Monday, August 25, 2008

The Face of Belief


"...the prestige of our opinions...is what makes the spark shoot up from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith." (William James in The Will to Believe, p. 9--emphasis James'.)

It is striking that that sentence is found in an essay frequently included in philosophy of religion texts. And yet it expresses a frank sociological fact: It is difficult to maintain an independent mind when the crowd you run with sees you don't fit in. In this two-week span in which the American Democratic and Republican conventions take center stage so often in the media, I will assume that no elaboration is needed--James was clearly correct to assert that a person's social context is a big factor in determining what particular options that "light up" as candidates for faith.

An objection to this might be that science and philosophy curry skepticism toward opinions from all angles, thus insuring that its faith is "pure." But the counter-objection would be that such a faith only gives prestige to insights that can be rendered true of false through science and philosophy. Whether that point of view sets up a vicious or virtuous circle is itself a matter of faith.

My take on this question has been to point out that the basic values that a person lives by are not subject to inclusion in the reductive processes of science and some forms of philosophy. But recently I have been reading Gabriel Marcel's 1949 Gifford Lecture, The Mystery of Being.

I'll quote Marcel on this topic. "But each one of us can ask himself...'What do I live by?' And this is not a matter so much of some final purpose to which life may be directed as of the mental fuel that keeps a life alight from day to day. For there are...desperate creatures who waste away, consuming themselves like lamps without oil." (p. 82)

Here I should note that I have not had so much trouble picking my way through dense writing since first encountering Kant's first Critique 30 years ago. And by a stroke of luck I have a memory to highlight that first encounter: My rhetoric professor at the University of Northern Colorado handed back a paper that I wrote trying to vindicate faith using Kant's categories with this note written boldly across the front: "This is unreadable!" With that memory serving as a caution to me, I will be careful not to jump to an explanation of Marcel's point of view.

I will, however, cite an interesting theme of his The Mystery of Being. It is inter-subjectivity that pulls us out of "vicious philosophizing," to use his term. (p. 54) The perspective Marcel's work gives us, then, will address--though how well is uncertain--the question of whether science, when reductive, sets up a vicious or virtuous circle. But just as interesting to me is that his use of inter-subjectivity will also address James' seemingly unfortunate fact of human nature--that the crowd we hang with prejudices our beliefs--with a compensating solution: It is through identifying with other persons that I can avoid the "vicious philosophizing" that can accompany even the most scrupulous search for truth. Perhaps it is the way we look at our fellow human beings that puts the right "face" on our beliefs. It is at least worth looking into.

I'll get back to you on this, when my summation is readable! For now I hope that Into the World is proving to be both readable and worth reading as a side light on this theme.

2 comments:

Jason Coriell said...

As a young man leaving home for college, I wanted to "objectively" evaluate my Christian heritage. I did study intensely and grow significantly in self-understanding. However, I was reading and talking with folks within my "crowd."

Though I deeply appreciate those days, it was years later, having developed quality relationships with some folks outside my "crowd" that my self-understanding became fruitful.

Previously I carried this very subtle assumption that folks who did not see it like me lacked information, intelligence, or sincerity. The relationships brought that assumption to the surface and exposed it as false. All the sudden, my world became more complicated -- and I am thankful.

I hope this reflection is in the spirit of the above post.

Tracy Witham said...

Hi Jason,

It's very much in the spirit of Marcel's thought.

Without spoiling the plot to come, he most basically wants us to "grasp the notion of experience in its proper complexity." (p. 83)

"...participation--sharing, taking part in, partaking of" is the "key," in his view, to an active reception of experience. (p. 111) It is the artist who exemplifies that, whereas it is science which "by definition cannot transcend the limits of the physical picture."

Science fails in understanding human nature precisely because an "objective" frame of reference misses its subjective target. But then so does the subjective frame, because "...life is on the far side of the oppositions." (Chapter IX Outline) I'm not sure what and how much to make of this and much else yet, but it surely accords with your experience of actually getting to know other people as a corrective to oversimplification.

Perhaps if I use some posts to wrestle with Marcel's ideas I can share some of his thought without claiming any competency in understanding it? :-)