Saturday, 2 May 2015

Distinguishing Belief and Faith

I first found these passages by the writer on eastern philosophies Alan Watts, through reading an article on the Brainpickings site by Maria Popova. I've included the link to her original post concerning Watts book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: a Message for An Age of Anxiety, first published in 1951.

Watts points out (in his ideosyncratic way) that belief and faith can come to mean things quite opposite to each other:

We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

Both belief and faith are states of mind. But they can represent quite different orientations of mind. The first is about what is held in the mind, and is treated as real, the second is about a constancy of receptiveness to the truth. Of course the believer will believe that what is believed is the truth, and will be persuaded that it is believed on that account. Those who have faith by contrast, do not have to hold anything in the mind, any doctrine, any preconceptions.

The believer may label his belief as his faith, and quite probably not distinguish the two. So much of history has been warped by such conflations. The modern religions (by which I mean those that have managed to survive into modern times, not that they are modern) invoke faith as part of the package which is offered to their members. Faith and belief are rarely distinguished, in part because of the social and political roles of these modern religions. The blurring is often useful.

We can often see this in practice, when a great quantity of doctrine has to be memorized by the believer, which is treated as a pillar of the faith. Or where strict patterns of behaviour and observance are demanded. Most of the major religions are guilty of this kind of imposition.

Modern scholarship has a track record of making easy assumptions about the continuity of religious ideas and patterns of practice, and the accompanying social compacts. So at the time the Assyrian palaces, temples and cities were being dug from the sand and soil in northern Mesopotamia, it was assumed that the relationship between the royal and temple establishments could be understood in terms of a modern division between church and state, in the way that the Church of England is separate from the English throne and government. This notion turned out to hold very little water on close analysis. And even now, around a century and a half later, it is still difficult to understand the relationship between the two establishments, though clearly the relationship was an important one. The king performed an important ritual role in the religious life of Assyria, as we can see from many of the palace reliefs, and this role is recorded in the surviving documents from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. The priests performed an important role in the political life of the state as well as in the conduct of religious ritual.

Except that there were no priests. At least not as such. There were many religious functionaries of course, which were initially described as priests by scholars. But in the cuneiform texts they were generally referred to in terms of their function. So the functionary involved in divination would be referred to as the Asipu, rather than the Asipu priest. A small seeming distinction, until you know more about the structure of the royal court and something of the Assyrian understanding of the world. One of the functionaries was referred to simply as the 'baker'. It is hard to imagine such a figure and status in any modern religion.

So it is unwise therefore to describe Assyrian religion as a belief system. Or indeed any of the pre-Abrahamic religions as belief systems, unless we can be absolutely sure that there is some level of comparability present with modern religions.

We know something of the stratification of Assyrian society in connection with religious ideas, partly from the colophons of liturgical texts. These were sometimes explicitly marked as not for the sight or discussion of  the uninitiated. One temple text which is discussed in The Sacred History of Being says that the initiated may read the text and discuss their understanding of its meaning among themselves. Others may read and know the names of the gods only. Nothing was explained to this second order of readers, at least not anything connected with the subsurface meaning of the text.

This of course refers to those members of the population who were educated enough to read, and of sufficient social standing to have access to the texts, usually in a library associated with a temple or a royal palace. The question arises therefore, what did the rest of the population know and believe? And what were they expected to know and believe?

We don't know the answer to that. Maybe very little. In the middle ages of the modern era, it was not uncommon for villagers in remote parts of a kingdom not to know the name of the current king, but society functioned anyway.

The historian Simon Price was one of the first to realise how misleading the filter of two thousand years of Christianity in the west actually was. He stopped talking about belief in connection with ancient religions, and instead talked about 'observance'. We can know about observance, because it is sometimes recorded. What people believed, or were expected to believe, most often isn't.

I think we can assume the ordinary population of Assyria understood very little of the complex structure of Assyrian polytheism, or anything at all about the intellectual arguments which underpinned it. But they could be taught easily about the importance of observances, and where and when these should take place. They would hear something of the most important gods, and might even have seen them when removed from the temple for a public festival. They would have heard stories about them. But they knew nothing of importance about theology. They didn't need to know anything about that.

The irony here is that the detail of what they would have observed, which would have included festivals throughout the year, marking key points such as the winter solstice, the beginning of spring (the start of the new year), the summer solstice,  the autumnal equinox; festivals associated with the gods of generation, and observances associated with the limits of things, and the passing of boundaries between one thing or state and another, was actually closer to the rational core of the religion, than any of the stories and liturgy which informed the higher level of the religion. They could (and did) observe various simple rites, but did not necessarily have any understanding of the logic underlying what they were doing.

An example of observance in faithful ignorance is an incident which is recorded in the Anabasis by Xenophon. The Greek army was in the presence of a Persian army, and effectively hunkered down until the Persian army moved on. During this time, a number of readings of omens were taken, none of which were proptitious. At the same time, they were doing what any army does, which is to scout out the disposition of their opponents. Eventually the Persians moved on, and the Greek scouts reported this.

But the Greek army did not move. They sacrificed further animals, and the omens remained negative. So they stayed where they were. Military intelligence by itself was not sufficient. After a period of time, the omens changed, and they moved.

I remember a tutorial at unversity where we talked about what people believed in daily life, and this instance came up.  There was a level of disbelief at how the Greeks behaved, and it is fair to say that it doesn't make sense to people in the modern world. But it made sense to those in the ancient world. At some level, even if they didn't understand the theoretical basis which supported the idea of omens: they observed the observances.

Is what the ancients thought about this of importance to us? I think it is, since they were focussed on knowledge, which is one of the themes of The Sacred History of Being. And supposedly it is what we are about too. But we don't seem to be focussed on knowledge in the same way. Watts writes that:

The present phase of human thought and history … almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint
But “religious” people who resist the scraping of the paint from the glass, who regard the scientific attitude with fear and mistrust, and confuse faith with clinging to certain ideas, are curiously ignorant of laws of the spiritual life which they might find in their own traditional records. A careful study of comparative religion and spiritual philosophy reveals that abandonment of belief, of any clinging to a future life for one’s own, and of any attempt to escape from finitude and mortality, is a regular and normal stage in the way of the spirit. Indeed, this is actually such a “first principle” of the spiritual life that it should have been obvious from the beginning, and it seems, after all, surprising that learned theologians should adopt anything but a cooperative attitude towards the critical philosophy of science.

Maria Popova's original book review is here.

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