Over at the Huffington Post blog, novelist Jane Smiley performs a riff on the "religious" vs. "spiritual" theme:
As I read various articles defending or attacking religion (they have them all the time in the Guardian), one thing I've noticed is that no distinction is made between faith and religion, when in fact they are not the same thing at all. Faith is a subjective experience of a relationship and a state of mind, while religion is a set of institutionalized forms and doctrines, and religious organizations are often in the business of making money, owning property, and making social policy. Religions depend upon individual professions of faith, but faith remains a private matter, akin to love or any other state of mind.
Yes, we're all aware of how private "love" can be, as evidenced by the insistence that we need to publicly recognize "same sex marriage" because, after all, those folks "love" one another. Regardless, there are several problems with Smiley's, ah, analysis. The first is the very subjective definition of faith as "a subjective experience." If that is so, couldn't we simply reply that such a definition is itself a statement of faith about faith, describing as it does Smiley's subjective experience of her relationship with what she defines as "religion" and "faith"? In other words, even granting the wide range of elements involved in "faith" and "religion," are her definitions accurate or fair? Secondly, pitting faith and religion against one another is much more of a polemical tactic (faith=private and good; religion=public and bad) than a serious attempt to understand how individual faith requires, in some shape and form, the communal structure of religion—even by those who don't like the term "religion." (In fact, those have faith that God doesn't exist or that Christianity is false often express their views in an organized and rather religious fashion.) Thirdly, it seems obvious to me that Smiley is mouthing typical feminism/multiculturalism 101 by approaching the topic as she does, for a key assumption is that the subjective belief of the individual is liberating over against the stifling objectivity (doctrine! dogma!) of the institution.
Faith is an entirely subjective experience. If I don't feel faith toward a particular doctrine or figure, then there is no way that I can be made to feel that faith. The strongest demonstration of this reality was the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, and the others showed by all their activities that they could not be made to share the subjective experience of Catholic faith as described by the Church. When I am asked to respect other people's faith, I actually cannot do that, because I can have no idea of what they are talking about--it is their experience, not mine. The closest I can come to respecting their faith is to respect whatever they say or demonstrate that their faith is, as well as respectng their right to have that subjective experience. Nevertheless, faith, like love or obsession, is a very powerful feeling that sometimes impels people who are having it to attempt to impose it on others by, for example, "witnessing" or "testifying". To witness or testify is to enter into a social interaction. In most cases, both parties to a social interaction, such as a conversation, agree to it. With social interactions based on faith, though, there can be an element of coercion. Someone who constantly witnesses to his or her subjective experience of faith is like a stalker in that he or she is imposing his or her emotions on others. This is why I am so suspicious of Evangelicals--first, they want you to share (supposedly for your benefit) their subjective state of mind (an impossibility), and then they want you to give them money--to enter into the religion part of the faith/religion duo.
One doesn't need to deny that there is an experiential aspect to faith and religion to see that Smiley's assertion that faith or the object of faith cannot be explained is not only silly, but contrary to commonsense. She might be better off to simply say, "I don't believe it, so I choose to think it is incomprehensible." Strangely enough, after saying she cannot respect other people's faith, she states, "The closest I can come to respecting their faith is to respect whatever they say or demonstrate that their faith is." Exactly! Respecting someone's faith doesn't mean having the same "experience" as they do, but examining what the person describes, explains, says, or demonstrates regarding their faith. Is it really that hard to understand?
Yes, apparently it is. Again, Smiley draws upon the warped and weary belief that a public expression or articulation of faith is an abuse of power. Thus: "Someone who constantly witnesses to his or her subjective experience of faith is like a stalker in that he or she is imposing his or her emotions on others." If that is so, how should we describe the person who constantly witnesses to his or her negative and subjective experience regarding faith and religion? Is she imposing her emotions—negative as they are—about faith upon others? Or is it only "imposing" when those who are Christians talk about their beliefs, while it is a wholly logical and non-imposing endeavor when the skeptic talks about their belief in the rejection of Christianity? Is this a one-way or a two-way street?
The most interesting thing about this, to me, is the fact that my subjective experience of faith or no faith is considered threatening by many of those who profess faith.
An odd complaint, it seems to me, considering how threatened Smiley seems to be by people who—gasp! call the PC police!—who want to openly discuss their religious beliefs. Yes, there are Christians who will undoubtedly "be threatened" by Smiley's remarks. For my part, I'm glad that folks such as Smiley are talking about their "subjective experience of faith," because it highlights, for those willing to spend the time examining it, the objective, rational basis for the Christian faith.
If there is a "salvation", then the secular world is it. But maybe there is no salvation; maybe what our era will prove is that monotheism must fail as a human experiment, given the inability of individuals to see past their passions, and the inability of institutions to inhibit their own expansion.
Ah, those horrible "institutions" and those dreadful passions. Thank goodness that skeptics, secularists, and atheists are free from such lamentable pitfalls, as, for example, Lenin and Stalin so readily demonstrate. If only we had more folks like that to show us how to bend our individualistic knee before the all-objective, God-denying State. The problem, of course, is not institutions as such—they can be good, evil, or even indifferent—but man himself, who is constantly tempted to manipulate, control, dominate, and even destroy others who disagree with him and his vision of reality (or "faith," if you prefer). Which leads to the vital question: Does Christianity or secularism provide the better antidote to that constant temptation?
For more along similar lines, definitely read Fr. James V. Schall's "Atheism and the Purely 'Human' Ethic" (IgnatiusInsight.com); also see my articles, "Dogma Is Not a Dirty Word!" (This Rock) and "Is Religion Evil?" (IgnatiusInsight.com).