Faith v Intellect

As Brother Chris, meus frater ab alia matre (see, you’re not the only one who can throw around Latin phrases), posted, I suggested we address the issue of why believe.  When we started this blog we wanted it to be a safe space to discuss theology and religion.  There was on our part the assumption that faith was a prerequisite for this dialogue: and we all know what happens when we assume.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk given by Rabbi David Wolpe.  In his talk, Rabbi Wolpe discussed the question, “Why are you a Jew?”  While there are many answers to this question (tradition, family, G-d told me, it gives me structure), his point was that only in the crucible of challenge do people ever truly consider why they belong to a particular faith group.  This started me thinking about the larger question of why am I a person of faith. Chris has given his response, so here is mine.

At the risk of being accused of self-plagiarism, let me begin by restate that I am a Jew by choice.  I consider the fact that both my parents were Jewish a happy circumstance of birth, not the source of my Jewish identity.  I am a Jew because I choose to be.  But that still does not answer the greater, existential question, “Why do I choose to be a person of faith?” It doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why I choose to be a Jew.

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, psychologist Julian Jaynes postulates that religion may be an attempt by our ancestors to reclaim the bicameral experience of “the gods talking to us” we lost as consciousness developed. “Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions . . . These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.”[1]  The theory of the bicameral mind, “suggests that what civilized us all is a mentality that we no longer have, in which we heard voices called gods. Remnants of this are all around us in our own lives, in our present-day religions and needs for religion.”[2] If this is true (and I tend to believe it is), there are two important conclusions we can draw from Jayne’s theory: (a) religion may, in fact, have an evolutionary component, and more important for this post,(b) the “source” of religious experience is the mind.

In a previous post, Entre Nous, I express the belief that intellect and faith are not mutually exclusive.  I also reject the neo-platonic privileging of the aesthetic (sensible, sense perceptible, visible) over the noetic (intellectual, invisible).  In fact, I reject the whole western tradition of privilege.  Faith and intellect are not binary oppositions.  One cannot be privileged over the other (I also reject the Western traditional of always marginalizing “The Other”).  The aesthetic and the noetic, faith and intellect work in concert to help us understand the world.  As Heschel points out, it is through Awe AND Wisdom that we come into relation with G-d.

So, why am I a person of faith?  Because this is where my intellect leads me.  To paraphrase Descartes (some would say butcher), I think; therefore, I believe.

[1] An Overview of Jaynes’ theory.  The Julian Jaynes Society,  http://www.julianjaynes.org/julian-jaynes-theory-overview.php

[2] Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.  Canadian Psychology, 1986, 27 (2): 128-148.

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