Faith and reason

In an article entitled ‘Faith, not just creed’ (reprinted from New York Times News Service by The Hindu, January 29, 2014) columnist David Brooks brought up several issues that might be of interest to anyone who would like to think and argue, both positively and negatively, about the form and the content of the religious spiritualism that is proposed and propagated by the faithful for the benefit of those who find it difficult to become one.

Brooks broadly makes three points in his article.

(a) The first, a relatively straightforward observation that the way the practice of faith appears in the public space is far from satisfactory. He talks of a “dull, oppressive and insipid” form of “religiosity in which faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” There seems to be a suggestion here that the organised religion and the practices (including some of the rituals) derived from it may have distorted the very spirit of religion. A position which many, irrespective of whether they are believers or not, would by and large agree with.
(b) It is an empirical fact that many common believers find themselves a little circumscribed by the usual trappings of the religion due to an uncritical respect for the tradition, the need to feel secure in the numerical preponderance of a communal assertion of an identity or simply because of the inertia of habit. According to Brooks, despite this their faith could be a more dynamic experience that is “marked by combinations of fervour and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand”. Again, this seems to be heuristically true. Though religion for many ordinary people, like it is in India, a way of life, something imbibed from the cultural milieu as naturally as one takes in air from the environment, it is possible that the subterranean strata of belief in their mind space come to be frequently challenged by percolation of the residues of doubt created by their own reason working on the empirical observations and experiences in course of the daily life.
(c) The third element in Brook’s presentation tries to highlight extraordinary and transcendental ways in which some savants (like the saint Augustine) with specially cultivated and spiritually motivated mind might have perceived and articulated their relationship with and experience of God, which relate to this world but at the same time “mysteriously surpasses the world”. For Augustine, in his love of God there is “a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace …”, not what is conventionally denoted by these words but “a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part“. Clearly, this is an ideal state of mind, a utopia, that many people, religiously inclined or not, may aspire, but very few attain, if at all, in the present state of the world where mankind is assailed by more gloom and doubts about the conduct of their own fellow brethren than that could be dispelled by just fervent faith.

Among the three points above, the one about the orthodoxy and the dogmatism (often bordering on fundamentalism) in the religious preaching and practice is, I find, a realistic observation. However, like in most areas of culture, this is a typical instance of an ongoing fight between a few good virtuous truly enlightened men and much more preponderant forces of evil whose main aim is not merely subverting the true idea of any religion as originally revealed but executing a more sinister project of perpetuation of their domination and hegemony over a silent majority, and persuading them to sink their gnawing doubts in the fetishes of creed paraded as faith.

Arresting as the articulation of Augustine’s love of God is, I am not sure that it is at all an arguable proposition, something amenable to reason. As far as one understands, people who would like to put forward the remarkable experience of Augustine and such saintly people in support of their argument that religion, apart from its importance (some will even claim about its primacy) in our life, is also unique, capable of spawning beautiful and many splendoured sense of God, do not anticipate an alternative point of view or premise. You either accept this, surrender to it, get submerged in it or you don’t get it. One has even come across suggestions that to arrive at this privileged view and making it one’s own, one has to surrender one’s ego about one’s being knowledgeable and reasonable, in other words, one’s alternative, distinguishing point of view. Either ego, or God !

I would venture to say that if reason can be thought of as the basic bonding among disparate empirical facts of the material world facing mankind that goes to make the complex and evolving architecture of the human mindscape, faith works by destroying most of these bonds, dissolving the existing structure, replacing it by an entirely different paradigm.

A more interesting point for me is about the inescapable, undiluted and unrefined attachment of ordinary men and women in many countries (as one commonly finds in India) for religious culture, including the rituals and many other crude practices, despite being uncannily aware that one does not automatically become a good human being just because of one’s allegiance to some form of religion. Can they be sure if religious morality can always help one conduct oneself in an ethically correct way and make choices that stand the scrutiny of reason? The fact that the answer to this question is not easy to find does not mean we stop asking this or that it is a trivial one.

(This is a follow up on my earlier post ‘About faith’ published in this blog as a reaction to the article by Brooks referred above)

About faith

Let me begin by quoting, rather extensively, from an article by columnist David Brooks ‘Faith, not just creed’, reprinted from New York Times News Service by The Hindu, January 29, 2014.

‘There is a yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world.

‘Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described one experience of faith in his book God in Search of Man : “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. … To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

‘Heschel understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”

‘And yet there is a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervour and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.

‘If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world: “It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.” ‘

David Brooks probably was on the one hand trying to describe, using the mystic language of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or Saint Augustine what the essence of faith in and love of God may appear to the devout and the savant, with more than a suggestion that despite persistent doubts and a conflict riven mind common men and women, at least have fleeting glimpses of these moments of ecstasy. He has also argued, I think convincingly, that this spirit of living faith, more often than not, have come to be hemmed in rather badly by ossified creed in the practice of organised religion.

The article prompted me to flag a few irreverent questions:

- What does a common man’s faith in and ‘love’ for God amount to? Is there more often than not a sense of indirect quid pro quo in his expectations from a supposed communion with God? How often are the wishes really altruistic like what Swami Vivekananda had experienced in his famously rumoured first encounter with the Goddess Kali in Dakshineswar temple near Calcutta? It was said that he planned to ask the goddess to alleviate his personal financial distress, but apparently he was so enthralled (by experiencing a sort of divine presence?) all he could manage to ask the goddess to bestow on him were knowledge, wisdom and devotion.
– Is the ‘sublime feeling or satiation/satisfaction’ what Augustine had described in the above quotation an experience reserved for the lucky few tuned to mysticism? Is it also the most optimistic or the ideal scenario?
– Is there a sense of peace in giving up fighting irreconcilable mental conflicts, making difficult, uncomfortable and suboptimal choices and surrendering to some superior power or consciousness that has to be only ‘believed’ (not questioned) to be capable of finding a way around (not necessarily resolving) the conflict and bringing closure to problems (by not making any choices at all)? Choosing peace over reason?
– Does faith provide a new paradigm not accessible to reasoning a human mind is capable of – does one have to give up reasoning (ego?) to attain faith, a different way of life?
– Does faith encourage one to become a pacifist, a status quoist (even fatalist), a non-believer in active intervention at any level beyond the individual? What is the moral position (distinguishing right from wrong) of an individual professing faith vis-à-vis too many inhuman acts of omission and commission of other individuals and communities and nations (as collectives of individuals) all over the world? Should that provoke a breach in faith sometimes? Can faith remain immune?

Indeterminate life and a way to live it

Life is inherently subversive. Human beings, whether at individual plane or collectively at the family or some organizational level or in other social and political spheres, try to impose some kind of order. We are generally conditioned to become aware of the many facets of our own life and those of others, including non-human species as well as inanimate matter, in terms of certain orderly relationships, even apparent dependencies. The sum total of the generalizations about these relationships that are either handed down over generations or arrived at by ourselves in course of the unfolding episodes of our existence, constitute what can be broadly termed as our individual or collective worldview.

But since individual species are living beings and not static factors/objects/nodes within this maze of relationships, they are subject to constant fluctuations and dynamic changes in natural course. And to that extent so are the network of relationships that are supposed to hold the concept of life together. The stability of such a network is, therefore, not guaranteed. The myriad ‘life processes’ comprising the dynamic development of parts of the network of relationships have specific logic leading to their own dénouements, as a part of the natural phenomena, without any ‘emotional’ considerations about the consequences vis-à-vis the overall or the entire system. Though the conceptual basis of ‘life’ lies in our subjective awareness of this gamut of relationships and the assessment/projection about how that might evolve, the actual ‘destiny’ or the fall out in the real life would depend on the objective dynamics of the interconnected and parallel life processes centered on or around individual living beings. This dynamics is not merely stochastic in nature, but probably even be indeterminate and not always fully understood in terms of the present scientific knowledge.

The worldview (whether a very individualistic or a shared one) creates an illusion of ‘order’, expectation, impression of ‘causality’, at best heuristically confirmed in an apparently large number of instances. Nobody keeps track of or quotes the cases indicating refutation or those generating ambiguous results. Steeped as we are with this inductively acquired sense causality, which could be a chimera, we feel shattered when this expectation breaks down inexorably in finite number of life processes and if we happen to be the close observers/participants of any such process.

If we accept the above deficiency of the concept of life we generally entertain and share, it might be more understandable as to why all of a sudden one’s life is believed to undergo an upheaval, say, when one comes to know of a major health issue concerning a close family member or about an accident suffered by a friend, or our town suffers an unprecedented earthquake or a flash flood bringing in its wake death and devastation. However, this realization does not make the feeling of pain or helplessness, a sense of being subjected to some kind of subversion (even ‘betrayal’) by some shadowy unknowable forces any less acute. That probably shows the grip on us of what we grow up to believe as the ‘life’, which most of us would be hard put to define. But the truth is that there cannot be any such ‘design’ on you or me anywhere in the universe. We just do not count. Nor as much does any matter, living or non-living.

An added complication is the way our perception is often clouded by degrees of moral value judgment about this or that incident many of us tend to associate with it and often try to ‘rationalize’, worse even justify, the same. For them, the very best among them, who probably have an inkling about what a game of chances the life really is, an enlightenment that may disturb the sense of causality and order in the minds of ordinary human beings is potentially inhuman and should best be monitored, controlled, disputed and avoided. This strand in the history of human thought invariably has led to the rather common and tested self-serving idea of dividing the human kind into two neat groups: the wise, sad enlightened few holding up the sky of hope over the rest of the ignorant simple hearted multitudes who would otherwise have perished with grief and loneliness knowing themselves to be derelict in a universe without a cosmic purpose. And there is no reason to believe that regimentation of mankind for even an apparently noble purpose did achieve its stated goal, peace.

In an alternative approach, one may try, inasmuch as it is practicable, and accept with equanimity the peace and the precipice as two among the constellation of transitory states of life. Of course, this is easier said than done. Call it the inertia in our mind space. Not just from light to dark, white to black but equally for the reverse process. But I would like to suggest that we might be able to achieve the balance some day by trying to make ‘informed’, ‘engaged’ and ‘moral’ choices during every act of our living that is essentially an act on the nature – mostly in concert with it but sometimes in dissonance or with ill-conceived antagonism.

How about facing the facts? Our existence as just a tiny strand in the complex tapestry that the universe is executing, or a small note on a page of score that is going to be turned over seemingly endlessly. Hopeless and incomplete, as it may seem, human beings over the centuries and across civilisations, in an act of magnificent unselfconscious co-operation, have diligently and objectively accreted a huge treasure trove of facts about this tapestry or the score. We will do ourselves a favour by being as objective in acquiring facts of our existence in the universe. One has to be informed as best as one can, with sound knowledge, scientific or otherwise. I am not even discounting mysticism as a way to gain knowledge as long as that is not part of a programme of regimentation or a profit-making proposition. But certainly not dogmas, entrenched pre-conceived biases coloring ‘facts’, spurious dregs floating around in the new age information space. Also in this age of a proclaimed information revolution one should be aware of and resist a very real information apartheid that is often practiced if not even preached. Everybody, without exception, should have information that is verifiable, unrestricted and possible to negotiate with a critical spirit. And try and convert information into knowledge.

It is necessary to engage with all aspects of nature. Not in isolation as a competitor or an adversary with narrow immediate material advantages in view but in wonderment as one with or as an integral, if somewhat exceptional, constituent of it. This speciality relates to human being’s natural ability to perceive and think, be conscious about itself, the surroundings and the intricate relationships holding the entire existence of the material world together. This gift is an unusual opportunity for the humans, perhaps the only species on earth who have it. Nature does not tell us anything, nor does it hide anything. It is up to us to engage with it to get some clues about how it works and what it has in store for us.

I use the term ‘moral’ choices in a specific context and for a restricted purpose. This moral or ethical view of our relationship with nature enjoins us to remember our true position, neither insignificant nor one bloated by some misplaced ego, vis-à-vis the material world existing outside of ourselves in all its splendor and complexity and despite our fleeting perception and attempted simplification of the same. It suggests the futility and danger of human attempts to dominate, harness and exploit nature for narrowly conceived material benefits without realizing or acknowledging the cost human beings all across the globe are already suffering even today, and making the future generations shockingly much more vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable response of nature to some of the current actions impelled by greed and brazen self-interest. The ‘self’ includes individuals, communities and nations.

In the end, if more and more people are able to make such choices in a consistent manner, some of the ‘subversion’ of life that we tend to suffer with a frequency that has shown an upswing, be it at the individual or at the community and the national levels might become gradually more predictable, even manageable, and hence may no longer qualify for the epithet.

In praise of non-conformism

Consider the implicit and often subtle tyranny of the society around us: the unquestioned supremacy of an economic order that in heart of hearts tolerates and even justifies lack of equity; the form of governance, and the politics that design and direct the same, which puts up with and sometimes protects intolerance and incarceration of virtually any minority position or sensibility, including sexual orientation. Think of the rules and regulations to which an individual has to conform, the plethora of arcane laws and legal provisions one is supposed to know and abide by, the conventions, customs and traditions that one is expected to respect. More often than not the government and its various organs, the society and the polity in the form of explicit groups with one or the other identity markers or some abstract ethnic, cultural, religious, nationalist or sub-nationalistic allegiance, which one is taught to imbibe since childhood, appear as an oppressive presence in an individual’s life and mind with a latent menace for anybody who so much as dare even think of a transgression.

In a song (penned by the acclaimed lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and sung by the legendary playback singer Mohammed Rafi) picturised in the classic 1957 Hindi movie ‘Pyassa (The thirsty)’ directed by Guru Dutt, a poet or a writer’s sense of oppression at these myriad binds that manacle a free mind, destroy his creativity, indeed, his very physical existence found a profound expression. The song, coming as it did close to the denouement of the film, begins like a funeral dirge for a soulless society of the rich and the powerful who have the virtual hegemony over the actions, decisions and behaviour of the majority of powerless ordinary and relatively innocent people, while the latter ironically are, figuratively speaking, dragging the hearse carrying this dying edifice.

Yeh Mehlon,Yeh Takhton,Yeh Taajon Ki Duniya,
Yeh Insaan Key Dushman Samaajon Ki Duniya,
Yeh Doulat Key Bhookhey Rawajon Ki Duniya,
Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai.

The poet says in disgust: even if one were to be bestowed this world of palaces, the throne and the titles of power, an invitation to be part of this glittering society that only promotes an insatiable craving for wealth to the exclusion of the humanity and on the other hand insensitively follows and protects the bulwark of old, outdated customs and traditions, will it be of much worth?

Not much seem to have changed since 1957. Fundamentally. Here in India and probably elsewhere.

Is there a way to deal with this? Is there a way out?

In the last stanza of the same song the poet gives a libertarian clarion call:

Jala Do Isey, Phoonk Dalo Yeh Duniya.
Mere Saamne Se Hata Lo Yeh Duniya,
Tumhari Hai Tum Hi Sambhalo Yeh Duniya,
Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai?

Burn down a world such as this
Take it out of my sight
Take care of this prized possession of yours
Even if I were bestowed this world
I couldn’t care less

It was implied in the Pyassa song, if we can focus clearly through the convective glare of the righteous anger, that sanity demanded that one would do well to reject the offer of being co-opted by Mephistopheles of our time. With firmness and resolution tempered in an implacable fiery spirit. To put an end to the blasé status quo. Challenge the ‘Greed is good’ credo of the self-obsessed, the compulsive need to acquire, possess and exercise domination over the possessions of material and human capital. Last but not the least, stop the cynical rationalization (with or without ‘scientific’ pretensions) of every bit of evil men are capable of unleashing on their fellow men and on the environment, indeed all that is wrong with this world (‘Yeh Duniya’) that fill many with nausea, melancholy and an unquenchable thirst for change.

And we have to win this Faustian joust at all cost. For the sake of the survival of our environment and the biodiversity, harmony with the nature and the ‘otherness’, the ‘unlikes’ within or without our communal and other imposed boundaries, and most importantly our common humanity.

Politically irreverent

Can we know everything? Even stochastically speaking? Should we know everything there is to know?

Is it always valid to make a general inference or to induce a hypothesis on the basis of a set of particular instantiations? Isn’t there, sometimes, a behind-the-back-of-the-mind coloring or pre-organization of the instances to fit the hypothesis?

The world, the natural world, may be governed by rationality, proven laws of nature. But human beings populating the world are not always, need not be, rational.

How we look upon inanimate nature, natural objects and other human beings widely vary not just among these categories but is a function of time and contexts. Objectivity may be an approximation.

Can we move out of the straightjacket of the paradigms, beliefs we have come to accept? Or the myths we hold dear. Or the faith we adhere to.

There may not be solutions to all problems. No closure, not always. Why should there be? It may not always be possible to connect all the dots nor is there a cosmic justification for all the tears or every joyous moment.

Do we constantly need to connect with others and communicate? Where is the space, the cadence, between two or more entities ostensibly socially connected and morally beholden to each other?

Does our brain always need to remain busy, talkative, immersed among myriad signals?

Win an argument and lose a friend OR lose a wining hand to salvage a sinking soul?

How not to be always correct or right?

What the bosses can’t take away

In a previous post (‘The minimalist’) had referred to a poem by Amiya Chakraborti, one of the finest poets in Bengali literature. This poem written around the middle of the last century talks about a list of things made up by an imaginary clerk or a subordinate staff in some office (probably a governmental one) – things he feels his superior officer would never be able to demand and take away from him, unlike the files he works on or his allegiance. At the first sight the things that the man secretly values and cares for are likely to be quite inconsequential to most people, including the bosses of all kinds, even then and certainly in today’s materialistic world.

Recently reprising reading of this poem I was trying to make up a partial list of items he felt relieved as being out of bound for the bosses (if my lame attempt at transliteration of Amiya Chakraborti’s poem can be forgiven):

primarily, my existence in this world, which includes my self-awareness (individual identity – not in any narrow sense), for instance, being able, as long as I live, to look at and admire the morning sky and when the wind rises touch it with my face, feel the cold water of the well, sense music, comprehend crafted and spoken words and the sudden downpour of accumulated rain to end the hot summer afternoon;

to be able to love the loved ones, and yearn to come back to my Bengali home laden with memories;

to effortlessly conjure and connect to those archetypal images of my native place – the light and shadow under the canopy of foliage of the giant peepul tree, the small sacred bed of Tulsi (Basil) plant in the courtyard of the homestead, the tumbled down decrepit temple by the river bed, charm of hearing the mother tongue, the vignets of a Bengali village slipping through the window frame of the moving train, like a sudden banana tree, stillness of a pond, grassy back alley to the homestead, peasants busy in the fields harvesting rice grains, clouds in the sky reflected on the surface of the shallow water bodies by the side of the track, small rivulets with tree shaded banks;

and of course my citizenship of this world as a big village of common humanity … that makes you feel the life is after all worth living;

Of course it is a matter of taste, sensibility, belonging that defines one’s private priorities, yours or mine. But I daresay such a red line does exist for most people. May be one is not always fully conscious of it, what it circumscribes, what are non-negotiable and what, even in stressful times, one would like to think one has not surrendered, if only because these are after all such minimal requirements of our being, the defining elements of our self image.

The minimalist

Amiya Chakraborti, one of the finest poets in Bengali literature writing around the middle of the last century, in a remarkable poem gave voice to a quietly defiant clerk in a government or mercantile business office defining in his mind what his superior officer could never demand or take away from him. The interesting list of little things of his secret desire that are seemingly out of bounds for the boss may appear quite inconsequential to most practical people, certainly someone qualifying as a boss. His likes included elements from both inanimate and those living around us and clearly suggest not only an ear for an inner harmony in the natural world but an agenda for tuning the human senses on to this global concert.

I knew a man in my childhood. I used to see him from across the street coming home from office at around the appointed time in the evening, in his unhurried careful strides, draped in a white shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up and a pair of trousers in more or less unvarying colors. There was nothing excessive about this man, reasonably tall, but otherwise not pushing hard in the other two dimensions. There was a quiet elegance about his looks with a wide forehead, a warm responsive face and bright eyes looking out of a pair of dark round-framed spectacles. He had a lightness in his steps, partly because he did not have to carry much corporeal weight. As far as I know he had never owned a car, used the public transport for commuting to his office, lived with his wife and a son in a rented house for most of his working life.

One of my lasting memories is about him carrying a folded daily newspaper under his arm, which was just about all he carried to or from his office, not to forget the occasional umbrella in deference to the elements. Thought to be a decent gentleman by his neighbors and respected as much for his calling and erudition as for his wit, taste and judgment in the wider community of friends and acquaintances without having to throw his weight about him. Here was a man who did not seem to try too hard to live a dignified life well within his means and completely on his own terms. He could have been the man the poet Amiya Chakraborty had in mind. Subtly rebellious against acquisition of assets of both material and spiritual kind and the ownership of hubris and self-righteousness almost invariably bred on them.

In today’s world, acquiring goodies, gadgets, as indeed grabbing any opportunity that comes on one’s way and encashing advantages one may have studiously accumulated have become a pressing need for everybody, a sine qua non for survival and growth. What is true for individuals is no less so for the society as a whole, for entire nations. Even if the current level of consumption and the rate of exploitation of the natural resources look increasingly unsustainable, affecting the climate and the bio-diversity, paring demands is unthinkable lest it limits economic growth. Similarly, given the pressure to remain abreast with efficient technologies and contemporary attitudes there is little time to pause and reflect about the consequences of a surfeit of networked devices and people through an ethereal cyberspace, relentlessly cross-referencing everything and everybody. So what if in the process we lend ourselves to become willing partners to a crooked and tangled web of worldwide surveillance by an unworthy Big Brother. Even if in the name of empowerment and democracy we are being served up quite an antithesis of freedom.

How much land does a person need in the end? Not too many square feet after all, and a little earth underneath. Those choosing fiery flames might end up needing practically nothing, though consuming fuel or firewood and generating smoke en route thus making some demands on our already fragile environment perhaps would fail the ultimate test of minimalism. May be the Tolstoyan question can be reframed in the modern context as: How much carbon footprint our current survival can’t help burden the posterity to account for and erase for the continuance of the human species on earth?