God - Recovery of faith
by Kathleen Raine
Faith is one of the three 'theological virtues' of Christianity, along with Hope and Charity (love) and is described by St Paul as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen". The passage continues: "Through faith we understand that worlds were formed by the word of God, to that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" (Hebrews 11.1-3).
The Sovereign of England bears the title fidei defensor (defender of the faith). The 'faith', within Christendom, is understood to be the Christian religion, and in England to be Church of England, but the Prince of Wales wants to be the "defender of faith", which in modern England includes not only Jews and Catholics but also Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims.
The opposite of faith is doubt, which has itself become an orthodoxy in the modern West and westernised world, claiming the authority of science, culminating in the theory that the universe was created not by the 'word of God' but by a 'big bang', purposeless and meaningless. Thus the ground of 'faith' has disappeared. This may well be the cause of the psychological breakdown of whole societies, which have lost a sense of security essential to life. We open our eyes on a world whose security we do not doubt—the love of our nurturing mother, the certainty of day and night, the whole phenomenal world is firmly established with ourselves in it. Faith is a norm. The sanatana dharma, the 'perennial philosophy', relates us to our reality and adapts us to our environment. Vedic hymns express the dawning of faith as mankind experienced the emergence of living agents, the 'gods', of inner and outer worlds, still inseparably one: Usha, goddess of dawn and of promise, Savitr the rising sun and awakening consciousness, Surya the sun in his glory and fullness of life. The world is experienced as an eternal epiphany, as in St Paul's words, formed not by "things which do appear" but "by the word of God".
Loss of this so-to-say innate biological faith in the phenomenal worlds is a psychological malady. I experienced this when at age 12, shaken by the sudden death of a cousin, the surrounding world became unreal and I walked in a nihil from which I found relief only by holding my father's hand. This can be described as a 'loss of faith' of an extreme kind: nothing was itself. Blake, England's one prophetic poet, described this when he wrote:
If the sun and moon should doubt
They'd immediately go out.
Blake was challenging the mentality of doubt which was invading England and France at the end of the 18th century. He refers to rationalist materialist atheism as "the Void outside Existence" and names Voltaire and Rousseau as mockers of faith:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain,
You throw the sand against the wind
And the wind throws it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine,
Blown back, they blind the mocking eye
But still in Israel's tents they shine.
Blake's lonely prophetic voice denounced the encroaching loss of faith in the name of the Imagination, which he saw as the divine presence in man, the universal Christ and 'Jesus, the Imagination'. In his poem Milton (an 'inspired man') the poet whose 'Saviour' is the Imagination, declares:
To cast off rational demonstration by faith in the Saviour and
To cast off Bacon and Locke and Newton from Albion's covering
To take off his filthy garments and clothe him with Imagination and
To cast aside no longer dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness
Cast on the Inspired…
To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning
But is never capable of answering…
Who publishes doubt and calls it knowledge, whose Science is Despair,
Whose pretence to knowledge is envy, whose whole Science is To destroy the wisdom of ages to gratify ravenous Envy.
Blake's eloquent words are also exact, for during the 19th century the attitude voiced by Tennyson in the words "there is more faith in honest doubt than half the creeds" became widespread.
But 'faith' is not a matter of credulity or credence. The Apostle's Creed, repeated by the congregation in Catholic and Anglican services, begins with "I believe…" followed by a string of affirmations. But 'belief' is not 'faith': belief is rational and voluntary, whereas faith is a living experience, which turns sand grains into gems, and (to quote Blake again) the sun is no longer "a round disk, somewhat like a guinea" but "the Heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty". Blake's vision is that of the Vedic hymns. The phenomena are created and preserved by the 'word of God' which, for both, is the divine presence in man.
Faith is an imaginative experience, not a formulated 'belief', of which, the arts are the normal expression. India, the supreme civilisation of the arts of the Imagination, has flowered not only in poetry, painting, music, sculpture and architecture but also in the grassroots arts of pottery, textiles, household things.
Jesus said: "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word of God." Materialist societies, communist and capitalist, have disregarded this and provided 'bread alone', and in the capitalist West material goods in excess, but without imaginative food for the soul. No amount of psychotherapy can make up for the lost vision. Why did 'doubt' become respectable in the 19th century, and 'loss of faith' a vogue among the educated? The Protestant Reformation called in question many things that had passed as certitudes, and Western Christianity had no tradition of spiritual practice like the Orient; Christianity has always been an exoteric religion, relying on creeds rather than experience. Was it also because the Industrial Revolution deprived whole populations of the simple satisfactions of doing creative handiwork?
The sanatana dharma which Blake calls "the wisdom of ages" has been progressively undermined by western education, especially by scientific 'research'. Science is ever-changing, always holding out promises but also undermining certainties. In modern universities students are encouraged to "think for themselves"; teaching has moved from imparting knowledge to the Socratic method of evoking knowledge. Good for Socrates questioning an ignorant boy to demonstrate that mathematical knowledge is innate, but not so good when F.R. Leavis trained Cambridge students to question the images in Shelley's Ode to the West Wind rather than experiencing them as imaginative symbols.
Yeats gave a simple answer when he wrote: "It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I seek to put all in a phrase I say: 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it'. I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence…" Yeats, like Blake, also proclaims the supremacy of the Imagination. His words seem to me a statement of 'faith' in its true sense, as obedience to a reality beyond human reason, better described as 'revelation'.
We live in a culture which has brought itself, through questioning rather than experiencing, through 'doubt' leading to disbelief, a nihil, where phenomena are emptied of divinity, of life. Sun and moon have gone out. Our 'revealed' world has given us water, ice, snow-crystals, steam, clouds and ocean, but science has given us abstraction, not a phenomenon. Life has delighted the soul with a rose, but science seeks to discover the nature of things by analysis, as if the rose could be found by removing its petals one by one. All living creatures science has reduced to chemistry instead of life, reflexes instead of feelings, a 'big bang' for the divine creation Keats calls "a vale of soul-making".
Technology, applying a materialist ideology derived from a science that has assumed an authority that once belonged to God, has built a world, beautiless and joyless, like the materialist mentality which created it—machines, robots, computers—while treating the living world, earth and humanity, as pieces of mechanism. Need we be surprised that the same mentality has produced cloning, genetic engineering, vivisection and all those loveless crimes against nature which science makes possible?
Has too much changed in the world in which "Everything that lives is Holy" to restore the old certainties and securities? Or can we, even now, raise our vision beyond the nihil to the unknown unknowable source, once called God, whether that be in oursleves, or in and beyond the marvels of the phenomenal world, and rediscover "that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear"—the ground of 'faith'?
FAITH IN THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY, edited by Sima Sharma,
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