Faith

As a teenager, I read William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience, and was quite enthralled, coming as I did from a strong scientific education with a lukewarm smattering of Methodism. So I was delighted to read the following James quote from Alister McGrath in his book Enriching our Vision of Reality. It is the best definition I’ve seen of that elusive word ‘faith’.

“Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible… Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis.”

This is not faith as dogma, which is a common association used to denigrate. It is faith ‘sensitive to reason, experimental in nature, and therefore susceptible to revision.’

McGrath’ s context is in the bringing together of science and Christian theology, but we could apply his reasoning to any religion, different sciences, and other ways of looking at the world, such as astrology.

His point is that both science and religion are ways in which we strive to understand the mystery of life. Both develop hypotheses to live by, but are subject to change where they do not correspond with lived reality. Both use story/metaphor/analogy to point the way; science adds the use of mathematical models, where it can. Perhaps it is this wonderful use of mathematics that encourages the common misperception that everything can be rationally described, but this is clearly not the case – as was concluded by, among others, Einstein, Newton and Darwin. There is always the mystery beyond…

In particular, materialists can lay no claim to a privileged context. Their faith in materialism and objective knowledge is as much a working hypothesis as is the Christian doctrine of the trinity. The so-called New Atheists are simply asserting their particular faith.

Metanoia

When reading an interesting text and coming across a word you are not familiar with, there is a terrible temptation to march on and hope that the meaning becomes clear from the context. For me, such a word was metanoia. Recently reading Alister McGrath’s book Enriching our Vision of Reality, I was brought to a better understanding by the author’s clear definition, related to ways of seeing reality.

Wikipedia throws further light, giving two meanings – one spiritually oriented and the other psychologically oriented. Metanoia is about a fundamental change in the way we see and act in the world, maybe a bit more fundamental than the similar concept of paradigm shift. Such was perhaps what happened in Europe as a whole around the time of the enlightenment, when a religious and naturalistic perspective on the world was gradually supplanted by a scientific and materialistic perspective.

The world we see today reflects both the benefits and the fundamental problems that have emerged as a result of this perspective, which has ignored the natural ecosystem as the essential support for human existence (giving global warming, pollution, species extinction etc etc.) and has lost touch at a political level with the morality and values necessary to give a good and equitable life to all humans (leading to incredible inequalities and a clear lack of moral leadership from the titular heads of countries and other supposed leaders).

There is now little doubt that metanoia is what is needed at a global level to avoid a nightmarish future for humanity. Of course, I have in this blog frequently referred to the concept of a New Renaissance, which is another way of putting it. Personal psychological and spiritual transformation is a big part of the answer, and everyone needs it.

In particular, there are enormous egos in politics and in business, to whom circumstances happen to have given great wealth and power. Their, and our, need is that they transcend those egos and work for the common good.

Note that one dimension of this is by paying good wages and paying due taxes, which is a way of sharing out that good fortune to all. Opting instead for the apparent current fashion of an ego-expanding philanthropy that remains within the ego’s control is a diversion, possibly beneficial to the general good, but certainly not a metanoia.