FAITH AND THE MATRIX
The point of this
essay is to note that faith involves in part the psychology of meaning,
which in turn should be recognized as an aggregate experience. The
psychology of such experiences is described, as well as some
implications of this formulation.
Meaning is not
“out there,” any formula or system of thought; rather, it is an
experience. People feel their lives or a particular situation is
meaningful according to some general themes, such as the component
elements of purpose and belonging. In fact, though, meaning—and by
extension, the activity of faith, the belief in God, are subjective,
products of attitude, expectation, memory, and emotional linkages to a
host of various types of experiences.
paper, I make a similar suggestion about the concept of self, which, like meaning, is
proposed as an aggregate experience, composed of many elements.
Sometimes, deficits or “thin” experiences in some sectors can be
compensated for by richer or more deeply felt experiences in other
ways. I am suggesting the same dynamic for the sense of meaning, and,
indeed, there is even some overlap between the sense of self and the
sense of meaning.
have faith in certain ways of thinking not because of simple reasons
but rather because of these other elements. Then rationalizations are
added on. Some of the other elements include the following:
positive memories of sensual associations, smells, light, music,
sounds, architecture, tastes of food, the mixture of participation and
relationship with others doing similar actions, etc.
positive emotional connections with other people who share a belief or
positive inner connections with the stories of certain people they find
admirable, heores, important, charismatic
element of contrast with common elements of experience that are
rejected as representing lower values
stronger feeling of wanting to re-align, after a period of time that
has evoked feelings of guilt, shame, fatigue, alienation, and the like.
For them, such a turn-around can seem as if one is “saved.”
attraction of ideal and thoughts, certain symbols and themes that can
be associated with higher status (such as the exoticism of the Orient)
quality of story, narrative, myth, that seems grounding and plausible,
helping the universe and one’s life in it to seem more coherent than it
may have been previously
experiences or attention drawn to that which evokes a sense of awe,
experiences associated with the uncanny, psychic, visitations by
spirits, mystical, etc.
a calling, a personal path that calls on one’s gifts, skills, talents,
interests, abilities, and the like
The more moving
such components are, the more they serve to evoke or sustain belief.
many of the experiences of daily life, work, and operating within the
community are tainted with a variety of diluting or anti-meaning
pressures. Life can seem callous, distracting, requiring significant
compromises with one’s personal value system. Often people feel vaguely
ashamed, guilty, spread thin, caught up in a world that is crass.
Modern life–and especially the commercialization pressures of modern
media—fill life with a sense of demanding and competition, of having
instead of becoming, and so forth. Such pressures tend to dilute the
sense of life as meaningful, and a counter move towards affirming
meaning is needed.
Paradigm Shift Towards Underlying Principles
of the seeming increasing of religiosity and even fundamentalism in
some sectors, my impression is that there has been a more general
increase in an attitude that supports the general attitudes associated
with faith and rejects or downplays the importance of specific ideas or
dogmas. I think this is due to a variety of factors:
members who have married outside the faith, pulling on people to open
their hearts, be inclusive in the face of old habits of thinking
trends towards civil rights and against prejudice, bigotry, racism
increasing numbers of people who have been able to generate looser
belief systems and who don’t seem to care that much about the details
increasing churches and denominations that are espousing this more
general and inclusive faith, such as Unitarians, Unity, New Thought,
Science of Mind, Bahai, atc.
broader range of things to relate to that evoke the sense of the holy
mobility, which dilutes the power of attachment to a single church or
introduction of other vivid and evocative religious traditions
scholarship that has made it interesting and respectable to value
elements from others’ religious traditions
increasing numbers of people who have changed religions, experimented
with other religions or even exotic traditions
experiences with psychedelic drugs that evoke some mystical experiences
that are not particularly grounded in a willed focus on, assertion of,
or contemplation on the specifics of dogma or belief
growth of skeptical and rational traditions and the prevalence of their
voices, even arising from within the ranks of the faithful, about the
need to accept literal meaning in dogma or scriptures
The point here
is that a number of factors are operating to support a new paradigm of
faith, one that is less firmly linked to specific beliefs and more
associated with a general feeling of the importance of inclusiveness,
fellowship, respect, and a general attitude of idealism and reverence
confess to having grown up with a secular faith. In the United States,
during and after the Second World War, there were a number of ways I
unconsciously constructed a very rich and vigorous sense of meaning:
– I chose
a vocation that was highly respected (i.e., medicine); this field had a
rich historical tradition, many ideals, and partook of the general
belief in the goodness of progress.
culture as a whole was flush with victory, optimistic, self-righteous
in its ideals, and coasting on the continuing exploitation of cheap
sources of energy and raw materials that characterized the Americas at
was rich in quasi-religious elements, the wonders of advances in
astronomy, physics, and so forth; it was also unbounded in its
optimism, anticipating space travel and amazing technologies.
secular, scientific culture believed that its thinking was ultimately
true, in contrast to the more primitive, quaint, or merely
superstitious religions and alternative worldviews of the past and of
other countries or sectors within American society.
The point here
is that in retrospect, all these were also part of a belief system, a
kind of mythos, that had limitations that at the time were not
apparent! Fifty years later a number of other developments had
supervened so that the “non-religion” of modern thought, reaching its
apex in the mid-20th century, was able to be recognized as itself
subject to the psychological and philosophical and comparative
mythological analysis as a kind of religion, also!
(I was born into a mildly religious Jewish family, drew away from
religion in my early teens, yet continued to be fascinated with the
mystery of faith. I gradually deepened my meaning matrix and by the
mid-1980s it would be fair to say that this processed passed the
threshold of what might be considered "spirituality," although it
wasn't firmly aligned with any particular denomination. Its closest
connections have been to the "Process
Philosophy" of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, with
an admixture of ideas from Teilhard de Chardin, Ken Wilber, J. L.
Moreno, Carl Jung, the Kabbalah,
and many others. This present essay represents a slight deepening,
insofar as it recognizes more sharply the psychological need for
meaning. Other papers on this website speak to meaning and spirituality in other ways.)
Decline of the Power of the Myths of Modernity
the more powerful religious traditions has been that of secular
modernity, which affirmed a belief in materialism and progress, and
associated these with science. For a while, this myth thrived,
especially as the industrial revolution advanced and the benefits of
progress seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. Beginning in the
mid-late 1960s, though, there has been increasing disillusion with
progress and modernity. The concept of “unintended consequences” and
the problems of pollution, overpopulation, exhaustion of natural
resources, increasing extinction of species, desertification, and, more
recently, global warming, all have reduced the naive belief in science.
begun to be able to evoke the changes in consciousness necessary to
develop life styles that would be able to counter these ecological
dangers—dangers more insidious and perhaps more dangerous than the
threat of nuclear annihilation.
has brought into public discourse literally thousands of facts that can
on one hand seem to overload and alienate people further; or, on the
other hand, enriched nature can offer the foundations of a “new story,”
a re-telling of the geological, biological, ecological, zoological,
historical, and other story elements. The behavior (so-called) sciences
are recognized as being capable of being used by wider cultural and
political forces to support shallow and short-term goals, consumerist
and exploitative aims.
similarly been subject to stresses. It has become more difficult to
aspire and attain high-status jobs. The competition is greater. Many of
those jobs, in turn, have become less respected, less in control of
their own work. The health professions, for example, have become
subject to a broader economic system that turns professionals into
“providers,” and demands efficiency, often to the cost of being more
humane and personally sensitive.
Other roles have
similarly been subject to dis-illusion, social critique, and various
stresses. Mobility increases, loyalty of companies to their workers has
declined, and it is common for people to change not just jobs but
actual careers (or types of jobs) several times in a lifetime. The
point here is that it may have become subtly more difficult to find
one’s meaning in one’s work or career.
As a result,
there has been a turn towards re-spiritualization, or at least a
recognition that many issues in life cannot be reduced to rational
formulas, nor subject to simple will. The trans-rational dimensions of
love, meaning, responsibility, generosity, faith (in the sense of
willed optimism), and the like are needed. Many have sought this
corrective through the contexts of more traditional religions, others
through non-traditional religions or belief systems.
majority—are stuck in-between. They may give lip service to a religion,
but it doesn’t really play a significant meaning-making function in
their lives. Many have been disillusioned by religion, for a variety of
reasons. Most of these haven’t known about or bothered exploring other
alternatives, or those alternatives they’ve encountered seem even more
exotically absurd than the religion that they were raised with.
religion in this world is that of consumerism, the unconscious worship
of Mammon. Getting money, feeling the addiction of status, possessions,
glamour, and the consuming of increasingly intense experience (loud
music, high-fat-high-salt-high-carbs junk food, alcohol and drugs,
“party” ethos, etc.)—these seem to be the “possession” experiences that
give the illusion of “really living.” Alas, for may, a good deal of
this life style is vicarious, caught up in magazines about celebrities,
movies, video games, and again increasing intensity of horror, thrills,
action, spectacle. Indeed, these sources do provide such pseudo-life
illusions, but they also come crashing down as soon as money runs
short, aging and fatigue or illness supervenes, and then the feelings
of inarticulate guilt, shame, betrayal, vague anger, all swirl around a
core of emptiness and meaninglessness.
Matrix of Meaning
realized, on reflecting on my childhood, that I had been unusually
lucky in a number of ways—ways that many, probably most people have not
been able to enjoy. Having a vibrant vocational choice that worked out,
living in a relatively peaceful and optimistic era, naive to the
problems of those on the margins, all allowed me to build a rich
complex of positive associations to natural and phenomena. I grew up
during an era of continuing enrichment of culture, and was able to
partake of a wide range of spiritual, cultural and other connections
that fostered a growing sense of meaning. But again, I’ve been
impressed with the ways many others have not been so fortunate.
I imagined that
I hadn’t had these anchors for my sense of meaning, and in so doing
glimpsed anew at what others have suggested: People really need a sense
of meaning, and they suffer when that experience has become too thin,
diluted, fragmented, or mixed with dissonant input. In contemplating
this problem, it occurred to me that meaning inputs may also be a kind
of psychological nutrition.
(Dr. Eric Berne,
the psychiatrist who in the 1960s wrote about his theory of
Transactional Analysis and published a popular book, “Games People
Play,” suggested that people need emotional “strokes” of positive
social connectivity just as they need food or air or water. Meaning
inputs may also be recognized in this way.)
My intuition is
that people need a complex mixture of several thousands of items with
deep emotional links. (More than a few hundred, less than a hundred
thousand, I suspect.) If some elements are more emotionally rich in
associations, a broader range is less needed. I think of this situation
as being analogous to the way some trees have very deep roots while
others grow with shallower but broader roots. If there is wind, trees
with shallow roots can be blown over.
In the past,
dogma may have been more necessary because there was a far narrower
range of ideas and images to connect people with nature. Nowadays,
there may be many more elements with which to construct a rich matrix
of meaning. The challenge of science versus religion may not be just a
matter of doctrine or rationality, but, in the spirit of Marshall
McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message,” the real issue may
involve the sheer mass of associations provided by the two realms.
Nowadays it is
possible to connect with the Cosmos through a range of wondrous facts
that people a few centuries ago couldn’t dream existed. The sheer
vastness of astronomic space, of geologic and cosmic time, the many
types of radiant energy in the electromagnetic spectrum and the
pervasiveness of these energies, the richness and seemingly un-ending
frontiers of the microscopic and sub-microscopic realms, the continuing
discovery of life forms in these varied almost-otheworldy-realms, the
complexities of biology, embryology, immunology, and other
frontiers—all offer anchors for wonder that compete with the less
plausible doctrines of ancient traditions. People are validly wanting a
spirituality that can include these realities.
it is possible to provide such a shift. A few beliefs must be
relinquished, or at least criticized. One is that reality must be
knowable at a level of observable fact and rational coordination. This
has been part of the myth of modernity. There was a time that love and
faith, meaning and the like, all were still hoped to be solvable
mysteries. This naive idealism has become tempered and deserves to be
questioned. A lively alternative hypothesis would suggest that some
domains of reality are not able to be known by rational or empirical
means. The most obvious examples are the most prevalent: How can we
cope with grief and loss? Rationality and science can not heal the
sense of broken emotional bonds, to foster the most vivid mental
health, to promote morale, to recognize the truth and genuine
importance of such simple things as romantic, parental, filial, or
communal love, the enjoyment of fantasy and cute stuff, the power of
drama and story, and so forth.
Instead, we need
to recognize that the trans-rational is a realm that is at least equal
in value and importance to the rational, the mythic equals the factual,
each has its own proper domains of application, but neither should be
given dominion over the other.
contexts, the recent slang phrase, “whatever,” reflects a cop-out of
intellectual responsibility. On the other hand, it also can express a
surrender for a demand for tight agreement of belief. In this latter
role, “whatever” is a mellow openness to community fellowship,
tolerance, overlooking personal or doctrinal differences.
meaning is an aggregate experience and a deep need, and also the range
of elements that can serve to foster meaning has significantly expanded
in the last century, then the way people relate to the world, their
religion, may also change. I see these trends as unfolding in the
direction of tolerance and inclusiveness, and away from the need to be
anchored in fixed beliefs. People may indeed use certain images or
ideas as anchor points in their own lives, but there is less of a need
to require others to agree. The concept of a “preferred symbol system”
can be respected without confusing it with the other domain of “factual
epistemological dualism, of letting there be two ways to “know.” One is
more related to facts and has a higher requirement for logic and a
correspondence with consensually-agreed-upon facts. The other,
concerned more with the sense of meaning, faith, and love, is less
based on reason and more on experience, and that experience can include
a wider range of imaginative, social, intuitive, emotional, subjective
and experiential sources. Reason tends to be secondary in this
allows for the appropriate degrees of respect for both modes of
relating to life, but does call for a development of wisdom in
discriminating which modes should be more dominant in which situations.
Some problems call for very scientific-technical-like thinking. Other
situations, such as romantic small talk or play with children, invite
an entertainment of fantasy and extravagant impossibilities. The place
where they get more ambiguous is in the realms of ethics and politics.
How much diversity is compatible with an optimal level of civility? The
answer is clearly much more than people in the past believed possible,
but our contemporary culture is testing the limits of this idea.
I hope these
considerations can stimulate thought and discussion about faith,
meaning, and philosophy in general.
Please email me and
share your thoughts! firstname.lastname@example.org