As pointed out on page 25, “…our knowing registers the impact of our experiences in far more comprehensive ways than our own conscious awareness can monitor.” Therefore, intuition and imagination are essential for the integration of all that which we perceive, a truly overwhelming amount of sensory data.

Because we cannot articulate the manner by which we arrive at intuitive conclusions, the process being largely subconscious, we are forced, in many ways, to take these conclusions on faith, a faith in our own abilities. As we test their truthfulness and reliability against actual experience, we are constantly revising both the conclusions and our faith in them, leading to the dynamic quality of faith about which Fowler speaks.

It seems that the intuitive form of knowing that rests in the object of its contemplation, of which Wallace speaks, and the faith constructed of concepts about the “ultimate conditions of existence” (p. 98) of which Fowler speaks may be two ways to perceive faith that, if not entirely mutually exclusive, are significantly different from one another.

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