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?