Interpreting Faith, Suspiciously
Fellow gentleman Tod Kelly is seeking to learn how he might reconcile his lack of belief with his desire for belief, a journey for which I have much sympathy and fascination. For some time now, I’ve been on a journey of this sort myself, albeit from a different starting point and in a different direction. I’m a man of religious faith—a faithful Roman Catholic, to be specific—but I’ve travelled roads of inquiry and thought that have led me, if not to heterodoxy, definitely into realms foreign to the well-known traditions of my faith. I’ve not yet detected the scent of sulfur, although a few concerned souls have commented on my smelling of it. I don’t fear that I’m in any grave danger of losing my faith, although I am suspicious of my faith, uncertain that what I call my faith really is a response to a God who has revealed.
I’m okay with this uncertainty. In fact, I welcome it. As authors like Karen Armstrong have shown, the obsession with certainty is largely a modern development resulting from the rise of science, the confusion birthed by religious reformations and revolutions, and Enlightenment ideals. As the modern era proceeded, religious faith wed certainty with much fanfare, and still today bells and songs and speeches cheer the marriage. Had the clerics asked me—I assume this marriage took place in a church—I would have objected to the union. It’s too late for that now, and so I’m compelled to crash the party and offend the wedding hosts and their honorable guests. I counsel a divorce and an annulment. Religious faith needs to begin a new life, and certainty, the little scamp, needs to be shown the door.
What’s my problem with certainty? It can’t be had. And, when wed to religion, it can be frightfully dangerous. We see outspoken religious believers insisting, sometimes forcefully, that their sacred writings reveal the true age of the earth and the cosmos and how they came into being. We hear them demand that the laws and policies of the state reflect their certain claims about the divine law. We witness religious authorities of various confessions claim to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what God expects of human beings and that what they have to say as religious authorities matches perfectly with God’s will. When faith weds certainty, the will of the religious person and the will of God become one. To question the former is to question the latter. And we must have none of that, thank you.
I question both. The reason why has to do with what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion. Ricoeur, building on his reading of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, and approaching consciousness as primarily false consciousness, developed a type of hermeneutics aimed at deciphering expressions of meaning as illusions. As the “masters of suspicion” had interpreted religion suspiciously, so did Ricoeur, who, while a man of faith, took their hermeneutics seriously and challenged the field, foundation, and origin of religious meaning.
“Religion,” said Ricoeur, “has a meaning that remains unknown to the believer by virtue of a specific act of dissimulation which conceals its true origin from the investigation of consciousness.” For this reason, “religion demands a type of interpretation that is adapted to its own peculiar mode of dissimulation, i.e., an interpretation of illusion as distinct from ‘error,’ in the epistemological sense of the word, or as distinct from ‘lying,’ in the ordinary ethical sense of the word.”* In short, the true meaning of my religious faith may be hidden from me under the illusory appearances of the sacred and of authentic religious faith.
Try as I might, I cannot deny this possible reading of my faith. The hermeneutics of suspicion reveals the possibility, if not always the reality, of false consciousness; and the possibility of false consciousness means that what I call my religious faith may be something other than authentic religious faith, either in part or in total. It is possible that what I call my faith experiences are in truth the result of digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the fear of death, or the desire for meaning in the face of meaninglessness. I cannot know my faith with certainty. I cannot say for sure what it is, and so cannot be certain of any of its claims. I may merely be participating in the historical creation of “God” as an onto-theological tool for making sense of the universe and giving to the appearance of order the illusion of substantial foundation.
I’m in the dark about my own faith, but I welcome that darkness, because faith itself, even if it is what I hope it is, must remain a journey in the dark, a walk in the clouds of unknowing.
*Paul Ricoeur, “Religion, Atheism, and Faith,” in The Conflict of Interpretations, trans. Charles Freilich (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 442.