Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Excessive Religion, Part 2: Faith

Part 1

Recap of Part 1: How do the sacred and the secular interpenetrate one another?

In order to develop a concept of how the sacred can be expressed in our lives, it is necessary to outline one vital aspect of religious experience that is only minimally dealt with or accounted for by Lacan and Bataille.

There is a very common notion of “faith” that has given rise to endless nonsensical chatter about religion. The definition of faith as some kind of epistemological concept needs to be set aside. Faith is all too often seen as a supplement to knowledge; the claim that a particular proposition is believed because of “faith” immediately creates the age-old faith versus reason conflict.

I would argue that this concept of faith is wholly inadequate for explaining religious life. Even the faithful that speak of faith as a supplement to knowledge are unable to account for certain aspects of religious experience. The first aspect of religious experience that faith as epistemology cannot account for is the inability of belief in particular propositions to alter behavior. Sundered from any more fundamental role in the faithful subject’s life, the belief in any number of religious propositions will not produce anything that resembles devotion (or excess).

It cannot be denied that faith involves knowledge, but must be made clear is the excess involved. There is always something more to faith, something that carries it beyond mere knowledge. In terms of the Christian religion, faith as epistemological supplement is explicitly rejected in the Bible and implicitly by thinkers such as St. Augustine. Two particular Biblical texts offer support for rejection this version of faith. The first is Matthew 7:21-23:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'"

This text is a clear image of people being judged and rejected by Christ not because they did not accept certain beliefs about Christ. They claimed to believe in Christ, and they even claim to have acted upon these beliefs. Christ does not dispute this point; he never says that their beliefs were false or that their actions did not take place. The charge that Christ levels against them is that he did not know them. There was something lacking about the religious stance of these people. If faith is only a supplement for knowledge, or even merely some kind of Archimedean point for knowledge, this story would be rendered absurd.

St. Augustine’s Confessions contains an implicit rejection of this propositional faith. It is his famous prayer, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” This is another point that would be rendered absurd if faith was reducible to knowledge (or a source of it). This prayer can be rephrased as “I believe that chastity and continence are demanded of me, but I will defer any attempt to fulfill these demands. Augustine could not pray this prayer without already believing in God; but he could also not pray this prayer if he had made what might be termed a libidinal investment in God. God remains one object among many to Augustine at this point, without any particular quality that demands Augustine’s attention. It is only later that he truly “converts,” and ceases to defer a true commitment to God and the Christian way of life. His previous acceptance of truths about God are shown to be meaningless.

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