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Martin LeFevre: Faith, Reason, & Insight

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Faith, Reason, & Insight

If the events of recent weeks and years have demonstrated anything, it is that the Enlightenment ideals of reason and human rationality cannot hold sway over the realities of belief and irrationality. But that always was a Hobson’s choice, and there is another approach altogether.

If it is true, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein stated in a recent essay, “against the tendency [toward sectarian thinking] we have no defense but the relentless application of reason,” then there is no hope for the human race. Faith and reason are actually two sides of the same coin--the irrationality and rationality of thought. Reason is obviously preferable to unreason, but “the relentless application of reason” is a wholly inadequate response to the growing crisis facing humankind.

There is a sad irony in the similarity between the religionist’s faith in faith and the secularist’s faith in reason. Of course no less a philosopher than Spinoza saw reason as “our only hope and redemption,” as Goldstein puts it in extolling his “project of radical rationality.”

But that philosophical bulwark, running from Spinoza through Locke through Jefferson, has been broken. If reasonable people are not to be caught in decades of crossfire between the fundamentalist Christianity of Bush and his backers, and the fundamentalist Islam of bin Laden and his bedfellows, then we will have to respond with more than mere reason, much less mere Christianity.

Part of the dilemma is that few thinking people make the distinction between belief and faith, and between religion and religiosity. They assume faith means conviction without evidence, even conviction in the face of opposing evidence. But there is another meaning to the word faith: the feeling, with doubt, that life is more than material and the market. That feeling is getting harder and harder to sustain to be sure, but it’s one facet of the religious mind.

Organized religions represent the codification, and therefore the diminution (even destruction), of the insight that inspired them. That said, there is no conflict between faith (in the deeper sense of the word) and reason; there is simply a natural tension between the scientific and religious mind. Indeed, they represent different perspectives and different emphases in the human brain and mind. In a healthy individual, they go together, though there is a preference and natural tension between them.

As Einstein said, “science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.” He added, in a surprising statement, “I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest force behind scientific research.”

The scientific mind makes the observable intelligible; the religious mind makes the unintelligible observable. Insight belongs exclusively to neither the scientific mind nor to the religious mind, yet it belongs inclusively to both. Science without insight is a static enterprise of encrusting knowledge; religiosity without insight is a static enterprise of encrusted theology.

Both belief and reason are products of thought. Therefore it is the awakening of insight, not the application of reason, that is the way ahead for the individual and humankind. Insight does not serve simply epistemological functions—it is not just a handmaiden of knowledge. Rather, insight flows from and serves a much higher purpose than knowledge.

Awakening the human brain’s capacity for insight to its fullest goes beyond even creativity in all its forms. Insight unites the mind and heart in the timeless liberation of seeing. Indeed, igniting insight within one allows one to be a participant with the ongoing actuality of creation itself.

Does insight flow from the same ineffable source that gives rise to all energy and matter (and which continues to animate and reconfigure the universe)? Does awakening it fully in the brain illuminate, in silent understanding, that selfsame source to the human mind/heart? Yes, and seeing when to observe the mind into stillness, and when to use reason, is the mark of an awakening person and an intelligent life.

The flash of insight is irreducibly holistic and pre-verbal. But that pertains to insights, not insight per se. One can have an insight into anything, and people frequently do, every day. But mystical insight is a silently and timelessly sustained awareness of the underlying actuality of life, the universe, and ‘God.’

The religious mind does not deny, in Einstein’s words, that “the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational,” and thus the primacy of reason and evidence to discover, formulate, and convey such natural laws. Nor does it presuppose a supernatural realm that either supersedes or is separate from the natural world.

But the religious mind does see, and heed, the limits of reason, conceptualization, knowledge, and thought. It holds that only a silent mind can perceive and receive insight into the ineffable intelligence imbuing and underlying the cosmos.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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