Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 1

This post will kick off a little blog series I want to do on the sixth chapter of Ken Wilber’s book A Sociable God – Toward A New Understanding of Religion. The chapter is titled “Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation.” In this chapter Wilber sets out to make some important distinctions between these four religious elements, ordering them in what Wilber might refer to as a “healthy hierarchy.” What I take Wilber to mean by this term is that while we may rank these different religious elements in order of their “authenticity,” all of the elements bring with them very necessary functions. In the same way a ladder is useless without its lower rungs, we need all the rungs to work properly with one another to provide a sturdy, reliable way up.

First we’ll take a look at the religious element of belief. Here is Wilber’s assessment:

“Belief is the lowest form of religious involvement, and, in fact, it often seems to operate with no authentic religious connection whatsoever. The “true-believer” – one who has no literal faith, let alone actual experience – embraces a more-or-less codifeid belief system that appears to act most basically as a fund of immortality symbols. This can be mythic-exoteric religion (e.g., fundamentalist Protestantism, lay Shintoism, pop Hinduism, etc.), rational-scientism, Maoism, civil religion, and so on. What they all have in common, when thus made a matter of “true belief,” is that an ideological nexus is wedded to one’s qualifications for immortality.

I believe this generates a peculiar, secondary psychodynamic: since one’s immortality prospects hang on the veracity of the ideological nexus, the nexus as a whole can be critically examined only with the greatest of difficulty. Thus, when the normal and unavoidable moments of uncertainty or disbelief occur (magic: is this dance really causing rain? mythic: was the world really created in six days? scientistic: what happened before the big bang? etc.), the questioning impulses are not long allowed to remain in the self-system (they are threats to one’s immortality qualifications). As a result, the disbelieving impulse tends to be projected onto other and then attacked “out there” with an obsessive endurance. The true believer is forever on the make, looking for converts and battling disbelievers, for, on the one hand, the mere existence of a disbeliever is one token less in the immortality account, and, on the other, if the true believer can persuade others to embrace his ideology, it helps to quiet his own disbelieving impulses. It is not the the rightness or the wrongness of the opposing view but the peculiar passion with which it is opposed that belies its origin: what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

When reading this I immediately imagine the over-zealous street preacher who is fervently doing his best to convert the sinners of world. When one reflects on how ineffective the approach of street preaching is nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that converting lost souls is ultimately the true objective. While it maybe the reason found on the surface of the mind of the street preacher, something about this approach tends tip off 99.9% (a generous estimate) of anyone within earshot otherwise. The street preacher is, in the end, always ineffective because something deep inside ourselves tells us that he can’t be trusted. And that makes perfect sense because he ultimately doesn’t trust himself. To repeat Wilber’s line, “…what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

For this street preacher, his religious perspective is rooted in the idea that one can possess the correct idea about who God is while at the same time waging war on the “lost” who have the wrong idea. It is a quest for certainty and a war on doubt. That is ultimately the difference between belief and faith. Belief burns doubt at the stake while faith makes doubt a trusted friend.

But the element of religious belief can be a benefit. Wilber writes:

“On the more benign side, belief can serve as the appropriate conceptual expression and codification of a religious involvement of any higher degree (faith, experience, adaptation). Here, belief system acts as a rational clarification of transrational truths, as well as the introductory, exoteric, preparatory “reading material” for initiates. When belief systems are thus linked to actual higher (authentic) religiousness, they can be called, not because of themselves but because of association, authentic belief systems.”

Wilber stops short of giving us any concrete examples of this in the book but I think the metaphor of the ladder works well here. If all you have is the lower rung of the ladder, then the ladder ceases to be of use. But if your ladder has the higher rungs as well as the lower rungs, the lower rungs then prove valuable, but only because the higher rungs are in place. In the same way, belief by itself is useless and often times harmful. Only when belief links to or provides a clearing for the more authentic stages does it have value.

Next up: Faith.


4 thoughts on “Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 1

  1. so this is why we smell fear and anger rather than sense sincerity when we are told that we must believe in a literal Satan based on an incoherent interpretation of random portions of the Bible…and things of this sort

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