Holistic Faith and Sacrilege

Faith is a simple word that gets used without thought given to the depth of its meaning. Atheists tend to regard faith derisively, presuming that faith lazily fills a void left by reason. Theists generally regard faith as a virtue, and even the means for God’s saving grace. In either case, people who use the word often do so without regard for its depth of meaning, and this deficiency of understanding reflects itself as a deficiency in the relationships humans have with each other and with their spirituality. What follows is a semi-critical and open-minded exploration of the subject of ‘holistic faith’ from my own ex-Christian angle, interpreted through the lens of the Bible, and also applied to a few illustrative examples. The aim is to use the Bible to paint a picture of how we may arrive at a fuller understanding of faith with God.

First, a quick disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to treat faith in general, and also as it pertains to Christianity in particular. As such, I will treat Biblical narratives with a high degree of respect and charitability. The purpose of this piece is not to make any positive or negative statements about the veracity of Biblical accounts, but such accounts will be taken at face value. I am not a Christian, this is not an endorsement of Christianity, and it is not my intent to “pitch” Christianity or exalt it above other religions. On the other hand, it is also not my intent to attack or criticize Christians, though much of this article is effectively a criticism of contemporary Christianity. To state clearly my own perspective: I de-converted from my rather intense Christianity some time ago, but I retain love and respect for the religion. My views, though friendly to atheists and Christians alike, often put me at odds with both groups. I am intimately familiar with both modes of thinking, and though my words may appear sharp, I’d encourage members of either group to read me as empathetic to both perspectives.

Fidelity, Trust, Belief

Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. […] Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated. -Christopher Hitchens

The very first roadblock we encounter in our treatment of the subject is that “faith” has binary and tertiary meanings. Firstly, faith as “fidelity” connotes a diligent commitment to loyalty. This is the kind of faithfulness one might have to a person or an ideal. Secondly, having faith “in something” is to have faith as a kind of trust. The third sense of the word is faith as merely equal to “belief”, and it is this last and most deficient sense of the word that dominates most conversation about theology.

Hitchens’ conception of faith is one where faith is complete trust in the form of singular and uncritical belief, i.e. faith is the name for blind belief in the conclusions of a source that one trusts to reason on their behalf. Hitchens supposes that faith precludes reason, and though there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence to make his case, he nonetheless does so erroneously. Faith in its second sense, faith as trust, is faith that proceeds from reason. While there is no guarantee that an individual is reasoning soundly, it is still true that trust is only given when we have good reason to believe it is safe and worthwhile to do so. This may be a surrender of skepticism, but it is not necessarily a surrender of reason. To give a mundane example, there is sound reason to trust that a building will support you, but having this trust still requires the suspension of skepticism; that’s very nearly the definition of trust.

But faith as we said earlier is more than mere trust, and the trust you put in a building is merely faith presented as trust. When faith of this sort is mediated, it is transitive. When you put your faith in a building, by extension you must also be putting your faith in the builders and architects that built it, as well as in the regulatory bodies that set standards and regulations. You should not trust these entities naively, and in the ideal case you trust them because you have verified their trustworthiness in the quality of their work. The persistence of such quality reflects diligence, which we may call faithfulness or fidelity on the part of the people that make the buildings. These entities have demonstrated faithfulness as diligence, which gives you reason to have faith as trust in them, which is really the same thing as faith as belief that they will continue to be faithful in their work. Here we see each sense of the word reveal itself in consideration of the full dynamic, and nowhere in this process is reason necessarily suspended.

The true meaning of faith clarifies itself when all three meanings are taken together as different expressions of the same idea. The example given above, while still faith, is faith in a mediated form; the purity of the idea is obscured by the emotional distance that exists between you and those responsible for building infrastructure. Faith is most beautifully exemplified when that distance is removed, which is why marriage tends to be an exemplary model. Marriage functions best when diligence begets trust and trust begets diligence, and this is holistic faith in its essence. Faith, in its pure and whole truth, is the generative feedback of reciprocated trust and devotion. This we call ‘holistic faith’, because it accounts for the whole picture. Faith as belief in its right holistic context reveals itself to be indistinct from faith as trust, which arises from the mutuality of devotion, which is called fidelity. This simple definition of faith is not hard to discern, and we will use it in our discussion to demonstrate its intuitive quality. Despite Hitchens, holistic faith is undeniably a virtue, and it underpins the foundation of society.

The Social Contract

Faith as mediated through society is essentially the social contract. Apart from our rights and laws, there is only the rule of nature: all for self. In nature, the abstract freedom of the individual is limited only by the abstract freedom of other individuals, and so natural hierarchy shapes itself through domination. The total freedom afforded by nature is no true freedom at all, in that it precludes the freedoms of peace and leisure. Human rationality sets us apart from other animals by allowing us to recognize that the same desire for freedom exists in all of us, and so we make faith with each other by imposing self-limitation in hopes of bettering life for everyone. This is, of course, the duality of freedom and security. In contrast to popular understanding, it is not the case that security is simply the surrender of freedom; security is liberation in its own right, it is freedom from the brutality of nature, freedom from exhausting cycle of perpetual self-sustenance, and freedom from scarcity. As such, it is also the freedom to pursue higher modes of self-actualization through art, philosophy, and personal vocation. The duality between freedom and security is the same as the duality between individualism and collectivism, as well as libertarianism and authoritarianism. Once the true meaning of “faith” is understood, it is found at the heart of all such dualities. The libertarian lacks faith in government and the authoritarian lacks faith in the populace.

To surrender the brutal freedom of nature in pursuit of the higher freedom of reason is holistic faith, and holistic faith cannot exist unless it is reciprocated between the people and the powers that be. Where the government lacks diligence, the people lack trust, and where the people lack diligence, the government lacks trust. In an ideal democracy, diligence on the part of the government manifests as transparency and real accountability. Conversely, diligence on the part of the people manifests as political awareness and a sense of duty to the nation. Holistic faith requires both parties to uphold the values of truth, love, and empathy. When the people value the brutal freedom of nature above the holistic freedom of love, holistic faith becomes inverted, and this gives rise to fascism. This is irrational faith, a carnal desire for abstract freedom that appropriates the apparatus of power and consumes itself to the end of natural law: all for self, none for the other. The desire for holistic freedom is not recognized in the other, and so the other is scapegoated, subjugated, and ultimately crushed. Individuals must not reap the benefits of security without sowing diligence in both their personal virtues and their participation in society. Likewise, governments must not reap the benefits of power without sowing diligent trustworthy service to the people. Establishing and maintaining holistic faith lays the bedrock for a functional society, and in the generative feedback arises the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Faith as Surrender

The marriage analogy for holistic faith is at home in Christianity, where the Son is said to take the church as his bride. The generative feedback of holistic faith is also explicitly seen between the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirt arising in their mutual devotion (note the reflexivity in this relationship). The affirmation of God’s steadfast love for humanity is an affirmation of enduring faithfulness towards us in absolute and unconditional terms. Faith in God should rightly be understood as a reciprocal faith with God that enables us to participate in the most generative feedback loop. Holistic faith is engendered by relationships, and it doesn’t make sense to divorce the concept of faith from the relationship that it exists within. From this truth proceeds the evangelical notion that an individual is not only capable of a real personal relationship with Jesus, but is under the imperative to develop one.

Hitchens has this right: Faith is surrender, and what you choose to have faith in is also what you are choosing to surrender to. It would be disingenuous to dismiss the claim that religious faith is “surrender of the mind”, as Hitchens call it, when adherents to Christianity so often extol the virtue of utter dependence and servility. From an outside perspective, the way that Christians happily call themselves “sheep” or “children” looks like an embrace of simple-mindedness, and it certainly doesn’t help that the Bible itself repeatedly reinforces that you are not to “lean on your own understanding” (Pr. 3:5). But in the context of faith with God, it makes sense. If we have direct access to the almighty God, and we have established faith with God, why would anyone rely on their own strength? Faith is surrender, which makes trust the measure of faith. Absolute trust is rational in light God’s absolute power, absolute goodness, and absolute faithfulness.

The issue with the Christian model is that the means by which one enters into this faith with God is inescapably indirect and seems forever mediated by the fallibility and untrustworthiness of humanity. So long as a religion prescribes doctrines that cannot be derived through reason alone, this will always be the case.

In Christ Alone

To put trust in “Christ alone” is quite frankly an impossible task. Trust is transitive, and to have trust in something that is not immediately available to you necessarily requires that you trust the means by which it is mediated. For you to even know that Jesus is “Christ” at all, it is necessary that you be told as much, and so to trust in Christ you must also trust in the one who tells you about him. You may say that you trust what you read about Christ in the Bible, but then you are just trusting the authors of the Bible. Worse still, to trust Christ from what you read of him, you must also trust your own interpretation of the words that you are reading, i.e. you must “lean on your own understanding”. To circumvent this, you might trust someone to tell you how to interpret the words, but then your trust becomes liable to the fallibility of that person. To read Jesus in light of Paul is to trust Paul, and to read Jesus in light of Biblical canon at all is to trust the ones who assembled it. No matter how you cut it, there is no way to have trust in Christ directly such that it is not mediated by other human beings, and it is therefore impossible to truly have trust in Christ alone. To accept that the Bible is infallible is to believe that every person who wrote and assembled it was infallible, that every process the Bible undergoes is infallible, and that there is a correct interpretation that we can know is the correct interpretation. On the other hand, to accept that our knowledge of Christ is mediated by fallibility is to remove the ground, the basis of trust, on which Christianity lays its doctrines. Therefore rational faith demands a superior alternative to the Bible altogether.

Faith in the account given is not and cannot be blind, and it is necessarily reciprocal. It should therefore be expected that pure faith would manifest in unmediated relationship, as akin to the example given in marriage, or, more relevant to the topic, perhaps direct prayer. Unfortunately, prayer and meditation alone does not appear to be enough for a person to derive such fundamental doctrines as “sin” or “salvation” without being informed of these ideas by another. Faith in Christ, at least as commonly understood, is necessarily a mediated faith that is subject to countless filters, not the least of which is some 30 years between Jesus’ death and the earliest written accounts of his life. Those who wrote of him did so because they had the privilege of beholding him directly:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life. (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.

-1 John 1:1-3 (KJV)

The basic problem with Christian faith is this: We today have not seen with our eyes, we have not looked upon, and our hands have not handled. We have been told, and there is a difference. Faith in Christ entails faith in the specific account of him as translated to Koine Greek by his followers, handed down through generations, and interpreted by fallible humans. Apprehension towards the Christian religion is not apprehension towards God, no matter how often this is conflated by evangelicals; all humans desire harmony, whether they name it “God” or “freedom” or whatever else. Apprehension towards the Christian religion is merely apprehension towards fallible human doctrines and teachers, and such apprehension is justified. After all, how is one to trust that these ideas come from God when you only hear from humans?

The notion that unbelief is necessarily a sacrilege is counterintuitively backwards. Pure faith, ultimate surrender, ought to be reserved for God alone. To accept doctrine is to place faith in humans, and such faith should be reserved for God. True faith does not demand that one suspend reason, because true faith proceeds from reason. True faith is not the baseless adoption of unprovable axioms and doctrines, true faith is harmony with that which is there, call it God, the Universe, or whatever you will. True faith with God must be direct to truly be faith with God at all, and doctrine is antithetical to this end.

Faith as Mere Belief

Agnostic frustration with Christianity stems from the fact that certainty of the Christian God seems impossible to attain, but failing to attain such certainty apparently comes at the price of oblivion (a fate which, as per doctrines of sin and punishment, is supposed to be justified). To believe this account of God without certainty of its truth is straightforwardly irrational. I will not disparage the genuine freedom that may be found in surrendering to higher good, but it should not be taken to mean we surrender our reason; Hitchens is right in noting that surrendering reason is forsaking that which sets us apart from nature. To surrender reason is to surrender our very capacity to desire freedom in the first place, which, ironically, is the capacity to seek or have faith in God at all. Reason should not to be surrendered, even as other things are. Reason is the divinity in humanity, and as explained in John 1, the very nature of Christ himself.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

-John 1:1-14 (KJV)

John 1:1, the first verse of this passage, could not give a clearer picture of Christ’s relationship to reason. He is reason, the ‘logos’ itself. This passage was written in Greek to an audience with at least cursory familiarity with Greek thought, and the use of the word ‘logos’ would have made it ubiquitously clear to them that God is rational, even rationality itself.

Commonly, Christian “testimonies” (accounts of a personal encounter with God) build a narrative structure that climaxes with a moment of “repentance”, a total surrendering to God. In testimonies about conversion to Christianity, this moment of total surrender is often a moment where the convert takes a “leap of faith”, which is to say that they accept that Christ is Lord in spite of lingering doubt. It is precisely this sense of the word “faith” which, as Hitchens says, must be divorced from virtue; this kind of “faith” is the surrender of reason. In exterminating doubt without obtaining certainty, we exterminate rational thought. How are we to give up rationality to reconcile with a rational God?

The reason that this features in so many testimonies is because the Bible stipulates an impassible gulf between man and God. God must be ineffable, forever distant, so high above us that were we to touch the ark of the covenant or stand in the holiest of holies or look upon his face, we would be consumed in the fire of his holiness and drop dead. We are to understand our nature as afflicted by sin, totally depraved, and utterly insufficient in our finitude. Submitting a broken heart to God is therefore done in recognition of one’s own incompleteness, and it is only intuitive that this should include the incompleteness of understanding. But to admit an incompleteness of understanding is not and should not be the same as admitting an inability to understand at all. The impassible gulf between man and God is the divide that Jesus came to bridge, and a holistic Christian faith is one that believes that this was accomplished on the cross at Calvary. To do away with the notion of our uncleanness may feel sacrilegious, but clinging to it is the same as denying that Jesus was the propitiation for our sins. If the price has been paid, what now stands between God and humanity? If the answer is nothing, why should Christians insist that the relationship be mediated with doctrine?

As an aside: here we also see that “power to become the sons of God” is tied directly to “belief”, a belief I’d argue the author can have because, as in verse 14, he directly beheld Christ. Even Thomas, remembered primarily for doubting Christ’s resurrection, only obtained certainty through direct encounter. Likewise Paul, who became an apostle some time after the death and resurrection of Jesus, still had a direct encounter with him on the road to Damascus. Faith at historical distance, as contemporary Christians must have, is simply not modelled in the Bible.

The Holy Spirit

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

-John 14:15-27 (ESV)

Here Jesus says a number of interesting things. In answering Judas he implies that, even apart from having ever met him in the flesh, it is possible to know and love him and keep his Father’s commandments. This is far from the only passage that implies a sort of natural revelation, but in context of talking about the Holy Spirit it is potentially the most striking. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will teach all things and bring the words of Jesus to their remembrance. In other words, Jesus is saying that truth is available to those who would seek it from God directly. This may serve to answer the question of why Jesus did not bother to write down any of his own teachings. If the logos truly lives in his followers and they in it, then any and all truth that Jesus taught them is accessible through the Holy Spirit, which is indwelt within us as immediate relationship with God. To write down his own teachings would likely cause his followers to focus on the words he wrote as opposed to the Kingdom of God living within (or among) them.

Naturally then, the Holy Spirit ought to be the Christian model of true faith, as it is what is immediately available to us. The Holy Spirit makes holistic faith with God possible in the form of reciprocal devotion with that which is within us and rationally known to be within us. Why then, does the church occupy itself primarily with the study of scripture and doctrine and theology? In practice, most major streams of Christianity, apart from Pentecostalism and some forms of evangelism, prioritize the supposed words and teachings of Jesus Christ far above a direct connection with the Holy Spirit. The idolization of scripture, the exegesis and elaborate theology meant to extract wisdom from ancient pages, is a search for God outside of ourselves, and it directly contradicts the most profound notion of Christianity, which is that divinity can be found within.

Supposedly the Holy Spirit is directly available to us and is as much “God” as Jesus is. I find it peculiar that a church would spend its time praying for revival and rereading words that Jesus did not himself write, when those very same words are directing us to a living word that can apparently teach all that is contained in the Bible and more. Jesus said “greater things than these you will do”, but when has the church ever surpassed the acts of Christ? Jesus said “You will know [false teachers] by their fruits”, so why do we cede authority to churches and theological traditions that bear so little? Am I really to believe that the same Holy Spirit that dwelt in Christ now dwells once per week in Sunday services across America?

Final Thoughts

The goal here is not really to dismantle Christianity. For my part I no longer believe that the doctrines of the Christian church can lead me to a connection with God. It is precisely what made Christianity special to me in the first place that has lead me to see that the religion is, in most of its common forms, devoid of the life and vitality it taught me to cherish.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that a human’s “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. If faith with God is the generative feedback of reciprocated trust and devotion, as taken up with and towards the highest good, then I believe that this end is harmony stated in different terms. To me, God is the non-contingent “I AM”, the self-substantiated being of everything, and the self-beholding totality. I believe that God beholds themself in our beholding each other, because we are the image of God and God is self-reflective. I believe that holistic faith with each other is the self-reflectivity of God as it manifests between humans, which spurs us to empathy and love for one another. I believe that, as Jesus said, faith with God entails such love and empathy, and I believe that faith with God is an alignment of the will to the rational good. I believe that alignment is the resolution of internal and external conflict, which is freedom to the end I call harmony.

 Date: December 28, 2023
 Tags:  philosophy christianity religion

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