“Are you a believer or non believer?” I sense a veiled threat in the question. Am I believer or an infidel, friend or foe? My father was an orphan in Liverpool and he talked of roving gangs of teenage boys accosting him with the question: “Protestant or Catholic?” The wrong answer brought on a beating.
Now, a generation later, when I hear someone ask if I’m a believer, I notice that they don’t complete the sentence with a predicate. My interrogator simply assumes that I know that he or she is asking me if I believe in Jesus Christ. Omitting this predicate implies the arrogant assumption that Christ is the only possible answer. From the point of view of the “true believer”, it is unnecessary to say His name.
As I’ve already stated, this question generates an uneasy feeling in me. While the implied threat (“you’re either for us, or against us”) might promote obedience or submission, it does little to bring forth authentic understanding and collaboration. We are living through a time when many seem to fervently believe that the fate of the world depends on whether a Christian or Muslim ethos dominates. Not only does this ignore whole populations, China for example, but also it brings closer the very fate which it purports to ward off. As the threat level ratchets up I suggest that other voices need to be heard. Here’s mine.
“Beliefs are like batteries that we plug into ideas to make them run”, alleged J.M. Coetzee. Belief as energy. Ideas as content or form.
This is a much different conception of belief than the one that opened this article. Coetzee seems to be separating or untangling the concept from the belief that animates it. Nevertheless within his reformulation confusion still persists. The difficulty is with Coetzee’s usage of the term “belief”. In common parlance when we speak of belief we are talking about an idea. “I believe in the free market.” “I believe in pluralism.” “I believe in Christianity.” “I believe that a faster computer will make me more potent.” “I believe in good manners.”
As we all know, some ideas carry more conviction than others. We commit to some, while holding others loosely. It is this “commitment” that interests me. This essay isn’t so much concerned with the “what” of belief—what we believe in (the idea, concept, theory or model) as it is with the act of believing—the psychic force that powers those ideas that we call beliefs.
We might also wonder, what happens to an idea once the battery has run down. We seem to be living in a time when the battery is running down on many ideas. For example, our present era has been called the age of irony. Irony is a way of (dis)qualifying belief. It is a wink… “Don’t take this at face value”. That wink, we are told, is characteristic of those from the blue states and notable by its absence from citizens of the red. The ironist is saying, “I don’t know anything for sure anymore—but I can’t just lapse into silence— I have to say something for heaven’s sake—so I’ll put ironic quotes around my statements so I can’t be accused of dogmatism.”
It is also the era of rising fundamentalism. There are no irony indicating quotation marks around their statements.
I am sketching out a struggle between a stance of sincerity and that of irony. I oscillate between the two…playing with irony and yearning for sincerity. I also see these stances contending in the culture that surrounds me. Sincerity seems to be associated with committed belief, at best and dangerous dogmatism, at worst. Irony, on the other hand, seems to be a qualified belief at best and mockery at worst.
Up to this point my writing seems to be articulating a set of oppositional terms (sincerity/irony; belief and disbelief) that suggest that I am about to separate the baby from the bathwater. Once I identify which of my two terms is good, and which, bad, we’ll be on our way (he said ironically). If I’ve given you that impression then, be advised, we are about to take a turn into complexity.
It is my opinion that when we lose the capacity to believe, something
has gone amiss. We are built to believe; that is our nature – so
this essay will argue. However, it is just as true that when we lose
the capacity to step back from some beliefs in order to examine and revise
them, then, trouble will also be forthcoming. These twin dangers confront
the postmodern citizen: unquestioning belief and corrosive nihilism.
I want to focus my attention of one particular subgroup of our modern community: the intelligentsia. Many in this group seem to have lost the ability to believe in some transcendent purpose. Consequently they no longer are a moral force in our culture. The meta-narratives of religion and ideology have been deconstructed and debunked—the battery has been unplugged. Consequently they’ve withdrawn from the force field leaving the right-wing as the only vital alternative.
How did we get to this point…a point where humanists lack a positive vision for the future while the right-wing believers have a map? How did we get to the point where an intelligent person is educated in a culture of skepticism so pervasive that it is taken it to be normative?
To answer that question, we have to look back to the Enlightenment—which could also be called the age of skepticism. These terms, enlightenment and skepticism, carry such different connotations. The former suggests that we will be released from the darkness of ignorance. Whereas the latter refers to a kind of “doubting Thomas” orientation – “I’m not going to take in everything tossed my way on pure faith.”
How could both terms refer to the same historical epoch? Perhaps “doubt” was the method, and “enlightenment”, the goal. In this age of irony have we kept the method and forgotten the goal? Have we kept ideas and abandoned belief? Are we left with weak or hollowed out thought?
Enlightenment thinkers used methodological doubt to undermine the hold that tradition, superstition and religion had on the minds of the masses. Doubt was used as a solvent to separate people from their beliefs. Doubt worked by unplugging the battery of belief—then, supposedly, the idea could be evaluated objectively.
Again I’m oversimplifying. Belief and doubt are always present
in some kind of mixture or ratio. For example, during traditional times
there were wide spread unquestioned beliefs and probably some unacknowledged
doubts. However with the Enlightenment, the momentum tilted away from
the act of believing in favour of the skeptic’s stance. Or perhaps
it would be more correct to say that we shifted our allegiance from traditional
beliefs to the scientific mind set. Or, we withdrew our loyalty from
a sacred worldview and invested it in instrumental reason—the orientation
of science and technology.
Now we’ve come to a time when our belief in the scientific, technological, bureaucratic frameworks appears depleted or exhausted—or, at the very least, limited. T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland describes such a culture. Both the individual and society suffer a loss of robustness and vitality when the capacity to believe can’t find a home. There is a kind of emptying out of the life force that formerly animated rationalism and its products: science, technology and bureaucracy. We are waiting for something in which to believe.
What is involved in believing? Something reaches beyond the self. To quote Rumi, the Persian mystic: “Just as thirst implies the existence of water, so with the yearning for God.” He is pointing to a relationship between desire and its destination.
When we believe: something arises within us and surges toward the beyond, thereby escaping the gravitational field of the self. Like a sun spot that flares up from the sun’s surface; reaching into space. This force finds something out there on which to fasten. The result is a connection between the self and its object…each exerts a pull on the other. This is how the dynamic of becoming is set in motion. We become our beliefs.
In my own experience, I recently applied to do a PhD program in which I finally wished to confront my destiny. I found that as I committed to this program that my self began to mobilize and organize. The metaphor of a magnet suggests itself. I felt myself “lining up” up my impulses. Rather than being dispersed and fragmented I began to feel whole once again. I had a lot of “clean energy” at my disposal. Paper work that was normally depleting now served a larger purpose. No more wasted time. No more looking for distractions to fill in the belief void.
As a psychotherapist I’ve suggested to clients that they imagine a future to which they can commit. The process, I tell them, is similar to that of a mountain climber throwing a rope with a grappling hook at its end. The climber hurls the rope up a cliff face, hoping that it will lodge in a cranny that will support his or her weight and allow themselves some purchase or hold to continue their climb.
“Throw your belief into a desirable future and watch as you pull
yourself and it pulls you, towards it.”
For those who prefer a little supportive scientific evidence, let me cite an experiment designed by Charles Tart. He asked his subjects to sit in quiet room and give their attention to a vase sitting on a table. Each trial lasted for a half hour and there were ten trials. He instructed them to note when their attention drifted away from the vase, into discursive thinking. Upon noticing the drift, the student was asked to redirect his or her attention back to the vase.
His subjects reported that the quality of their experience changed as they practiced his instructions. “I could feel the curve of the vase in my own body.” “I felt like the vase and I began to merge.” In short, the subject and the object began to fuse – to establish a connection with two poles.
I think that “believing” partakes of much the same dynamic. When we give our whole hearted attention to something not only do we extend towards it, it begins to comes into us. As in viewing a beautiful painting. We enter it as it enters us. It is a reciprocal relationship. Mutually implicating; co-mingling. We fuse with something that lies beyond the so called subject/object boundary.
Rather than the more usual experience of roaming around in the chambers of the mind, one extends beyond – into the world, into an imagined future, into a religious idea, etc. In the psychotherapeutic example noted above, the future self and the present self act like poles in an electro- magnetic field. The current of energy flows. It is that energy that gives some ideas power or force while its absence makes other ideas weak and transient. Collectively we withdrew our belief from a traditional world view anchored in a sacred conception of life and re-invested it in a scientific, rationalistic, orientation. Now, as the results come in, that investment is looking a bit shaky.
There is a flaw in the scientific worldview that went unnoticed and I’m backtracking—trying to detect it. A more nuanced examination of the Enlightenment project may be helpful. I’m claiming that believing is an act of excess—one goes beyond the boundary that separates self from other. Not everyone supposes that voiding this border is a good thing. Descartes, for example, might have argued that establishing this border line made rationality possible. According to him, we are on the near side of this line and the world is on the far side. Once this line is established one can begin to develop notions of causality and control. Categories could be developed and hierarchical relationships between the categories. All, well and good…or so it seemed.
However, once Descartes dualism was accepted as fact, it was but a short step to substitute “picture” or image of the world for the thing itself. That is, the establishment of a gap or boundary between oneself and the world is the thin edge of the wedge that makes all experience subjective. We then proceed by conceptualizing ourselves as interacting via our models or representations of the world. All our experience is second hand, not direct. With the Enlightenment we moved from Self ?? World; to Self ? ? World Model. As Blake put it, after Newton we saw with our eyes rather than through them. Descartes showed us how to withdraw our belief from the world and, instead, practice a “disinterested” stance, a dispassionate attitude – in short, a disposition that would supposedly lead to objectivity.
I hope that you can see where I’m going here: by withdrawing from the world—in order to be objective—we strip it of its reality. Paradoxically we “lose” the objective pole, by straining for impartiality. In our striving for the “view from nowhere” we lose our connection to the world. We have unplugged the battery that animates.
What that unplugging produced was a “disenchanted world”. Let me try to ground this idea of disenchantment with a personal experience. At times I’ve attempted to see my romantic partner “objectively” by temporarily withdrawing my psychic investment. “Let’s see who she really is when I stop propping her up with my belief.” What did I discover as a result? A desiccated image. I wasn’t seeing this woman “objectively”. My perception was conditioned by my psychic distance rather than by her face, body or gesture. You could say that what I was seeing was not so much the true version of my partner as much as the residue of my withdrawal. When we accept Cartesian dualism our experience of the world is inevitably denatured.
Conversely, for many people the only occasion for dropping the boundary is romantic love. Infatuation is the delicious experience of co-mingling with the other…a refreshing trans-fusion. For awhile the whole world is alive and resonating with meaning. After some time we might revert to a compromise: one’s lover or child is alive, vital while everything else in the environment returns to an abstract or sketchy representation.
In the world generated by animism, on the other hand, matter is alive, not inert and dead. Pantheism takes it one step further by making everything sacred. Everything…not just the consciousness on the near side of the subject/object boundary. Let me correct myself: the pantheist doesn’t make it sacred; rather he or she realizes its sacredness. The pantheist dwells within a sacred world.
When we give our attention wholeheartedly to that which is around us, we enter a different world…and a different world enters us.
Something is being passed back and forth. And this “something” makes all the difference to my experience of the world. In fact I don’t experience “the world” rather I am Being-In-The-World. When we are in the world, it is an enchanted one. When we withdraw into the “objective” attitude we generate a disenchanted world.
What do the words like “pantheism”, “animism”, “enchantment” actually mean? They mean that I live in a world where the trees in my backyard are alive…and they’re watching/witnessing me. They are living totem poles. They are beings to whom I am accountable. (I am less likely to throw a candy wrapper on the street when others are watching...but a dead tree?) Now, I sense that the trees are watching…this is what I mean by accountable.
This may all seem fantastic if you haven’t had the experience. Let me offer an incident which might be more accessible. I recently spent some time in Hawaii. I was unusually relaxed and felt myself extending into the environment as I walked and drove around Maui. I felt expansive. In very short order my environment became familiar to me; I seemed to know where I was situated on the grid without having to figure it out. I didn’t have to follow the map but rather could invent short cuts that traversed “unknown” territory. It seemed that my expansiveness was generating tendrils of consciousness that were probing the landscape. I was insinuating myself into Hawaii. And it inhabited me.
On the other hand I’ve had experiences where I’ve been gripped by the cold hand of paranoia and even the most familiar street in my home city looked strange. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know because I’d withdrawn from the world and, consequently, it appeared unfamiliar and strange.
The opposite occurs when I “give over” to a client rather than trying to “objectively” remember everything that they’ve said. If I give my undivided attention; if I ease the subject/object boundary out of the way, then, the next time I see my client, our earlier conversation returns spontaneously…no consulting my notes; no straining to remember. On the other hand when I hold myself back, in order to keep track and “remember” what they’ve said, my client gradually becomes an image and not a person.
Where am I going with all this? It seems to me that many of the ills of our modern world come from this withdrawal and disenchantment. It is easy to exploit nature when it appears as a mere abstraction – “sure, why not extract oil and wood from this land and those trees”. And if we live in a disenchanted world of course we will want stimulation and entertainment because we are experiencing spiritual starvation. One’s soul can not be nourished by abstractions so we look for distractions. And if we live in a political climate of paranoia and fear then we will withdraw our belief from the world and subsequently find it and its inhabitants strange and alien – terror and terrorists. If we want an enchanted world then we will have to plug back into it. Once there, we will find ourselves in a state of enchanted dependency.
I shall conclude with a quote:
“ By winter, the choice was clear: either commit to me—this fearful little guy clinging to these pathetic hopes, fears, memories, ideas, ambitions, to this whole interior rigmarole—or commit to the world, which was more complicated, more mysterious, more likely to be right and more merciless than I could ever anticipate.” Greg Hollingshead On Knowing Everything
So, what am I saying to the intelligentsia and to myself? It is no longer viable to withdraw one’s life force and retreat into irony and worse still nihilism. We can learn from the understandable mistake of the right wing’s withdrawal from the complicated, mysterious world of now in favour of the nostalgic beliefs that that structured a world that has vanished. Like Mr. Hollingshead, we need to commit to the only world that we have...this world.