Saturday, December 13, 2008

What is Faith?

Faith as the Reverse of Materialism

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 13, 02 Masa'il 165 BE

A conversation with Peter and the regulars at our Philosopher's Cafe on Thursday night aroused my interest in the definition of faith. Before looking at what faith is, it is useful to look first at one of its opposites, materialism.

Materialism is the belief, implicit or not, that matter is not just essential, it is the "be all and end all," the sole basis of truth and values. Spirit, freewill or any supposed existence beyond sensory evidence are either downplayed or denied outright. The Qur'an defines materialism not as a belief but a practice, as a context where immediate loves crowd out ultimate reality,

"This because they love the life of this world better than the Hereafter: and God will not guide those who reject Faith." (Q16:107, Yusuf Ali)

Commercialism might be called "applied materialism." Through advertising it systematically seeds materialist values into the minds of youth by crowding out any thought of eternal existence by arousing what Abdu'l-Baha called "self-purposes." Ephemeral desires and aspirations blot out goals worthy of eternal existence and drag us inexorably into war, violence and, as we have seen with the present economic downturn, "stagflation" and depression. This, Baha'u'llah warned, is death incarnate. "Methinks ye are as dead, wrapped in the coverings of your own selves." (Summons, 231) Abdu'l-Baha warned against the "self-purposes" that cause all this,

"Now is the time for unity. Lay aside all self-purposes, and know for a certainty that all men are the servants of one God Who will bind them together in love and agreement.'" (Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 322)

According to this, then, faith is certain knowledge that all are God's servants, and that God's goal is peace. But this overarching value of peace does not mean that servants of God do not struggle. Faith is constant struggle against ignorance and whatever obstructs a broader understanding. This war of purification is not ethnic or any other kind of violent, external cleansing. Faith purifies us from whatever distorts a longer perspective. Faith's inward struggle was described thus,

"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds, throwing down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God..." (2 Cor 10:3-6, WEB)

The ways of materialism and the values of faith are completely different. Speaking of the non-involvement of Baha'is in politics, Abdu'l-Baha in the following seems to imply that the Baha'i way is closer to early Christianity in its abstention from "worldly matters" than politically embroiled religious systems such as Judaism and Islam.

"Before all else, this divine cycle is purely heavenly and spiritual, and concerned with the matters of the soul. It hath but little connection to physical, temporal, or worldly matters. The Christian dispensation was in like manner solely spiritual. Thus, in the entire New Testament, there appeareth naught but the prohibition of divorce and the allusion to the abrogation of the Sabbath. Even as He saith, 'the Son of man came not to judge the world but to save the world'. This most great cycle is likewise of purely spiritual character and is the bestower of life eternal. For the head cornerstone of the religion of God consisteth in refining the characters, reforming the manners, and improving the attributes of men. The purpose is that beings that are veiled may see, and that dark and defective realities may become illumined." (AB, qi The Universal House of Justice, 2001 Apr 18, Clarification of Various Issues Raised by Provisional Translations, p. 2)

In the eyes of worldly people, religious faith, concerned as it is with prayer, fasting, reflection, meditation and reading of Holy Writ, is a waste of time at best. But from the aspect of eternity, this schooling instils an entirely new, transcendent level of knowledge. Thus faith is indeed a kind of knowledge, but not of the ordinary kind. Faith is knowledge of things, ideas, personalities and forces unseen by this world.

However valid the claim of materialism that direct experience of sensations is reliable may be, such can never be claimed of spirit. God, the supreme but personal Being, dominates the mind-set of faith. He knows better on all counts. Surely, therefore, the first thing that the knowledge of faith teaches is humility. Abdu'l-Baha, the Baha'i exemplar, wrote,


"Meekness and humility are the hallmarks of faith. As soon as a  believer feels himself the least degree superior to others, the beginning of his spiritual decline has set in, all unaware to himself. ... The difference between me and others is this: I confess and acknowledge my own inability, weakness and humility, and know that all these outward confirmations are the favors of the Blessed Perfection. There are some who imagine, and little by little come to believe, that their spiritual successes are by and through themselves." (Baha'i Scriptures, 449-450)

On the other hand, the hallmark of materialism is arrogance. If you believe that only what you can immediately see, touch and taste are real, then everything you come across and believe in are utterly inferior. It is alright to be as violent as you please since that is only asserting your rights over inferior sensory data.

Baha'u'llah in the Tablet of Wisdom unified the Western philosophic tradition with the humility of Eastern faith when He asserted that Socrates gained his wisdom from a divine revelation of the truth. The very word "philosophy," which means love of wisdom, began with the self-professed ignorance of Socrates. He was wise because he did not know. This realization ties directly with Biblical teaching about wisdom, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever," (Ps 111:10) and about the fallibility of our grasp,


"Who can discern his errors? Forgive me from hidden errors. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Then I will be upright, I will be blameless and innocent of great transgression." (Psalm 19:12-13, WEB)



Faith goes beyond an attitude of humility, though. Complete humility is cowering in our bed, never arising to change the world for fear that whatever we accomplish might be an ill-founded castle built on sand. Faith is action performed in firm confidence in the ability of God and His spirit to make change for the better. Faith, then, is implicit obedience conditioning a humble stance to do far more than either could accomplish alone. As the noonday prayer puts it, "I bear witness that thou hast created me to know thee and to worship thee." In other words, philosophy, love of knowledge; or love of wisdom. Wisdom is guidance inspired by what is beyond present grasp; that is, obedience to God's law. As Guardian put it,



"Are we to doubt that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of man? Is not faith but another word for implicit obedience, whole-hearted allegiance, uncompromising adherence to that which we believe is the revealed and express will of God, however perplexing it might first appear, however at variance with the shadowy views, the impotent doctrines, the crude theories, the idle imaginings, the fashionable conceptions of a transient and troublous age? If we are to falter or hesitate, if our love for Him should fail to direct us and keep us within His path, if we desert Divine and emphatic principles, what hope can we any more cherish for healing the ills and sicknesses of this world?" (Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, 62-63)



John Taylor



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