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This weekend, Jon Stewart is holding “a rally to restore sanity” on the mall, two months after Glenn Beck’s religion-infused “Restoring Honor” rally. Beck said he was called by God to hold the rally. Now atheist groups are planning to use Stewart’s event to promote “reason.” Are “reason” and “sanity” the opposite of religious belief? Is taking religion out of the political debate the answer for restoring reason? Or do we need more faith?
There are moments in history and in our lives when faith is the only sane and rational attitude to assume. There are moments of absolute absurdity when there is no meaning, no sense and we find ourselves trapped inside a nihilistic universe where religion is a lie, morality is silent and human reason is not reasonable enough.
At these moments, we lean on, stand on, and trust in a transcendence that is able to take us beyond the madness. We rely on a God who knows the language of our tears and has the capacity to translate moans and groans into an intelligible request. And God answers with God’s own presence.
Thus, it is a mistake to think that reason and sanity are opposite from religious belief. We need more faith in our politics and in our public discourse. We need a faith that allows us to imagine a better world. Faith begins where reason ends.
“To whom does one pray from the bowels of a slave ship?” African-American historian of religion Charles Long asks this question in an essay “Passage and Prayer.” Does one pray to the gods of Africa or to the gods of the people who control the slave ships?
Long argues that African-American religion begins at this moment. I say that African-American religion begins in Africa, and the essence of that faith is not the question of the existence of God, but the question of the presence of intermediary gods in our lives, many of whom, having lived as human beings, know human suffering. The essence of the faith is the presence that lives both inside the individual and beyond him. It is a presence that not only gives one the strength to endure hell on earth, but also helps one to hold on to one’s human dignity in the process.
We can divide the relationship between faith and reason into at least three paradigmatic and epochal moments – premodern, modern, postmodern. The premodern is faith in faith. Religious traditions perform an explanatory function. The modern is faith in reason. Science explains. The postmodern is faith in doubt. Here a hermeneutic of suspicion challenges any meta-narrative, religious or scientific. The postmodern mind knows that every form of knowledge serves someone’s interests and advantage, that any overarching story necessarily leaves something or someone out. There is center and margin. What and who are on the margins of the story and why?
In Long’s essay, he points out the contradiction of the modernist moment. In “the Atlantic world of modernity,” Europeans were seeking freedom and Africans were forced into slavery. Religion for the African became “a basic turning of the soul toward another defining reality.” One reality sought to strip the Africans of their humanity and turn them into things, property, a commodity. Another reality, the reality of their own faith, refused to allow the outside world to take or to enslave their souls. It was soul stuff, a connection to an inexpressible something within and a connection to Divine transcendence that not only gave them the power to survive, but to live and laugh and love.
The modernist contemplation of God is in many ways a crosscurrent discussion. For example: the romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in the essay “A Refutation of Deism” that the popular arguments for God are absurd. He reasons that to say God is creator, we are left to ask: who created God? He argues that many and various effects require many and various causes. Good and evil are a matter of relation. Gods and devils are of our own human creation. The idea that God exists because the concept of God is universal is mistaken because there are so many different concepts of God.
He writes: “It is among men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among those alone is cherished an hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected.” Meanwhile, enslaved Africans sing: “Over my head I see trouble in the air, I see music in the air, I see color in the air, I see glory in the air. There must be a God somewhere.” In another song, they sing: “My Lord calls me, He calls me by the thunder; the trumpet sounds within my soul; I ain’t got long to stay here.” The songs sing of a plan to escape to freedom in both this world and in the next. The songs reaffirm that they are human beings with a soul and with a home in another place and time.
Shelley writes: “The laws of attraction and repulsion, desire and aversion, suffice to account for every phenomenon of the moral and physical world.” Meanwhile, enslaved Africans sing: “O freedom over me and before I’ll be slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free. They sing of a new world where there will be no more moaning. They sing of a world of singing and shouting, a world of joy.
Shelley writes: “I have proved that we can have no evidence of the existence of a God from the principles of reason.” Meanwhile, enslaved Africans sing: “I want Jesus to walk with me. In my trials, sorrows, troubles, when the shades of life are falling, when my heart within is aching, when my life becomes a burden, I want Jesus to walk with me.” They also sing. “Great day the righteous marching.” They sing of jubilee and the day God would set God’s people free. They sing of the necessity for their own valor and boldness.
Condition of servitude notwithstanding, they found a soul-freedom that gave them a vision of a brighter day coming that gave them reason to live. They found the soul stuff that gave them a fierce radical love and an affirmation of their own human dignity. Shelley is correct to say that there are no principles of reason that proves the existence of God. Faith proves God. And humankind, all of human kind, finds such faith in the bowels of human suffering that allows us to survive with hope and with joy.