Belief As Serious Fiction, Ctd

Sep 22 2011 @ 3:09pm

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Norm Geras pushes back against the idea that religion isn't principally about literal belief:

There are religious people who see their faith as importantly involving belief, Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton, John Gray and company notwithstanding. One of the ways I know this to be the case, apart from its being widely attested, is that, each time I've posted on the subject, I get emails from people of faith among readers of normblog who say that it isn't true of them that their religion doesn't centre on belief, whatever else it may also involve. If I may venture an analogy here, the Armstrong contingent are like a group of cricket fans who, when chided by others saying that cricket is a boring game, respond with the argument that watching cricket isn't principally about finding the game interesting or entertaining; it's about sitting at the ground and enjoying a day out with your friends. For many who love cricket, that response would be a travesty of their relationship to the sport. It would be so for the very simple reason that… well, not only but also. Still, the defence of religion as not being mainly about belief but about practice is a revealing one. It shows a lack of confidence among those mounting it in the beliefs in question.

Norm compiles his previous arguments here. What he ignores, in my view, is doubt. Does every random Catholic believe at all times that the Blessed Virgin was literally transported into the sky rather than dying – as required by a binding, infallible papal edict? Of course not. There will be times in every believer's life when faith seems dead, or distant, when divine truth eludes us or seems beyond us. This is natural and healthy. If you have never fully doubted, you have never fully believed. And what keeps faith alive at those moments is indeed practice, ritual, discipline, and the small but vital ways in which a Christian reaffirms her faith in day-to-day interactions with other human beings.

And this is the core of Christianity: practice. Jesus insisted that blind adherence to certain absolute truths was never enough, and even dangerous if it led you away from the doing what following Jesus requires. He was always piercing through literal belief to test actual faith. He was impatient with the rule of law in religion and adamant on the rule of love. Similarly, Paul's great letter on caritas/agape insists that even faith that can move mountains is nothing without the practice of caritas/agape.

The interaction between dogma and practice is what religion is. But Christianity really does insist on practice as the core definition (which is why Oakeshott put religion into the "practical" category of human life, not the philosophical). The transformation of what were long deemed myths – Genesis, the Christmas stories, for example – into literal truths is a modern, neurotic development that, as time goes by, requires faith in obvious untruths (like creationism). And in the end, faith must be compatible with truth, or it is a coping mechanism, not a living, coherent belief.

So, yes, revelation matters. But not in every tiny literalist detail. And for faith to live, it must be practised. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is rationalism in religion, to purloin an Oakeshottian phrase. It has to be defeated before the real life of faith can recover and reach more people.