Saturday, July 01, 2006

Faith and Reason

The new PBS series “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason,” consisting of seven programs of interviews with writers at a literary festival on faith and reason, is yet another great foray into enhanced human communication by Mr. Moyers.

While, Mr. Moyers has created engaging and wonderful dialogues with interesting people, in the end I’m left unsatisfied by the discussion as it falls short of defining the terms it uses and simply relies on objectified consciousness rather than being an original and explorative inquiry into mind.

Last nights episode interviewing Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn demonstrated the problems with Mr. Moyers’ gentle approach that warmly embraces the interviewees and then fails to question their underlying assumptions and the premises of discussion. There is no radical attempt to get to the roots of their ideas.

For example, the segment interviewing Mary Gordon began with her saying the following:

“Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen. The question is not then are we people of faith, which we as a species seem to be. But rather, what then is the nature of that faith? And what actions does it lead to?”

Unfortunately, her statement uses the terms “faith” and “belief” interchangeably and completely confuses them. Mr. Moyers shares her confusion when he asks her, “Mary Gordon, as a Christian, did you feel out of place at a festival of writers so many of whom are not believers?” and said, “Agnostics and atheists however stand outside the frame of belief. They stand outside the language of belief. They stand outside the experience of belief.” Of course agnostics and atheists are “believers” in their agnosticism and atheism! To deny them their belief is exactly an expression of the kind of fundamentalism that Mr. Moyers is so passionately hoping to educate us against.

Using these terms belief and faith as if they are interchangeable is the large lacuna of the program so far. A program on Faith and Reason that fails to distinguish faith from belief doesn’t suggest that much reason is at play either.

Ms. Gordon quite clearly said, “the history of religion proves that religious people are no better than people who are not religious.” As a Buddhist, I accept that the history of Buddhism also confirms this truth. Yet there was not an adequate inquiry as to why this is. Other than a vague reference to the abuse of power by religious institutions the question of this very evocative point was dropped. I suggest that one important reason for this phenomenon is that as many religious people as non-religious people, as do Ms. Gordon and Mr. Moyers, fail to distinguish faith from belief. By confusing faith and belief, there is no clear awareness of why those in power in religious institutions fail to distinguish themselves from those in power nonreligious institutions.

Of course Mr. Moyers and Ms. Gordon are not to be faulted for failing to make the important distinction between belief and faith. The Western world view generally fails to do this. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary treats belief and faith as synonyms meaning to assent to the truth of something offered for acceptance, where belief is used without reference to the certitude in the believer and faith almost always implying certitude even where there is no evidence or proof. This clearly shows that the confusion is created by focusing on the certitude of the person and not on the nature of the truth that is being offered.

I posit that the distinction between belief and faith is exactly based on the nature of the truth being asserted or the question being asked. Belief is about objectified things; faith is inquiry beyond objectification. The items listed by Ms. Gordon, such as whether mothers and dogs love us, the number four bus is on time, or people are created equal, are all items taking things of the world as objects. None of these have anything to do with the basis of faith, which is an inquiry into the nature of the world and of our existence beyond that which determined by things, or that transcends things as objects.

Ms. Gordon showed an inkling of this distinction when she said, “I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism.” Consumerism is the belief in things without faith, and fundamentalism is the mistaking of faith as a belief in things, such as believing that God is a thing or person. Ms. Gordon is quite right that these two polarities of world view narrative are in major conflict, today as they have ever been, but neither she nor Mr. Moyers seemed to be aware of the importance of this polarity, instead they seem to take this polarity itself as an objectified thing of belief instead as a gate into an inquiry of faith..

The Buddha teaching on Dharma is on point here. The term “dharma” has meanings that include both belief and faith. They are distinguished in the English language by using the word with or without a capital. Capital “D” Dharma means the Truth of the universe, the teaching of the One Mind, the awareness of awakening. The small “d” dharma means the things of the universe, the things of the personal mind, the objects of awareness. In this narrative, to use Ms. Gordon’s terminology, we have belief in dharmas and faith in Dharma. When we see the universe as things then we are seeing dharmas, and when we see the universe as the One Mind of Awakening then we are seeing Dharma.

The narratives of both fundamentalists and consumerists remain within the shared view of the universe as things and objects. This is why consumerism makes money, the valuation of things, into God while fundamentalists make God into a thing to be traded like currency saying, “My God has greater value than your God.” Neither fundamentalism nor consumerism has any faith, they are only expressions of their true believers.

Buddhist inquiry relies on three things: faith, doubt, and perseverance. Faith is the faith in the absolute unity of being; doubt is the question of this unity in the face of the appearance of disunity caused by the belief in things as they appear to be separate objects; perseverance is the undertaking to resolve this apparent dichotomy or polarization of faith and doubt derived from belief in spite of those counter influences, oppositions, or discouragements that are aroused once we are determined to make this journey.

In the Buddhist narrative, the holding of both faith and doubt together is the only reasonable approach to inquiry of the mind and of our fundamental nature. The fundamentalist denial of doubt in the name of belief has nothing to do with such a journey of inquiry. The certainty attained by denial of doubt and belief in God is not the same as the non-attained certainty that comes from awakening to the unified nature of Mind, God, and the Universe.

Without clarifying the difference between belief and faith, Ms. Gordon actually recognizes the essential connection of faith and doubt when she says, “The ability to question, the ability to take a skeptical position is absolutely central to my understanding of myself and my understanding of myself as a religious person. It's very important to experience doubt. I think faith without doubt is just either nostalgia or kind of addiction. And I'm not interested in that.”

Ms. Gordon’s personal inquiry which has included this connection between faith and doubt has apparently taken her past her own Church’s dogmatism of belief for she says, “And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it's about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus.” This is of course an awakening of faith to the unified nature of Mind, God, and the Universe. It may be liberal Catholicism, but it is not the belief of the Roman Catholic Church that holds Jesus Christ is God's one and only incarnation, being simultaneously Son of God and God. Seeing every human being as God’s one and only incarnation and simultaneously both a Child of God and God may be Ms. Gordon’s faith, but it is not the belief of the Church, and in another age she would have died like her hero Joan of Arc for expressing that faith.

This expresses quite clearly another difference between belief and faith. Belief, in its extremity, will kill for dominance, while faith will never do so because faith never objectifies truth as something that can be tarnished by false belief. For example, in the first program of Bill Moyer’s on Faith and Reason, Salman Rushdie asks, "What kind of a god is it that's upset by a cartoon in Danish?" It is not a God at all that is upset by such things, nor a mind of faith, but the mind of belief that reacts violently to such things.

In the Brahmajala Sutta, Buddha says that if people should disparage the Tathagata (a title of Buddha meaning “the one thus come”) faithful should not get upset, angry, or resentful, for such reactions are an obstruction and hindrance to them. Instead they should merely state in what way such disparaging remarks are incorrect. And likewise, if people should praise the Tathagata the faithful should not get smug, elated, or pleased because such reactions are also an obstruction to them. Instead they should merely state in what way such praise remarks are about what is correct.

These are the words of faith and reason.

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