Faith, Spirituality, and the Beauty of Not Knowing
Are the faithful too certain?
On the most recent episode of the pod, Shadi and I interviewed our good friendabout her latest essay. I walked away from that conversation with a fresh sense of what is, for me, the dividing line between “faith” and “spirituality” (for lack of better terms).
Shadi is a man of faith. But I have only recently come to understand the extent to which Shadi’s faith is an intellectual choice. (He has frequently told me that Islam is a faith that is more amenable to such intellectualization than the other Abrahamic traditions.)
Nevertheless, twinned to Shadi’s claims at intellectualization is a firm belief in transcendent morality. Here’s a clip from the episode, in case you missed it, where Shadi is talking about an essay he wrote about a year ago about theodicy and the problem of Vladimir Putin:
“If God stopped evil from happening, if he prevented sin before it was committed,” Shadi says, “then that would basically undermine the whole moral structure of the universe.”
What is that moral structure? For believers, it obviously comes from the almighty. But when pressed, Shadi tried to make a secular case for this structure, invoking “natural law,” and implying that I, too, am bound by a morality that is somehow inscribed into me. Here’s his argument:
Needless to say, I didn’t find it persuasive at all. (And yes, to me, Lord of the Flies is a mostly accurate account of human beings in primitive society.)
But I sort of know where Shadi is coming from, even if I don’t buy it. So let’s unpack it some more.
The only version of “natural law” that has at all resonated with me comes from the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature,” Kant wrote in his unpleasantly dense Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals.
What Kant meant to say is that before we do anything, we ought to consider if we would want our action to be thought of as universally acceptable. Or, to put it more recognizably, we should do unto others only that which we would have them do unto us. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife. Sure, makes sense.
But it doesn’t really get us very far—and certainly nowhere near to anything approximating a “moral structure to the universe.” To get us closer, we need two things: vengeance and empathy.
Vengeance is a primal, base drive with a long pedigree. You’ll famously find it in Leviticus and in the Iliad, but it’s arguably much older than any written text. Ethicists have tried to domesticate this all-too-human impulse, and have exerted endless energies to elevate it into something more exalted—calling it “justice” to make it prettier. But make no mistake, vengeance is the lifeblood of “justice”, and it’s at the heart of how we structure our societies.
(A fun aside: after recording this most recent episode, I went and had dinner with some friends. I asked one of my companions whether her religiosity made her less likely to support the death penalty. “No,” she said. “I don’t support the death penalty because I imagine that prison is more unpleasant for those that have done wrong than execution.”)
Empathy is clearly also a basic human faculty, and is also at the root of our ability to socialize. Adam Smith, echoing Kant, also tried to rationalize empathy, saying that it is our capacity for imagination that lets us put ourselves in the place of someone feeling pain. But empathy, it seems to me, is also pre-rational, and as old as vengeance. Some of us are prone to feeling it more broadly than others. But in general, it’s there—a primal drive.
So when someone slaps us in the face, we want to slap them back. And when someone hurts a person we care about, we want to hurt the aggressor in at least equal measure. Problems arise, however, when we can’t do good by our impulses. Maybe the bully that slaps us around is much stronger than we are, and we are beaten down into submission despite our best efforts. Or maybe the aggressor is a Russian satrap with nuclear weapons, and we just can’t get back at him personally.
For a moral structure of the universe to make sense, one must believe that all hurtful acts will get their comeuppance at some point in the future. Shadi, in his essay on Putin, says that the kind of barbarism on display in Ukraine makes him believe in God more fervently.
Because I am not willing to accept a world in which justice is beyond us. And perhaps the only prospect of true and ultimate justice for Putin, and those like him, is that they face their reckoning in the next life, if not necessarily in this one.
For Shadi, justice transcends the mortal world. He believes in it. He feels like that on some level he must, in order for the world to make sense.
For my part, I simply don’t. I see no reason to. And I certainly don’t expect the world to make any sort of sense, moral or otherwise. I am not a believer.
Rachel, for her part, is a woman grappling with spirituality. In her recent essay, this passage jumped out at me more than any other:
. . . I can make sense of situations that are confusing, painful, or deeply challenging through the belief that it’s part of whatever path that’s been laid for me. This suggests a belief in predestination, which then, naturally, leads to questions about whether humans have free will.
I guess I think the two are complementary rather than contradictory. We can rest easy with the choices we make, even if they lead to personal pain and suffering, because we know that what we have chosen is part of our path. We can also make sense of the things that happen to us, especially those that are outside of our control, by also believing it’s part of our path.
Rachel, like Shadi, is trying to find her way through difficult situations. But unlike Shadi who thinks he sees a moral plan to the universe and finds comfort in it, Rachel is comforted in the idea that there simply is a plan, albeit one beyond our comprehension as mere mortals. In her piece, Rachel came to the conclusion that what she used to call “The Universe” might really be God. But her God, at least so far in her spiritual journey, is not a guardian of a moral order. The order simply is.
That’s the distinction, then: faith requires certainty that the universe is in some way moral. Spirituality is agnostic on the question.
I’m nowhere near as spiritual as Rachel is, but I find her view a lot easier to relate to—in no small part because I find Shadi’s faith-based moral certainty so alien on first principle grounds. There’s probably also less distance between my lack of expectation for the world to make any sense and Rachel’s sense of comfort in knowing that the world is ultimately unknowable.
If nothing else, I can appreciate “spirituality” over “faith” if it’s experienced as the sublime: the astonishing recognition of how insignificant you are compared to the infinite scope of something outside of you. Or better yet, as an appreciation of ignorance, and a rejection of the desire to know final outcomes.
“Where were you when I founded earth?” the Lord asked Job. “Tell, if you know understanding. Who fixed its measures, do you know, or who stretched a line upon it? In what were its sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
“Look, I am worthless,” replied Job. “What can I say back to You? My hand I put over my mouth. Once have I spoken and I will not answer twice, and will not go on.”
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