Meditations on faith

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A few months before his death, Leonard Cohen, the great lyricist of modern spirituality, sang to God:

Magnified, sanctified
Be the holy name
Vilified, crucified
In the human frame
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
You want it darker

You’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, My Lord

The first lines are a reference to the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the deceased. The million candles—each one in remembrance of a life lost—reminds us of tragedies upon preventable tragedies. So too with the prisoners, the guards, the murders: if these are part of some deity’s plan, it’s a deity which wants the world darker. Finally, hineni is what Abraham said when God called upon him to sacrifice Isaac. It means Here I am; but with deep connotations: I am willing, or perhaps I am yours.

Together, I find these verses, and the rest of the song, deeply striking and totally incomprehensible. They throw the brute fact of immense suffering, and death, and darkness, at the listener. And then they don’t question it, or retreat from it, or refute it. The opposite! Hineni: yielding completely. Leonard Cohen, at death’s door, singing “I’m ready, My Lord”, as if there is nothing to excuse or explain. Or more: as if the litany of suffering in the rest of the song only strengthens his convictions.

It occured to me, listening to these lyrics, that I had no idea what that mental state feels like; that there is a whole spectrum of experience—apparently, overwhelmingly powerful experience—which is alien to me.

Now, perhaps I am misinterpreting Cohen; perhaps these lyrics are ironic, or despairing (although if so, I just don’t see it, and neither does the former UK Chief Rabbi). But either way, the story of Abraham and Isaac, which encapsulates the question of faith in the face of suffering, is one with which religious thinkers have wrestled down the centuries. It is the story that Kierkegaard chooses to illustrate the absolute absurdity of absolute faith—and its greatness, not in spite of, but because of that absurdity.

Yet, striking as Kierkegaard’s writings are, suppose that we would prefer not to found our worldviews on absurdity; what then? Is there something about this experience which atheists can learn from and absorb? I think there is, and it comes from thinking more deeply about faith. Forgive me if I am naively recapitulating well-known arguments; in this domain, it seems worth cultivating these thoughts myself.

What do we actually mean by faith? Let me distinguish two related concepts: faith as belief (in particular, about properties of God), and faith as surrender. Atheists know that faith in standard beliefs about God is misguided: that God is not omnibenevolent, nor the source of morality, nor the rightful authority. From this perspective, the story of Abraham arouses bewilderment, or scorn, or pity. But, for me at least, this has obscured the second aspect of faith. There are many beautiful things about the human spirit, and one of the greatest is our ability to trust each other—where surrendering control entirely to another is the ultimate form of trust. The absurdity of the story of Abraham comes not from the fact that he surrenders in this way, but rather from the fact that we cannot imagine any good reason why an omnipotent God should require Isaac to be sacrificed. Yet if, instead of God, we picture Abraham’s dearest friend saying to him, “I can’t tell you why, and I’m aghast that this is the case, but it is imperative that you take your only son, whom you love dearly, and kill him”—if at that point Abraham says “Hineni”, in the knowledge that his friend would do the same if their roles were reversed—then it is clearer that Abraham’s surrender reflects a depth of trust and connection that we should strive towards.[0]

So where does this leave us? Abraham’s belief in God was misguided. Today we do better by embracing the virtues of the Enlightenment—of reason and humanism and defiance of unjust authority. But nevertheless, in his ability to trust, he displays something valuable, and powerful enough that it has kept us coming back to his story for thousands of years.


I think I believe this argument. Yet there’s something odd: if faith as surrender is so compelling to so many others, why do I (still) not feel the appeal of it? I’ve been familiar with this core idea since learning that Islam literally means “surrender”, many years ago. And yet I’ve never felt like that’s what’s missing in my life; nor do I hear people talk about it very much outside the context of religion.

Maybe I’m biased by a longstanding dislike of religion. But a hypothesis that worries me more is that I’m too much a child of individualistic modernity to actually understand or appreciate this sort of surrender. Scott Alexander talks about concept-shaped holes: ideas you don’t even realise you don’t understand. Some of his examples: not believing that society has become atomised and individualistic, because you mistake the scattered remnants of community around you for the real thing. Or being shut off from genuine emotional connection, but not realising it because you think that your shallow connections are as good as it gets.

And I wonder whether the same thing has happened to “trust”. When I say that I trust somebody, often I’m thinking about them being a good and sensible person. Even when I say that I’d trust somebody with my life, it feels like that’s still pretty close to saying that they’re a really good person, and pretty careful, and also that they care about me.

Okay, but now if I imagine saying: I trust somebody enough to surrender my will to theirs—enough that they could override any of my decisions, and I wouldn’t even resent them for it, because I’ve chosen to have faith in them. Oh. Yeah. That feels pretty different. That feels like a state of mind I don’t even understand, because I think of myself so deeply in individualistic terms that I’m not sure what it would mean to hand over that level of agency. Does it happen in the best relationships? I don’t know, but I can’t recall anyone talking about it, at least not in these terms. More generally, maybe this is what people mean when they talk about becoming “part of something bigger than you” But I’ve done that, with movements and ideologies, and even so, I relate to them very much as a free individual. I expect that it used to be much easier to feel defined by being a part of something much bigger than you—your family, your town, your religion. Now, even when we still belong to these groups, we no longer let them subsume our autonomy in the same way.

Another way to think about this change is as an increasing desire for control. Modernity’s defining feature is humans exercising control over our environments. Many object to this, perhaps because it seems hubristic—but the tragedy is that we shouldn’t trust nature, or God, or fate; they’re indifferent to us. Humanity needs to seize control of its destiny because nobody else will do it for us. But perhaps my mistake has been in thinking of my personal life as a microcosm of humanity, and trying to seize control of it in similar ways. Unlike humanity, though, I’m not surrounded by uncaring nature, but by a social environment of people who are sufficiently trustworthy that this core religious instinct, to surrender, may be worth leaning into. In other words: if we should no longer put our faith in God, and we should no longer (after the atrocities of the 20th century) put our faith in society at large—perhaps we can still fill that fundamental need by putting our faith in the people around us, on a smaller scale.

I started off by talking about absolute faith. But extremism is seldom a virtue when it comes to human interactions—and in this case it runs into many of the same problems as absolute faith in God. What if you’re mistaken about the people you’ve put your faith in? What if they want you to do bad things? I notice that many people who attract this level of faith end up as cult leaders; and surrender to ideologies has often led to atrocities. So in practice, I think we shouldn’t get anywhere near Abrahamic levels of trust when we don’t have an omnibenevolent being to direct it towards. But Abraham as an idealised example, to nudge us in the right direction in our small-scale personal lives at least, and to counterbalance the underlying pressure to be in control—well, that seems like an idea worth having. As a humanist, I consider human relationships to be one of the main sources of meaning and value in the world. And in a secular, humanist context, we’re not just the one surrendering, but also the one being surrendered to. So part of moving towards that ideal is making ourselves worthy of that responsibility. In that sense, at least, humanists should aim to play the role of God.

[0] I’ve specified an equal relationship, because that fits with modern sensibilities. When we imagine Abraham trusting an authority figure in an unreciprocated way, it starts to seem a bit weird—what gives them that authority? But I imagine that the ancients saw unequal relationships (e.g. their marriages) as potentially also very meaningful and fulfilling.