Shiur #03: Faith and Practice

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

In this shiur I want to offer a third way to think about beliefs in general and belief in God in particular.   Next week I will explain why I believe that this way of thinking about faith is implicit in Chazal, though it was obscured by later systematic religious philosophy and theology.  Next week I will also fulfill my promise to explain why R. Chasdai Crescas’s critique of the Rambam is not as problematic as it seems, and why it is very likely that the Rambam agrees with Crescas that conviction cannot be imposed.


1.    The Spectrum of Faith to Knowledge


Both of the approaches to religious belief that we have seen so far assume a sort of spectrum of belief.  At one end lies pure faith, which is totally unjustified commitment to some belief, despite the irrationality of such a commitment.  At the other end of the spectrum lies full-blown knowledge of facts that can be conclusively established in an objective, rational way.  Both approaches agree that the absolute nature of religious belief means that it must be at one end of the spectrum.  They disagree as to which end. 


Philosophical religion takes God’s existence to be proven (or at least provable) fact, such that anyone will be convinced of it once he encounters the evidence.  Simple faith is for the ignorant or stupid: the ideal is full-fledged rational knowledge of God, though for most people the reality will come up short of that.


Advocates of the “leap of faith” argue that not only has God’s existence not been proved, it is not possible, in principle, to establish it using rational tools.  The religious person is required to set aside his rational demand for evidence and take an a-rational[1] “leap of faith,” putting his trust in God despite the fact that there is no rational reason to believe in Him.  The abandonment of rationality in favor of religion only shows the depth of such a person’s religious commitment.


2.    Giving up the Spectrum: Belief as Part of a Form of Life


The faith-knowledge spectrum presupposes that each and every belief is at least a candidate for being objectively evaluated as to whether it is justified, with the ultimate justification being some sort of proof.  But is it?  Can we really suspend judgment on any belief in order to judge its validity in light of the evidence?  We can probably entertain doubt about most everything, as Descartes suggested,[2] but this shows only that it is hypothetically possible to doubt almost any belief – not that we can do so in fact.  There is a vast difference between entertaining doubt as an intellectual exercise and really questioning the validity of our beliefs.  In fact, the performance of even the simplest actions (not to mention complicated ones like communication) presupposes a vast amount of knowledge.  In order to take a sip of tea from the cup on my desk, I need to know that there is indeed a teacup there, that there is tea in it, that by reaching over and taking it I will be able to bring it to my mouth, etc.  All this “background knowledge” consists of things that no one cannot possibly doubt and remain a functioning human being.  The form of our lives[3] necessarily involves a whole network of things that we know, collectively and individually.  For most of these, neither the question of doubt nor the possibility of proof ever comes up.  Maybe I am a brain in a vat, living an illusion of a life like in the Matrix movies?  I can entertain such a possibility as an intellectual game, but I cannot really believe it because doing so would make it impossible to live my life.[4] 


The upshot of this is that we should not treat our beliefs as “guilty until proven innocent,” as being in need of justification and uncertain until evidence for their truth has been established.  In fact, the issue needs to be turned around: justification or evidence is called for when there is a reason to doubt some belief.  Usually I know what time it is by looking at my watch.  I do not need evidence to the effect that my watch is a reliable timepiece in order to be justified in believing so.  Now, I might come to doubt that my watch is reliable – say when the sun sets and my watch says it is three o’clock – but it is my doubt that requires a reason, not my belief.  Most of our knowledge is like this – it is simply part of who we are and what we understand about the world and about ourselves. 


Think of the things that I know as a vast, connected web of beliefs.  Some of these things are unassailable; they are part of the substance of who I am – that my body is my own, that objects exist stably and do not blink in and out of existence, that what I experienced a moment ago was my experience, that time flows forward, and much else.  The closer and more integrated a belief is to the unassailable center, the less susceptible it is to doubt and the more powerful it is in shaping what further beliefs I come to accept.  There is a fine line at the outskirts of this web between beliefs that I am uncertain about and beliefs that I do not accept.  Whether a particular belief crosses that line is not something that I can consciously control – conviction cannot be imposed or even self-imposed.  But once inside, there are things that I can do to strengthen a belief (particularly belief in God) and make it more certain, as I mentioned in the last shiur.


It is not unusual for beliefs to come into conflict with one another, so that we find it difficult to hold on to both of them because they are in some way inconsistent.[5]  By nature, we view inconsistency as something undesirable: in the face of a recognized inconsistency of two beliefs, it is hard to hold on to both.  Likewise, when a new belief enters into the web – when we learn something from our experience of the world – this new belief is both interpreted and judged in light of all the other things we know, with the impact of each of these things being proportional to its place in the hierarchy. 


For example, let’s say I encounter what appears to be a unicorn.  On the one hand, I see a unicorn – a horse-like creature with a long twisted horn coming out of its head.  On the other hand, I know, with a high level of certainty, that there are no such things as unicorns.  The two beliefs – that that is a unicorn, and that it cannot be a unicorn – are inconsistent, and this inconsistency puts pressure on me to resolve it.  How I resolve it, or even whether I do, is open and depends upon a whole network of other beliefs, concerns and contextual facts.  I might conclude that someone must be putting me on and has attached a horn to a white horse’s head.  I might consider the possibility that I am hallucinating.  I might conclude that I was mistaken, and there apparently really are unicorns.  And I also might just learn to live with the inconsistency as a mystery that I do not know how to resolve.  I will thus continue to believe that there is no such thing as unicorns and at the same time accept that, miraculously, I encountered one. 


3.    Religious Belief


The justification of religious belief must be understood in the same light.  For most religious people, the question of God’s existence never comes up as a real question.  Their belief in God is close enough to the center of their network of beliefs that they are not in danger of real doubt.  Rather, it is part of who they are and they interpret and accept other beliefs in accordance with it.  Things that might challenge this belief – the problem of evil, say, or a deterministic scientific worldview – simply do not do so.  Either one of the other beliefs gives way, or it receives another interpretation, or those who hold these beliefs simply live with the unresolved inconsistency.[6]  People’s ability to live with such questions does not necessarily mean that they are shallow or have not thought deeply about these things.  It merely reflects the fact that unanswered questions are not necessarily unbearable: there is no irrationality in admitting that you do not know how two beliefs fit together yet your conviction of the truth of both of them is stronger than the drive to resolve the inconsistency.  The insistence on consistency as the ultimate intellectual value is nothing but a kind of hubris, in which a human intellectual value becomes the measure of all things.[7]


            That is not to say that there are not people for whom religious doubt and uncertainty are real concerns.  Many struggle with their faith and find their belief in God threatened by other things they believe, by ways that they act, not to mention by the ways that those who surround them think and act.  I do not think that there is some sort of magical solution to this problem, some overwhelming argument or experience that would once and for all remove the possibility of doubt.[8]  The Torah’s description of how the children of Israel, who experienced both the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, came to doubt the presence of God in their midst, to the degree that they made the Golden Calf, is perhaps the ultimate evidence of this.  Nonetheless, there certainly have been times and places in which doubt was much more difficult or unlikely.  This stands in contrast to the situation in which most of us find ourselves, living in a context in which many people do not even profess to believe and even more behave in ways that do not reflect a consciousness of a living God who cares about how we act. 


In this context, as I mentioned in the previous shiur, strengthening one’s conviction about something basic to one’s orientation to the world is probably not going to be accomplished through the gathering of evidence.  Any potential evidence gathered will probably be open to interpretation in ways that preclude it being effective as evidence.  Strengthening one’s faith, if one is motivated to do so, is probably better accomplished through involvement in the religious activities like Torah study and prayer, and especially through contact with those special individuals whose relationship with God and commitment to Him is a beacon for us all.   


            What about agnostics and atheists?  For the former, belief in God is outside the periphery of their network of beliefs.  The latter actually have the denial of God (chas ve-shalom) as part of their network of beliefs.  I do not really have a lot to say to such people about God.  Any evidence that I could offer them will probably be rejected in favor of stronger beliefs that they hold or reinterpreted so as not to be evidence at all.  Such people may be candidates for kiruv but probably not for argument.  Their existence, though, does not need to pose a threat to the secure religious believer. 


It is worth noting that the conception of belief elaborated here shares something with both the philosophical religion, on the one hand, and the “leap of faith,” on the other.  It makes contact with philosophical religion in its confidence that religious belief is rational and can be manifest as knowledge, while distancing itself from philosophical religion’s far too narrow association of the rational with that which can be demonstrably proven.  It makes contact with the “leap of faith” in its acceptance that conviction is not black-and-white but can and should be affected by things other than some narrow notion of evidence.  


4.    Actions Speak Louder than Words


At the beginning of this shiur I made the claim that the understanding of faith presented here is implicit in Chazal.  In order to appreciate this, we need to better understand the relationship between what we believe and how we act.  We tend to think, especially in a theological context, of a person’s beliefs as those things that she professes – what she self-consciously claims to believe.  However, as I pointed out above, just about any action that a person makes depends upon an enormous amount of knowledge that he has, most of which is not in the forefront of his consciousness.  This includes not only very basic knowledge about the nature of the world (for example, that objects do not blink in and out of existence), but higher-level beliefs that give meaning and motivation to our actions.  Putting on tefillin or keeping Shabbat are ways in which we testify that God is the Creator of the universe and as such indicate that we believe that that is so.  This belief is part of the content of such actions, and so long as these actions are being performed in some sense as mitzvot, that content cannot be entirely removed.  At times someone’s actions appear to be almost entirely rote, to the extent that he claims that he finds no meaning in them.  We also encounter people who perform mitzvot while claiming that they do not believe in their symbolic significance.[9]  Nonetheless, each of these people is still doing them – and the motivation required for action reflects some basic level of belief.  


That is not to say that professed belief does not matter.  How we articulate to ourselves and to others what we believe is a central way in which belief is plays a role in our lives.  All I am claiming is that it is not the only way and that how we act is no less a function of what we believe.  Once we realize how deeply knowledge and belief are integrated into action, our conception of what it means to believe something needs to expand.  Beliefs are aspects of a person’s orientation to the world that we call upon to explain both one’s actions and one’s statements.  So when someone claims that she is doing this “even though I don’t believe in it,” we should not be so quick to take what she says at face value.  At the very least we should consider the possibility that she is being inconsistent.  This inconsistency is not merely between her stated beliefs and actions – it is better understood as inconsistency between her stated beliefs and those expressed by her actions.



[1] I use ‘a-rational’ rather than ‘irrational’ in order to indicate that for this approach, the transcendence of rationality required for faith is not something negative, but rather sublime and heroic.

[2] The French philosopher and mathematician Renי Descartes (1596-1650) famously expounded a philosophical thought experiment in which he tested which of his beliefs he could come to doubt.  He concluded that he could doubt everything except his own existence: “I think, therefore I am.”

[3] I am deliberately using this term to evoke Wittgenstein’s notion of a form of life, though that notion is broader and richer than merely a collection of things known.

[4] The main source of this insight is the writings of Wittgenstein, particularly On Certainty

[5] Logical inconsistency is the most obvious case but there are other sorts of inconsistency.

[6] This is, of course, a terribly over-simplified schema.  The ways in which our beliefs interact with each other probably involves constant reinterpretation of both sides.  Think, for example of the Rambam’s heroic struggle to integrate his philosophical worldview with the Torah.  The result was a new interpretation of both. 

[7] Emerson has a wonderful line in his essay “Self-Reliance:” “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

[8] Even if there was such a thing, I am not sure that it would be desirable.  What sort of free will would persist in such a case?

[9] There is a rabbinic dispute as to whether mitzvot require intention that the action be performed as a mitzva (mitzvot tzerikhot kavvana).  However this dispute is decided, the very positing of the position that an action can count as a mitzva without intention exhibits my point that the Rabbis understood action to be meaningful.