Sunday, 15 January 2012

...what, even, is Belief?

In his opening address to 'Now is the Time' seminar with Boris Groys at the University of Amsterdam, 2009, Terry Eagleton makes a distinction between ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’. He quotes Ludwig Wittengenstein, who proposed it makes no sense to say, ‘I know I am in pain’ because the words ‘I know’ add nothing to the statement, ‘I am in pain’. In this sense, ‘knowing’ implies a presupposition of agreed facts, rational thought and is closed to personal interpretation. Belief, on the other hand may be disputed, irrational and open to interpretation. Eagleton describes belief as precognitive:

Can I have belief in things I don’t know about? Yes. It’s commonly known as ideology. Much ideology consists in beliefs which are too close to the eyeball even to be objectified, beliefs which are part of the invisible colour of daily life itself.

He continues quoting Donald Rumsfeld, President George Bush’s Defence Secretary, who famously talked about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns but missed out, as Eagelton writes, ‘unknown knowns – things we know but don’t know we know, or things we believe but don’t know we believe’.

In other words, it may be possible for one to believe in something without realising one is believing it. We might even be unaware of the underlying ideology informing our belief. For example, I may believe in the Green Party, showing my allegiance through my vote on election day, but may never have read their manifesto. My belief would not be based on an informed decision – what Eagleton describes as ideology. More precisely, I may subscribe to a capitalistic worldview but not be able to articulate why or even having heard the term ‘capitalism’. My worldview has been informed without my realising it.

Later in the essay, Eagleton cites the example of Abraham who had faith in God but ‘given his cultural situation he probably could not have conceived that God did not exist’. .If Abraham lived in a culture where the existence of God was never challenged his faith, by Eagleton’s definition, would be an ideology, an example of belief as ‘unknown known’.

Belief can be irrational. From time to time I believe Scotland stands a chance of winning the Word Cup. My belief is not based on established facts. In contrast, belief can also be rational. Before sitting down this afternoon I believed the chair would hold my weight. This is a rational belief based on known facts (the chair is made of wood. It looks like other chairs that hold my weight. I am an average weight and size), but I did not know it to be true until I tested my belief by sitting down. In this sense, belief can often be the prequel to knowing. At times, it may not be possible to know without first believing. We might call this faith: a belief which is then tested.

Many who come to religious belief describe an initial period of doubt or rational investigation. The Judeo-Christian scripture invites the reader to ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). This is both an invitation to those who believe and to those who doubt. In the psalmist’s experience taste comes before sight: the senses inform reason, belief informs knowledge, and belief is tested to nurture faith.

Belief and doubt are not mutually exclusive? The one may not be the foil of the other; without doubt it is difficult to later believe. When someone claims, ‘I know I am the best looking person in the room’ we find it more difficult to accept than the less assertive claim, ‘I believe I am the best looking person in the room’ to which there is at least some room for doubt and rational debate. Some beliefs are considered life defining and even worthy of dying for – other beliefs seem more trivial such as believing the weather will change for the better. Belief can describe our feelings towards a pet kitten but may also motivate a suicide bomber to horrific destruction. Belief may be communal or individual, public or private, personal or shared. For example, I may believe in prayer in the privacy of my own home or collectively with a church congregation. The first is an expression of personal faith and the latter is a recognition of that same belief as shared by others.

Belief is both a matter of will and choice. Those who convert to religious belief often describe a process of deliberation where varied options are studied (or presented to them) as ideologies and arguments. For others, religious belief seems to be instilled from an early age, inherited or assumed as the continuation of parental belief or the social norm.

Kieran Dodds was the UK and Ireland Picture Editors’ Young Photographer of the Year in 2005 and 1st Prize Award Winner in World Press Photo (2006). His publications portfolio includes the New York Times, The Sunday Times Magazine and National Geographic. He is also a professing convert to evangelical Christianity. I recently interviewed Dodds about the point at which he started to believe:

'I had been wrestling with the veracity of the Bible and in particular the physical resurrection of Jesus and the origins of life. I had worked out that I had to decide one way or other... My scientific worldview had been seriously undermined by my investigations and the facts would not fit—Jesus had risen from the dead—but I was desperate to find a scientific explanation… In my honours year, while editing the student paper and writing my dissertation, I read a Billy Graham book, How to Be Born Again. It made sense of the moral dimension to my struggle; the facts and the feelings connected in a way I had never understood and I prayed that Christ would be my shepherd and lead me forward. This had profound impact on my direction and choices in life.'

For Dodds, belief in God appears to have developed through a series of choices in response to reading Billy Graham’s book. Dodds’ questions about life and doubts over the existence of God were met through the process of reading. He goes on to describe the complex relation between his religious belief and the decisions he makes about his photographic work:

'Obviously I have to shoot what’s there and not shoehorn my worldview onto something, and it’s not always as obvious. How do you shoot a phone-mast protest? With righteous anger? Can people discern a difference between my work and a non-Christian’s? I don’t know but I cannot detach the way I shoot from my worldview as much as the next man.'

For Dodds, it seems unnecessary to force an evangelical agenda on to the intentions of his work. His interest lies in representing the subject of his photographs with a professional objectivity although his choice of subject matter is clearly informed by his Christian worldview. Dodds is a religious man but he does not make explicitly religious art. He does, however, make choices about his subject matter that are informed by his interests as a Christian believer. In this way, we can say that religious belief informs the practice of art in a similar way to other decisions in life such as what one spends money on, how one raises children, and even which political party one votes for. Here is a distinction between explicitly religious art and non-religious art produced by sincerely religious people. In the first, religious symbols and signifiers such as crosses or crescent moons may identify the work as religious in nature. In the later, the viewer may have no idea the artist is religious yet the artist may hint at their religious belief by the subjects they choose to make art about.

Public perceptions of evangelical Christianity are influenced by stereotyped and often contradictory personas projected in the media such as the guitar-wielding, peace-loving, sandals over socks happy-clappy stereotype (think Ned Flanders, Cliff Richard, Harry Secombe). Their message of God’s love seems heavens apart from the message of God’s wrath presented by the hell and brimstone, placard-waving, bigoted-type Christian (think Ian Paisley, Fred Phelps, Abin Cooper). One might be forgiven for asking if they all really believe the same thing. Perceptions of religious belief are likewise informed by media coverage of events such as the Waco disaster, Oklahoma City bombing, Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect and, not least, the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, and other horrific events carried out by religious fanatics. Here, religious belief is associated with the atrocities of fundamentalism and radicalism but even these terms have been tarnished through misuse. Remaining accurate to a literal definition, the fundamentalist is someone who upholds a strict literalisation of what they believe to be true (and universal) such as the existence of God, the authority of the scriptures or even the fact the earth rotates around the sun. While it sounds provocative to say, I would suggest we all uphold some kind of fundamental belief – although it may be as simple as the belief one human being can relate to another. Even the word radical has come a long way from its humble Latin beginnings (radix simply means ‘root’). Aside from questions of semantics, the perverse acts of religious fundamentalists such as the 9/11 and 7/7 bombers reposition our general perceptions and acceptance of those who profess sincere religious belief, as Eagleton asserts:

Fundamentalists are men and woman who have been driven into spiritual fanaticism by a shallow, two-dimensional, purely technological rationality which sweeps all the big questions scornfully to one side, thus leaving those questions to being monopolized by the bigots.

By association, those who profess sincere religious belief may also be tarnished with the same brush as those who describe themselves as fundamentalists. As accurate as they may be, perceptions such as those expressed by Eagleton make it harder for those who sincerely believe in God to openly admit it on a pubic platform, let alone in the wider corpus of the arts.

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