Thursday, July 29

Faith, Sight, And Plato’s Cave

Like any other ideology-based group or community, Christian communities – churches and even entire denominations – have their own hortatory idioms, their own shibboleths, often drawn from the biblical text itself. One of the biggies for me, growing up as a fundamentalist Baptist, was “Saved by grace through faith,” right out of Ephesians 2:8-9. As a Catholic, I remember being admonished to “Follow your [i.e., my] vocation [or sometimes ‘calling’]”.  As a non-fundamentalist but still conservative evangelical Christian, I well remember assurances that “God has a wonderful plan for your [my] life” (usually those exact words). Now, just so there is no misunderstanding, most of the time, these exhortations are just harmless rhetoric. (Usually … there are exceptions, e.g., the “Follow your vocation” locution drove my wife and me halfway across the North American Continent and plunged me into a dangerously black, it may well have been suicidal, clinical depression. So vocational counseling-by-slogan is not without its own indigenous hazards. But anyway … ) However, one of the more pernicious – because drawn verbatim from a biblical text – locutions is “We walk by faith and not by sight” from I Cor. 5:6-8. (A respectable second in terms of the potential for catastrophe is St. Paul’s reassurance in Romans 8:28 that “All things work together for good … ,” but that is a rant for another time.) Those eight little words about "walk[ing] by faith" are like a grapefruit-sized sphere of weapons-grade plutonium-239:  under the right conditions, they can be horrifically destructive.

Now, “walk[ing] by faith and not by sight” is meretricious enough on its own terms. But the potentiality for disaster is immeasurably enhanced when one reflects that this admonition is issued in the service and at the behest of a monotheistic religion and its monotheistic God, i.e. One Big Guy. For, within the context of monotheistic religion, “Walk by faith and not by sight” has two distinct but complimentary effects:

(1) Because the command is, at least implicitly, issued by the One Big Guy (hereafter OBG) who is essentially running The Show of human history, “Walk by faith and not by sight” assumes the proportions of an imperative command. There is no “Thanks, but no thanks” option on the menu. The “Thou shalt” prefacing the principle is no less urgent for being mostly implicit:  “(Thou shalt) walk by faith and not by sight”

(2) Anyone who seriously undertakes the task of “Walk[ing] by faith and not by sight” does, as a matter of practical fact, paint a bull’s-eye on her back over the caption “Here I am … please gas-light me by commanding me to believe or to do something that I know to be wrong morally and / or factually”.  (I have written about gas-lighting in a kind of offhand way here. But the practice of gas-lighting is so all-pervasive in today's political climate, I thought it might be good to devote an entire column to the subject.) Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her predecessor, Sean Spicer, as White House Press Secretary, did this routinely, e.g., Spicer by habitually showing the sparse Inauguration Day crowds on the Mall attending Trumps’ Inauguration and repeated with a straight face that they were the largest Inauguration Day crowds in the Republic’s history; Sanders by insisting, with an equally straight face, that the embarrassed silence of the audience after a typical Trumpian absurdity was intended by the audience as a respectful “moment of silence”. Such are the absurdities consequent upon the practice of “Walking by faith and not by sight” in the service of One Big Guy, be it God or Donald Trump:  in the minds of the “faith walkers”, there is no such ontological distinction.

This latter consequence, in fact, is the more dangerous of the two. For it means that the epistemology of monotheistic religion is "already always" susceptible to the members of that religion being "played" by the age-old technique of gas-lighting. I have mentioned this term before, and it might be well to pause here to give a brief history of the term and of how it relates to other areas of life: religion in particular.

Gaslight is a legendary 1944 psychological thriller in which an unscrupulous suitor attempts to convince his newlywed wife that she is going insane in order to protect a secret whose revelation would be ruinous for him. (The plot is quite complex, so I am skating over some major details here. I recommend you watch the movie itself to learn more.) Toward that end, he manages to convince her that, even though she is quite sane, that she is in the process of going insane, and that her derangement is proceeding apace. He accomplishes this by convincing her that, e.g., her perceptions of quite mundane, even self-evident, reality are in fact delusions by her ostensible mental illness

All religions make statements that are highly counterintuitive, even non-theistic religions like Buddhism, Taoism, etc., etc.. The reason theistic religions are especially susceptible to this epistemological hazard are precisely that: they are theistic. That is, they rely for their authority, not on one's personal experience, but, quite the contrary, on the commands and exhortations issued by the God as the Head of the religion. To be sure, one's personal experience is always, at least in principle, open to question, and its principles subject to constant critique and falsification (or verification). Buddhism -- and, for that matter, Taoism -- tells me that what I conceive of as my self, my ego, is, in fact, a socially derived construct. There is no "ghost in the machine" piloting my body like the combat soldiers piloting the giant robots in the movie Pacific Rim. I may, and, in fact, would be well-advised to, take the guidance and advice of my sensei, my spiritual director, under serious advisement, because of my sensei's greater experience in Buddhist teaching and practice. But ultimately, my sensei's authority is purely practical and moral: my sensei has been at this much longer than I. That authority is not absolute and incontrovertible. The poet Linji even said that "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" -- purely as a figure of speech, mind you, because Buddhism teaches reverence for all life -- because the path of the Buddha, i.e., of the individual, historical person Gautama Siddhartha, is almost certainly not your path.

But in the case of monotheistic religions, authority is absolute and simply beyond question. In particular, when any monotheistic religion tells me something, rejecting what it tells me as inconsistent with my personal experience is not only merely incorrect, as it might very well be in a non-theistic tradition, that rejection is also positively immoral, because I am rejecting, not only the teaching, but also the authority of the tradition's OBG: I reject, not only a teaching, but a Divine command. See point (1) above.

Any monotheistic religion always, at least potentially, places one in the position of the bride in the movie Gaslight: at some point, you have to make a choice between accepting your own personal experience for what it is, or accepting the contrary principle the monotheistic religion teaches you. (In fairness, there are by now, i.e. post-Reformation, many more liberal Christian traditions that make serious accommodation for the use of one's personal experience and one's personal rational faculty, e.g., many United Methodist Churches [even after the recent rather traumatic conference on the status of LGBTQIA people], most Anglican / Episcopal churches, and virtually all Unitarian-Universalist Churches, assuming the latter qualify as part of the specifically Christian tradition). At least, that is my take as an outsider on the state of affairs in American Christendom as it currently stands. But even so, for most of the history of Christianity, I would still insist that the principle of "Walk by faith and not by sight" has been the source of immensely more harm than good, immensely more productive of sclerotic morality than of tolerance of ambiguity (e.g., think of the still-ongoing controversy of same-sex marriage and the abortion issue). It is simply silly to say, as G. K. Chesterton allegedly did, that those who believe in nothing will believe in almost anything. That simply cheapens the debate. It would be more serious to say that those who insist on consulting their own experience are less prone to being gaslighted.

Plato's Cave of Illusion from Plato's "Republic"

But saying that one's personal experience must be consulted is quite different from saying that one's personal experience is infallible. Of course, there are standards for truth, for determining what counts as factual and what does not, Kellyanne Conway notwithstanding. There was a time when everyone believed that the speed of light was infinite, i.e., that was part of everyone's personal experience. But it was later discovered that light travels with an immense, but still finite, velocity: 300,000 km / sec, to be precise. In fact, the parable of Plato's Cave in Plato's Republic is a cautionary tale about the necessity of critiquing one's personal experience: had the inmates of the Cave of Illusion never escaped to the outside world, and thereby discovered a basis to critique what they had seen inside the Cave, they would have persisted in believing that the shadows they saw projected on the cave wall were the reality. But this only means that one's personal experience must be critiqued by reference to some common, commonly agreed-upon, and publicly available reality. The inmates of the Cave could all compare their experience in the Cave with their experience of the world outside, and conclude that it was the shadows that were illusions. The problem with doing this with monotheistic religions is that there is no such commonly agreed-upon criterion. The Pew Foundation estimates that there roughly 40 thousand different versions of Christianity in the world. So, in the case of Christianity -- and, I would insist, religion in general -- the issue is simply this: What is the standard? Who is right? Who is wrong?

Absent some such criterion, the only way out of the Cave of Illusion is your way, which may or may not be, generally will not be, anyone else's. Religions that insist otherwise are merely dark, gas-lit paths that dead-end back in the Cave of Illusion.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Image credits

Plato's cave image … 4Edges, own work … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Trees with fog … Photographer unknown … Public domain
Rainbow … Wing Chi Poon … CC by SA 2.5
"Gaslight" poster … Artist unknown … Fair use, no copyright infringement intended
Trump's Inauguration Day crowds … 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee … Public domain

1 Comment

  • Always interesting. Always compelling reading, James. Very insightful piece that reminds me how thankful I am to have a mind (largely) of my own and experience of my own and a belief that we are all quite uniquely … well, unique, by virtue of the combination of our genetic make up and environmental influences. It is so much more worrying here in the UK, which so much division and a loss of ‘faith’ in politics, that extreme parties from both ends of the human spectrum, are coming out of the rotting woodwork and doing just as you describe: gas-lighting those disillusioned enough, those with insufficient ‘experience’ and/or (seemingly) ability to think for themselves, into a worrying critical mass of support of people, with whom rational, let alone dialectic discourse becomes almost impossible. There is much favour in the media with spectacle, show and sensationalism to allow this. Common sense and human experience is receding, not advancing. Are we, I wonder, entering an age of un-enlightenment?

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