dinsdag 10 juni 2008

Collingwood on faith

One of the more annoying features of theist/atheist discussions is the confusion about the concept "faith". Some atheists will all too easily assert something like: "faith is belief without evidence" which basically tries and fails to comprehend religion within a framework not at all adapted to it. The issue of the existence of God, and the issue of evidence, is an interesting one for philosophy of religion - but it simply doesn't do for religion itself, where God is encountered or experienced more than the existence of God is believed or disbelieved in. And on the other hands, some theists will assert that scientific thought departs from unprovable assumptions too, which is true, but does not make those assumptions a matter of faith in the religious sense. Placing believing in the existence of other minds (a necessary assumption for scientific activity) on a par with believing in God as faith at the same time trivializes religious faith (as it is not a background assumption which we can live our lives holding but never really questioning) and trivializes the genuine ambiguity of the universe with regards to the question of theism and atheism.

I've often in discussions like that tried to distinguish the theism question as an issue of philosophy from the question of faith/religion as an issue of attitude. As it is possible, I guess, to hold to the existence of some supreme being and at the same time not care very much. And on the other hand, it is possible to enter in a very definite relationship with God while remaining profoundly ambivalent or doubtful on the question of the existence of God. So theism would essentially deal with an "I-it" relationship (the "it" being an abstract concept), while faith and religion proper deal with an "I-You" (the "You" being the concrete presence of a personal God).

I've been reading further on in Collingwood's works, and he has a slightly different, but very interesting take on the matter. In Speculum Mentis (1924), Collingwood discusses first art, as a paradoxical activity at bottom imaginative and intuitive, yet marked by a conceptual structure and by (normative) rationality. Religion, for Collingwood, is essentially artistic activity which asserts (other than art proper) the reality of its object. Collingwood first criticizes the equivalence sometimes drawn between religious faith and "faith" in ultimate metaphysical principles (p. 132):

But faith is the specific form of the religious reason. It is that knowledge of ultimate truth which, owing to its intuitive or imaginative form, cannot justify itself under criticism. This qualification is important, for other modes of knowledge - science, history - fail to justify themselves under criticism, as we shall see, and yet are not forms of faith. To overlook this is a common source of confusion and sophistry. Religious apologetic, seizing upon the truth that science depends in the last resort upon unjustifiable assumptions, accuses science of being in the same boat with religion, the boat of faith. Nothing could be less true or better calculated to confuse the whole issue. Faith is essentially intuitive and not assumptive. God is the object of faith, not an hypothesis: Euclidean space is an hypothesis, not the object of faith.

Then Collingwood argues that the hallmark of faith is that it is directed towards a symbol which refers to a meaning which we cannot wholly abstract from the symbol itself, and we therefore cannot hope to wholly analyze in the same way as we can with the symbols of philosophical or mathematical (or everyday) language. The defining characteristic of faith is that it is directed towards a symbol which refers to a reality which we cannot otherwise grasp in quite the same way (p. 133):

Faith is thus the mind's attitude towards a symbol which expresses a truth not explicitly distinguished from the symbol. Hence the truth is something 'not seen', for the symbol, so to speak, occults it, it is hidden behind the symbol, which is opaque to the truth and yet is felt to be charged with the significance of the hidden truth. By being so charged, it acquires an intense emotional value, for it 'reveals' the truth, that is, presents it in an intuitive or imaginative form, not a form that can be justified by criticism. We cannot argue about the truths of religion just because they are thus occulted by their own symbols; and it is this hiddenness, this darkness of the glass, that gives religion all its negative characteristics.

The positive characteristics of religion are its illumination, its freedom, its power of saving the soul; in a word, its priceless gift of ultimate truth. Its negative characteristics are that it lives only by faith and not by sight, that God is not known but only worshipped, 'reached' but not 'grasped' by the mind, that it cannot justify itself to reason or rise wholly above the level of superstition, and that therefore in the long run and in spite of all its best efforts it falls back into feeling, emotion - love, awe and so forth - and therefore, like art, is an intermittent and unstable experience. The division of life into sacred and profane, Sundays and weekdays, is a permanent and necessary feature of religion, though the highest and most positive religion always fights against it and tries to sanctify the whole of life. For this division is the logical consequence of the negative side of religion, that side which makes it a matter of mere faith. This negative side reduces religion to feeling, and therefore affects it with the necessary impermanence and instability of feeling.

And, concluding, (p. 133-134)

Its negative side condemns religion to leave something outside itself, to have an opposite standing over against itself unreconciled. This opposite appears now in the form of body as opposed to soul, now in the form of the devil as opposed to God, now in the form of secular life as opposed to sacred, or the priest as opposed to the layman, but fundamentally and most deeply in the form of man as opposed to God. These oppositions are the fruit of religion's intuitive nature; as feeling is necessarily intermittent, so the intuitive form of truth erects into two concrete and distinct images truths which are really not distinct but complementary aspects of the same truth. Because religion is rational, the specific task of religion is to overcome these dualisms, and to this subject we shall return in the sixth section of the present chapter.

Thus, the notion of faith as attitude towards God is encapsulated in the emotional load that the imaginative symbols bear. The notion of faith as a mode of knowledge unjustifiable by criticism ("faith is belief without evidence") is encapsulated in the notion that the truth to which the symbol refers cannot be wholly abstracted from, and analyzed without recourse to, the symbol itself. Think of a poem. It is composed of linguistic symbols, with meaning and referents, but the meaning cannot be simply abstracted from the poem because the poem - the rhythm, the patterns of sounds and the paradigmatic structures and associations drawn by those - and not just structure, but structure which conveys or rather which is beauty - are precisely part of that which the poem refers to, signifies. If art, as Collingwood argues, is concerned with beauty and religion, in contrast, with worship, that which is beautiful or to be worshipped cannot be considered apart from the symbols of art and religion (Art cannot be translated because it has no meaning except the wholly implicit meaning submerged, in the form of beauty, in the flood of imagery, p. 129). Collingwood regards the effort to experience God, the "ultimate truth" of religion, outside and independently of the symbolic and ritual language of religion (of which the concept "God" is part), as noble but ultimately self-destructive:

The great saints really do find God everywhere, (...) really do transfuse with religion the whole of life. This is at once the perfection and the death of the religious consciousness. For in grasping the inmost meaning of ritual and worship it deprives these special activities of their special sanctity and of their very reason for existing; the whole body of religion is destroyed by the awakening of its soul. But the awakened soul, in this very moment of triumph, has destroyed itself with its own body: it has lost all its familiar landmarks and plunged into that abyss of mysticism in which God himself is nothing. Mysticism is the crown of religion and its deadliest enemy; the great mystics are at once saints and heresiarchs. (p. 127)

I am attracted by the idea that the core meaning of faith in the religious sense lies precisely in the artistic, imaginative nature of the symbols at heart of religious experience, symbols which simultaneously reveal and hide. We cannot express our (fleeting, intermittent, often ambiguous but nonetheless very real) experience of the Divine ultimate "ground of our being" except in metaphorical language. "God", "Father", "Lord" are metaphors. There is an obvious acknowledgement of that fact in the Jewish taboo on God's name and on imagery of God, but perhaps also in the deeply paradoxical nature of the Trinity in Christianity. The paradoxical wording of the Chalcedonian creed on the nature of Christ (the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ) is not simply obscurantist, rather, it conveys that the precise nature of God and Christ lies beyond our understanding. And yet real.

And ultimately, I am attracted to these notions precisely because I hold the events of the New Testament to have really occurred. And at the same time, they are obviously symbols. It is not so much that the Gospels are poems: it is that the events they depict are a "true myth", a poetry of events. It does not do to wonder whether Jesus could really walk on water, the point is to wonder why he did so, what did he mean by it. And why did God the Son, God the Word - the Word as the rational structure underlying reality? Or at the same time as the Word as a revelation of ultimate, Divine reality in a way we could comprehend? - become flesh? Wondering how such an event has come to be is one thing, but the key to understanding it is understanding why - what did God mean by it? It's nothing less than exhilarating to keep the symbolical and the literal as complementary aspects of the same events, rather than as mutually exclusive.

For Collingwood, the assertion of the reality of its object is central to religion (as opposed to art), and is closely connected to the social nature of religion, which flows from the fact that reality is common to all of us (p. 115-116):

Art has no cosmology, it gives us no view of the universe; every distinct work of art gives us a little cosmology of its own, and no ingenuity will combine all these into a single whole. But religion is essentially cosmological, though its cosmology is always an imaginative cosmology. Any given religious experience can be fitted by this cosmology into the scheme of the whole, and labelled as an ascent into the third heaven, a temptation of the devil, and so forth. Hence religion is social, as art never can be. (...) This is because religion achieves an explicit logical structure. It is assertion, and in its higher forms knows that it is assertion, though even in its most primitive forms its implicit logic produces the instinctive and unreflective sociability of primitive cultus. Now assertion or the logical function of the mind is the recognition of reality as such, and reality is that which is real for all minds.

It is the explicitly rational character of religion that necessitates religious controversy and persecution, for these are only corollaries of its cosmological and social nature. To deprecate them and ask religion to refrain from them is to demand that it shall cease to be religion; and the demand is generally made by those shallow minds which hate the profundity and seriousness of the higher religions and wish to play at believing all the creeds in existence. This religious aestheticism, or degradation of religion to the level of play, for which a creed is a mere pretty picture to be taken up and put down at will, is only one of the enemies which religion to-day encounters, and a despicable enemy at that.

My own conversion to Christianity started many years ago when reading the story of Abraham. I was somehow struck by the internal coherence, logical and beauty of the story: of God showing himself to be a true God, and a reliable God, through refusing the sacrifice of children, at the same time as Abraham showed himself to be a trusting servant of God by leading his son to the altar without doubt or fear. I began to suspect that the justification of the story somehow lay in the story itself. The same thing, much later, with the Gospel: the witness of God becoming flesh, suffering on the cross and conquering suffering and death by rising on the third day somehow made such tremendous sense that I could not but hold the Gospel to be true on both the poetic and the literal level.

I think this gets close to what Collingwood means when he argues that in religion, we encounter ultimate truth in a symbol charged with a truth which cannot be simply separated from it.

But now I also understand why C.S. Lewis experienced his own conversion in such a gloomy and dejected mood. For every conversion is in a way a surrender of the intellect, in that we open ourselves up to a highly symbolical encounter with a reality which our minds can never fully grasp. So the atheist that charges that faith is belief without evidence is not entirely wrong, but tries to express a truth in terms which are unsuitable for it.

But it is a glorious surrender, nonetheless.

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