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)