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In reading Dostoevsky, I stumbled upon the perplexing question of faith being a mere consolation. And in spite of considering myself a believer, I still agree to this statement to a certain extent. Maybe faith is meant to be a consolation. What are your thoughts about it? (I am not the most proficient philosophy reader out there, so please don't get too technical.)

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    It is not just "common folk" consoling themselves with faith. No one has yet solved the metaphysics which makes faith (and diverse opinions on its form and extent) necessary for all.
    – tejasvi88
    Mar 12, 2022 at 11:26
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    @tejasvi88: What could 'solving' mean in this context? Do you mean something like, why 'Justificatio sola fide' might be important to a deity?
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12, 2022 at 12:30
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    @CriglCragl By "solving" I meant resolution of unsolved problems in metaphysics. For me personally, irrefutability of Solipsism is the major one.
    – tejasvi88
    Mar 12, 2022 at 13:04
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    Not sure if you want my kind of Answer... The list of unsolved problems is interesting, but basically I yawn and move on to things that actually matter in my life. A faith statement could be - this quote attributed to Mohammed: "Let go the things of which you are in doubt, for the things in which there is no doubt." It turns crucially on the of which versus the in which, but it is not subtle.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12, 2022 at 13:16
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    @tejasvi88: I would describe a picture of these being solvable, as a misapplication of the mathematical template of proving things. Like, the sorites paradox is about how identity is defined. For me, The Private Language Argument solves solipsism, we participate together in something beyond the individual, so even if we call what we experience one mind, it is just shifting the definition from reality of the same other beings from being independent minds to having independent character within one mind.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12, 2022 at 14:30

5 Answers 5

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Faith is a way of dealing with the unknown and incalculable. Knowledge is control; knowledge is the way the human will exerts power over circumstance. But where we lack knowledge we lack control, and we are forced to cede power over circumstance to something else: to a god, to the dao or karma, to the Market or the clockwork principles of a mechanistic universe... Otherwise we'll collapse into desperate nihilism. We want order in our lives, and when we cannot establish order by the strength of our own understanding, we trust that the universe has an order that provides for us. That's faith.

Sometimes faith is a consolation, usually when we feel completely lost and helpless. Sometimes faith is an exultation, when we can touch on the order of life through experience or intuition. Sometimes faith is a calm determination, where we move forward knowing that things will work themselves out. Faith has any number of moods. It doesn't surprise me that Dostoyevsky focused on faith as a consolation (I've never made it halfway through one of Dostoyevsky's works without collapsing into depression), but I don't think we should take his peculiar myopia as the whole truth.

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    I wonder if there is a "Nihilism Lite" - realizing very little is controllable, yet not getting upset about it? When I read about Existentialism as a teen, I thought something like: if this is the best humanity can do, maybe Camus was right! (when he said, the only real Philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide) Now I just ignore the whole thing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 14, 2022 at 18:32
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    @Ted Wrigley 1) What are the clockwork principles of a mechanistic universe? 2) I do not agree that those who cannot concede control to one of the entities from your enumeration necessarily fall into nihilism. I would prefer to accomodate with this fact and align my worldview to this insight.
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 14, 2022 at 21:28
  • @JoWehler: (1) The clockwork universe was a Newtonian era ideal that everything in the universe was bound by simple and determinate principles of Natural Law. I see it as a bridging moment: people were wrestling with the idea that God was not an active and present force holding the universe in alignment, but needed something to hold the universe together, so they extrapolated the idea of Natural Law so that it could fill that void. Mar 14, 2022 at 21:34
  • @JoWehler: (2) I didn't suggest that one needs a god or entity to take control; I suggested that one needs the belief that the world will remain controlled even where it's out of one's grasp. God is one solution to that problem; God is someone we can appeal to when things go sideways, as a kind of social interaction. But Natural Law is another solution (a set of rules that we know won't be violated); governments and institutions are a third (human structures that help us)... We cannot live in a world where we cannot predict, control, or accommodate changes in circumstance. Mar 14, 2022 at 21:42
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    @TedWrigley How to be sure that not wish alone is the father of the thought? One has to confirm these and similar hypotheses from experience in many cases. - Nevertheless I do not expect that we can find answers to all our questions. IMO we have to accomodate with open questions. That's no reason for nihilism or collapsing into depressions.
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 14, 2022 at 21:56
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Assuming you refer to religious faith (because faith in my potential is not a consolation under any perspective).

Answer to your question:

Faith is not necessarily a consolation, because that would imply that all believers suffer some form of grief, and that all solve the issue by getting console from faith. That seems to be a quite biased perspective.

Some speculation:

Faith is probably moreover a justification, because it provides and justifies answers and rules to all metaphysical doubts. Such justification is impossible to find elsewhere. But it is necessarily biased. Given a justifying belief, and enough faith, there are strong arguments to act the way one thinks is the right one, even if the world tells the opposite.

Evidently, the biased justifications provided by faith mean that faith could provide wrong answers, and make believers act destructively.

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    Metaphysical doubts cause grief therefore faith is a consolation.
    – tejasvi88
    Mar 12, 2022 at 11:22
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    Faith and confidence (in someone's potential) are different things.
    – Pablo H
    Mar 14, 2022 at 13:17
  • Consolation doesn't have to imply grief, eg there can be a consolation match or game between runners up. Consolation usually implies after loss, but people take loss in all different ways.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 14, 2022 at 19:33
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Faith has developed a specific soteriological role in Christianity, in the discourse around 'justification by works' vs 'justification by faith' in relation to salvation, in the contention between Catholicism and Protestantism. Kierkegaard and other explicitly identify faith in god as defined through experiencing doubt and overcoming it.

In relation to the idea of consolation, I would look to Boethius' book Consolation of Philosophy - this is not unreasonable in understanding this term consolation here, because it's been described as "the single most important and influential work in the West on Medieval and early Renaissance Christianity" (Wikipedia). I would describe the way of facing injustice and death in this book, as connecting with transcendental principles like justice, so that even while we may not experience them in our lives, by situating ourselves firmly in valuing them, experiencing their opposite can make us only more resolute in knowing their importance, and dedicating ourselves to manifesting them with whatever powers we do have - ie, keeping faith with them. It is in this context, we should understand faith as a consolation: participation in a religion, a community, and in salvation and role in god's plan, that can outlive us. Yes this is consolation for the poor, the uneducated common folk (Russian serfs were only liberated in 1861 when Dostoevsky was 40, from a status more like slavery than in other feudal systems), the sick, and all those suffering or with no hope in this life. But it is also the consolation of saints and martyrs, in the face of torments, humiliations, and death, by which they can know the dignity of their lives even in facing such attempts at coercions and threats.

It is interesting to compare to the role for faith in other traditions. In Judaism the closest term is 'emunah', described as "an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends reason". The upholding of covenants made with the deity, and keeping of the 613 commandments, are emphasised over any specific conception of deity or salvation, which are beyond human capacities to fully grasp. In Judaism any peoples that keep the covenant Noah made can be among the righteous nations. I would interpret the impact of subsequent Jewish covenants, as describing a state of 'ritual purity' akin to a state of grace in Christianity but related to works rather than faith, and a focus on adhering to community rules & governance & festivals - there is a saying 'It's not just that Jews keep the dietary laws, dietary laws keep the Jews', describing how the additional mitvahs help bind the community. This allows a great flexibility in Judaism, to have secular participation, of those without faith in a deity. I would suggest faith is placed in binding to the community, who work collectively to understand how to live correctly.

Buddhism has quite a different role for faith. Some describe Buddhism as a philosophy only, like Stoicism, with no role for faith. They are wrong. To fully take up Buddhism, it is crucial to rouse faith in awakening, in the culmination of Buddha's teach of the Four Noble Truths, and it's attainment through The Eightfold Way.

"Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These mental qualities are skillful; these mental qualities are blameless; these mental qualities are praised by the wise; these mental qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them." - The Kalama Sutta

This sutta has been described as 'The Buddha's Charter Of Free Enquiry', but a close reading shows that the Kalamas are recieving a teaching on the secular benefits of Buddhism, on how the practices can bring about many consolations and easings of suffering. But, that this process of exploring and testing the teachings should be understood through confirming their benefits through practice, in the part that cannot be understood without fully taking up the practice, including faith in awakening.

"Beyond, go beyond, go completely beyond, so be it" - final mantra lines of The Heart Sutra

In the context of this Mahayana sutra, we can understand that an entirely different state is being pointed to in this culmination of Buddhist practice, where ageing sickness and death are fully understood, and the true nature of things is understood directly. The role of faith in Mahayana Buddhism is further clarified in The Awakening of Faith sutra

In China and Japan there has been a long tension between monastic traditions with very high demands on participants like Zen, and traditions with much simpler rites like only chanting mantras and having faith in awakening happening in the next life in Pureland Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism too, there is highly scholastic practice connected to large ancient universities, and also simple practices like the 32-mile ritual circumambulation of Mount Meru, which is said to provide various beneficences.

Through all Buddhist traditions, we can see ultimate consolation as found in awakening to the true nature of things, and consolation for those unable or unready to aim for this in understanding karma, which can involve say supporting monks and so helping create space for awakening in the world.

Lastly I want to mention how we should understand a famous passage of Marx, in relation to a reaction against the Protestant focus on faith.

"Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. "

" - written by Marx for his introduction to 'Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right'

Zizek has said "The only way to be an atheist is through Christianity", and described himself as a Christian atheist. This is linked to Leninist doctrine's ignoring of Marx about industrialisation and other steps as necessary precursors before a society is ready for what Marx saw as later steps in the historical dialectic. Marx describes only works as important, to 'throw of the chain' of economic and other oppression. But set in a larger context of connecting to transpersonal and transcendental themes, we can see that expectation of improving things only by works cannot solve problems rooted in ourselves, that we must address through the spiritual life, through understanding what is worth facing torments and death for to uphold beyond our own lives, to not be coerced into lives not worth living.

This is especially poignant in the current context, as Russia seeks to impose their neo-feudalism on Ukraine.

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  • Interesting. I wouldn't say that "awakening to the true nature of things" is a 'consolation'. Chogyam Trungpa called the collapse of ego: "the ultimate and final disappointment." (emphasis mine)
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12, 2022 at 14:28
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    @ScottRowe: In the context of Four Noble truths, awakening is cessation of suffering. Have to say, I really don't like Chogyam Trungpa, given the list of really unpleasant things he did en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%B6gyam_Trungpa#Controversies That for me is not a lotus rising with purity from the impure. I've read his Shambhala book, & it seemed 'off' to me. I see Buddhism as not about a narrow picture of 'ego death', but as embracing the intersubjectivity of Indra's Net. That is the realm of skillful means. First I am you, then you are me. Not ending ego, going beyond it - svaha, so be it.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12, 2022 at 15:52
  • So, when suffering ends, there is no need for consolation, yes? Teaching that would spare people the whole roundabout Christian approach. Which is really a "running away".
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 12, 2022 at 15:55
  • @ScottRowe: Buddhism aims at cessation of the causes of suffering, that is overcoming the three poisons, greed, aversion, & delusion. Even the Buddha still faced karmic fruit in his life like a headache from laughing at a fish being knocked out. In the transpersonal picture, suffering only ends when the hells are emptied, at the culmination of the bodhisattva path with the liberation of all beings. Consolations aren't intrinsically bad, they can serve universalisable aims. Are you running from bodhicitta, compassion for all beings and wish for their liberation from suffering?
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12, 2022 at 16:54
  • @ScottRowe: Boethius wasn't running. Like Socrates, he was orientating himself to something beyond life and death, pain and suffering - even to the point of embracing them. People describe Buddhism too as anti-life, as running away. Discussed here: Is Buddhism antinatalist?. Don't look only at the tools, look to the task, eg Living Buddha, Living Christ. Christ did not run. His experiences in the desert was strikingly like Buddha's beneath the bodhi tree
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 12, 2022 at 17:03
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The religious context often characterizes faith as a „leap into faith“. The term expresses that faith has to abandon the usual and tested methods to reach certainty.

Faith presumes the absence of knowledge. The driving force of faith is hope, which is always hope for improvement of the situation. Of course hope is no promise that the situation indeed improves.

In so far, faith is a strategy to cope with a depressing situation which cannot be changed by oneself.

Characterizing faith as „consolation for the common folk“ sounds a bit elitarian. It sounds as if the speaker considers himself to be more intelligent than most other people.

But in any case, I consider it necessary for a rational person to be clear in his mind about what one does and why one decides to leap into faith - or refrains from doing so.

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  • Agree. I would say "true faith" is to go forward willingly into whatever one discovers, rather than trying to force the world to fit one's thoughts. Arguing that the world is imperfect and a better one exists or whatever would prompt me to bid that person go there and leave me to my tasks. Perhaps Kierkegaard said something to that effect. Someone once said, "Expect nothing, want nothing, hope for nothing, and anything you get will be grace." So that would be to abandon the idea of certainty.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 14, 2022 at 10:54
  • Pyrrhonian Skepticism looks like an end run around the need for faith.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 15, 2022 at 14:28
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Faith isn't merely consolation. It takes work to maintain the balance of our Universe, which is a singularity held by the holy name. Faith is the only counter-force to entropic forces which would otherwise dominate and end the universe.

Think about it. Through faith, you're putting power back to where the balance and homoeostasis is maintained. And that is part of reversing entropy and giving back to those divine forces.

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  • I think the entropic forces end up dominating no matter what we do.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 17, 2022 at 22:53
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    Your "thinking" is furthering entropy. Without knowledge growing in the Universe, it can't counter-act entropy either. Follow directions of your Creator or seek Truth and don't rest on opinions.
    – Marxos
    Mar 17, 2022 at 23:29

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