Letters to the Editor Summer 2003

Faith In Faith?
Andrew Cooper’s interesting article “Modernity’s God-Shaped Hole” [Spring 2003] concludes with the largely unsupported statement that “we humans are inescapably religious.” This declaration of faith in faith, which puts Cooper in the mythos camp rather than in the logos, or reason, camp, is a fallback position during these times of global multiculturalism and religious diversity. Since we really don’t know what to believe anymore, we’ll just soldier on anyway, by—rather abstractly—believing in belief itself.

This belief in belief is supported in the article primarily by the statement that “we possess an innate drive to experience the sacred.” Leaning on “innate” as an empirical-sounding term appears to help anchor Cooper’s overall position in factual evidence. But it is not clear how “innate” and “acquired” can be distinguished once you get beyond basic reflexes such as breathing. Some Christian groups similarly try to buttress their faith by adducing various scientific or scientific-sounding claims. Basically, Cooper’s article is a valuable statement of the divide between mythos and reason, combined with a personal reassertion of his faith in faith.

However, the hole in Cooper’s article may be that he does not evaluate his working assumption that Buddhism is essentially, rather than just historically, a religion. Of course, one might challenge the assumption that Buddhism could be anything whatsoever “essentially.” According to my understanding of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism can be understood as a philosophy. In my personal view, Buddhism is a philosophy that accords very well with reason, that is, “reason” rather than “Reason.” The Reason of the Western eighteenth-century scientific Enlightenment, as articulated by Immanuel Kant, was framed with reference to the religious paradigm of monotheism and a nonmaterial soul. Reason was subsequently identified with History and then with Science—with capital letters all.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Reason has been increasingly replaced by a less aggressive “reason” (with a small “r”). Now, reason is understood more as a pragmatic, socially taught procedure for personal and group deliberations, as outlined in the most recent perspectives of German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. Science is just science; it doesn’t support or injure religion or philosophy. Buddhism as a pragmatic philosophy of life is in harmony with the late-twentieth-century understanding of reason as a pragmatic process designed to increase mutual understanding and minimize suffering.

Perhaps the search for religious meaning itself involves an unnecessary kind of suffering that originates from historical habits and vocabularies rather than from some postulated innate need. Perhaps the existence of this innate need is as foggy as the existence of an inner essential self that is denied in Buddhism.

The Buddha was practical. Perhaps Buddha himself would say: “If the search for meaning is an arrow in your side, then pluck it out.”

—Thomas Fischer, Ph.D. E-mail

Andrew Cooper Responds:
It always does the heart good to have something one has written receive a thoughtful response, and I thank Thomas Fischer for his. Having said that, let me respond to a few of his objections.

First, he takes issue with my treating Buddhism as a religion. But of course Buddhism is a religion. It has authoritative scriptures, which are formulated into a body of doctrine; it describes what constitutes a well-lived life, the goal of such a life, and the means to make that life one’s own; it has teachings meant to promote social cohesion; it has ritual forms, styles of iconography, and hagiographic texts that link the individual with tradition and link tradition with the transcendent; it has a rich mythology, which connects quotidian events with the deeper designs of the cosmos; it has—well, you get the point. One might say, as some do, that some or all of these things are incidental, and one could find support for such a claim in isolated sayings of the Buddha or from an eminent Zen master. But that would, I think, entail a highly selective and polemical reading of Buddhist tradition.

On a deeper level, like other religions, Buddhism views its own teachings—moral, intellectual, and spiritual—not as arbitrary but as having a basis in the very structure of reality, however elusive that reality might be. This is what religions do, and to borrow Forrest Gump’s eloquent phrasing, “religion is as religion does.”

Second, Mr. Fischer finds me remiss in providing little support for saying that I believe that we humans are “inescapably religious.” Perhaps I have should have taken more time to make the case. Certainly, it has been made well by many others, some of whom I cite. One can readily find an abundance of supporting evidence in historical and anthropological study. And the idea that humans are possessed of a transcendent imperative is hardly foreign to Buddhism, though that particular way of stating the matter may be. But granted, the issue is, finally, not provable. Ultimately, one chooses whether or not to believe it to be the case. Which brings us to the main point: faith.

Faith, as distinct from belief, was really the crux of my concern in the article. I mean here something akin to Coleridge’s famous definition of poetic faith: the willing suspension of disbelief. But that formulation lacks a certain sense of urgency that is, well, urgent. Living in a world in which stable beliefs, whether traditional or modern, are continually overturned, we postmoderns abide in the sensibility that we are not impartial observers of an objective world. The world we perceive is one we participate in creating. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying that, whether we like it or not, we live by means of faith. We toss our perceptions and intuitions, however vaguely articulated, into the abyss that lies before us, and then, so to speak, we leap in after them. If our leap is true, the world we have cast is enriched, elaborated, and ratified. Religious tradition still guides us in this mysterious process. It gives us better footing, it helps us jump further and land better, and it makes the world into which we cast ourselves more gracious, precious, and luminous than we could ourselves imagine. So it seems to me that, while our point of departure today is in crucial ways different from, and far shakier than, that of our religious forebears, our encounter with the sacred still begins, over and over, with a leap of faith.

And so, as Mr. Fischer says, we soldier on.

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