On the edge of the town where I live, a highway billboard has recently gone up that proclaims “A world at prayer is a world at peace.” Many people passionately believe this. But is it true? Its hard to think of a violent conflict in the world today that isn’t in some fundamental way centered on the dogmatic but unverifiable certainties of people at prayer, perhaps especially when those prayers are to the same God.
The “Enlightenment,” led by thinkers like Immanuel Kant, hoped to put universal truths of reason in the place of traditional dogmas. We have grown up, Kant hopefully proclaimed, and no longer depend on the authority of God the Father to tell us the difference between Right and Wrong. Since I realize, as a rational adult, that there is no ground for me to claim entitlements that I would not accord anyone else, I must recognize that any attempt to use others as means to my ends is wrong.
And yet, it was on the grounds of this rational account that Nazi atrocities were justified. It is a pipedream to suppose that the legislation of value is as rule-governed and logically constrained as mathematics. And it is perhaps the hallmark of humanity that our heroes are precisely those who are willing to die for beliefs that no logic could demonstrate as valid.
At the end of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” the character of Levin resolves the spiritual crisis that had haunted him since his brother’s death by reflecting on a seemingly trivial conversation he has with a peasant. A good local man, Levin is told, will not take advantage of his workers, even when it might benefit him. “He lives for the soul. He remembers God.”
Although these are meaningless words for a scientific mind, Levin immediately understands them, and realizes that everyone else will as well. “We’re all agreed on this one thing,” he concludes: “what we should live for and what is good.” But what is good? For Levin, it is essentially what the Russian Orthodox Church teaches—although he admits that it must be possible for such a revelation to be available to anyone. So what, then, shall we make of the specifics of particular belief systems? What status do dogmas hold in any belief in the Good? Tolstoy’s answer comes in the form of a metaphor. The astronomer who observes the heavens does so from the same meridian on earth each time; his observations would be chaotic and meaningless if he tried to make them from every possible terrestrial perspective at once. The Church is one of these terrestrial perspectives, without which “seeing” would not be possible at all, but its teaching does not thereby rule out the validity of other perspectives on the same reality. All seeing is a seeing-as; that our experience is from our perspective is simply a necessary condition of its being our experience.
So where does that leave us? I believe that we should not be too quick to believe what we believe, that we should try to remember that “belief” is always mediated, second-hand, and provisional, filtered through language, culture, and a host of other accidental structures without which it cannot even have a definite form. Only if we suspend our own beliefs in this way may we be fair to the humanity which underlies the capacity for belief, a capacity which is the source of all that is productive, valuable, and also terrible in what we do.