A Battle over Sacred Ground: the Knowledges of Evidence and Faith

A Political Protest

We are faced with numerous cross pressures.  We begin to distrust the police. We no longer rely on our traditional religious communities. More and more, the family unit has been showing signs of wear and tear for at least a generation. Moreover, due to a pandemic, the economic machine that keeps us all moving has ground to a crawl. As members of western societies, we have felt these cross pressures on broad scales.  More and more, our identifying characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, gender, age and others are problematized. In other words, we are looking for evidence of what had been, until recently, known through faith.

It is my contention that these conflicting forces are symptomatic of a deeper confusion of who we are and how we understand the world.  Philosophically, they reflect a confusion between being and knowing, between existence and thoughts about existence; and it is time for embodied spirituality, which is the ripe fruit which tantalizes us now. The necessity and urgency of embodied spirituality is particularly pressing because it contrasts two distinct ways of knowing that have, aside from a few concrete examples, left engaged citizens in an ironically skeptical attitude.  That is, these two ways of knowing, what have been called “faith” and “evidence” have left us in a profoundly unknowing state. However, when we inspect what has been called “faith”, and what is called “evidence”, we realize we have distorted what it means to know anything.  By articulating the confusions in knowledge, we will not only work through some of our manifest cross-pressures, we might have a little bit more knowledge and a little more faith.  

I would like to bring to the foreground four of these cross pressures: 1) the conceptual and propositional “truths” of Christianity opposed to both the brokenness of our own beings and the politicization of particular Christian institutions – or inauthentic beliefs; 2) becoming authentic yet desiring people, when in reality we either do not know what we want or we don’t realize we already have it – or ecosystems of authenticity; 3) the supposition that democratic societies are structured in a way to allow equal opportunity for all members, opposed to the awareness that our political and social apparatus institutionalizes discrimination against people of differing religions, genders, and races – or the Invisible hand of mass society; and 4) the academic pressure to assert a basic scientific worldview, with the pressure to use scientific methods and procedures to substantiate it.  Let me illustrate each of these in turn.

Inauthentic Beliefs

First, one of the deep awarenesses that has come across the plate of practising Christians has been the nominal use of Christianity of people like Donald Trump, to buttress behaviors that are demonstrably not Christian. But setting aside such extreme attempts to align Christian institutional support for publicly profane behaviors, the failure of some of the most revered figures in current Christian traditions (such as Jean Vanier or L Ron Hubbard) are too numerous to be considered exceptions to the rule, and too personal to not be at least considered as inherently contradictory to the explicit propositional teachings of a Christian way of life. How should we understand these wide-ranging behaviors?  Well, they at least expose the tension of propositional belief and ways of life.  They expose the cross pressure of broken beings in politicized atmospheres, and that these cross pressures corrupt both parts, i.e. both the existence of particular individuals and also the atmosphere of those individuals.  In other words, we are deeply aware that being a Christian is much more demanding than believing in its tenets, and more than showing allegiance to its institutions. If Christians are to survive these cross-pressures, they will have ground their ways of life on more sacred ground.  Examples of liberal christian organization statements denouncing institutional racism are numerous, but, too often, where the faith is left out of its reasons.  In other words, they may have the biblical beliefs, and they make the statements that appear to fall on the correct side of historical record, but without the lived faith that would make it trustworthy. This first nest of concerns is the only one side of the same coin as the second issue.  It is the public manifestation of the breakdown of structures of authenticity.

This sort of justified true belief, which is both justifiable and true – but lacking credibility is a problem of the first order. We know the truth, but fail to live it. It is more than simply advocating “we mustn’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk,”  as much as I agree with that.  It is much more about the ground we walk on.  We make these statements frequently to carve out our own space in the public world. Frequently, such statements are a way of reducing liability in the public sphere, much like health and safety measures in a shopping mall.  We try to eliminate obstacles to the downtrodden to enter the public sphere, but say and do little to act within the ecosystem of the consumer to improve their lives.  The need to be in the public world is there in the poor and oppressed, and our statements seem to make room for them.  But deep down, like the online shopper who is buying another piece on the hoarding pile, the people engaging with these institutions that can talk the talk know that such institutions won’t fit in their ecosystem. They may baptize you, or graduate you, but they won’t transform you or your life.  You will still go back to the same ecosystem, with the same perceived lack. And you will fear the police, be thrown back into a broken-down family, and be underemployed.  The ground one walks on is in disrepair, and the ground they walk on, which is the artifice of mass society, is not their home.

The sacred ground a person walks on, one’s private life, is in disrepair, and the temptation to walk into the grounds of mass society for fulfillment is constantly advocated, promoted and advertised. But such a cross-pressure for fulfillment is defeated, and that so by definition.  

Ecosystems of Authenticity

This is the second cross-pressure; individuals are thrown, as individuals, into mass social entities like companies, universities, churches, or the market will return broken to their own homes and communities. We need to find the sources and ecosystems of our particular authenticity, and the public sphere is too detached from our very real lives to tell the whole story.  Christian churches, companies and educational institutions who stand against racism, and all forms of discrimination, do so on the same grounds that shopping malls do.  And that feels worldless and detached, and full of despair.  What we really need is within our own ecosystem, as tattered and in disrepair as it is. Our authentic selves need to realize that what is fulfilling, what shapes our identity, is much more organic than first realized.  It comes from where we are, and is directed to where, and at whom, we are. But that discovery and articulation of the sources and ecosystems of authenticity is slow and messy

Such an example of the discovery of the ecosystems of authenticity is now the focus of #BlackLivesMatter, which has multiple voices and, in its most authentic versions, is organic.  But the slow and messy nature of articulating authenticity is clearly revealed in the struggle to identify institutional racism in its actual manifestation.  Trevor Noah is noticeably struggling in his articulation here. And that is followed by this messy reaction. Kimberley Jones clearly articulates this when she angrily dismantles the objection of looting and destroying the capitalist structures of her community by declaring, “It’s not ours! We don’t own anything!”.  

Talking about the role of racism in America is necessary, will continue to be messy, and will not be complete unless the economic system that was the telos of slavery, and later adjusted to poverty-level wages is laid bare.  Articulating the underlying class structure that reinforces racial inequality should open doors to economic stability and the type of basic “worker owns her labor and her means of production” of truth borne out by anyone who knows a little introductory economics, or anyone who has grown up on a farm. 

The “Invisible” Hand of Mass Society

The third cross purpose we find ourselves amidst is that despite their seeming fairness the mass social structures of market and religion are tilted in favour of a select group of people. The reason for this tilting is primarily the type of individualism that both take for granted. Mass society, under technological influence, treats persons as primarily atomistic individuals, i.e. as an abstraction. Religion treats them similarly, with each having to account to God on judgment day, or as primarily responsible for themselves.

When de Moncuit says, “Behavioural economics challenges the paradigm of the selfish agent… by demonstrating that people are motivated by prosocial behaviour,” he is articulating a kind of latent awareness that we are not “selfish agents”.  As far as mass society has dominated the public sphere, the economic game is fixed.  Once the individual is fragmented from their group, that individual can be controlled and forced into the game setup to economically undercut said individual. This is one type of division enforced by the corporate forces in mass society. But another is “the head fake” of identity politics.  

Market economics, the penultimate mass social force in Western societies, has a built-in logic to perpetuate identity politics.  This adds to the cross-pressures we face, because it throws confusion into the mix. After all, it leaves many people wondering, “if we are fighting for racial (or gender, or sexual orientation, or religious) equality, why not see this as an issue of political policy, and then take the fight at that level?” Asking this question misses the mark, and in two specific ways. First, it completely evades the whole issue of systematic disenfranchisement of minority populations surrounding ownership. Second, it overemphasizes power in the political realm.  Corporate power has its essential home in the mass social world, and when it acts politically, consistently corrupts the political realm to its own logic.  The writers of the constitution aimed to protect the citizens when amendments were added to protect freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.  Those writers certainly did not anticipate the corruption in the opposite direction, i.e. the over-running of the political realm from mass society in the form of corporate power. The more that private citizens feel that racial inequality is a political battle, the less actual power they will have in progressing on racial equality.  Corporate CEOs will be visibly upset but inwardly gleeful.  Black lives do matter to them in exactly the same way my car matters to me when I need to load my groceries. #BlackLivesMatter is a means to an end. Perhaps the fight for racial equality needs to happen on the steps of Target in Philadelphia, or Nike in Chicago, as well as at the sites of Confederate statues and the Lincoln Memorial.  In the end, we can’t just tear down the historical monuments to racist history, we need to stop building new ones. 

There is no “invisible” hand of the market; in fact, it is the most visible. Instead of being branded on our flesh, we purchase the brand names, and hand over power willingly.  The longer that systemic racial inequality is thought of as primarily political, the longer citizens will be blind to the most visible game fix of all time.  The controlling forces of the market are not invisible; we have just been blind to the fact that they have been in front of our noses… literally. Apple phones, making available Amazon products, being shared on Instagram.

We have believed in this brand of market freedom without looking at the evidence. And this belies that more than being taught the, we have indeed “bought” the new opium of the masses.  The new opium isn’t the traditional religion that secularists (communists or neo-liberals) believed.  The new opium of the masses is the belief in the benevolent invisible hand.

Scientific Stress

If our thoughts were to remain in the distorted political-economic sphere of the previous section, we might be tempted to despair or to revolt… or both.  After all, as individuals, what hope do we have against such powerful monoliths? But we don’t need to despair.

Let’s look at an old philosophical debate, to which I hinted in the previous section. Immanuel Kant, the pivotal thinker between the early and the late Enlightenment, showed that we don’t “know” the world as atomistic individuals. If our knowledge of any particular event were to count as an experience of an objective reality, there was a coherent binding effect that made that possible.  Kant conceived these as rules.  While we may challenge the formulation of this “coherency”, the incoherence of the Humean subject that received raw, uninterpreted data was brilliantly demonstrated.  As persons engaged in the activities of perceiving and knowing the world, we are capable of identifying certain conditions necessary for our activity to maintain coherence. We wouldn’t have any experience of the world if we had to start with a swirl of uninterpreted data – as Hume held. We would not even be able to distinguish what is given from what we supply. Understanding ourselves as disengaged, individual selves doesn’t really make sense then.

People who have explored the consequences of this turn highlight that the conditions of forming such disengaged representations is that we must be already engaged in coping with our world (Heidegger) and in our bodies (Merleau-Ponty).  That is, our existence is always engaged in realizing a certain form of life. Even in our most theoretical stances, we are engaged in coping with things.

Thus re-appears the tension between faith and evidence. The very nature of the evidence we use is framed by the form of life we are trying to realize. If we look at a paramount understanding of faith from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition – the story of Abraham and the impending sacrifice of Isaac we can see how faith is much more than belief.

God instructs Abraham to offer his son Isaac up as sacrifice.  Isaac is Abraham’s miraculous gift. Isaac, beyond all evidential experience, was given to Abraham when both he and Sarah were too old to reasonably have a son. Abraham, in an act of faith, follows God’s instruction to the point of building the altar, and having the means to execute (in both senses of “execute”) God’s instructions.  No person would be able to act on such a paradoxical instruction – given the type of life Abraham was trying to realize.  How was Abraham able to do this? He had faith. 

Specifically, Abraham’s faith went beyond both belief and evidence.  He believed that God was good. He had evidence that God wanted his lineage to continue – both in terms of an early promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation, and in terms of giving a son that rightfully was impossible.  So how could his belief in following God’s instruction be in such contradiction to the evidence of the form of life he was in the process of realizing? Faith. The embodied spirituality that Abraham realized in this moment was the faithful relationship of the presence of Yahweh. And it is this faith – through the paradox of the situation, that returns Isaac to him.

And so we come head on to the conflict we all know deep in our bones.  We know that who we are and how we know the world is in a paradoxical relationship that we cannot explain away with evidence. We are dependent on fossil fuels, even though this dependence will likely lead to our inevitable destruction. We take it as self-evident that people are created equal, and yet, are everywhere in chains. We know that the moral law within is as certain as the sky above.  We are not convicted of the truth despite being presented with the evidence, or even having correct beliefs.  It is not merely a moment for having justified, true belief, but in realizing a certain form of life.  That means, it is by faith that the evidence appears, and that faith is a living reality that no propositional belief can fully articulate.

And so, we must make an act of faith.  Let us stop behaving as if correct belief will save us. Let us stop believing that the higher rate of criminality in our evidence is a reason for police brutality. Let us finally, once and for all, begin to realize our form of life. There is a tension revealed by fake news and misinformation.  And it is overcome in faith, faith in the presence of sacred ground, faith in our authentic selves formed in our broken communities, and faith in the Eternal Voice that makes itself heard outside of mass society, i.e. in the realms of our private lives and our political existence. That means that instead of looking at evidence and belief, which are mental constructions of experienced reality, we must instead act out of experienced reality.  The sacred ground for us to walk on is all around us. It need not be established by belief and evidence. We must act on faith.

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