Lisa Perrin, The Triumph of Reason, graphite on paper, 2009. Used by permission of the artist. Perrin writes on her site: “Yes, that is Charles Darwin riding a unicorn as a symbol of ‘The triumph of reason over fantasy and fallacy.’ You might also note the finches with various beak sizes, the slain dragon (the sword reads “Logic” on the handle), dodo birds (skeletal and living), and mermaids (skeletal and living).” We may therefore ask: What’s the difference between unicorns, mermaids, live dodos on one hand, and “God” on the other? Hm.
Just last week I had a short online conversation with Philip Stilwell over at from synapse to byte. It was lots of fun. Phil had posted an over-simplified (his words) chart that compared science and faith. In the chart he seemed to emphasize that faith is essentially an emotion-driven phenomenon leading to “a warped sense of objective reality, tribalism, dogmatism, and social myopia.” Which is just fine; he did admit of the chart’s simplicity. But what he wrote to his readers is: “I’m especially interested in hearing from those who think that faith is based on evidence. I hear this from time to time, but have never been able to tease out exactly the relationship between the two. Where does evidence end and faith begin?” So this is what our discussion was about.
This has gotten me to thinking a bit about the essence of religious faith and what it is based on. The subtext of Phil’s post is that, in the search for the truth of things, logic, objective evidence, and a scientific approach comprise a more worthy set of tools that mere emotionalism. And on this I agree without question. Like Phil, I harbor a strong distrust of emotions with their vaporous come-and-go quality (some who know me may say, with some truth, that my distrust is too strong!). There is no doubt that reason is a better guide than whatever one may be feeling at a particular moment. But to say that x is better than y is not to say that x is the best. Perhaps there is a z out there that kicks the life out of both x and y.
There is a way of apprehending the world other than the intellectual (x) or emotional (y). This third way is the spiritual way (z). This way of seeing the world lies beneath the intellectual and the emotional, supports them, and contains them. It is much more than the sum of them. And when the world is glimpsed — even for a moment — through this spiritual faculty, it is discovered that the intellectual and the emotional are not central to life but are peripheral. When one sees in the third way, one discovers deep peace, optimism, and hope. One becomes sharply aware of one’s state of emptiness and absolute freedom. Joy and relief come with this awareness. In addition, the physical world — living and nonliving, past and present — is understood to be the infinitely deep and miraculous place it is, and fellow human beings are seen to be the beautiful creations they are. It’s enough to put one in one’s place, which is in a place of belonging and not a place of alienation. I think this spiritual way of seeing the world is what Jesus refers to when he said, Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? (Mark 8:18) and Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).
Now, intellectual questions — from tiny ones like Why are the Gospel timelines contradictory? to big ones like Does God exist? — become peripheral in light of this overwhelming knowledge (and I do mean knowledge). As do one’s emotional struggles. The intellectual and the emotional are rooted in the spiritual and may enhance one’s life but they are not central to one’s life. This is a great relief, because now the intellectual and the emotional are no longer of first importance. One does not have to cling or define oneself in terms of these categories. In fact, it becomes obvious that there’s no need to define oneself at all. Intellectual questions and emotional struggles may now be held lightly in the face of the much deeper and more real and more stable spiritual “self,” and these questions and struggles can be seen for what they really are. Even better, life can finally be approached with a genuine sense of humor. Now I am only able to see myself and the world like this is rare cases — just ask my wife — but the knowledge that there is a very real and deep well of spirit within all of us, that we are all loved by God, that we are all OK, is a great comfort to me even (especially?) when I’m not able to act in accordance with that knowledge.
The impasse that Phil and I came to is this: The evidence for this spiritual knowledge is not objective. It is completely subjective. It is based only on what I say (and, incidentally, what thousands of others have said before me; many men and women, from many faiths, have said that the third way exists and have described it in similar language). But this is anecdotal and does not stand up to the rigors of science. I get that. Such evidence is based in personal, and usually individual, experience. Such evidence cannot be laid out on a table, poked and prodded, or explored via controlled experiments for everyone to see and touch. Such evidence is not the kind to which one can point to and say, “any objective person can see that this is the case.” But does this falsify claims made upon this evidence? I don’t think so.
There are predictable counterarguments. First, there is some distance between such an “experience” and the proposition: God exists. But one thing that comes along with the third way is an absolute destruction of anything one ever “believed” about “God” or “God’s existence.” The third way is a way of negation. Afterward, even typing the word “God” can be painful, because one knows it’s a lie: What is the word’s referent? There is not one in any normal way of thinking. This is why, in negative theology, one might say: God is nothing; that is, God is no thing. Second, it may be that these kind of experiences are simply so much electronic noise in the brain. Of course this may be true, but I’m not sure what it means. Does it mean that brain chemistry is absolutely fundamental? Does it mean that there are no other true ways to understand it? Third, there are other words and phrases without referents: unicorn, mermaid, live dodo. But these are fantasies that never held real power over people’s lives. They have never been intellectually or emotionally or socially fruitful. And there are other words without referents, too: Zeus, Athena, Fenrir. These have held a lot of power over people, which might — maybe — be just fine; perhaps they were earlier “faces of God,” if you will. But who knows? Fourth, as Carl Sagan once wrote, Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I agree, actually. But are the words extraordinary and objective synonymous? Or is objectivity a necessary condition for extraordinary-ness? Anyway. I could do this all day. There are plenty of other decent arguments out there. But, and this is my point:
Once one gets a good look at the world in this third way, such arguments lose a good deal of power and can even appear superficial and weak. This is not to say that they lose all meaning, but they do become peripheral.
So maybe I’m not playing by the rules. If so, that’s too bad. I don’t like losing out on having conversations and friendships with those who tag as “irrational” anyone that refuses to let hard logic rule their lives.
I can’t remember where or when it was, but I once saw a sign that sums up what I’m trying to say here. It said,
Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not its end.
Therefore you will not hear me making arguments for the existence of God, or arguments about how the Christian God and evolution can coexist, or arguments about the location of the causal joint between God and the physical world. psnt.net is not about making arguments; it is about painting a picture. It is about getting a glimpse of reality. It is about seeing the world in the third way.