by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1998)
“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
According to a dichotomous way of thinking, faith is reserved for religion and belief in God. But this is surely a mistake. Agnostics (undecided/it matters little) or atheists (there is no God) also have faith. The bifurcated way of mind that separates believer from non-believer needs rethinking. What I am proposing here is that the “faith state,” whether as belief in God or not, is vital to life. Full stop. For theists, of course, faith means belief in God and following a code of moral rectitude that follows from that belief. For atheists and agnostics, transformation of oneself and the world must be achieved through the powers and abilities of the individual and humanity alone, without aid or benefit from any imagined Transcendent Power. I should also mention in passing the Buddhist tradition of non-theism. But even here, the Buddha-mind is believed to reside in oneself rather than in some unique and personal, all-powerful, transcendent Deity. “Look to yourselves,” “Look within,” the Buddha is reported to have taught.
But I argue that even for atheists, agnostics or non-theists the faith state is still vital to life. How so? My argument, presented briefly in this limited space, follows a novel and insightful definition of faith elaborated by the great 20th century Protestant existentialist-essentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, in his little book The Dynamics of Faith (1957). Having faith, Tillich says, is “the state of being ultimately concerned.” Faith, Tillich argues, is whatever “can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group.” Now some orthodox theologians, those who follow the biblical word more closely, have qualified Tillich’s definition of faith as being too weak and impersonal. The belief in a personal God, they have argued, with some justification, is severely compromised by Tillich’s existentialist definition of faith. How, for example, do you pray to or connect with an Ultimate Concern? According to their reasoning, our ultimate concern should derive from the perception of the communicating Will of a Creator-God. Of course, the assumption of the existence of a Creator-God does not invalidate Tillich’s point. It may be seen to work in conjunction with it.
Tillich’s definition of faith is valid in the sense that it connects faith to psychology, something that all human being universally possess, whatever their belief system. And it connects to life itself. Being ultimately concerned gives earnestness and engagement to the “serious life,” as sociologist Émile Durkheim once defined religion. Tillich’s definition of faith takes it out of the framework of logical analysis, where proof and counter proof do battle in a purely intellectual exercise, and puts it squarely into the existential arena of real life. His definition is meant to say that faith must engage life and be seriously committed to it. The faith state, according to this standpoint, is not something that you and I can argue about, to be proven or disproved. It is rather something that we must inevitably live by. Of course, the quality and direction of a life will change according to whether one is a theist or an atheist, but both believer and non-believer can find common ground in engagement and “authenticity,” one of Heidegger’s favourite words.
Put differently, faith as ultimate concern may be indentified as our driving spiritual force, whatever takes on an absolute character, whatever becomes our main preoccupation. It represents the values by which we orient our life — those values for which we are willing to live, and if necessary, to die. In this sense, if one is a “true believer, ” there is no one, whether believer, agnostic or atheist, who does not possess faith of a kind; no one without a god, no soul without something to worship, no person without an ultimate value. Now the substance of faith differs widely, and one cannot minimize the fact that the object of this faith matters greatly. But it is important, at the first levels, to identify the process at work. Even if a complete reconciliation of believer and non-believer is not possible, it is still a valuable exercise to use this sort of existentialist theology as a Wittgensteinian or postmodern therapy, as a kind of probing to see whether or not there be any possible points of convergence. This type of theology is clarification. It should help us, at least, to see more clearly into the question and where the possibilities of common ground lie.
For some, being in the faith state of ultimate concern may mean the search for success, winning, influence, fame, love, power or money. For others, it may mean acquiring an academic degree or profession, marrying and having children and creating a rewarding and enriching family life. But Tillich’s key word is “ultimate.” This points, not primarily to temporal things, which preoccupy us sporadically at different moments in our lives, but to those lasting values by which we live, the things we hold hear and will still matter when we close our eyes for the last time.
Nature, according to the expression, abhors a vacuum. So too does spiritual life. And “spiritual” here, to speak only of the human kingdom, refers to all human beings with spirit: that is, every man, every woman, every child. Where ultimate or anxious concern is lacking, we shall fill the void with some thing else. This void may be filled by a chimeric or pernicious idols, ones that seriously undermine our true spiritual nature or degrade us in the end. If spiritual life, that is human life, is not filled with something noble, some worthy goal, some transcendent force, some wise life philosophy, then disillusion, despair, meaninglessness and hopelessness will gradually seep in to saturate our vision of life. We shall become sceptics and naysayers. But then, these negative states have often proved to be nothing more than the prelude to belief. Or, like the distracted, aimless, masses living in affluent western societies, we shall just drift along without purpose from day to day, like a solitary seed blown in the wind. Gradually we shall become jaded, embittered, or alternately, living only for the short-term and the thrill of the moment, letting the devil take tomorrow. Saddest of all, we may never discover who we really are. And this is the strangest of all life‘s ironies and the most tragic of scenarios: to live a lifetime with yourself and yet not know who you really are. To be truly lonely is to live in a state of estrangement from yourself. This is the primordial state into which Adam and his companion Eve fell as a result of their sin. Their sin was not only disobedience; it was also, and especially, ignorance. For they did not understand their true, essential nature. They allowed, in a moment of blindness, their human nature to overpower and thwart their divine nature. Once banished from Eden, it became their quest, and the quest of the entire human race with them, to recover their wholeness.
Trust and courage, and to borrow another famous phrase of Tillich’s, “the courage to be,” are particularly important virtues of living in the faith state. Briefly, it is the practice of informed trust, the precise inverse of “blind faith,” that brings things as yet unattained from the realm of the invisible into the visible world. For trust is a type of incisive vision. It means believing that what has not yet come to pass will assuredly do so. Faith as trust (Gk. pistis) is what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews called “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). Now who of us will undertake an important project without first believing that it will happen, whether she be theist or atheist? The faith state is also coupled with the ability to risk, to venture into creative enterprises and to think imaginatively. Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” must boldly dare. In the faith state, it is never too late, as Tennyson exhorted, to come and seek a better world.
In the final analysis, I ask myself, who among us really wants to be counted as an unbeliever? I mean who is really proud to affirm the negative of unbelief? For all true power, all healing life, comes from affirmation, not from denial. And if denial there must be, let it be informed denial, and committed to truth. For whatever is affirmed as being the ultimate, the ne plus ultra in our life, there is our God.