Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Faith Without Belief

Imagination, Experience, and the Religious Life

Dr. Amber Griffioen

My project develops a model of faith based less on epistemic notions of belief and more on the affective and volitional aspects of commitment. I suggest that instead of looking at degrees of belief, we turn to the imagination for the cognitive aspect of faith. The project thus examines the imagination’s role in the religious life, as well as the imaginative practices of various world religions. The project also intersects closely with my collaborative research on mysticism.

Much of the contemporary work in the Analytic Philosophy of Religion has claimed that belief is the relevant cognitive state involved in faith. Some accounts go so far as to reduce faith to a species of belief, which then may give rise to certain religious actions and feelings. Yet on such a view, the affective and volitional components are distinct from, and secondary to, religious faith. Other views try to place more emphasis on the volitional and affective aspects of faith, yet they still make some sort of belief necessary to their accounts. Even models who claim that faith is compatible with significant doubt tend to maintain that it is incompatible with disbelief. This is a view I intend to challenge.

The alternative model I am developing argues that there is a voluntary core to religious faith – a kind of commitment to a religious tradition, which expresses itself in sincere, practical engagement with that tradition. Whereas other philosophical analyses of religious faith point to the ways we use the terms ‘faith’ in our everyday language to mean states like ‘belief’, ‘trust’, ‘hope’, or ‘optimism’, my model draws attention to uses of the term like ‘faithfulness’ and ‘fidelity’, which imply active commitment and engagement. Likewise, every religious tradition has certain rituals, practices, norms, and propositions, commitment to and engagement with which in part specifies what it means to be religious in that tradition.

My claim is that – in contrast to many of the above models – what is special and significant about such commitment is that it is primarily practical, as opposed to epistemic or doxastic. Thus the model focuses on faith more as something we do than as a reflection of our beliefs regarding the truth of various religious propositions, especially those regarding the literal existence of the Divine. Yet if faith requires commitment to propositions (like “God exists” or “God is good”), it must still have a cognitive aspect.

However, I claim that belief is not the only mental state that can play this role. I argue that although belief in the truth of the relevant religious propositions is perfectly compatible with faith, the former is neither necessary nor sufficient for latter. Instead of focusing on the beliefs that religious participants are purported to have, I suggest that we turn to the religious imagination in our discussions of the cognitive aspect of faith. One can imaginatively accept certain propositions, even if one does not believe them. That is, one can act as-if such propositions were true, or take them to be true in one’s practical reasoning, or seriously entertain them in one’s imagination. And this may give rise to certain affective religious experiences, just as our imaginative engagement with fictional contexts often evokes emotional responses.

Indeed, I maintain that religious imagination is necessary even for believers to represent certain religious concepts to themselves and to successfully employ them in religious language. Thus, part of the project will involve a detailed examination of the religious imagination and its role in the religious life both historically and today. This will involve research into both the philosophy and psychology of the (religious) imagination and into the study of the imaginative practices of various world religions.

In conjunction with my work on the religious imagination, I am also engaged in an interreligious international research collaboration with Mohammad Sadegh Zahedi, Professor of Islamic Philosophy and Theology at Imam Khomeini International University (Iran). Together, we are investigating expressions of longing, suffering, and love in medieval Christian and Islamic mysticism. Mysticism often stands in tension with religious orthodoxy and doctrine, given its focus on experiential, emotional, and other “non-rational” elements of religious engagement. Yet mystical traditions have exerted significant influence both on popular religious understanding and on religious practice.

Together, Prof. Zahedi and I are examining three strands of mystical figures to see how they bring to expression the ideas of longing, suffering, and love, which are so central to the Abrahamic mystical traditions. First, we will look at two figures in which longing takes a much more, “metaphysical”, systematic form – namely at Meister Eckhart on the Christian side and Ibn Arabi on the Islamic side. Both figures were heavily influenced by Neoplatonic writings, yet the way these Neoplatonic influences are incorporated into Christian and Islamic thought are quite different.

Second, we intend to look at how the Neoplatonic themes of the former figures become expressed much more symbolically and allegorically through the lens of romantic and courtly love in the figures of Heinrich Seuse and Rumi. Both mystics use metaphors taken from earthly love to express the love between the human and the Divine. And both experiment with gender and sexuality in their writings, though in rather different ways. Thus, we must examine whether and how these differences reflect differing medieval cultural norms. Finally, we hope to look at female mystical movements in medieval Christianity and Islam and whether and how these themes of longing for the Divine take on quite another form altogether. Thus, we also intend to look at gender and sexual minorities within mystical religious minorities.