Friday, March 1, 2013

Faith and the Magic Loudspeaker

“The inhabitants of the moon are more of a uniform size than the inhabitants of the earth, being about 6 feet in height. They dress very much like the Quaker style. . . . They live to be very old; coming generally, near a thousand years.   This is the description of them as given by Joseph the Seer, and he could ‘See’ whatever he asked the Father in the name of Jesus to see.”
—Oliver B. Huntington, citing a revelation received by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith1

The above howler is just a drop from the fountain of weird beliefs that flow from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and that modern Mormons are so skilled at spinning when their efforts to keep them hidden fail.  If they were to explain this one away, as I’m sure they can, they still can’t spin the fact that they very literally believe that God the Father lives on the planet Kolob with his many wives, that Jesus and Lucifer were rival brothers in some pre-earthly existence, and that, as he ascended into heaven, Jesus made a side trip to North America to preach to the natives, who were none other than a lost tribe of Israel. The usual Mormon tactic when confronted with the hard-to-swallow tenets of their faith is a question they hope will be taken rhetorically, along the lines of:  "Well, now, doesn’t every religion have its own peculiar beliefs?" 

            Though my natural response is, “Yeah, but not as weird as yours,”  it's more interesting to me to take the extreme example of Mormonism  as an occasion to examine the notion of how any of us comes to accept the things for which there is no evidence—to believe those things people generally say they accept “on faith.”  For faith is given as the justification for all kinds of beliefs that seem far-fetched to anyone who didn't grow up hearing them—from the notion that God spoke directly to Muhammad in Arabic, to the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, to Tibetan beliefs about wise teachers getting reincarnated throughout multiple generations, or to the aforementioned absurdities of Mormonism.2 Even beliefs that on the surface present less of a challenge to sanity seem to me also to suggest the category of faith, like the Buddhist idea that the Eightfold Path leads ultimately to the cessation of suffering and deep perception of the nature of reality—because one needs something like faith in order to presume that suffering can be alleviated or that there is something important to be comprehended about the nature of reality.

Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary defines faith as “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which is likely as good a working definition as any. Christians usually appeal to the declaration made in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that faith is, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”3  But these words are to me among the most problematic of the many troubling and elusive words to be found in the Bible. I think that's because words (like stone, nephew, concept, struedel) are just about always provisional, and words that aim to point in the direction of ultimate truth  (like ultimate, truth)  are the most provisional of all, with a tendency to disappear before our eyes when they’re revealed to be standing in for what’s above or beyond them.  Recognizing that doesn't make such words untrue or non-useful, it just reveals with particular force how the word doesn't equal what it points to. But for most words it’s possible to understand something about their provisional function. With faith, it’s more difficult. I think it’s because that word is so often used duplicitously by those who would claim there is nothing provisional about it.

Most self-identified “people of faith” would say that faith is something beyond reason.  One easy further step makes faith opposed to reason.  And once you’ve accepted that as truth, faith can be used to cancel out reasonable explanations as necessary, and to absolve people of faith from having to defend themselves from challenges. Their appeal to faith, frustratingly, can then end any conversation. This “faith” is nothing more than an easy way to avoid dealing with the complicated reality of truth.

This fabrication that goes by the name “faith” can’t completely obscure the fact that the concept of faith arises out of our impulse to acknowledge something that’s very deeply true.  I’d say it’s the  truth that is discovered in our  encounter with knowledge that comes to us from beyond our bodies and minds, and from beyond what we can determine by using them:  faith is our response to the experience that there truly is knowledge that transcends reason.

The reality of such knowledge sometimes bursts upon us in moments of profound realization. It sometimes also becomes apparent in subtle ways, as it does to just about anyone who takes time to sit quietly on a regular basis. But anyone who has perceived this reality beyond ordinary perception will tell you that it’s as real as any of the knowledge we come to through the ordinary ways (or if it’s not, then the reality of ordinary knowledge must also be called into question). To speak about this kind of knowledge that transcends reason it is useful to make a distinction between faith and reason. There is truth in the distinction.

But a problem arises when the line between faith and reason is drawn strictly and interpreted unambiguously—and when every kind of knowledge falls on one side of the divide or the other. I’ve observed that when that happens neither the faith nor the reason that result have much to do with truth, and that what sometimes begins as truth, when subjected to that strict dichotomy, ends in a lie.  In his essay “The Slyness of Reason,” Fr. Georges Florovsky asserts that complete reliance upon reason results in a kind of imprisonment, and that the exaltation of reason can even be seen as the basis of original sin. But I think a corresponding imprisonment comes from the rejection of reason in favor of an exclusive reliance upon knowledge that comes from beyond it.  There can be no faith that makes reason irrelevant, just as there can be no honest reason that denies the reality beyond itself. Fr. Florovsky and others might say that faith and reason exist in a kind of creative relationship.  But I prefer not to think of them as two separate things at all.

Acknowledgements of the ambiguous relationship between faith and reason have been made throughout history by just about everyone who’s tried to articulate the experience of knowledge-beyond reason—from the Fathers to the Zen patriarchs to Albert Einstein.  But it’s a truth that only a minority of people ever seem to understand, and that always seems to meet resistance.  It’s been avoided, ignored, or passionately fought against on the individual and institutional levels throughout history. For it’s a truth that makes things messy.

            For me, the ambiguity of the faith-reason distinction became apparent when I was a fairly young man, in the context of my brief encounter with Evangelical Christianity.

I must have been nine or ten years old when I was one day hit by an overwhelming experience of what I came to identify as the love of Christ. It wasn’t anything I’d been seeking, which underscored the impression I had of this knowledge bursting into me in a way other than the way I usually learned things. Though it came with a charge of joyous emotion, I recognized even back then that it was something beyond the emotions it produced and that the later fading of the emotions did nothing to invalidate.4  But the experience itself was, and remains,  difficult to articulate. Trying, fifty years after the fact, I’d say it had something to do with an experience of the nature of reality that revealed that reality to be something wholly other than I expected. I could say that this confrontation with reality showed there to be a lack of hard division between me and “it,” and that this revealed something that might be described as compassion to be an indelible aspect of this reality, as deep down as it gets.  Though even that is saying too much, since words belie the experience that transcends body and mind, as they should (which makes articulation impossible), and experience isn’t the right word , because part of the shock was that this represented no change in things just the way they were.  But, for convenience’s sake, and with respect to my Christian brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers, I’ll refer to non-experiences like the above as the “experience of God” for purposes of this reflection.

Because I lived in the time and place I did, this experience compelled me to go to church, for the first time in my life, with my one Baptist grandmother (the only connection to religion I had), in search some sort of explanation. I ended up “saved” and baptized, and for a few years trying to be a Christian according to what they taught. This was the California Central Valley of the mid-1960s, well before the rise of the mega-churches, but I don’t take the faith and practice to be that much different from this modern phenomenon, even if the worship was somewhat more decorous.

            I was unable to make my experience fit with the Baptists, no matter how hard I tried, and I did try pretty hard. But foremost among the many roadblocks for me in the Evangelical-Fundamentalist view that was that my faith was expected to be in the entire system they were selling. And I continually came up against elements of what one Baptist preacher or another was insisting upon (always claiming to find it in the Bible, which was taken as unassailable proof) that were irrelevant to the experience I’d had or that were even antithetical to it.  It was also clear that an overwhelming emotional experience was the expected way of entrance into this system—being “born again.” This emotional experience was thought to confirm the whole system to the believer.  While it would have been accurate for me to speak of my experience of Christ as a kind of rebirth—as it changed my cosmos-view and the trajectory of my life—I also knew that the experience was something other than the emotional reaction it produced, which, of course, faded.  There would be two other “big” experiences for me in later years, it turned out, each more overwhelming than that first experience of Christ, but each of which is now just a memory, like the first one, that it takes a while to make sense of.  I suspect that what I’m referring to as the experience of God, happens to us in various ways, sometimes big, sometimes small and subtle, sometimes directly; sometimes through an encounter with a person whose life conveys that experience—sometimes, I think, even through reading about or hearing about such a person.  Sometimes it seems to come as a response to yearning or prayer or ascetical effort; sometimes it just bursts into one’s experience in the most incongruous of circumstances, as though to reveal that no circumstance is really incongruous, and that it is by no means something to be “achieved.” And while it’s clear that this knowledge is something from a source other than body or mind, it’s also apparent that it doesn’t leave body or mind behind in transcending them. And it’s also obvious that this experience is as real as any knowledge body or mind gives me. If it’s simply a tricky brain chemistry phenomenon, then all other knowledge is suspect, including reason. 

None of this matched the born-again experience the Evangelicals were touting, as theirs was thought to be a one-time thing that provided absolute certainty about God, along with a system of very specific teachings about God that “faith” somehow confirmed to be true. It was all supposedly validated by an emotional experience, but I observed that this was accompanied by a kind of anxiety about the emotions dying away that fervent prayer and hymn-singing were efforts to revive.  My experience was of something so “big,” for lack of a better word, that to think it could be contained in some emotion--or in the system the Baptists were selling--belied the experience utterly. To focus on their teaching as the container of all truth would have been dishonest to the point of absurdity. It would have been as though, in terms of the famous allegory, I’d listened to the particular blind man who’d got hold of the elephant’s tail and who insisted an elephant was like a rope—and that I’d taken his accurate view to be complete.  Except in this case the “elephant” transcended the cosmos.

            The problem for me with accepting the faith-that-cancelled-out-reason that was the norm among the Baptists was  that I found reason to be involved even in recognizing that there was knowledge that came from above or beyond it. That alone made it impossible for me to make a strict distinction. Then there was the fact people held differing, profoundly incompatible beliefs that they attributed to faith. Reason compelled some sort of evaluation of that.  But in other ways too, I found that the dividing line between faith and reason, when identified, was useful, but once clung to became false. Reason won’t leave faith alone—and faith returns the favor, for it continually reveals the limits of reason, so that without it I end up trapped in my body and mind like a prison, just like Fr. Florovsky said.

My association with the Evangelical movement didn’t survive my mid-teens, as the sense of not-fitting-in there was profound, but I was grateful for that first failed attempt at religion, because it ultimately confronted me with the fact my own experience of God couldn’t be separated from reason.  I came to see that faith strictly divorced from reason does not, in truth, exist, so to embrace such a “faith” is to embrace a lie and live from that place of untruth.  This sort of faith can look good (it always looks conventional), but it’s a faith built on no foundation. It’s not faith at all, it’s pretending.

When the profound dishonesty of this pretend-faith becomes apparent, people these days often dismiss the idea of faith altogether and go their way, liberated from the oppressive constrictions of organized religion. But my original experience of Christ, and later impressions of the experience of God, kept me from letting it go. If pretend-faith was a lie, was there a kind of faith that was true?

It seemed to me there was. I came to agree with the idea that faith is a kind of leap, as is sometimes said.5   But it’s a leap in response to what I’ve called the experience of God—a response to that revelation of the knowledge-beyond-knowledge. Because it’s a response to that real experience, it is by no means a blind leap--but neither is it leap into confident certainty, for that great reality for which the word God is traditionally used is beyond anything I can completely comprehend or adequately articulate. So it is a leap into the unknown, but it’s an unknown that has, paradoxically, become real to me in an intimate way. It’s stepping off a cliff into the Intimate Unknown.

            The problem with “faith” as it’s so often spoken of is that the leap wholly misses the mark—because there is no mark. The believer imagines himself alighting with relief on a landing pad where God can be explained, and there is no ambiguity to trouble oneself with.  This landing pad does not exist.  But once you’ve accepted the lie that you’ve landed in that place where reason can be ignored, you’re a prisoner to any edict thought to issue from that nonexistent reality—whether it comes from tradition, a book, or a charismatic leader—as though a voice from a Magic Loudspeaker were issuing orders. This Magic Loudspeaker can cause you to believe as facts the idea that God is a polygamist or that the earth is 4,000 years old in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It can take truth and turn it into a lie: it can cause you to be ignorant and call it wisdom; it can cause you to hate and call it compassion. It can also take whatever worthy words or images we use to give expression to the experience of God, and turn those words and images into ends in themselves.

            St. Paul famously claimed to have met Christ in some difficult-to-explain way on the road to Damascus. The encounter knocked him off his horse and turned him from a persecutor of the nascent Jesus movement into one of its most ardent adherents.  I’d always had a problem with this conversion story because it went against the grain of my distrust of visionary experiences and frankly because he seemed to use the experience just a little too conveniently as a rubber stamp for his apostolic credentials.  But I began to think about it differently in the context of a recent study of his Epistle to the Galatians.  In this letter, St. Paul exhorts the Christians of Galatia to turn from what he sees as a regression to the rules and practices of the Jewish religion back to the faith as he’d originally conveyed it to them:  

 “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?”6


It’s possible to read this and the exhortations that precede it simply as St. Paul urging the Galatians  to  replace one set of beliefs with a set that’s superior—and to take him to be setting himself up as the voice of the Magic Loudspeaker, using some visionary experience he once had as his credential. I don’t know why it took so many years for me to consider the possibility that the opposite could be true: that he’s appealing to those who, having had the experience of God, have taken the bait of the Magic Loudspeaker.  They’ve traded faith in the truth for something codifiable, completely understandable, and unambiguous—something that doesn’t exist. The Galatians happen to have been reverting to an attachment to traditional Jewish practices, but it wouldn’t have been any different if they were devising some new brand of Magic Loudspeaker as creative as Mormonism (and there was certainly such creativity in the early Church, just as there are now).  When I look at it this way, St. Paul’s obvious exasperation with the Galatians becomes understandable to me in a way it never was before.

His road-to-Damascus experience begins to make much greater sense as well.  What annoyed me about it before was that I read it as some sort of Divine intervention—a special kind of forced conversion that too conveniently created a disseminator of the new religion.  But what if it was nothing other than that same encounter with what transcends reason that any of us might have?    In St. Paul’s case, the experience may have been particularly overwhelming, since the truth was revealed to him through the figure he had taken to be the enemy of truth—the same person he’d been crusading against so vehemently turned out to be the supreme revelation of the God he thought he’d been defending. How embarrassing for a persecutor. It would’ve been enough to knock anyone off his horse. 

            Understanding it this way changes my whole view of St. Paul.  I feel his frustration with the fact that, even in the face of their experience of God, the Galatians continually turned back to the Magic Loudspeaker, despite his exhortations, which many of them probably didn’t even get.

             The desire to make the ineffable completely comprehensible through pretend “faith” never seems to go away.  It’s a feature of religion wherever it arises, and the struggle against it--always led by a minority, usually persecuted--is like the leavening in the loaf.  It was a temptation for that collection of tiny Christian communities of central Anatolia, even in that age when there were people still around who were old enough to have interacted with Jesus in the flesh. It was true for the great imperial church that for better or worse imposed a system by which an entire society was compelled to live.  And the situation is fundamentally unchanged in our age when religion, no longer relevant, has become a kind of extracurricular activity for those inclined toward it.  The tension between faith and the Magic Loudspeaker never goes away. 

The Loudspeaker operates with good efficiency in our Orthodox Church, in which the scriptures, fathers, icons, hymnography, decisions of the councils, and so forth can be coopted for its purposes pretty well.  Despite that, the purpose of these things—as precious articulations of the experience of God that guide us toward it—never seems to be completely obscured. Yet religious groups surround us in which the truth is completely obscured, sects that  originated and exist as nothing but auditoria for the Magic Loudspeaker. I call out the Mormons here simply because they are such a pure  example of the phenomenon in our time and place. I’d also place in that category most of the Evangelicals of various kinds who are heirs of the two American “Great Awakenings.” There are plenty of others. The Magic Loudspeaker operates within Christianity and outside it. It operates within religion and among those who’ve rejected religion.  

But it’s a mistake to identify the phenomenon only within institutions.  For the tension between faith and the Magic Loudspeaker divides every human heart. There’s an inner battle in each of us between paradoxical truth and easy falsehood, in which the easy side is inclined to win. We all want the Magic Loudspeaker on some level. Having had the experience of God--of the Infinite Unknown closer to me than I am to myself--ascesis is required to remain faithful to the experience, to avoid making it into something it’s not, to avoid embracing a belief that’s not a threat to my ego and calling it “faith.” 

And if we can avoid telling that lie to ourselves, there’s still a cadre of religious charlatans waiting just outside our door, ready to explain to us how faith cancels out reason and to introduce us to the voice of the Magic Loudspeaker.

When you’ve understood the lack of hard division between faith and reason, and when you’ve observed the lie that arises when the division is clung to, what do you do?   An impulse to respond naturally arises.  But efforts at dialogue generally have no effect on those in thrall to the Magic Loudspeaker. The threat you present to their illusion only causes them to cling to it more passionately, even violently. Dialogue isn’t possible between those whose “faith” is all about clinging to certainty and those whose faith shows that certainty isn’t something to be clung to.  Suggest the nonexistence of the Magic Loudspeaker, and you’ll be identified as given over to evil, and your suggestion itself will prove that.   A reflection like this one would be taken apart point-by-point by the Loudspeaker-listeners to demonstrate how I’ve rejected Christ or how I had no experience of him in the first place. I know exactly how they’d do it. I could do it for them. 

Because dialogue seems fruitless, there can be an impulse to take the easy way out and leave the Magic Loudspeaker people behind, or simply to chatter about them amongst ourselves out of their earshot. But then the experience of God confronts us with the fact that there can be no “amongst-ourselves”; we’re all in this together, and no one can be left behind.  The faith that is our response to the experience of God makes a response imperative. So we come up against one of several paradoxes that faith engenders: dialogue is impossible, yet a response is required.

I’ve come to believe that the only worthy response is not dialogue, but witness. Bearing witness may be the only response to falsehood with any hope of success—though the success usually doesn’t look like what we expect success to be.  I take St. Paul to be bearing witness to the Galatian Judaizers (he was certainly not inviting dialogue).  It’s what the martyrs did. It’s what small handful of people have done throughout history, compelled by the experience of God and the by faith that arose in them in response to it. Their experience of the truth that transcends body and mind was their apostolic credential, as it was for St. Paul, as it is for us.

 I even think it’s possible regard the Incarnation as a kind of witness: The Ultimate Reality bearing witness to himself in a world so intently headed another direction. Christ didn’t come to dialogue with us—to consider, say, whether the idols we’d set up in place of him perhaps had some validity and to engage us in discussion on the matter.  He came to manifest in his person the profoundest truth. Only a handful of people got it.  The result of this ultimate bearing of witness was persecution and ultimately crucifixion. Yet, even with the knowledge that all that was in store, bearing witness was the only possiblity.  It remains the only possibility for us who look to him as our model.  

Once you’ve recognized the imperative to bear witness, the temptation to demonize the Loudspeaker-listeners has to be avoided. It’s a challenge.  But to draw a line between me and my fellow person in that way, and to cling to that distinction, ultimately makes witness impossible by setting up yet another false dichotomy.  The difference between any of us humans is laughably insignificant in the face of the experience to which faith is the response—like the thickness of a piece of paper in a book as big as the  universe. There’s essentially no big difference between saint and sinner. No big difference between St. Paul and the Galatians. No big difference between St. Athanasius and Arius. No big difference between Mother Maria Skobstova and a Mormon missionary ringing doorbells. No big difference between me and the Evangelicals and conservative Episcopalians who will likely soon turn the Orthodox Church in the U.S. into just another Magic Loudspeaker auditorium, helped along by all the fans of that device who were waiting for them when they arrived. We’re all people of kindness and delusion, hatred and good will, intelligence and great stupidity to varying degrees. We’re all looking for what’s real, and we all get sidetracked. Understanding that, anyone who aims to bear witness must pray for compassion.

This bearing of witness isn’t a passive act. It requires speaking out, it requires identifying the Magic Loudspeaker as soon as we hear its “testing…one…two…three….”  It requires doing that in the face of being ignored, ridiculed, persecuted. It requires that we speak the truth for truth’s sake, without attachment to results, because we will almost certainly seem to fail. It requires acsesis. And it will ultimately probably require crucifixon, as it always has. But crucifixion has revealed that the truth is indestructible.  Understanding that at the outset takes a weight off our shoulders. In a mysterious way, it’s a consolation.


If you draw the line between faith and reason and cling to that line as something solid, then every kind of knowledge must fall on one side of the line or the other, and anything that falls on the reason side, being overruled, is suspect. From that position it becomes easy to believe that millennia-old beings in Quaker dress live on the moon if the right person tells you they do. But what’s far worse is that from that position it becomes easy to look your brother or sister in the eye and disregard their experience, even as you’ve disregarded your own, and to regard your brother or sister as enemy--instead of looking them in the eye and seeing Christ.




1. “The History of Oliver B. Huntington,” p. 10, typed copy, Marriott Library, University of Utah, quoted in the on-line article  "Early Mormon Leaders on the Inhabitants of the Sun and Moon," by Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff.  It’s likely that Oliver Huntington’s testimony has been discredited by modern Mormons. I’m using it just as an especially striking example of the extremes of Mormon belief. There are plenty of comparably bizarre beliefs that remain very firmly a part of the Mormons’ faith, though they’re generally hidden to outsiders.

2.  “Faith” of course also justifies a multitude of beliefs of all kinds in the political, social, scientific, and artistic realms.  Acknowledging that, I will limit this reflection to faith as it relates to ultimate things.

3. Hebrews 11:1. RSV.

4. The occasion for this experience, possibly the catalyst, was my reading of a little book about Jesus I’d found in my great-grandmother’s things. It was likely some sort of Sunday school material from her Methodist church. My family hadn’t been church-going for couple generations, so I didn’t ordinarily see such things.  It’s interesting that I remember absolutely nothing of the book’s content now. I have only a vague memory of the schmaltzy art on its cover.

5. The term “leap of faith” is usually attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, though I understand he actually never said it.


6. Galatians 4: 8-9. RSV.




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