Posts Tagged ‘God’

In the previous post, I briefly discussed the contemporary meaning of the word belief. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes, the modern sense of believing essentially involves “the holding of certain ideas” in one’s mind. Furthermore, Smith shows that the modern usage of the word believing assumes and implies that it is some thing very different from what is normally called knowing.
According to Smith:
Modern “believing” . . . is placed in relation to, contra-distinction from, knowing. Let us consider this briefly, for everyday usage. For the man in the street, may we not say that knowledge involves two things: (a) certitude, and (b) correctness, in what one knows. To use quite unsophisticated terms, in ordinary parlance one knows whatever one knows when there is a close positive relation of one’s ideas both to the inner conviction and to objective truth. At this same level . . . there is the common-sense notion of believing. This is similar to knowing in that it is thought of as conceptualist, as in the realm of ideas in one’s mind (even, of propositions). It differs from knowing in that it involves one or other of again two things, and perhaps both: (a) lack of certitude; (b) open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed. (p. 35)

Notice that Smith is not presenting a philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of belief and knowledge. He is, on the contrary, telling us how these words are actually used by contemporary English speakers.

We can appreciate Smith’s insight by performing a simple exercise. Take any proposition and add the phrase “I believe” at the beginning; then say the sentences out loud and notice how the meaning changes. For instance: “Today is November 6” is a simple proposition, but “I believe today is November 6” contains rather significant elements of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error, and an openness to alternative possibilities. The first sentence is an expression of knowledge; one is saying what one knows to be true. The second sentence is an expression of belief; one is saying what one believes to be true. Even though the first sentence does not actually begin with “I know,” this phrase is tacitly implied due to the very straightforward and matter-of-fact structure of the sentence. When I am completely sure about something, I just say it without any qualifications; but when I am not completely sure, I qualify my proposition with “I believe.”

But what is Smith’s larger point? What is the purpose of all this linguistic hairsplitting? As suggested earlier, the modern meaning of belief is in sharp contrast to its premodern meaning. Smith wants us to appreciate how a disregard for this difference has contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of religion and religious life.

Consider the question “Do you believe in God?” Given that the modern sense of the word “believe” involves the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind, the question seems to suggest the following sense: “Do you hold the idea of God in your mind?” Or, alternatively, “Do you think there is a God?” Either way, since belief is understood as a habit of thought, believing in God appears to be a matter of keeping a particular thought in one’s mind, viz., the idea that God exists.

Consider now the premodern meaning of belief. The word belief is derived from a West Germanic root which meant keeping something or someone in high esteem, to hold dear, to love. In effect, “to believe” used to mean “to belove.” The verb “belove” is now obsolete in the English language, having been replaced by “love,” though the past participle “beloved” is still in use. Simply put, the word belief originally meant love or endearment.

Notice the difference this makes. Today, believing is seen as a matter of having a particular thought, which is a mental activity. Before the seventeenth century, believing was understood as a matter of having a relationship, which is the activity of the whole person as well as a person’s state of being. In the premodern period, therefore, the question “Do you believe in God?” would have meant something like “Do you love God?” Or, alternatively, “Do you live a life of devotion and service to God?” The contrast between the two meanings is hardly trivial.

With this background, we can also appreciate that while the modern usage of the word belief suggests a significant distinction between believing and knowing, this was not the case in the premodern period. Since belief was understood in terms of love and loyalty, the issue of the existence or non-existence of God was irrelevant to the notion of belief. This is because the question “Do you love God?” has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists; to ask about one’s relationship with God already presupposes God’s reality.

The shift from the premodern to the modern meaning of the word belief did not occur overnight; instead, it took place very gradually over a couple of centuries. But now that it has occurred, we can appreciate the rather stark difference between the two meanings by putting them together side by side. Smith writes:

The long-range transformation may be characterized perhaps most dramatically thus. There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

In light of this quote, the main distinctions between the premodern and the modern meanings of the word belief (in relation to God) can be summed up as follows: (1) In the premodern period, the reality of God was accepted as self-evident; it was a presupposition that most people took for granted and never questioned. (2) In the modern period, it is no longer possible for most people to accept the reality of God as a self-evident fact; instead, it has become an open question that is to be argued about, contested, and debated.

In effect, belief no longer means love, loyalty, devotion, and service; instead, it simply means a thought in the head, especially a thought about which one is not entirely sure.

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The word islam, we are told, denotes submission, surrender, acceptance, and giving up resistance.  This naturally raises the question:  who or what is the object of our submission and surrender?  The usual answer is that we are required to submit and surrender to God.  This, to be very blunt, hardly qualifies as an answer. For the word “God” is similar to any other arbitrarily chosen symbol, such as X.  While we know that X means something important, there is nothing in the symbol itself that specifies its referent.  Since such a symbol is arbitrary, it has no way of forcing us to reach one, and only one, conclusion.  The word “God” can mean virtually anything, or absolutely nothing, depending on the context of the discourse in which this word is employed.  Just as the symbol X adds little or nothing to our understanding, the word “God” also fails to enlighten us in any non-trivial sense.

We cannot realize the state of submission and surrender unless we know something about God, i.e., unless we understand what or who is supposed to be the object of our islam.

How do we know God?  Simply stated, we know God exactly as we know any other person, such as a friend, a colleague, or a spouse.  The totality of my knowledge of another person comes from a synthesis of two sources: (1) what I perceive to be this person’s habits, dispositions, and character, and (2) what I know about my own self based on my inner experience.  The same two sources have to be synthesized if I wish to know God.  In order to perceive God’s habits, dispositions, and character, I have to perceive patterns and regularities in how God reasons and acts; this I can only encounter in the way things actually are.  At the same time, there is a similarity and continuity between my own inner self and that of the divine reality; as I know my own self with greater intimacy, I come increasingly closer to knowing God.  The reverse is also true.

Surrendering to God requires knowing what God is like; it also requires knowing what God wants.

God’s will may be understood in terms of two kinds of imperatives; that is to say, any given divine imperative will be either a “creative command” or a “prescriptive command.”  In the Qur’an, God’s creative command often takes the form of “Be!” while many of the prescriptive commands begin with “Say!”  Generally speaking, God’s creative commands cannot be violated, a fact that does not hold true for God’s prescriptive commands.

This understanding of God’s will has important implications for how we approach the concept of submission or surrender.  Corresponding to the two kinds of divine commands, we may posit two kinds of human submission–each of which involves a different way of achieving a state of alignment with God’s will.

There are, then, two complementary ways of practicing islam.  Let’s call them conformity and acceptance.  Our surrender to God’s prescriptive commands denotes our conformity with the way God wants us to act.  Our surrender to God’s creative commands, on the other hand, denotes our acceptance of the way in which God creates and orders reality.  The entire realm of Shari’ah deals with the former, i.e., with the details of how we are to conform ourselves with God’s prescriptive commands.  Equally important, but somewhat less emphasized, is the matter of our acceptance of God’s creative commands.

Given that God’s creative commands cannot be violated, what is the meaning of “acceptance”?

Since God is all-powerful and always in control of the creation, the most ubiquitous channel through which God’s will is revealed to us is the shape of reality at any given moment.  In other words, a sure and certain way of knowing God’s will (in the sense of God’s creative commands) is to look at any given configuration of reality, moment by moment, without adding any evaluation or judgment of our own.  Once we have eliminated the distorting effect of our evaluations and judgments, whatever remains in our experience of reality would be God’s will as manifested in that moment.

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, used to offer the following supplication: “O Lord! Show me the nature of things as they really are.”  This is a profound prayer that the Prophet taught his followers.  When we utter these words mindfully, we acknowledge that (1) our normal or default state is characterized by ignorance and illusion, (2) we usually do not see things as they really are but see them in some other way, and (3) with divine grace, it is possible to catch more than a passing glimpse of the actual nature of reality.

When we add our own evaluations or judgments to what we observe and experience, we fail to see the nature of things as they really are, and, instead, we end up seeing them through the distorting filters of our all-too-imperfect wants and desires.  When we suspend or bracket our evaluations and judgments, we open ourselves to observing and experiencing the actual shape of reality . . . free from illusions, presuppositions, and expectations.  In doing so, we catch more than a passing glimpse of the will of God as it is being revealed to us in that moment.

By doing nothing more than withholding our evaluations and judgments, we can find ourselves face to face with God.  Since we have put aside, at least for that moment, our desires and expectations for reality to be this way or that way, we are able not only to know God’s will but also to accept it wholeheartedly.  To accept God’s will at the level of God’s creative commands is to embrace the way things actually are in any given moment.  This means submitting to reality, surrendering to what is, giving up mental or emotional resistance to what God has already decreed.  This means no complaining and no wishing for things to be different from how we find them.

This way of practicing islam is no less important than our active conformity with God’s prescriptive commands.

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