Recently I was confronted with a simple truth: Unless you build your faith during times you don’t depend on it, you won’t have any when you do. This becomes very apparent when you spent a considerable amount of time in hospital visiting a relative like I did over the last week.
None of the magic that I worked to support the healing process would have been possible without a strong underlying belief system. Explaining to someone else what I did cross-legged on a park bench outside the hospital would have sounded like the story of mad-man. Rather than questioning their own filters that stopped them from believing it would have probably led to me becoming just another person being buckled on a bed in the large, quiet halls…
It was in light of this experience that I asked myself what specifically I had done as a magician to build and form my faith, to enliven and strengthen it. Of course, just before I began to visit my relative in the hospital I had stumbled across a wonderful edition of the Swiss cult magazine ‘Du’ which dealt exclusively with the matter of faith. So there was something to discover right in front of me... Here is what I found.
May the serpent bite its tail.
Why faith is an equal to facts.
In the faith-edition of ‘Du’ magazine I discovered a thought provoking article by the Swiss philosopher Ludwig Hasler (*1945). It is there that he quotes Kant with the words: “The specifically human begins where knowledge ends.” I wasn’t able to find the original source of this quote and thus I don’t know if Kant would actually agree. However, I know how much I agree to the statement - especially when one begins to examine the nature of faith and how it helps to guide and sustain our lives.
Whenever life turns truly practical and concrete all scientific knowledge and ratio begin to fade into the background. What takes the limelight instead is a Pandora’s Box: What is inside nobody will ever know. All we know is it is a box that will be eternally closed to the hands of knowledge and science. Yet, we also know the very same box will open almost effortlessly to the touch of faith. At the same time nothing can be said about the inside of this box objectively, yet it presents its content devotedly to the subjective view of our senses:
“Nobody lives according to the clinical way of the scientists, sterile and objective. Whenever we act we are already in the thick of it, ensnarled and ensnared by situations that are so colourful and unique that scientists are horrified. Whoever wants to make it through this needs a better pilot than meticulous ratio: alert senses, rich experience, smart anticipation. Because the core of taking actions is not made up by facts but by secret, will and faith, it is not sufficient to know the facts; what matters most are the gaps in-between all the factual knowledge.” (Hasler, p.11)
Wherever we perceive gaps in-between our knowledge faith prevails - or the startling absence of it. Now, many might think that as our knowledge continuous to expand the realm of faith will shrink and shrink until it seizes to exist completely. The limelight on Pandora’s box will become dimmer and dimmer, it’s stage-space smaller and smaller. Until one day it will be completely forgotten - only to be found, dusty and pushed to the back, in the halls of costume stock of the theatre called human history.
Of course that is how scientist like to look at things. Yet of course this is rather a story they like to tell themselves, than the reality we experienced over the last two millennial. To illustrate this reality let’s not imagine a theatre stage but a large geographic map: The idea that faith will ultimately vanish as long as we continue to expand the realm of reason, is liking to say that the vast areas on the map taken by oceans will disappear if we only continue to study the geography of the land long enough. It misses to understand that there are essentially two regions to be discovered on any map. Two regions that live side by side, closely intertwined, mutually interdependent and yet strangely separated on our map: the oceans and the land, faith and knowledge. And what scientists might perceive to be ‘gaps’ in-between our knowledge - because they lack the tools to understand and examine it - in reality are vast and powerful oceans.
Just recently I added a new section on this webpage where you can ask me questions. Interestingly almost all of the questions I received so far in some way or another related exactly to this matter: How to deal with an absence of faith?
Upon reflection I guess this might not be so surprising after all? People these days grow up in a world that is chaotic and utterly confusing, changing at a pace no other generation found before them. And yet they are taught to ‘believe’ in nothing but in facts. If the impact wasn’t so personal and sad, it would be quite ironic: In a world where nothing is older than yesterday’s news, where the race to break boundaries and records has never been fiercer, where the pillars of sociology, economy, mobility, etc. are rewritten by the decade, we are asked to believe in nothing but the stability of the factual? That is as if you shout out to a man drowning in a lake: ‘Don’t drink anything but water!’
Whoever says such thing hasn’t understood the very nature of faith. They are arguing like scientists who mistake vast oceans with gaps in our current knowledge base. The real difference between facts and faith is this: Faith is the legitimate opposite of the precise, it is the opposite of knowing. To have faith means following a calling that nobody hears but oneself. It means precisely following this calling because no one can hear it but oneself. It also means acceptance that we might never meet the caller. Faith is the heart of intimacy. It describes a process of constant approximation towards something that will always remain foreign - at least for as long as we walk bound in our form as humans. Faith doesn’t aim to discover and encounter the ambiguous and foreign in order to turn it into the precise and known. Faith comes without any guarantees; it is the willingness to follow the eternally numinous.
“Fundamentalism as the confusion of faith with knowing is the true heresy.”
What we can do to find our faith.
See, this is a conclusion I come to: We have enough facts already. We are surrounded by them daily. In fact most vistas that used to be open and wide are blocked these days by facts. Facts don’t require us to believe in them - they require us to make sense of them. And it is really hard to do that, if you forgot how to have faith?
Unfortunately magic doesn’t prove to be immune to this common misunderstanding: Many people who embark on the magical path today actually share the very same misperception most scientists fall prey to. They think that faith is unnecessary in magic, that it marks nothing but a gap in our current magical knowledge base. In fact they believe magic is the better way to replace faith with knowledge: All they do is to exchange the white cloak of the scientist with the black robe of the magician. Yet, all their paradigms and subjective filters remain the same. A wonderful example of such misperception is the hilarious title of ‘Knowledge of your Holy Guardian Angel’? I am really sorry to disappoint - but there will never be such thing as ‘knowledge’ of your holy guardian angel. All there is direct experience, communion and encounters. But all of these will remain subjective, and none of these will open themselves to you unless you have some faith.
So if faith by nature is subjective, elusive and ambiguous, what is it any good for? Why do we need it after all?
“Humans aren’t fallen angels. For a short time we stumble onto the stage of the theatre of evolution without knowing its author nor script. Should we want to play along despite our stark ignorance and in a somewhat passably, inspired and authentic way what we need are: firstly, a vista of the whole and secondly an idea of our role. The starry heaven above me, the moral law within me.” (Hasler, p.12)
As Hasler describes it, these two components, the vista of the whole and the understanding of our role - the foundations of our worldview in short - form the basis of any system of faith. Unfortunately such system isn’t handed over to us on a silver plate. Instead, wether we want to or not, we acquire it like invisible and often unconscious combat badges as we wrestle through adolescence and life. See, we all have a vista of the whole and our role - even if it simply might say that all things on earth are futile and our existence is a product of chance. Whatever it is we fundamentally made ourselves believe in, it is the output of the fights we fought with live - just as well as the embraces we lay in. Faith isn’t something that we hope and pray for or that is descending upon us through higher grace. Our faith is the ultimate expression of the life we chose to lead. We all need to grind it out and earn it. We fight for our faith.
As paradox as it might sound: What we believe in ultimately is our own responsibility. Life throws lessons at us, often many at a time. If we fail to create meaning from each of them it is not life that failed but us as humans… See, I know some people who have failed more often than many in their lives. Yet, for some reason they still are happier and more contempt than others who made themselves constantly come out on top. At the end of the day it might be less about how gracefully we handled each of the challenges life makes us go through - wether we stumble and fall, emerge all bruised or crowned. Instead, it might be much more about how we allow these experiences to shape us from within - and which next steps we decided to take because of the believes we acquired from them.
The most simple and pragmatic step we can take to take responsibility for our own believes is to examine our existing ones. Wether we stand in the scientist camp or not - the reality is we are all full of believes - covered and unconscious elements of faith that guide our decisions and the way we show up everyday.
The goal of many modern therapy forms is exactly that - to reveal what we made ourselves believe in. Such a process of exploration needs to be completely non judgemental of course: Every statement of believe that we ingrained into ourselves was functional and helpful at a certain time; they essentially form coping mechanisms. Unfortunately though our unconscious isn’t programmed to review once integrated coping mechanism after a decade or two to understand if they are still functional for our current lives. Such fact is not a flaw in our DNA as humans; it is nothing to be ‘fixed’. It just forms good reason for why we need each other: Because renewing ourselves recurrently, keeping ourselves from turning all rigid and out of touch with what is truly present and offered for experience is quintessential hard work. And it happens best through feedback we receive from others around us - may they be strangers or family, stories or books, guardian angels or ghosts.
We all form mirrors to each other, reflecting the forms we chose to assume at any given point in time. Yet, the magic gift we were granted as humans is to be shape-shifters until the day we die. We might not be able to shift out of the scarred and flawed shape of our physical bodies; nor are most of us able to renew all of the fundaments of faith we acquired in young age. But when we look into the mirror of life the degree of meaning and coherence that looks back at us is completely up to us.
Let's let go of the idea that faith is meant to emerge from life organically, like a fruit emerges from a bloom. Rather we may want to expect that building up our faith will be the hardest, yet potentially most rewarding work we’ll be doing before we die. It's tough to accept but each morning it is us who decide wether we wake up to myth or meaninglessness. Of course such is not a decision taken consciously, nor easily or once and forever. Instead it is a constant process of renewal, of surprise and adjustment, of change and rediscovery. It is the Great Work. What we need to begin with is pure and playful imagination. The seedling of faith.