But if faith is truly an art form, a path to experiences and knowledge as opposed to explanations and interpretations, then what are our tools? After all, a painter has his paint and brushes, and a musician has his instrument, but what does the faithful have in order to live meaningfully? Surely there must be something in common that individuals of faith share that we can look to as our instruments, as our tools to expressing the inexpressible within us? I say that they are two such things.
The first tool we have at our disposal is our actions. Practices of a faith, collectively displayed in a faith’s ethical (and cosmical) system, are how we make the faith tangible. Our actions are the part of faith that we can touch; it is how we bring the potentialities of our lives into actuality, how we define our selves, how we give shape to our existence. But action isn’t the only tool we have. We also have belief1.
If actions are what give shape to our existence, beliefs are what color it. Beliefs are the intangible aspect of our faith, and they provide a myriad of potentialities to bring into actuality. From the wide palette of beliefs we have at our disposal we can create truly poetic lives; by acting on these beliefs we do more than simply survive, and instead we begin to truly live.
By faith we intuit our steps and our actions; by moving in time to the rhythm within. Our hands paint with the brush of action, and our colors are the people and circumstances around us. By faith our creations become more than simply useful, and become beautiful. Faith is art.
- G. Boyd, “Faith as Art”
Together, the beliefs we hold and the actions by which we make them real can lead to truly life-changing experiences; handled with skill, they can create an existence as beautiful as any painting of Michelangelo or any symphony of Beethoven. Through these two tools, we become more than the sum of our parts, transcending ordinary reality not only to achieve something greater, but to become something greater. Because faith is more than just a way of living: it is a way of being; it speaks of existence, of our very core, of everything every experience of ours could ever point to.
But faith has been distorted of late. It is attacked and defended equally by those who don’t understand it; it has been mishandled and misconstrued beyond all recognition. We speak of “faith versus reason” or “faith versus science,” as though the two were ever meant to be applied towards the same ends, and it would appear that there is no reconciliation in sight. There is, however, a glimmer of hope, and that lies in recognizing the utility of belief in the art of faith.
If you look closely at the arguments for and against faith, you’ll begin to see patterns emerge: faith is most often attacked based on the content of its beliefs, while it is likewise most often defended based on the effects it produces. So critics rail against proponents of Intelligent Design as misguided, ignorant, or even deceitful, ultimately because science can find no strong evidence for the claims of Intelligent Design; at the same time proponents defend their claims ultimately because they see these specific interpretations as being inseparable from their experience of an Intelligent Designer, an experience which has profoundly changed their lives and the lives of those around them. Neither side can think of changing their position, but should they? I say that neither should, but I also say that both need a change in perspective.
If our goal is accuracy of explanation, if we are truly trying to be as factually correct as possible, then we need the broadest possible perspective to see if our claims fully hold up. That means that we have to be willing to honestly consider the claims of others, subjecting them to rigorous testing in order to see where our own understandings need to be adjusted and reshaped, or where the claims of others need to be rejected. So science is correct in rejecting incredible claims when it can find no evidence to back it up, and critics are correct in rejecting the content of beliefs on these grounds. However…
If our actual goal is accuracy of experience, if we are doing what we can to preserve those powerful moments of our existence where we know, not just think, but know what is real and what is not, then beliefs are simply a tool to get us to that experience. During the experience, we must throw our full selves into the beliefs; we must take the symbols for themselves, not constantly thinking of what they represent or whether they are factually correct, but simply accept them as they are, and experience whatever they lead to. It is a creative process, and a beautiful one at that, and it requires more than a suspension of disbelief; it requires actual, active belief.
After the experience, though, no matter how normative and life-changing the experience was, and no matter how positive and long-lasting the effects are, the only way to think accurately about the experience itself is to suspend belief, to subject it to rigorous criticism, and to allow our interpretations to be put through the fire. We must understand that, if our interpretation proves to be faulty, this says nothing of the experience itself. Even in discovering that everything we thought we knew about the experience was incorrect, we can still return to the beliefs to have the same experience. Accepting as factually correct that there is no Intelligent Designer does not negate the experience of one; the experience was and will always be true, even if your understanding of the experience changes. This means that even an atheist can have a “God experience” if he but believes in and interacts with God; having this experience does not require that afterwards he accepts the supernatural as an accurate explanation of his experience.
My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river. Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.
- Siddharta Gautama
A painter picks up a brush and palette when he goes to paint. When he’s not painting, though, what use do these tools have to him? Yes, he must use these tools for what they are when he’s painting, but afterwards he is free to put them down and even analyze them to better understand their place in his art. He doesn’t force uses onto the brush and paint; he allows their natural uses and strengths to shine through, enabling him to focus more clearly on simply making real the images within him. And that is where we must go in our understanding of faith.
If we truly value faith, we will want to preserve it for what it is, and cast off our ideas of it where they are found wanting. To reach any kind of reconciliation between proponents of faith and those of reason, we must view faith as art. We must be able to value the experiences of faith, those meaningful, Purpose-filled experiences, as the most important experiences of our lives. We must be able to recognize that a life without Purpose is no life at all, that it is just a surviving instead of the thriving it could be.
At the same time, we must not hold blindly on to the contents of the beliefs that lead to those experiences. If they don’t prove to be accurate descriptions of the world, then we must accept that. Their inaccuracy says nothing about the power or reality of the experiences that they lead to. Those experiences are quite real, but to speak accurately of them we must suspend our belief in them. We must accept what role beliefs play in the art of faith, and we must not force them to be more than what they are. If we truly value faith, we will want to practice it in as true a form as possible.
Faith is art, and we must accept our role as artists and belief’s role as a tool. With all of the energy and resources wasted on arguing for and against the wrong things, this reconciliatory perspective is more than just a nice idea.
The future of faith and of reason depends on it.
1. “Belief” here is used as I originally set forth in “What is the Meaning of Life?” that is, any interpretation of a phenomenon that is not tangibly tested. To recap, this includes anything that cannot be tangibly tested by anyone (e.g. purely subjective aspects of experience where the facts aren’t objectively available) as well as anything that simply isn’t tangibly testable in the current situation (e.g. emotions and desires under normal conditions). This sets beliefs in contrast with facts, which are explanations for phenomena that have been arrived at through tangible testing of the phenomena in question.