The Subtle Sensations of Faith

sun-horizonBy David Brooks, originally published at The New York Times.

The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith. As Wiman writes, “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget. Their spirits go dry and they doubt anything ever happened. But believers try, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, to stay faithful to those events. They assent to some spiritual element they still sense planted in themselves.

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

This article was originally written for and published at The New York Times, and is reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.


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5 Responses to The Subtle Sensations of Faith

  1. This is in my opinion one of the best non-gaudiya articles I’ve seen on the Harmonist. It just makes so much sense to me on an intellectual level. I especially liked this paragraph:

    “Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

    How true that is! True spirituality is about as far from bliss derived from ignorance as you can get. It’s exactly the opposite than what Marx was saying. In the initial stages it’s all about looking at life and yourself without the illusion of intoxication, whereas Marx’s ideology is based on an idea of material stability which from our perspective is one of the strongest types of illusion or “opiate”.

    • Marx was talking about religion as a social phenomenon, and it would be hard to argue that religion very often is indeed an intoxicant for the masses. So often in human history religion was a terrible dividing factor, leading to wars, organized torture, repression, persecution, and other disruptive and unpleasant human activities. Even in our times religion is sometimes used to justify horrific, brutal, and unjust activities. Islamic terrorism is perhaps the most glaring example of such behavior in our times, but hate crimes rooted in religion happen in other traditions as well.
      Obviously, Rabbi Soloveitchik has an entirely different take on religion, and certainly, some people indeed culture the type of faith he describes. But it is not an ‘either or’ proposition. There are all sorts of expressions of faith out there, and true spirituality is just one of them – one of the rather less common expressions, at least in my experience.

  2. Kula-pavanaji,

    I think you crystallized my point in your first sentence: Marx saw religion only as a social phenomenon and that made his vision of it very limited and, in my opinion, partially faulty. It’s true what Marx said on many levels but my point was simply that to lump all religion as “opiate of the masses” shows a lack of insight on the part of Marx and the article above shows how it is so.

    I don’t disagree at all that religion can turn into its and humanity’s worst enemy under certain conditions, I think there’s ample evidence of it in the history books and the news reports.

  3. Karl Marx was a rather smart man, so I’m sure he also understood religion in it’s personal aspect. He was home schooled by his very pragmatic father, who converted from Judaism to Lutheranism purely for social mobility sake. His mother was a very simple Jewish woman, much devoted to her family. Marx became an atheist in college, out of primarily social and philosophical considerations. He wanted to be a social activist, leaning heavily to the left, while coming from a very wealthy family firmly set on the right. Rebellion 101.
    Who knows is Marx had a more subtle side during his later years, when he became a self declared “scientific materialist”? If he did, it probably had nothing to do with spirituality. He was consumed by his social and political ideas to a point of neglecting even the needs of his own family (4 of his 7 children died when very young).

  4. I feel that you’re missing my point here.Or perhaps I’m missing your point. Let me try to clarify my previous point and hopefully it will show who’s not understanding who.

    When I said that Marx saw religion only as a social phenomenon the word “social” was meant in a broader sense, meaning basically the human physiological and psychological realm. So the personal aspect or religion would fall in the category of social in this definition as well.

    Since for Marx his scientific materialism was the foundation of his worldview, every kind of religion was a cute fairytale at best and a brutal distortion at worst. So that’s why I’m saying that Marx could never realte to the point of the article above, because for him, no matter in what form religion emerges, it’s always an “opiate” because it’s not based on reality.

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