Faith and Reason

Jun 27, 2016

We live in a society today where it is acceptable to say that faith in a higher power or religious identity is not important in day- to- day living. A significant number of people either want nothing to do with God, Religion, and Scriptures or question the efficacy of faith.  Personal experience and self-reliance matter most to this group of people.   Faith in the authority of God has been the common theme in all religions and one that has prevailed throughout human history.  It appears to be snapping in the present time and is becoming a matter of concern to modern day religious leaders.  At almost any point in human history, this would have been unacceptable.  The importance of faith and spirituality at both the societal and individual level is not felt and appreciated as much as it was in the past. It is not a desirable trend because the whole purpose of Faith and Spirituality is to be a source of guidance and strength to us during difficult times. It gives us the inner strength to live life with meaning, grace, peace and beauty.

Religious teachings and beliefs have been overlaid with so much extraneous matter that their spiritual essence has become almost obscured. The deeper meanings within the spiritual traditions are no longer recognized and their transformative powers are not experienced.  Yet, there is still a growing appreciation for the hidden truths and the mysterious power of Nature. A wisdom of the highest order which is beyond the limits of our mental and intellectual capacity.  In this context many of the non-believers of authority behave spiritually even if they skip the label.

The word Faith, while predominantly associated with religion and spirituality, is not limited to them by any means. Faith also applies to confidence, trust, loyalty, allegiance and self-reliance.    Little do we realize that it is faith that sustains much of life.   Life, as we know, is full of uncertainties – the unknown and the unknowable.  So much of what is happening in our lifetime is beyond our control and it is faith that lights up our human heart like a ray of sunshine day in and day out, knowingly or unknowingly.  Our True or Inner SELF, the deepest core of human personality within us also referred to as SOUL, ATMAN, BEING in the religious scriptures is the one source that we rely upon under adverse circumstances.  The powerhouse within us propels our physical, mental and intellectual faculties. In the absence of faith, we live in “power failure” even though we have this powerhouse within us!

It has been said that faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible and receives the invisible.  In the words of Khalil Gibran “Faith is a knowledge within the heart beyond the reach of proof”.  St Thomas Aquinas observed that “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary and to one without, no explanation is possible”.  True faith is the narrow path that leads us to the powerhouse within.  By staying connected internally with this positive force, we do not succumb to the negative forces that derail our physical, mental and emotional balance.  A man of true faith is one who has complete trust in his inner Self and stays connected within at all times with the  full understanding that external events are beyond his or her control and are governed by Natural laws.  Faith is more than belief; it is wisdom grounded in understanding that the same Divine power that is manifested in the external world is within us and within our human experience. The secret to unlock the spark of divinity within lies in our firm resolve to experience it in our lifetime. The process is to cultivate the art, to dive deep within from time to time in our busy life. We must catch and feel the silence and tranquility of the Soul which at some time or other in our lifetime we may have experienced. For example during life threatening moments a shift in consciousness takes place naturally within us and we are momentarily cut off from the time bound, mundane consciousness of our individual mind-body-speech personality.  The same experience is also true in moments of joy.  Our response is spontaneous --- free of thinking, free of time and free of problems. Since ancient times, the spiritual masters of all traditions have pointed to this spiritual dimension in the human psyche and its power. They declared that deep within us and beyond our ego dominated existence, the “lowercase” self, there is an oasis of calm and source of strength, our inner Self. It is waiting to be discovered and within everyone’s reach.  Faith is only the starting point.  Realization is the goal.

Reason is a natural gift endowed only to humans.  It is a way of knowing that depends not on supernatural revelations but upon what the human mind-intellect faculties can discern through their own intrinsic power. Through reason, one can gain knowledge of the external world and the power to discriminate true from false, right from wrong and to avoid erring in our judgement. However, reason has its limitations – it can only rationalize and judge based on what we know and accept as facts from our sensory and mental perceptions.  Beyond the sense and mental perceptions, we can only imagine the other things in the universe albeit without a clear understanding at the level of the mind.  Yet, the desire to know and understand the unknowable keeps us intellectually engaged but indifferent to the other silent power within us, which is ever “willing” to reveal the unknowable. The power to will is faith.  Faith and reason have unique powers and compliment rather than conflict each other.  An anonymous saying goes “True faith can move mountains, but do not be surprised if God hands you a shovel.”

Many beliefs are accepted without even being understood.  They are accepted on the authority of others—parents, teachers, social and religious groups. Much of it has been ingrained in us and encoded in our minds and to which we have not given any serious thought.  We often assert claims without reasoning simply based on trust.  These beliefs are what Neil Van Leeuwen calls “credences” and notes they have a moral component.  We believe that we should accept them and that others, at least those who are close to us such as family and friends, should accept them as well.  Such credences are not special to religion but also common to political issues, scientific views and other fields.  Accepting them requires a leap of faith—not based on reason but faith in the mundane sense that we trust the people who are testifying to their truth. 

In the past, it appears that people’s hearts had a larger voice than their heads and consequently faith dominated over reason.  Previous generations had complete trust in the wisdom of the seers and saints of their times. As the ability to discover hidden truths through scientific methods (e.g. observation and experiment, falsifiable hypotheses, relentless questioning of established views) proved to be effective in learning and understanding the underlying structure of the world, people became skeptical of any beliefs or truths that had no scientific reasoning to back them.  Religion has no equivalent record of discovering hidden truths and therefore Reason and Logic were given more importance than Faith. Nowhere has it played out so definitively than in Western Civilization and the Greco-Roman era.  However, what the intellectuals in those times failed to understand is that the problems of life—mortality, grief, fear, insecurity, failure, negativity etc. are not amenable to once-and-for-all solutions based on logic and reasoning. Everyone reasons in their own way when it comes to these internal conflicts. These are internal imbalances where our mind and intellect are ineffective. Absent “feeling”, which is subtle and internal, much of what we understand in the external world through our normal sensory, mental and intellectual perceptions are learned and mentally encoded. They do not include all human experience.   The compulsive thinker who tries to reason and rationalize everything that comes to his mind can never “feel” that underneath all these labels, beliefs, images, opinions and judgments there is a Reality that is pristine and pure which only direct human experience can reveal. The harmony of natural law reveals an intelligence of such high superiority that in comparison all systematic thinking, opinions and beliefs are utterly insignificant reflections. In the words of Marcus Aurelius

“It is in our power to refrain from opinions about things and not be disturbed in our souls for things in themselves have no natural power to force our judgements”.

Faith and reason have been a matter of much interest to philosophers, theologians, scientists and people who have a genuine interest and desire to understand the purpose and meaning of life.  The changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion in our life.  Today we live in a society of scientific and technological advancements in which myths, beliefs and faith in authority have fallen into disrepute.   It is considered unwise to mix Faith and Reason.  Some have argued in favor of reason and that all beliefs should be subjected to rational examination and logic and that we should rely on the intrinsic power of our mind and intellect.  Others have argued in favor of Faith making the case that there is so much that we are incapable of knowing and can be known only by a deliberate attempt to understand the real insights that have been revealed in the religious scriptures. It is in our power to build a faith that speaks to the needs of the modern day. In case of apparent conflict, the domain of knowledge that is in question should be considered and all viewpoints should be accepted as only relative viewpoints rather than true or false.  Reason properly employed, and faith properly understood and practiced should not lead to contradictory or competing claims. Like art, understanding the truths of religion requires a different mode of consciousness quite different from our normal mind set.  It requires a disciplined cultivation of faith and deep reflection on the wisdom and insights of the spiritual teachings.  One of the conditions of enlightenment as we have seen in the life of the spiritual seekers is a willingness to let go of what we think we know in order to appreciate the truths that we never dreamed of.

- Dr. Radha Krishnan