Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
Philosophy is the careful exploration of the unknown driven by the hope of achieving, through reflection and conversation, a fuller understanding of some aspect of ourselves or our world. To explore one must be ready to admit that much of the world, and ourselves, is unknown to us. Philosophy is inextricable linked, therefore, with a dedication to honesty and ignorance. To proceed successfully, I need to recognize and accept my ignorance. Then, and only then, I can begin to expand my understanding of the important questions we all must face.
Faith admits no such ignorance. Faith says that we have TRUTHS and these truths cannot be questioned. Faith perceives doubt, questions, or disagreement as personal weakness or sin. Lack of faith is perceived as a flaw to be corrected through discipline. Only by eliminating doubt, can one maintain faith. Faith, then, is not a program for answering questions, it is a program for eliminating the possibility of asking questions. In the end, faith depends on systematically extending ignorance, both of ourselves and our world.
In Pascal’s Pensées, a man of deep philosophical insight attempted to argue himself out of questioning his Christian faith. The premise, of course, dooms him to failure. He attempts to prove to himself that his faith must be correct. The longer he thinks and writes in this vein, the less convincing he becomes. Eventually he hits on one of the most faith-free arguments for the belief in god that has ever been conceived:
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.
With defenders of faith like these, who needs enemies? Pascal is forced back on arguments like his famous wager because time and again he found the strictures of faith on his own capacity to reason insidious. He was driven on because he felt he had had a direct experience of god in a vision. He was thus faced with the problem of how to prove to other people that which he knew from experience – from direct evidence – when he could not provide them with the same experience; an encounter with god? In the end, he never finished the work and, on his death, it was found sewn into the lining of his coat. The remarkable clarity of thought in this volume stems from his failure to accept faith. He can think because he cannot dispel his doubt.
Religion, as is sometimes claimed, is not the enemy of careful thinking. Many of the worlds most important thinkers have been religious, including Siddhartha Gautama, Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Socrates, and, as mentioned, Blaise Pascal. However, their works make clear that they were men of virtually no faith(one may, surprisingly, include Søren Kierkegaard in this list). Several of them wanted faith, some of them claimed they had faith, but their writings or speeches – Socrates and Siddhartha left no writings of their own – demonstrate minds questing to understand free from, or often in opposition to – the faiths they should have held. Thomas Aquinas was Sainted for bringing together Christianity and Classical logic. The project, though, was undertaken because Christianity needed the Classics, not because the classics needed Christianity.
In contemporary American thought, religion and faith have become so intertwined as to seem inseparable. Yet the primary requirements of most religions has not been faith but obedience. As long as one acted as if one were a Christian, then whatever one thought was fine. The scholastic debates of the middle-ages took place on the grounds of what things meant. For instance, what was the nature of faith. As long as one is trying to understand faith, then one demonstrably lacks it.
At various times, our own being one of them, the discussion has been silenced and any questions have been seen as in themselves heretical. The Inquisition was an instrument to defeat heresy – the process of thinking about one’s religion. As long as I have the capacity to think about what my religion might mean and to come to conclusions different from other practitioners then one can have religion and philosophy. However, if certain claims are necessarily true and any deviation is punished, then philosophy becomes impossible.
Faith, then, works to preclude careful thought. It is not, however, limited to religion. Ask an American if democracy is a good thing and they will say yes. Ask them why it is a good thing and they will tend to look at you oddly – it simply is a good. Such moments of suspended thought are examples of unquestioned belief. However, Americans tend to take it a step further. Presented with evidence that democracy has some fundamental problems and may not be functioning that well in any case, they will respond with a shrug or a defense that democracy simply is good by definition. It is when the belief cannot be questioned or even articulately considered that it passes over into faith and real thinking stops.
Philosophy, under this understanding, has little appeal precisely because it wants to explore questions that are not generally understood as questions. Is there a God? Is democracy good? Does love exist? Is religion a force of destruction? In general, we either passively or actively resist thinking about these subjects and pretend they have been answered. Philosophy, striking out for the unknown, transgresses the boundaries of our assumptions and gives us the opportunity, if we begin with humility and courage, to discover the unknown lands of ourselves and our world.