The Tragedy of Losing Faith



What happens to a man or woman when they lose faith in God? The article cited below is a study of what happens to Jewish rabbis when they lose their faith, and their belief, in God. [You can just click on the link, and to read the full text of the article, just click on one of the “Full Text” options on the right-hand side of the screen.]

All of the rabbis who responded have lost their belief in God. They still have beliefs, however, which they cling to. But have they lost their faith? I think they lost that long ago. And what is it that they still believe in? For some probably, and hopefully a minority, it is a belief in the rightness of a secular Jewish apartheid state that slowly is achieving the ethnic-cleansing elimination of its Palestinian inhabitants in the occupied territories. For others, in the main it is a belief in the value of their allegiance to aspects of traditional Jewish culture.

What the article does not discuss is the really important question of whether or not there is a built-in human quality to have faith.  Not belief, but faith. Are humans by nature people who must have faith in order to live fulfilled lives?

Historically and traditionally until modern times, at least in regions which maintained the Abrahamic religions, this faith was primarily centered on faith in God. It was not a question of belief or not. People either had faith in God or they didn’t. They either trusted God or they didn’t. There really wasn’t any question of atheism or not. This remained almost universally true, regardless of what some folks think, even during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, when men like Jefferson were Deists. By that time faith had degenerated into mere belief for many.

Are humans by nature people who must have faith in order to live fulfilled lives?  I would say, yes. When belief in God is no longer possible, where do people turn in order to fulfill their spiritual need?  For it is imperative for their health that they find a safe place to which God can flee.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is cited in a footnote in the article. I have read some of Heschel’s books. Listen to what Heschel had to say about the fundamental necessity for faith:

A religious man is like a salamander, that legendary animal that originates from a fire of myrtlewood kept burning for seven years. Religion is born of fire, of a flame, in which the dross of the mind and soul is melted away. Religion can only thrive on fire. A life of religion is an altar. ‘Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out ’ (Leviticus 6:6). Man cannot live without acts of exaltation, without moments of trembling and revering, without being transported by grandeur. For weeks and months he may be confined to the routine of sensible interests, until an hour arrives when all his habits burst under the strain. Common sense may sign a decree that life be kept under the lock of average conceptions, but much in our lives is meant to be burned up in a holy flame or it will rot in monstrous deeds, in evil thoughts. To satisfy his need for exaltation, man will plunge into rage, wage wars; he will set the city of Rome afire. When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled in holiness.”   – (from God In Search Of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 317, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

So Heschel has pointed out the necessity for faith, but has also pointed out the disasters that occur when this degenerates into dogmatic, fear based belief.

Here are some more of his comments about the dangers of dogmatic belief, and the dangers of fundamentalism:

Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.” “The prophet is a man who sees the world with the eyes of God, and in the sight of God even things of beauty or acts of ritual are an abomination when associated with injustice.” (from The Prophets, Volume I by Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 11 and page 212, Hendrickson Publishers)

Here is Heschel describing the necessity for faith:

Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail, on which the most brilliant theories jarred the ear like mere slang; only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind. There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power. We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of His living light.” – (from God In Search Of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 140, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

As for the historically very recent faith in science and reason, a faith in the adequacy of science and reason to become the place to which God flees, here is what Heschel says:

The claim that there are no significant questions so profound that they cannot be solved by exact sciences raises a question that seems to defy solution: How does one account for the dogmatic and monstrous presumption implied in such a claim?”  (from The Prophets, Volume II by Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 189, Hendrickson Publishers)

So where can God flee to in order to satisfy the necessity for maintaining faith?

For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.”  (from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 16, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

So Heschel is saying that God can be found right here in spacetime, eternity in disguise.

For me the easiest place in spacetime to find this eternity is in music. For me, God has fled into the realm of music.

Here is a tiny excerpt from a blogpost of mine that expresses my faith:

Nowhere is this highest use of musical art more apparent than in the music of Mozart and Beethoven. [I dare say that it comes to its greatest fruition in Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, where in the 4th Movement (of 7 movements), the highest and most sublime arch, greater than that of any cathedral [including Chartres], has been erected on top of the movements which preceded it. In this movement, time is utterly still, and it works. But, of course, time must paradoxically come back into play, and it does so overwhelming and conclusively, and one might almost say, convulsively in the final 3 movements.]

Beethoven actually brought that eternity to our ears. Of course, that eternity cannot last. We are plunged back into time. The human achievement of eternity will always be a labor. But, paradoxically, I should also point out that this eternity is sometimes available to us just by opening our eyes and seeing what’s there. But we get in the way of ourselves when we try to do that. Consciousness steps in, and then we are done for. Consciousness is the inevitable original sin for us humans. That is the human condition. Before consciousness, before humans and their judgments, Creation was simply “good”.  Consciousness is a great blessing, but if we misuse it, it is also a great curse.


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