Faith, Works, and Knowledge

In this world there are two roads of perfection, as I told thee before, O prince without sin:  Jñana Yoga (), the path of wisdom of the Sankhyas, and Karma Yoga (), the path of action of the Yogis.

Bhagavad Gita, 3:3, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin Books, 1962

Thrice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites [the Eleusinian Mysteries], go down to Hades. Only for them is there life; all the rest will suffer an evil lot.

Sophocles, Triptolemus

What then has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church, the heretic with the Christian?

Tertullian, On Prescriptions against Heretics

...some fall into the Avici Hell, from which they never emerge to be reborn.

The Tathagata, in Wu Cheng'in, Journey to the West, ("Record of the Western Journey"), Volume IV, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, p.2260

Whether or not evil persons of this last age attain Buddhahood does not depend upon whether their sins are heavy or slight but rests solely upon whether or not they have faith in this [Lotus] sûtra.

Nichiren Shônin, "Hakii Saburô-dono gohenji," Shôwa Teihon Nichiren Shônin Ibun, edited by Risshô Daigaku Nichiren Kyôgaku Kenkyûjo, Minobusan Kuonji, 1952-1959, 1988, 1:749

Extra Ecclesiam, Nemo Salvatur:  "Outside the Church, No One is Saved."

Origen, quoted in 8 1/2, Fredrico Fellini, 1963


Ariel                      Your charm so strongly works 'em
     That if you now beheld them, your affections
     would become tender.
Prospero                          Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel  Mine would, sir were I human.
Prospero                                          And mine shall.
     Hast thou (which art but air) a touch, a feeling
     Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
     One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
     Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
     Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
     Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury
     Do I take part. The rarer action is
     In virtue than in vengeance. They, being penitent,
     The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
     Not a frown further. Go, release them Ariel,
     My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore
     And they shall be themselves.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 1:17-32



ergo fides ex auditu auditus autem per verbum Christi.
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

St. Paul, Romans 10:17


propterea dico vobis omnia quaecumque orantes petitis
credite quia accipietis et veniet vobis.
Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray,
believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

Mark 11:24


per fidem enim ambulamus et non per speciem.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.

St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:7

Christianity is a religion that sees itself as a promise of life, hope, comfort, and love. "Gospel" in English is from Old English gôd, "good," and spell, "tale." This translates Greek Euangélion, "good news" -- whence the term "evangelism."

Many people, however, see the promise of Christianity as a threat, not as good news. If you don't join this religion, you are going to Hell, no matter how good a person you may otherwise be. Outside the Church is damnation. Jesus said (John 14:6), "I am the way, the truth, and the life:  no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

How can one and the same message be taken in such diametrically opposed ways? What makes for this difference are a couple of things. One is one's own subjective existential sense. If you feel morally unworthy, lost in sin -- "There is none righteous, no, not one... there is none that doeth good, no, not one" [Romans 3:10,12] -- or burdened with the guilt of a great crime, and if you feel no certainty about the nature of things, willing to believe that there could be a God incarnate in Jesus, then Christianity could appear as all the things it would like to be. On the other hand, if one does not feel particularly unworthy, does not believe that we are born in sin, does not suffer from any significant guilt, and is sceptical of the possibility or meaningfulness of the existence of a personal God, perhaps even aware of philosophical difficulties like the Problem of Evil, then Christianity would seem to offer little, and the alternative of damnation, while no less, emotionally, than the state already occupied by one of the previous frame of mind, appears merely threatening. Instead of the carrot of hope, one is offered the stick of coercion and duress. Christianity can then be accused, as Nietzsche did accuse it, of being a religion, not of love, but of envy and hatred. [note]

Another problem is a purely cognitive one. There are other religions. Each offers its own means of salvation, or doesn't even think in terms of salvation. In Zoroastrianism -- the ancient religion of Irân and the modern religion of the Parsis in India -- all one really need do, in principle, is choose the side of the Good, which is all that God is or wants. Modern sceptics and nihilists may not believe in the Good, but most Christians, including C.S. Lewis (on my reading), think that is what even Christianity is mostly about -- the naive perspective, advocated by few serious Christian theologians but evident in most television evangelists, is that one cannot truly be morally good without Christian faith.

Confucianism also historically has had relatively little patience with faith and repentance.

The Master was seriously ill. Tzu-lu asked permission to offer a prayer. The Master said, "Was such a thing ever done?" Tzu-lu said, "Yes it was. The prayer offered was as follows: pray thus to the gods above and below." The Master said, "In that case, I have long been offering my prayers." [Analects, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, 1979, VII:35, p. 91]

Here, Confucius is usually regarded as saying that by being a good person he has already been fulfilling any merely ritual religious needs. Other passages affirm that he never spoke of the gods.

Being a good person and sincerely doing one's best is a life made meaningful, not by faith, but by good works. In Christianity itself, a long debate has existed over the relative value of each, with the two paths symbolized by Mary Magdalen for the former and Martha, sister of Lazarus, for the latter. Faith was certainly a sine qua non of salvation, so it was the relative value of works that has varied. Martin Luther's famous principle of salvation by "faith alone" was in contrast to the traditional Catholic sense that the "stain of sin" could relegate one to Purgatory. Faith and good works together were more worthy and rated, in a sense, a better seat in Heaven.

That this conflict is not peculiar to Christianity is evident in the same problem arising in Buddhism. In "Pure Land" Buddhism, the existential sense of sin is powerful. Traditional Buddhism generally had held that the task of accumulating sufficient merit for salvation was a process that could take thousands or even millions of years. Meanwhile, the slightest sin, like killing a fish or bird, could drop one into Hell, where punishments undreamt by Dante awaited. Terror at this prospect, apparently almost inevitable for most of us, was addressed by the Vow of the Buddha Amitâbha (Amida in Japanese). Out of compasson for all beings, Amitâbha swore that he would create a Pure Land, to which he would bring all who called upon him, where they could work out their salvation without the sufferings either of Earth or Hell.

A sharper duality appears in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna's promise of salvation is clear:

[4:7] Although I am unborn, everlasting, and I am the Lord of all, I come to my realm of nature and through my wondrous power I am born.

[4:8] When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth.

[4:9] For the salvation of those who are good, for the destruction of evil in men, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of righteousness, I come to this world in the ages that pass.

[4:10] He who knows my birth as God and who knows my sacrifice, when he leaves his mortal body, goes no more from death to death, for he in truth comes to me.
[Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin, 1962]

Belief in Krishna will find salvation for the seeker, "however weak or humble or sinful they may be" [9:32]. Later, this means of salvation would be called bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion. At the same time, however, the entire Gita is an argument for something else. Arjuna must fight the battle, i.e. do his good work. This is karmayoga, the yoga of action, the first and principal teaching of the Gita. This was the most meaningful message of the Gita for Mahâtmâ Gandhi, who thereby derived encouragement for his political struggles in South Africa and India. On the other hand, the devotionalistic side of the Gita grew in popularity over the centuries, and the sense now is common that karmayoga is not really a means of salvation at all. That would mean it is not really a "yoga" at all. This is more than a little ironic, since bhaktiyoga is not named as such in the Gita, while it is something else, besides karmayoga, that is.

The epigraph above quotes Krishna referring to karmayoga and to jñanayoga, the yoga of knowledge. Goodness can be used to reproach faith, if apparently "faithful" people do wrong, and the Problem of Evil can be used against the fundaments of theistic belief. But knowledge as such is an acid that eats equally at faith and goodness. Without sufficient reason, there is no reason to believe anything in particular. Without sufficient reason, there is no reason, as demonstrated from Thrasymachus to Nietzsche, to believe that anything in particular is good or that one should bother doing it even if it is. An introductory class to the history of Christianity at Princeton University is popularly called the "faithbuster." Endemic to religions of faith are crises of faith.

None such was more severe than what was experienced by the great Islâmic philosopher and mystic al-Ghazâlî. In providing advice for others in a similar situation, al-Ghazâlî realized that different people experienced different degrees of doubt. To some, religious instruction in the dogmatics of Islâmic law might reassure them. To others, rational theology (kalâm in Islâm) might do the job. Rational theology, however, was fraught with peril. Al-Ghazâlî himself would attack the tradition of Islâmic philosophy that followed Greek models even into what, to him, were deeply un-Islâmic doctrines. The God of the philosophers, from Aristotle to the Neoplatonists to Spinoza, has always been an impersonal God, unable to act in voluntary or unexpected ways, certainly not at all the God of Abraham and Isaac, or of the Qur'ân. One 20th century variation, the God of Alfred North Whitehead, while personal and compassionate, was a God of relatively limited and ineffective powers, whose status as a "fellow sufferer" offers sympathy but not Salvation. The God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm as the Almighty leaves the faithful little inclined to honor less.

The doubts of reason, which in modern times have grown to a flood of scepticism, relativism, and nihilism, especially among the educated, would not be settled, al-Ghazâlî thought, by dogma or by reason. One must go to the source. Hence al-Ghazâlî's vindication of Islâmic mysticism, or Sûfism. From God alone can come the ultimate conviction to still all doubts. This in itself was consistent with philosophical Neoplatonism, which had begun as an intensely mystical discipline with Plotinus. It also is strongly suggestive of India. In unqualified advaita Vedânta, with an impersonal Absolute, one nevertheless practices the mental discipline to realize the identity of one's own self, the Âtman, with that Absolute. In qualified advaita Vedânta, the Absolute has become a personal God, of which one is a part, while in dvaita Vedânta a fully transcendent personal God is posited. In the Indian tradition, therefore, the jñanayoga of the Bhagavad Gita is not just rational knowledge, and not just mystical experience, but both. The Gita already gives some indication of this, for the only place that actually lists the yogas seems to give four of them:

[13:24] Some by the Yoga of meditation [dhyânayoga], and by the grace of the Spirit, see the Spirit in themselves; some by the Yoga of the vision of Truth [jñânayoga]; and others by the Yoga of work [karmayoga].

[13:25] And yet there are others who do not know, but they hear from others and adore. They also cross beyond death, because of their devotion [bhaktiyoga] to words of Truth. [ibid.]

The yoga of meditation had already been presented in some detail back in Chapter 6 (cf. 6:10-6:14). Traditionally, this has been regarded as part of jñanayoga, yet, as just quoted, it seems somewhat separate. Since meditation is not a function of discursive reason, it may be taken as representing the intuitive and mystical aspect of direct religious knowledge. Dhyâna in a similar sense turns up in Buddhism, where the word passes on as the name of the Ch'an School in China and the Zen School in Japan.

The modes of religious knowledge laid out by al-Ghazâlî are later regularized in Catholic theology. Reasoning from the given Revelation of the religion is theologia dogmatica -- dogmatics. Reasoning in terms of what is given to reason alone is theologia naturalis -- natural theology. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that natural theology made it possible to reconcile "Jerusalem and Athens," i.e. the revelation of Biblical religion with the rational knowledge of Greeks philosophers like Aristotle. Going beyond this to direct experience of God is theologia mystica or, in the words of St. Thomas, cognitio Dei experimentalis, the "experimental" knowledge of God.

Theologia mystica can settle one's own doubts but cannot, of course, settle the doubts of others. The immediacy and cognitive force of experience is lost when related to other people. The mystic waxing eloquent of his vision may as well be Moses, who certainly claimed to see God also, but whose own revelation must merely be accepted dogmatically by others. Then there is the awkward circumstance that the experience of al-Ghazâlî vindicated the Qur'ân and that of Shankara the Vedas, while St. Teresa of Áliva saw a God who, I am sure, was not very positive about either the Qur'ân or the Vedas. Thus, in Hume's terms, the evidence adduced for each religion, whether cognitive or miraculous, tends to refute and cancel out that of the others. Mystical experience, as examined elsewhere, therefore does not contribute positive objective knowledge of the transcendent or of the doctrine of any particular religion.

The doubter then, who is not vouchsafed a mystical vision, may not come to rest. Many can rest with some sense of what discursive reason can demonstrate, whether this is a bleak Existential world or one of the impersonal philosophical worlds in which immanent and secular meanings are taken to valorize life. The latter may motivate a sense of meaning in good works. The Existential world may become unbearable, however, and the philosophical worlds may collapse into scepticism. In either case, one's situation may become so unstable and unbearable that religious belief seems less absurd, indeed reasonable, by comparison. This is no less than what we find in Kierkegaard, where the same data that moved Sartre to atheism and Marxism motivates a simple return to Christian faith. But Kierkegaard, without any mystical experience himself, knew that there was no rational or evidentiary content to his faith. Doubt must always threaten it.

What we come down to then is the pluralism of the docrine of the Bhagavad Gita, where the traditional interpretation, as implied in 13:24-25 above, is that different ways work for different people. This removes the potential for religions of salvation and proselytism, like Christianity, Islâm, and Buddhism, from appearing as threats rather than hopeful promises. This also means that religions whose concern is more individual goodness, like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism, are no less "religious" for this emphasis. The Bible says, "Walk in all the ways which the LORD your God hath commanded you, that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land which you shall possess" [Deuteronomy 5:33]. This also allows that sincere belief, which is earnest and morally blameless, is as much religious as the profession of a particular religion. An individual may pass from such belief to particular religions, to moral good works, and back to cognitive doubts without commiting a moral wrong of "unbelief," which can be no moral wrong. One can only have a moral duty to do what is right and to try to discover the truth. To leave the limitations of human knowledge and be free of the crises of doubt one must have the kind of extraordinary experience that occurs only to few.

One person who apparently did have such experiences was the great mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal is also well known, however, for "Pascal's Bet," the idea that one might as well commit to religion because, if one is wrong and death is nothing, nothing is lost, while if one is right, then eternity is gained. This is a curious consideration coming from someone who apparently didn't need it. It is also morally problematic. It cannot pass the test of the Bhagavad Gita for karmayoga, where Krishna says, "Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work" [2:47]. Thus, for the Gita, calculation, a mere matter of prudence, will not find salvation. This throws important light on the role of rational knowledge in the moral universe. If the existence of God or karma could be rationally demonstrated beyond reasonable or even conceivable doubt, then only a complete fool would do wrong, since the prospect of retribution, even eternal punishment, would be obvious. The limitation of human knowledge means that the moral agent cannot be sure that goodness will be rewarded or wrong punished. The religious aspect of good works then emerges (why Fries chose to call non-intuitive immediate knowldge Glaube, "faith"). For why should one be good, when there is no obvious prudential inducement to be so? It involves a certain act of faith, that goodness is real, and that the meaning of righteousness, as either Krishna, Confucius, or Kant would agree, is to do what is right for its own sake, regardless of the prospect of reward or recognition. Of course, this is why rational scepticism tends to nihilism, while it also morally imperils the doubter, should he act on his disbelief to do wrong.

The promise of either goodness or salvation, therefore, is where one finds it. Some things cannot be known, and apparently should not be known. But, as Kant would have said, the test of righteousness is not a matter of particular religions. Jesus said,

"Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit" [Matthew 7:16-18].

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Faith, Works, and Knowledge


Or, Christianity simply takes as given the general pagan, even Biblical (cf. Sheol), view of the afterlife:  The dead descend into the Underworld where they are, generally, miserable. Some, like Sisyphus and Tantalus, get punished for crimes. Hell is thus not a place of specifically Christian punishment, but the received universal view of the afterlife. Tourists may be startled when they find "Bank of Hell" notes in China, where they are burned to send money to the dead. The Chinese "Hell" is clearly not conceived as a place of punishment. The promise of Christianity is thus for something better than the traditional belief. Even in Dante, Hell is not entirely a place of punishment. The "virtuous pagans," who even include some Muslims, like Saladin, suffer no pains, except separation from God. Plato and Aristotle live in just the manner that they would have expected from their own religion (though Aristotle actually didn't believe in an afterlife at all). Some Christians, it is true, may not be aware of that; but punishing morally innocent non-believers was never part of orthodox Christian theology.

In addressing the traditional Underworld, Christianity of course ignores other Mystery Religions, like Mithraism, Isis, or Eleusis, which also promised a happy afterlife. All of them, indeed, can be taken to have addressed only the traditional Underworld, not each other.

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