Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Philosophical Reason, God, and Faith

In my philosophy class - intro to metaphysics and epistemology - we've been examining arguments for, and some against, the existence of God. This may initially sound like a spiritually challenging course; all these careful rationalizations or valid arguments for a particular concept of God, or against, or the argument that it's rational to believe in God or that it's rational to either believe or not believe.. It's quite possibly very overwhelming.

However, through all of this, I have been quietly testing my faith, prodding it a little, if you will, to see if things have been shaken up or disturbed. What if my belief isn't based on reason alone; is that completely irrational? While I don't want to be unreasonable about believing in God or some sort of "divine" being or thing; quite the contrary, I feel that it is actually unreasonable to try and even use reason to "prove" or "disprove" the existence of such a being as God. My faith has not been so shaken because it's based on experience. Reason, in my mind, becomes secondary.

This, though, feels a little unnerving; am I tossing reason out the window in favor of experience? What if I experience something completely a function of my pschological state of mind, such as a hallucination? Instead of rejecting the validity of my experiences based on the possibility of hallucination, I can actually provide a little reason - this reason being 'secondary' to my experiences - to explain. A hallucination completely out of line with my other experiences of reality I feel is an unreasonable thing to believe as real; however, if I were to hallucinate something line with my other experiences of reality, how would I know that my supposed experiences of reality were not hallucinations in and of themselves? It is irrational to continue thinking in such a way, because one could argue one's self out of reality into a place where nothing matters. Instead, I think of my experiences and I find faith. Not blind faith; blind faith would be to believe something unreasonably, without careful weighing, but faith that I cannot know everything, and that my experiences are real to me is enough evidence as I'll ever need.

I experience love. Love is real to me. I put my faith in love.

Love and Light,


Blogger Zareba said...

Thank you for an interesting blog. I am definitely enjoying reading you. If I ever felt the need to belong lto any one faith, I would consider either The Society of Friends or Budhism.

4/10/05 10:05 PM  
Anonymous Robin M. said...

Iris DeMent wrote a beautiful song called Let the Mystery Be (on her album Infamous Angel)

Everybody is worried bout what and where they all came from
Everybody is worried bout where they're going to go when the whole thing's done
But I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
Think I'll just let the mystery be.

5/10/05 2:09 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...


Where did I read that there is a "quadrilateral" in religion (sources of Christian authority), and Quakers add a fifth thing to it...?

What I remember is:

1. Scripture
2. Reason
3. Tradition
4. Experience.

Quakers add, if I remember right,

5. Continuing revelation.

I can't find an online reference for #5, but I think I came across this expansion in something I was reading by Wilmer Cooper. As for understanding more about the "quadrilateral" of the Christian faith, I came across a number of items online, including this article, which may have some usefulness for us Quakers, too.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

6/10/05 9:19 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Heya Claire.

oooh my goodness I know where you are....I'm still there most days. If that sounded at all patronizing, trust me, it's not....it's just a squeal of recognition. This:

"I experience love. Love is real to me. I put my faith in love."

is something that you should cling to. I'd have banged my head against far fewer walls if I'd been able to articulate that sentiment.

I'm not scared of reason, at all. but I do often these days shy away from philisophy, where very often all sorts of strange things are called "reason" that are not. It kind of grosses me out to say that because it sounds anti-intellectual, and I totally am not (I work at a giant university! I love it here!). But I've found it to be true.

7/10/05 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Dear Claire,
I am really glad I found your blog. I continue to be impressed with how seriously you take your faith. I am also a little ashamed as a member of DFM to only now be realizing all that is going on in your spiritual life.
This is the second time I have ever tried to post a comment on a blog. The first time was a few nights ago when I spent almost an hour writing a message for your last post and then when I tried to submit it, it just vanished into thin air. I hope I have more luck tonight.
I think you know that I was a philosophy major in college. I think it is a great pursuit and I believe it really helps me to understand Quakerism and Christianity as well as many other things. I also struggled a good deal to understand how to see philosophy (and reason) as a tool in one’s search for truth, rather than seeing it as the search for truth itself. I think I basically agree with what you have said.
You said, “I feel that it is actually unreasonable to try and even use reason to "prove" or "disprove" the existence of such a being as God”.
I think that using reason in a formal way (logic) is so fundamental to the culture of philosophy in most American colleges that there is often not a lot of acknowledgement that this is its own faith in a way. There is a “relying on” “reason” that is rarely accounted for or justified. Post-modernism acknowledges that there are limits to what reason can accomplish, but then philosophers go ahead and base their projects on “reason” anyway and just try to adjust their expectations of what they will be able to accomplish. There is little recognition that a choice is made to rely solely on formal “reasoning” in their pursuit of the truth (or whatever else they may claim their project is pursuing).
I also like your distinction between “being reasonable” and “using reason”. It may be that it is unreasonable to use such formal reasoning (logic) in a strict way in one’s daily life. I think that the reasoning skills one uses and develops in a philosophy class is helpful in developing and critiquing ideas and concepts. But ideas and concepts are abstractions and maybe not exactly the stuff of real life. There was a point somewhere in my sophomore or junior year in college where I tried to approach my life in a real logically strict way. It didn’t work very well, though. Luckily I had several close friends who were willing to let me know that I had become quite self-absorbed and arrogant. As it turns out, this is a narrow way to approach life, not an expansive and open and loving way to approach life. It seems that there is more to life than logic can comprehend.
My faith, or that which I “rely on” in being open to truth, is not based on a concept of God or in believing in any particular concept of God. Philosophy is useful in evaluating and challenging our concepts of God, but that can not touch my faith. (There are concepts of God that I think should be critiqued and thrown-out and it is good that philosophy can help us with this.) I “rely on” or have faith in a way of being open, responsive, tender, or obedient to “that which is beyond me”. I can call “that which is beyond me” God, but I can not conceptualize it. God is just a name for a mystery. I choose to have faith or to rely on this specific experience. I am aware of this choice, I own this choice. I believe it is “reasonable” though it is not based on “reason”(or logic). I believe it is reasonable because I find that it frees me to “reason” more clearly about concepts, it broadens my capacity to experience and learn from my emotional life, and it enables me to test and stretch my experience of life. In short, “to rely” on this mystical experience of the Divine enables me to more fully engage in all the “second tier” tools that can enable me to discover and discern what is true. This is an expansive and open and loving way to approach life.
You said, “Reason, in my mind, becomes secondary.” I wonder if we mean the same thing here. Reason and emotion and experience all are secondary for me or second tier in that I use them as tools, but they seem to have a more restricted realm of use once I see them within the new perception of this mystical experience that I have complete and total faith in.
Anyway I have attempted to give my account of all this. I wonder if any of it made sense to anyone other than me. I usually try to avoid writing on such subjects, but you drew me out. I will continue to read your blog and I look forward to hearing more of your experiences at Wellesley.

Peace, Andrew

PS I am embarrassed this is so long. I worked at this for several days to make it shorter. Sorry.

7/10/05 10:47 PM  
Blogger Contemplative Scholar said...

Yes, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).

When I teach about the proofs for and against the existence of God, I interpret them a bit unconventionally and point out that their real value is that they are analyses of different concepts that get associated with the concept of God.

I then tell the class that what is important is not so much whether they believe in God or not, but what they mean by "God" when they say that they either believe or don't believe.

I then have them write essays on whether they do believe in God or not, and urge them especially to examine closely what they mean by "God."

For example: if you define God as a "white bearded guy in the sky," and say you don't believe in God, what you are really saying is that you don't believe in that concept of God. "Neither do very many believers in God," I add.

"Do you believe in love? What about in the Bible where it says, 'God is love'? What if we really took that seriously? Would that mean that really, we all believe in God?"

That usually blows my students' minds enough, and so at this point I back off, and read their essays with gentleness and respect.

I love philosophy, but still, I would be the first to agree with Claire that our beliefs must be tested carefully both by thinking and by experience.

7/10/05 10:55 PM  
Anonymous Kent said...


What a wonderful post -- and great comments! As Andrew mentioned, I just wanted to let you know that we here at DFM are still very interested in what you are doing and thinking, even as you are far away in college.

I think one of the chief things that has attracted me to Quakerism is its crazy mix of irrational, experiential (or as Fox & company would say, "experimental") mysticism, on the one hand, and pragmatic rationalism on the other. I don't know anything else quite like it in any other faith (although as usual Zen comes closest).

For me, as Andrew also indicated, faith is about Mystery: the essential issues of why we, others and the universe exist and what that means within the infinity of possibilities. Therefore, I don't expect it to be totally rational.

Yes, we can do a great deal with philosophy. I attended a Catholic college where we all took a class entitled, "The Problem of God," which covered the subject pretty thorougly. This college stressed Christian existentialism, and that way of seeing things is still very helpful to me -- but at a certain point the rational isn't enough when facing Mystery. Because, let's face it, a God who/which can be rationally explained is a God which we humans have mastered: it is not a God which is bigger than us.

And so I love Quakerism's willingness to face the big, confusing Divine Mystery head-on -- which is one thing that I believe we do in Waiting Worship, seeking out an experiential revelation of the Whole, of God as God would appear to us in that moment. That is a brave and awesome thing to do. This sort of prophetic enterprise is essentially irrational. It assumes that God cannot be contained within the rational, but instead is a Divine Mystery revealed in personal and corporate experience which cannot be rationally parsed.

But if that were all we did, then our worship could easily fall into nothing MORE than the experiential: it would be more about how we felt God at a particular moment than about what (who?) God is eternally and our relationship to God. And so we temper and balance our felt sense of God and the messages of the moment, testing and weighing them against what we know of Quaker tradition, the testimony of others, scripture and yes even reason.

And so a place is made for all the ways in which God continues to reveal herself/himself/itself in the world, in our lives. And we can build on that and make firm structures, surer paths.

Having only been a Friend for these past ten years, this aspect of Quakerism is a treasure to me. I'll confess to being an intelletual (Ph.D. & everything) and it would be so easy for me to over-rationalize even my religion. But Quakers recognize that God gives us many ways of approaching God, and that we approach most surely when we check those ways against each other. Each gives us a different glimpse of the Divine, for which I am very greatful!

Thanks again, Claire, for the chance to participate in this discussion. I've been lurking on Quaker blogs for quite a while, but only now am beginning to add my own voice, and it feels good.

8/10/05 11:10 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments!

Andrew - You said, I am also a little ashamed as a member of DFM to only now be realizing all that is going on in your spiritual life.

This is something I was beginning to address the few months before I left; I think it's partly my fault that this has happened, as well (though, not entirely). Also, don't feel embarrassed about posting such a long reply - there's nothing wrong with a long reply, in fact, I'm glad for it.

Kent and Andrew - It's really comforting and nice to have DFMers reading and responding; even as I'm now quite far away, it's wonderful to keep in touch and strengthen bonds with home.

I find that I don't have the time or energy to say any sort of culminating philosophical response to all the wonderful responses to this post, but I thank all who responded.

Love and Light,

11/10/05 7:16 PM  

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