Legalistic Makeup and the Yawning Gap in Religious Experience

File this one under required reading. David Brooks’ column in The NY Times this week […]

David Zahl / 1.29.14

File this one under required reading. David Brooks’ column in The NY Times this week “Alone, Yet Not Alone” mines a very rich vein: the discrepancy between how religious faith is presented and how it is experienced in America (and the world) today, particularly in terms of the role doubt plays. The man appears to be on something of a hot streak, quoting Augustine and Heschel in equal measure, and dropping what could be a career-making (hopefully not -wrecking) endorsement of singer-songwriter Audrey Assad. The intro goes like this:

hot-chocolateWhen secular or mostly secular people are asked by researchers to give their impression of the devoutly faithful, whether Jewish, Christian or other, the words that come up commonly include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.”

It’s not surprising. There is a yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world. [ed. note: this is precisely the dilemma that Francis Spufford’s highly recommended Unapologetic takes up].

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel… understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

And yet there is a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.

I have to admit, Pew research (and social media) notwithstanding, I encounter this discrepancy a whole lot more often in pop culture than in actual day-to-day interactions with friends and acquaintances who wouldn’t identify themselves as religious. Maybe they’re just being polite, or maybe it’s that face-to-face physical interaction tends to confirm that we’re both living in the same universe, who knows. Whatever the case, one is reminded of the now-classic Jack-Locke dynamic in LOST, in which the ironclad faith (in ‘faith’) of John Locke is presented, over and over again, as the opposite of Jack Shepherd’s scientific pragmatism. It was the main ‘philosophical’ conflict in that show, and while few found their endless back-and-forth particularly compelling (‘tell us about the smoke monster already!’), I’ve been surprised at how many of the series LOST spawned, under the auspices of ‘depth’, have taken up the gauntlet and run with it. At this very moment, we’re witnessing the same debate play out, to varying effect, on Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead and, most recently (and least LOST-like), True Detective. Not to mention Community, a brilliant sitcom that is enjoying a terrific start to their new season but whose Achilles’ Heel remains the relentlessly sunny and unrecognizably confident way Shirley’s faith is portrayed. Not her character, mind you, just her religiosity.

So there are those who have faith, and there are those who doubt, and never the twain shall meet. That such a dichotomy would tempt storytellers under a deadline may not come as a great shock; the dramatic potential, especially in serialized epics, should be fairly obvious. It’s a whole lot easier to set up a conflict with a person whose experience of reality departs so radically from one’s own. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t disappointing and reductive. These showrunners are apparently not reading much Christian Wiman (or Augustine, or Luther, or Dostoyevsky, or Marilynne Robinson, or pretty much any thoughtful religious voice)…

Let’s be clear: The opposite of faith is not doubt. If anything, the opposite of faith is control. And on that score none of us are paragons of faithfulness. Whatever Dawkins or D’Souza may claim, we are all in the doubting camp to some degree or another. Which is perhaps why 2 Timothy 2:13 makes such a great memory verse, especially for those of us with functional amnesia. You know, like Claire in the second season of LOST.

As a postscript, I can’t not include Wiman’s incredible observation about doubt, from his essay “O Thou Mastering Light” in My Bright Abyss:

“You know the value of your doubt by the quality of the disquiet that it produces in you. Is it a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction? Is it an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others’, some rational or ‘psychological’ explanation? Is it an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that, in modern times, absolute doubt is the highest form of faith? There is something static and self-enthralled about all of these attitudes. Honest doubt, what I would call devotional doubt, is marked, it seems to me, by three qualities: humility, which makes one’s attitude impossible to celebrate; insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest; and mystery, which continues to tug you upward—or at least outward—even in your lowest moments. Such doubt is painful—more painful, in fact, than any of the other forms—but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.” (pg. 76)