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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

22 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    Given this orientation toward the concept of faith, how is it possible to understand as “authentic” (in the existential sense) one’s participation in a particular religion that is not even organized around one’s own perceptions of reality, but around the (equally questionable) perceptions of others–most of whom are long dead?
    What is to be gained there that couldn’t be acquired just as certainly from any other kind of social organization?
    Or, perhaps more importantly, what is possibly to be lost thereby?

    • DensityDuck says:

      The men who wrote the Constitution are long dead, but what they created is arguably a religion and we still participate in it.

      • Rodak says:

        The Constitution can only be called a “religion” in a metaphorical sense, or as what would accurately need to be referred to as “idol worship.” That said, it has been greatly modified since that long-dead committee drew it up, and it is continually modified as our collective national perceptions of political reality ebb and flow.
        For those reasons, I don’t like the analogy–which I think trivializes the issues Kyle has raised here.

        • DensityDuck says:

          You’re aware of Vatican II, right? It’s not as though religious practice has remained static since 33 A.D.

          I’m responding to the “this is old so we should ignore it” statement, which is refutable both philosophically and by established secular practice.

          • Rodak says:

            Yeah. I’m also aware of the Reformation.
            The point is not “this is old and we should ignore it.” The point is “this is old and no longer exists.”
            Is a hundred-year-old boat on which every plank and nail has been replaced over time, and a new cabin built here, and a new figure-head placed there, a the masts replaced by engines, the same boat just because it’s had the same name continuously?
            But what Kyle is talking about is false consciousness and its role in belief systems. If I believe it’s the same boat, this belief is built upon an illusion, prompted in part by my pre-conceptions about that boat; prompted in part by the designation of particular name to the object giving rise to those pre-conceptions; prompted in part by my need to simplify my world in order to better understand it, etc.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            @ Rodak – I question whether a religion is comparable to a boat in this way. It’s not the mere name of my religion that has persisted through time, but its myths and ethics and rituals and texts.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      If my aim is understand the authenticity of my participation in a religion, assuming it is authentic, then I would approach my consciousness of my religious faith not by way of a hermeneutics of suspicion, but rather a hermeneutics of affirmation. This would mean interpreting the signs and myths and texts of my faith on their own terms, as disclosing a transcendent supernatural reality. From there I would try to look at the ways in which I make this faith my own.

      The fact that my religion is organized around the perceptions of others simply means that my self-understanding here necessitates a “hermeneutic detour” through the other: I understand myself by way of understanding another. The distance between me and the other raises some difficulties and limits my extent of understanding, but it doesn’t lock me in my own subjectivity. I can know another, if imperfectly and creatively.

      • Rodak says:

        @ Kyle —

        As all the family stories about great whaling exploits on “that” boat have persisted and been enlarged upon. This is what seems to make it the “same” boat. Maybe it is the same boat? Maybe it just seems to be the same boat because no one person had it in sight the whole time it’s had the same name. Either interpretation is plausibly valid.

        As you are understanding yourself through the detour of another; and that other is similarly understanding himself through a detour one more step removed; and so on–where does the regression terminate? At a beginning? Or at an ending?

        It would seem that any hermeneutics that is “authentic” is by definition of hermeneutics of suspicion. I am either examining doubt about a thing, or I think that I now possess sure knowledge of it. Any hermeneutics of affirmation–if I understand what is meant by that–is an attempt to rationalize the validity of a thing that I’ve decided a priori that I desire understand in a particular way. There is nothing easier to see a bill of goods than an ego.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          It doesn’t ever really terminate, even when something meaningful is created and expressed. Ideas may be formed, texts may be written, stories may be told, but the process of interpretation continues.

          In my writing, I tend to stress suspicion, but affirmation of meaning is also needed, if for no other reason than to get through one’s day.

          • Rodak says:

            As a poet who shares his writing online on pretty much a daily basis, and gets feedback from a variety of readers, concerning nearly every piece, I have grown ever-more aware that what my words mean to me is almost never identical to what those same words suggest to others. Sometimes a reader’s impressions and my intent don’t seem (to me) to be related at all. But this doesn’t mean that the reader is “wrong.” Neither does it mean that I haven’t given the reader anything of value because what he got out of my words is different from what I put into them (and got out of that process for myself in the process of creation.)
            What it does mean, it seems to me, is that unless we’re engaged in empirical investigations, founded upon universals such as number, or universally accepted classification systems, we are acting in a subjectively oriented universe. And it would necessarily be in such a universe that faith finds its place: in here; not out there.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    The problem with this attitude is that the atheist will look at it and say “oh, how convenient! A belief system that says illusion is neither falsehood nor error, and that religion isn’t required to make logical sense! With that as a fundamental proposition, how can you ever be wrong?”

    I’m not disagreeing with you; I’m just suggesting that you better have a good answer for that.

    Which, I think, you do: “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.”

    And that’s pretty much my philosophy. As I’ve said before, and ripping off Neil Gaiman: When you ask me “do I believe in God?” my answer is “yes, but that’s not what you’re asking me. What you’re asking me is, ‘do I believe in a magic sky ghost?’ And no, of course I don’t. But I do believe that it’s possible to make valid comparisons of the moral merit of various actions, and that it is not necessary to resort to ‘long-term’ or ‘whole-society’ handwaving to justify a more-moral choice; and, since that is resorting to unprovable axioms, it might as well be described as a belief in God.”

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Ricoeur wasn’t advocating a “convenient” belief system that says illusion is neither falsehood or error. Nor am I. I could, for example, start a religion based on lies and epistemological errors that results in illusions of consciousness. But if you’re going to interpret those illusions as illusions, then you need a specific hermeneutic approach. You could of course approach the meaning of religion as the product of lies and epistemological errors, but then your approach would be a little different.

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    It’s funny, Kyle. I’ve just come from my own thread on belief and have now just read your post. (Which is great, btw.) But I am struck after reading this how on the one hand, you and I might actually be so close in this matter – as if what separates you from me on the matters of belief and doubt is the thinnest strand of silk. And yet that strand seems to create an almost uncrossable divide – a current too hard to eddy through.

    It is puzzling.

  4. Michael Drew says:


    I think this is great. My view is actually that certainty is most likely the enemy of knowledge, and is certainly the enemy of learning. That seems to be something people of both faith and of science – and of both – need to be occasionally reminded, if not just outright informed of. We can’t ever really know anything if we must be certain f it to know it, but we do believe that we know things, and so knowledge, for human purposes consists of something that is provable to a standard somewhere below certainty.

    I can’t speak for the relation between the fundamentals of faith or religion and certainty, but I do think that anyone who suggests that science is fundamentally about certainty does not actually understand science. I have the vague sense that Karen Armstrong may not actually understand science all that well.

    • Michael Drew says:

      ‘Certainty is certainly the enemy of learning.’ Oh well. You follow my meaning: overwhelmingly likely.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Armstrong’s point is not that science is about certainty, but that as science developed, especially in close relation with religion, certainty became important in a way it hadn’t been before. There were several reasons for this: on the one hand, you had a cultural movement away from mythos toward logos; on the other, you had religious facts and truths being challenged by scientific discovery.

      • Michael Drew says:

        Good to hear. I don’t know her work well; I was just going on your brief reference. (Which means I went further than I ought to have with regard to her; my mistake.)