Faith’s Slippery Slope; Sliding Into An Abyss

Why, indeed, does faith reside on such a slippery slope?  Why is it that all too often our crises of faith are monumental ones that go to the heart of the enterprise?  One would think that once we painstakingly construct an edifice of belief over an extended period, carefully considering and refining each of the constituent building blocks before we adopt it, we should be able to develop durable conclusions regarding the fundamental principles of faith.  After that, challenges should not be troubling enough to threaten the entire structure.  But universal experience is often otherwise.

The traditional sources are rife with examples of this.  Cain, who apprehends the Almighty sufficiently to bring the world’s very first offering, suffers a crisis when that offering is not acknowledged.  He commits murder, of his brother no less, in response.  The Jewish people of the Exodus, who palpably experience God at Mount Sinai, worship an idolatrous golden calf forty days later when they miscalculate the day of Moshe’s scheduled return.  Acher, whose disciple was the venerated Tanna, Rabbi Meir (the author of every anonymous Mishnaic ruling), turns to complete apostasy when he witnesses an event (the Talmud offers two possibilities) that betrays his world view.  That each of the above suffered a crisis of faith is understandable; the question is why the previously hard won spiritual achievements in each case could not temper the slide into an abyss.

More often than not – and this was certainly the case in the foregoing three examples – crises of this intensity stem from disappointments rooted in perceived failures of Divine Providence.  God is thought to be silent, perhaps even apathetic, in a situation where intervention is expected.  Disappointments in such circumstances sometimes get magnified into a piercing and absolute rejection of the Almighty – Les Din V’Les Dayan (there is no judgment and there is no judge), in the pithy  Talmudic formulation.  Four contributing factors to this dynamic can be identified.  Alone or in combination, these four are the usual suspects for amplifying the severity of religious crises.

The Nature of Faith.  We like to think that our faith develops as a rigorous logical system, where we combine undeniable assumptions and persuasive argumentation to produce a set of valid conclusions.  This would mesh well with the scientific method that has been so inculcated within us as to be second nature.  And if this truly was the case, most challenges could perhaps be limited to encapsulated parts of the whole,  perhaps to a suspect assumption here, or a faulty argument there.  If we are lucky, the doubt even may be similar to one that we have encountered before – and, if so, we can retrace the remedial steps that we successfully took previously.  But in any event, as long as the doubt is constrained to a part of the system, we would typically be comfortable holding on to our conclusions during the time that we work to dissolve the challenge.  By analogy, spouses typically do not lose faith in an entire marriage when discrete issues arise.

Unfortunately (or not), this is not how religious faith is achieved in real life, the dissonance with the scientific method notwithstanding.  Faith is not based on logic.  It is more a product of the will.  The exercise resembles an attempt to reach a raft in the midst of a turbulent sea.  We begin by flailing around in the water.  Sometimes we do reach the raft, but it is almost a certainty that at some point we will be cast once again into the raging sea of doubts.  The struggle unfortunately must then begin anew, and previous successes in reaching the raft will not be of any assistance.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Faith is not a sustained, comfortable state of consciousness but a painful hard-won and impermanent conviction – a breathing spell in the midst of an ongoing conflict.

 When faith is battled for in this manner, it does not take much to push us back into the water.  Unless doubts are entirely inconsequential to our faith, they can become deeply troubling.  Unless we are fully on the raft, we are fully in the water.

The Nature of God.  The Almighty is One, He is a Unity, He is perfect in a way that is unlike any other manner of perfection.  This goes to the core of what the Divinity represents.  Unfortunately, this also sets a very high standard.  Any perceived imperfection, any imagined flaw that may be prompted by a feeling of betrayal, has the capacity to undermine, in one’s mind, the essence of why God is Divine.  Perfection either exists or it doesn’t.  Here, too, there is no middle ground.

The Nature of Reality.  The events that comprise our lives cannot be neatly prioritized, in terms of the likelihood of God’s intervention into them.  If a person experiences God’s supposedly unjust absence, it is very difficult to devise a framework for why this may be a unique and isolated episode.  It is difficult, in other words, to maintain confidence that God will resume His presence in the future.

Take the weather, solely as an example.  The arrival of rain in a timely manner used to have life and death significance in Biblical Israel, and it still has important consequences for any country’s economy.  Not surprisingly, the provision, and the withholding, of rain is deemed to be Providential.  The second paragraph of the Shema refers to rain as the prototypical instrument of Divine reward and punishment.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 113a) compares rain to the resurrection of the dead in terms of its Divine origin.  And, at the other extreme, extraordinary weather conditions like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and droughts all the more are said to involve a measure of Divine retribution.

In an age of reasonably accurate weather forecasting, however, faith in the Providential nature of weather conditions has become more challenging.  For example, Chicago always has brutal, painful winters; San Diego has the most pleasant climate imaginable.  Whether nature functions on its own or whether God stands behind nature in each instance, it is difficult to imagine that God uses the routine weather conditions of these two cities to punish and reward their inhabitants, respectively, in the identical manner year after year.  “Normal” (i.e., predictable) weather just doesn’t seem to have theological ramifications.

But how do we then draw the line?  As one moves along the continuum of weather conditions, from normal to unusual to aberrant to extreme to freakish, there are no easily defined boundaries.  It is very difficult to credibly designate the precise point at which God enters the picture in order to manipulate weather to accomplish a specific purpose.  Even hundred-year storms are expected to occur once a century.  This is typical of most areas of life.  Once one domino topples, it is very difficult to keep the remaining ones upright.  Sliding down the slippery slope, in other words, is very difficult to arrest.

The Nature of People.  People of faith, in an expression of piety, often have inflated expectations about God’s involvement in their lives.  This occurs for several reasons.  Primarily, a great many people, scholars included, are simply unaware of the parameters of Divine Providence.  They do not appreciate, for example, the proportionality of Hashgacha to righteousness, the balance between Hashgacha and Mazal, the consequences of insufficient or ineffective Hishtadlus (one’s diligent efforts), the deferral of Hashgacha to free will in religious and interpersonal matters, or the primacy of communal Hashgacha.  This is a prescription for continuous disappointment, as God is perceived as being regularly absent in situations where He mistakenly is expected to be thoroughly engaged.  Sadly, this produces an unceasing supply of stimuli that have the capacity to propel an individual into a state of disbelief.