Friday, August 23, 2013

Dealing With Theological Doubt--PART 2

It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o'er eager, with ungentle grasp.

                                                --Robert Frost

Up then, noble soul! Put on thy jumping shoes which are intellect and love, and overleap the worship of thy mental powers, overleap thine understanding and spring into the Heart of God, into His hiddenness where thou art hidden from all creatures.

                                                --Meister Eckhart    

Even though it is not just in tastes and other trifles, but also in matters of virtue and ethics that there are many differing opinions and philosophies among men, those differences are generally in regard to the details and practice of those virtues and not so much the inherent value of them. Pursuit of truth, the meaning of goodness and the nature of existence have been the matter of debate since time immemorial; but no thinking person ever declared it unnecessary to seek truth, act goodly, and exult in existence.

Not so when it comes to faith.

 It is treasured as the rarest of the soul’s jewels; it is rejected as the opium of the masses. It is seen as the apex of man’s achievements; it is ridiculed as the practice of fools. It is revered as the Highest Light one can taste in this life; it is scoffed at for being the Abyss of Darkness that prevents man's fulfillment.

What is it about faith that elicits such acutely opposing reactions?

Faith is the highest passion in a person….the person who has come to faith (whether he is extraordinarily gifted or plain and simple does not matter) does not come to a standstill in faith. Indeed, he would be indignant if anyone said to him, just as the lover resents it if someone said that he came to a standstill in love; for, he would answer, I am by no means standing still. I have my whole life in it.

                              ---Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.
                                --Rabbi A.J. Heschel

Faith is the crown of the soul; just as the crown rests on top of the head, faith is the faculty of the soul that transcends intellect.

Faith is believing something you know ain't true. 
                                        --Mark Twain

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.
                                        --Friedrich Nietzsche

Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals. It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.
                                       --Christopher Hitchens

Is faith really a surrender of reason? Is it indeed a cop out? Or is it the ultimate fulfillment of the very nature of the human mind?

Let's see what one of history’s greatest minds, Immanuel Kant, postulated about the fate of the mind, not surrendering itself, but rather reaching its maximum potential.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

The perplexity into which it thus falls is not due to any fault of its own. It begins with principles which it has no option save to employ in the course of experience, and which this experience at the same time abundantly justifies it in using. Rising with their aid (since it is determined to this also by its own nature) to ever higher, ever more remote, conditions, it soon becomes aware that in this way-the questions never ceasing-its work must always remain incomplete; and it therefore finds itself compelled to resort to principles which overstep all possible empirical employment, and which yet seem so unobjectionable that even ordinary consciousness readily accepts them. But by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness and contradictions; and while it may indeed conjecture that these must be in some way due to concealed errors, it is not in a position to be able to detect them. For since the principles of which it is making use transcend the limits of experience, they are no longer subject to any empirical test. The battle-field of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.

                                                       --Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

In other words, the mind used to its fullest potential will continuously question and seek deeper explanations for matters of existence. Human intellect must use the cognitive tools it has available to reach understanding, and will use them to ascend more and more to higher levels of comprehension. 

That’s why in Jewish mysticism, the intellect is likened to a bird. As opposed to the coarser, sensual parts of the human that constantly seeks self-gratification through physical desires being fulfilled and is therefore likened to a beast, the human mind when fully engaged with utmost integrity is willing to forego all comforts and pleasures in order to reach the total mental serenity that only full understanding brings. It is never satisfied with a partial knowledge, but continues to fly higher to more profound explanations and wisdom.

But, as Kant says, that serenity shall never be achieved.But by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness and contradictions” and “its work must always remain incomplete”, because the cognitive process can only use tools that are part of a person’s empirical experience. Whether one’s epistemological beliefs are aligned with Rationalism or Empiricism, it is clear that human reason can never traverse into the realm that completely transcends its experience.

We can investigate physics. But can never really understand metaphysics. The mind’s eye can never see what transcends its field of vision.

Which in very simple English means, that although I can know that 1+1=2, I can never possibly comprehend what made that idea so.

And although my mind can perceive certain logical rules and maxims, I can never prove their validity, as my mind only experiences them as they manifest in my empirical experience, but not as they are in themselves.

Those familiar with the history of philosophy know that this ultimate attack on the human mind, showing that in truth it cannot ever prove anything, was begun by David Hume, whose book woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, as he testified. But Kant finished off the process, and showed the foolishness of man that tries extending reason beyond what is knowable. His brilliant Critique of Pure Reason brought the mind to reflect critically upon itself in order that it establish and learn to respect its own proper limits.

In the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Godliness is exalted above human understanding, and even those ideas about the nature of the Divine that intellect can grasp are not perceived as they truly are,  for by virtue of them being Godly, they are amorphous, and hence unknowable by intellect whose cognitive abilities are always using limitations and definitions.”

And many bemoaned the loss of the ability to prove God's existence after Kant's conclusive results that the mind can never do so. They felt that he was the Executioner of Religion, by virtue of the fact he showed how we are not capable of knowledge of things beyond the realm of what can be experienced. Since, by definition, God transcends experience, we cannot know God. Any attempt to know God will be warped because our reason is inadequate. Scholastic Philosophy was indeed dead. All the elaborate, logical proofs of God’s existence and nature that abounded in thousands and thousands of pages written throughout the Middle Ages were seen as obsolete and useless.

But here, the Mystic smiles. Because it is only by truly recognizing the limits of reason, and going beyond it...that God CAN be experienced. Experienced for what He really is, as He really is.

“Of course the mind cannot understand God.” says the Mystic confidently, "Relative to His Infinite Light, the greatest human intellect (and in truth, the greatest spiritual intellect) and slushy mud- are equidistant.

By all means, use the mind to its utmost. I agree with Kant’s charge that:

Our age is, in especial degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and law-giving through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But they then awaken just suspicion, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords only to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination.”

Indeed, examine theology with a clear and rational mind. Whatever distance logic can travel, journey freely along that road and make sure religion is plausible intellectually. But you yourself, Mr. Kant, admit that there comes an end to logic’s reach, where the sidewalk ends.

That is when faith begins shining. 

And it is at that point that He “Snatche[s] thee, o'er eager, with ungentle grasp.”


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