In Search of Lost Faith

by on Tuesday, 30 July 2013 Comments

Photography by Liz Hingley

Few would deny that the modern world is facing a spiritual crisis today. This observation was met with consensus in the beginning of the 20th century and continues on today.

As late as the Renaissance, Western civilization was dominated by Christianity. As scientific knowledge and methodology evolved, they started to chip away at the foundations of the Western theological worldview, starting with the findings of scientists such as Galileo Galilei and reaching an apex with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in 1859. Nowadays, most people do not buy in to the idea that our lives are governed by a certain deity (or deities). Neither do they believe that our world was created by some supernatural force. Science has apparently won the battle over religion, and many of us would pride ourselves as enlightened, intelligent modern human beings, free from the superstitious beliefs that dimmed the minds of our ancestors.

However, the proliferation of New Age theosophy and the increasingly complex discourse on astrology proves otherwise; thanks to the evolution of the technological industry, you can now receive complex astrolabes that can not only tell you your traditional astrological sign but also your moon sign and your ascending sign, and so on ad nauseum, which each have their own meanings and are supposed to influence you in different arenas of your life. What's more, the attraction of astrology is immune to scientific scrutiny and it’s not unusual to find PhD science graduates indulging in the guilty pleasures of astrology and feng shui. Clearly, the Promethean wisdom of science is not sufficient to quench our thirst for other-worldly meaning.

Max Weber, in his 1918 lecture "Science as Vocation" quotes Tolstoy’s concise explanation of why science cannot satisfy our spiritual appetite: "Science is meaningless because it gives no answers to our questions, the only questions of import to us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?"" Of course, as one who took up science as a vocation, Weber is not one to agree too quickly with the statement that "science is meaningless," but he does agree that the presupposition of a complete, wholesome theological metanarrative projects a stable theological subject, while the lack of such creates an alienated, self-centered individual, unsure of what to make out of the world or what to make out of himself. Weber further concludes that "natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so."

Noting this sense of spiritual lack and the impotency of science, many people in the contemporary world have returned to their churches and their temples, in order to find spiritual peace. It is easy to imagine, however, that this is by no means an easier route. What has been undone by science cannot be remedied so easily. A couple of months ago, eRenlai presented a focus entitled "My God?" that explored the discovery, loss and rediscovery of faith. Interviewees included followers of Buddhism, Catholicism and Christianity. A Buddhist interviewee mentioned how difficult it was to completely commit to her faith, as in the modern world people are often jaded and guarded against religion. Even after several years of Buddhist practice, her Master doubts whether she has even reached the minimum requirement of becoming a true Buddhist.

The problem of committing to religious beliefs that are unscientific does not only exist in Buddhism. In order to avoid awkward encounters with scientific knowledge, such as the theory of evolution, the majority of Christian teachings nowadays mostly take a symbolist approach to the Scriptures. Those who embrace the fundamentalist approach and deny every scientific statement that opposes the propositions of the Bible are extremely scarce and are often viewed as misfits in contemporary society. However, though the symbolist approach is accepted in modern society, it is not a satisfying method, in that the authority to interpret sacred texts is then granted to humans and it gives the whole process a political spin. Who gets to decide the specific meaning of each text, and does that make the interpretation infallible? How do we know whether such an interoperation is not simply a guise for manipulation by vested interests? It is these doubts that constitute the core canon of literature on religious doubt such as A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man or The Way of All Flesh. It is thus easy to see how difficult it is to maintain a steadfast religious conviction in modern society, despite the fact that science itself offers nothing better.

So what do we do now? For those who wish to remain religious, Max Weber suggests an "intellectual sacrifice," similar to a fideistic leap of faith, though this is no easy task, as demonstrated by the example of our Buddhist interviewee. For the non-believer, he has to search for the answer himself, to determine who is his God and who is his devil. Science works only insofar as it becomes a tool for the modern man to clarify his ideas. Either path he chooses, concludes Weber, the most important thing is to maintain his integrity. If one is faced with doubts about one's beliefs, one should have the courage to face these doubts head on, and not simply rush to the nearest exit.

Julia Chien (黑玲)

Julia Chien a.k.a 黑玲 is an English/Chinese editor and contributor in eRenlai magazine. She also makes electronic music and DJs under the name of Waywon 味王.

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