Faith is relationship.
There is nothing startlingly new or esoteric in that statement; it has been mentioned many times. Faith is distinguished from beliefs. Beliefs — religious doctrine — are considered “facts” with a determined cognitive content and claim to be objective knowledge. Faith, as used here, is not. It’s a relationship: a connection between living things … a posture, that projects recognition, trust and reliance.
In this chapter I want to elaborate a description of faith that is not derived from established religions of any kind, Christian or not. I will propose a view that is consistent with the conclusions elaborated in The Mystery of Matter. This conception of faith will apply across the board to every human being, of whatever tradition, culture or intellectual persuasion … and that includes “atheists” whose embrace of existence without recourse to anything “supernatural” demolishes the traditional accusations that their stance somehow implies a disdain for the reality which we all struggle to understand, love and respect.
Such attempts at semantic adjustment, however, are still far from adequate. For, even taken in its most subjective sense, the very word “faith” has been fatally robbed of openness by a long association with Christianity’s endless disputations about supernatural other-worldly realities. It is almost impossible to use the word “faith” now without evoking connotations that distract from the simple natural phenomenon I want to elucidate.
Nothing “supernatural” will be proposed here. So, like the words “God” and “sacred,” a radical disclaimer has to be made for the term “faith.” I will try to be clear in context and, since the word “faith” is under erasure (the term “erasure” and this usage comes from Jaque Derrida), from this point forward, you will find it written but crossed out, like this: faith. That does not mean it is eliminated … it is simply a reminder that it is no longer being used with its traditional religious significance.
The word “relationship” can be used in an objective sense referring to the way two or more things are connected by a physical, biological or legal bond. But here I use it in a subjective sense implying a conscious mutuality between individuals based on recognition.
We usually use adjectives like “personal” to characterize this phenomenon, which would seem to imply that relationship occurs only at the human level. But clearly, we have relationships, and sometimes very intense ones, with what are not currently defined as “persons” — our house pets and farm animals, for example. We relate to them, and they to us and to one another. Yet they are not “persons.” What is it that we recognize and relate to? … an attitude assumed by conscious living individuals toward one another based on mutual recognition. We often couch it in terms of “knowledge:” we say we know them, and they know us.
We dealt with the cognitive side of this phenomenon in chapters 8 and 10 on interpretation and recognition. We saw that recognizing an individual as a center of intentionality is not knowledge in the conventional sense of the word. It is an understanding derived from interpretation. It utilizes our time-bound cognitive equipment to assess the drift or direction-of-movement of what is really a process (the continually unfolding intentions of another living individual), without the “snap-shot” effect we call abstraction. I have recourse to my understanding of myself to generate an interpretation of the moving changing intentionality that I have encountered in the other.
Relationship, then, is a mutual attitude focused on the running interpretation of active intentionality or bearing; it is an understanding that prescinds from the knowledge of what the center of intentionality is. For the interpretation of intentionality to occur, there is no need to have a “what,” a “thing,” a predicate. “What” I have encountered is fundamentally irrelevant from a relational point of view. It doesn’t substantially matter if the “other” is a dog or a cat, or a deer or an extra-terrestrial. What matters for relationship is their conscious bearing … specifically toward me … which inspires my bearing toward them. I interpret that bearing and take a stand toward it — that is relationship.
Our relating to other human individuals exemplifies the same features. We all know many people, but we relate in different ways to each individual we interact with depending, we say, on “who” they are, not “what” they are, meaning whether they are friendly, not just that they are humans. Just being human, as far as relationship is concerned, is not the most relevant factor.
relating to myself
What about myself? Can I relate to myself? This question should not appear strange because we saw in chapter 6 that self-awareness is neither innate, nor instantaneous. I come to “know” myself only gradually through the interpretation of my own intentionality like any other center of process. Over time I’m really getting to know my body and the impact on it of ongoing experience, which is the basis of my personality. It’s not something I do once and for all. My “self” is an open-ended narrative. My sense of “who I am” continues to develop throughout my life, receptive to amended interpretations about my past and my predilections. And at any point my intentionality can be re-directed based on my decisions to suppress, override or encourage and intensify my reactions as I choose. In so doing, I am “relating” to myself.
The general point is that in all these cases relating is not based on the conceptual or scientific knowledge of a fixed object as we’ve defined the term in these reflections, but rather on interpreting a process. And correlatively, knowing something or someone well or even intimately — as with another human being or even myself — does not eliminate the need to continue to assess the ongoing events that are the expressions of a possibly changing intentionality.
A relationship is fundamentally non-conceptual. It is not based on “knowledge” but rather on understanding, which we have proposed is somatically based. Understanding, because it is grounded in bodily experience and in the conatus, always involves organic self-awareness. It most appropriately eschews the word-labels of conventional language and operates, therefore, “wordlessly,” which can mean, silently, in contemplative realization or, linguistically, in metaphor … which, from the point of view of conventional language, is also “wordless.”
intentionality in the “darkness” of existence
As we approach the encounter with the “darkness” at the core of reality — experienced by us as the conatus — identified in chapter 13 which terminated our analysis, we realize that with matter’s energy we are in the presence of something far beyond anything our cognitive apparatus was designed to deal with. We do not know what it is. But this is astonishing … for we are made of it. It is us! Why don’t we know what we ourselves are? As we will see, this defining paradox creates the significance of faith for human life.
Experiencing existence is not entirely unlike meeting another life form for the first time. Material energy, after all, is a living dynamism. Existence is a reflexive self-embrace. I encounter this vital energy throughout the biota of living things; it is the source and wellspring of their life as well as my own. Everything alive is bursting with the drive to survive derived from matter’s energy. It explains everything: what and that and how we are. It explains me … and everything I am and want.
Material energy is observably present and functioning in every life form there is, most of which exercise a relational behavior at their own level, minimally to food sources or enemies or potential mates, and at the human level to intense interpersonal connections. There is a relational potential in matter’s energy. Many interpret this fact to mean that material energy itself can be related to. But note: it cannot be related to as other, because, whatever else it may be, it is always myself.
Besides, we cannot use the term material energy as if it were some recognizable delimited entity … a “thing” much less a conscious living individual, like a “person.” In our experience, it is not. It is all things. It is never found “by itself;” it is always only things “other than itself” (so to speak) and the specific relational intentionalities found in these things are tied to the particular level of integrative complexity (emergence) they’ve achieved. There is an absolute identity between material energy and its many manifestations at all levels … one of which is me. Material energy shows no evidence of the kinds of recognition and intentionality that we are familiar with in our relationships with other separate living entities.
Matter’s energy is us; for we all, whether humans, bonobos or bacteria, are members of the same family, evolved over eons of time out of the same primitive elements. None of us, at any level or at any time, or in the exercise of any function, is anything other than this material energy.
Nevertheless, even though there is no clear evidence of any separate individual living entity called “matter’s energy” apart from the things I see, I know through observation that matter’s energy is a living dynamism, providing at the most elemental level a non-conscious intentionality — a self-embrace. It was by the non-conscious intentionality of existence … not thoughts, or “plans” … but a reflexive, paroxysmal self-embrace, borne forward through natural selection, that all things came to be … and to be as they are … including me.
I’m sure you have noticed another paradox. All of us life forms are free to use material energy for the construction of our own selves and our continued survival as we choose, each in its own way. Our evolution has been entirely self-directed. In my case, existence has a permissive bearing toward my “person.” I have existence, in other words, as if it were entirely mine. I was not even aware that I am an emergent form of matter’s energy until science brought it to light for me. Even now I find it hard to believe that I am constructed of something that might in some way be other than me, and so when science confronts me with the fact that I am constructed of the same materials as a plant or an animal, I do not easily absorb it. Following in the tracks of my tradition, I tend to set myself apart from material energy, claim that I am other (“spirit”), and objectify it (matter) as if it were other-than-me. But, of course, it is me … and it is not only me, it is everything! People who are sincerely trying to understand it cannot avoid relating to it … because it is their very self with which they are in necessary, intimate, organic contact. The relationship exists long before I become aware of it or begin thinking about it.
But there is even more paradox. While the material energy is “me,” the “making it available to me” is not. In other words, it was not “mine” to dispose of for my own self-origination. I did not make existence available to myself, nor did I plan and generate my body with its organs and brain, cells and vital chemicals. I am aware of the fact that I have no ultimate control or ownership over this material energy which-is-me. The availability, however non-directive and non-personal, implied in my intimate possession of material energy, is due to a dynamism, an initiative, or a permission, if you will allow me the use of the metaphor, that comes from somewhere else. It is not mine … and this gives me a sense that there is an intentionality here, a bearing … maybe not one that is directed by personal choice, or to me personally, but certainly one that I am related to in a way that is vital to me, … because this intentionality has resulted in me, and without it there would be no “me.” It might be passively permissive, but matter’s energy is not only vital to my life, it is the source of my very vitality and self identity. The conatus that is my personal self with its desire to live, is responsible for my identity. “I” am a narrative that is driven exclusively by matter’s energy.
I cannot downplay the absolutely transcendent importance that this availability has for me. Since I love existing and I love existing as myself, I most naturally love that in and by which “I live and move and have my being.” How I relate to it is necessarily affected by the simple fact that the relationship here is not optional. It is not discretionary … it is constitutive. This relationship makes me to be-here and to be me. I can only disregard it by disregarding myself!
existence is not mine? … the religious experience
In this sketch we recognize the familiar elements of the “religious experience.” The realization that while existence (matter’s energy) is me, it is not mine, is most often had in the awareness of impending death … for it is then that I realize that what I define as “me” can disappear … that I did not “possess” my existence as I thought. This is always something of a disturbing discovery. But consider the disconnect: that the recognition of something as commonplace as death, should be so shocking in my own case as to be aptly described as a “revelation” that has the radical potential to disrupt my life, is an indication of how blindly identified I am with existence. Until I “realize” that existence is not mine, I take it as if I am it, or own it … my knowledge of the inevitable death of every living thing notwithstanding. This is a stunning anomaly! It is the ultimate realization … and a clear example of the difference between knowledge and understanding. My spontaneous sense of total identity with existence had completely overridden my rationality. And when the somatic realization of death occurs, it can short-circuit my thinking process altogether.
There is an existential self-embrace at the core of myself and I see that it is what drives every life form on the planet. And I have no trouble understanding this universal identification with existence and the desire to continue to exist. As a matter of fact it’s one thing for which I don’t demand any explanation whatsoever. I understand it implicitly, connaturally, in and of itself. But, in spite of this I still have no idea what it is. There is no “knowledge;” nevertheless, everyone understands exactly what I mean, because everyone’s self is constituted of this very same empirical dynamic.
I experience matter’s energy as my self and only in a later step try to objectify it. But such objectification is a fiction. For by doing so I omit the fact that the “I” that seeks to know is not only the very thing (the “what”) I want to know, but it already understands because it is in direct somatic contact with itself! It is not just a cerebral knowing.
These dimensions of existence are universal. The vital features of matter’s energy that we have been exploring in this study — the self-embrace of existence, the drive to survive, universal availability, communitarianism and the primacy of the totality — are invariable across the universe.