The word ‘faith’ has two distinct, and very different meanings. On one hand, it refers to a belief system, as in, ‘I have faith in the Christian Bible.’ On the other hand, faith means something closer to trust—trust in something greater than the mind of man, trust in humanity, in people, even in oneself.
Faith in the latter sense is defined as “belief in the goodness and trustworthiness of something.” Obviously this sense of faith is essential to carrying forth as a human being, because it implies a minimal optimism and confidence in life, the future, and our fellows.
It’s where ‘transcendent reality’ comes in that faith becomes dubious. Many people maintain that no such actuality even exists, and that to feel there is more than the material, mechanical, and chance is merely “belief without evidence.”
The curious thing is that for mystics, faith isn’t the first issue at all. When there is a state of mystical experiencing, there is no doubt about its authenticity. When one is not in the state of insight, the rational mind, even in the same person, can doubt that such a phenomenon exists. But having repeated without repetition the meditative state many times, one realizes that it reflects the true nature of reality, not the rational mind.
Faith then becomes a very different question, having nothing to do with belief. In this sense of the word, there are, to my mind, four levels of faith.
The first is that the universe is a friendly place, rather than the hostile place most people (including scientists) imagine. By ‘friendly’ I don’t mean that outer space and other planets are receptive to multi-cellular organisms, much less humans, or even that wilderness here on earth isn’t full of dangers and predators.
I mean that life is not some freak event, a meaningless cosmic roll of the dice, but that the universe tends toward life, and even consciousness, and both exist wherever conditions permit them to arise. That’s a testable premise, and therefore in accordance with science. I have the faith that it’s correct, but there’s a willingness to be proven wrong.
Bertrand Russell said, “Where there is evidence, no one speaks of faith.” But that is misleading, because faith is required to hold a question or conduct an experiment, even in science. Scientists have to have faith that they can find out the truth or falseness of their hypotheses, through observation, experiment, reproducibility, and evidence.
The problem begins in positing a dimension beyond science and knowledge, a dimension that has nothing to do with empirical proof. Can we find out, without the negative connotation of faith (blind belief), whether an actuality deserving the name ‘God’ exists? I feel we can, but again, if we insist on science as the arbiter of truth, we deny such a possibility.
The human brain is capable of insights, which in the realm of science gives rise to knowledge. But insights in science are one thing, and a spiritual state of insight another. What we call ‘mystical experiencing’ is simply the state of insight, which in religious terms is awareness of an intrinsic and inseparable actuality beyond thought.
The second level of rational faith is that there is a cosmic intent related to sentient species. To be sure, I’m on much thinner ice here, but my feeling is that enfolded within the evolution of stars, planets, and biospheres is the intent to evolve brains capable of awareness of the cosmic mind.
The third level of faith to my mind is that people can radically change. There is little evidence of that, since history, much less our own sorry world, demonstrates that man is an incorrigible creature. But it remains an open question.
Finally, the fourth level of faith is that people can radically change at this point in human history. That’s even more problematic, given not only the basic psychological patterns of we humans, but also the overwhelming trends in the world today.
The first stage of faith is a given to my mind; and the second is an ‘article of faith.’ The third and fourth are where the rubber meets the road.