Oh, joy. David Brooks has blessed us with a Christmas column this week, titled The Subtle Sensations of Faith. You can tell already that it’s going to be a lump of drivel in your stocking, can’t you?
With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith. When you watch people exercise that faith, whether lighting candles or attending Midnight Mass, the first thing you see is how surprising it is. You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.
Well, I think it’s surprising, because so much of what people do in the name of faith is pointless, or absurd, or damaging. What Brooks is doing here is aspiring to a Gladwellesque counter-intuitive twist, but it doesn’t work, because there isn’t a surprise there: I don’t think faith is simple at all, and am quite accustomed to people throwing out random, bizarre excuses for it, so Brooks is simply representing the standard believer trope. Look at my faith! Isn’t it wonderful and weird?
It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?”
Ah! I recognize that too familiar game! Religion is a greedy superstition, and it tries to appropriate to itself all human experience. Every benign sensation you have — love, joy, contentment, wonder — is attributed to God, and if you should feel baffled and ignorant about something…well, it’s because you’re so small compared to the awesome majesty of the Lord, and if you just have faith, you can replace that curious sensation of not-knowing with confidence that He has the answer.
So yes, Mr Wiman, I often have the experience of awe and wonder and know that I don’t have all the answers, and I love that feeling that there’s more to the universe than my tiny speck of perspective can encompass, and am thrilled by the existence of mysteries beyond myself. But I’m a scientist, and what they do is provoke me to try to find the answers, rather than to numb my brain with the novocaine of religious platitudes, and I do not find consolation in the fantasy of a deity who already knows everything, nor do I pretend to have knowledge by proxy because my good buddy Jesus is sooo smart. So when someone tries to appropriate my curiosity and my awareness of my limitations as a “religious impulse”, I just say, “fuck you,” and resent that attempt to substitute ignorance for inquiry.
That’s the primary theological payload of Brooks’ column: faith is good, faith is universal, faith fortunately doesn’t demand that you think too hard, because it’s complicated and contradictory anyway. The rest of the column is just bleatitudes, pretentious pap dressed up with feel-good adjectives to reassure everyone that the primary message is good.
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.
These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith. As Wiman writes, “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
See what I mean? It’s all noise packaged up with dewily benevolent words to hide what it actually is: worshipping ignorance and burying curiosity under complacency.
It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget. Their spirits go dry and they doubt anything ever happened. But believers try, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, to stay faithful to those events. They assent to some spiritual element they still sense planted in themselves.
“Stay faithful to those events” translates as “cling desperately to denial and a superstitious interpretation”. It’s not a good thing.
I have a different message.
Recognize that faith is the enemy, and resistance a virtue. Don’t be reconciled to the unknown, and especially don’t hide it away as adequately answered by belief in an omniscient god. Be frustrated by your ignorance, let yourself be unsatisfied by an absence of answers, and let that drive you to look for real knowledge, not the pretense of knowing provided by the lies of religion.