Credo ut Intelligam
[The following was condensed from the 25 page epilogue of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s book Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, 1988. Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a Bengali intellectual, writer, and gadfly. He was born in East Bengal in 1897, and died in Oxford in 1999.]
‘I believe in order to understand.’ In the light of my early mental development, this would appear to be the strangest confession for me to make at the end of my life. If anyone had told me when I was twenty-one that I would do so, I should have felt insulted. I was then an aggressive unbeliever. I felt violently repelled by any view of life which was not established and justified by the intellect, and by it alone. I was born and brought up in Hinduism...but I lost faith in the gods and tenets of Hinduism by the time I was eighteen...and aired that arrogantly even before my elders. They only replied with contempt: ‘Let the hot blood of youth cool, and we shall see.’ Instead of being abashed by that I replied: ‘Perhaps I shall also walk with crutches. But would that be anything to be proud of, or would it prove anything?’
Faith has not come to me as a result of physical decay. Of course, I have seen that happening to others. Most of the early acquaintances of my life, who then swore by Comte, Marx, or even Trotsky and Bertrand Russell, have made ample amends. Some of them have not only taken shelter at the feet of Krishna, which would not have been dishonourable, but grovelled at the feet of imposters who could be easily recognized as such, and should have been. I have not followed their example in recovering faith. I not only persist in my disbelief in Hindu religious tenets, but have gone further and lost faith in all the great established religions. I did not reject Hinduism as religion in order to believe in Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. My recovery of faith is not recantation.
It became necessary with a painful realization of the inability to live in hope without it. I began to suffer for my loss of faith almost with the loss itself, and yet remained incapable of going back to any of the existing forms of it. I could not retrace my way and yet I saw no road before me. I suffered for decades, and through that suffering discovered that all living faith has to be acquired. That can be done only by passing through mental experiences which either revalidate one or other of the old faiths, or create a new one. I was not able indeed to return to the old religions, but I learned from them that faith is as necessary for a man’s mind as food is necessary for his body; of course if he has the true human nature.
If however faith is a necessity, it is not vouchsafed to everybody. In ages of cultural decadence, which necessarily include spiritual and moral decline, faith becomes even more difficult to acquire. In such times superstition fills the vacuum created by irreligiousity, and is mistaken for faith. This is strikingly illustrated in America. Not even in Hindu society does superstition present itself in so disgusting and yet overpowering a form as it does in the materialistic United States.
Acquisition of faith, in the very first place, calls for an innate yearning for faith as an aid to living. In plain words, in order to acquire faith, a man must feel the urge to have it, which in all who do so is compulsive... When fully acquired, faith is seen to have come from a revelation or vision as the outcome of an arduous and painful effort, often life-long. I was fortunate enough to have got it after gropings lasting over something like thirty years.
At this point I must emphasize that faith is not to be confused with opinions or even with conclusions reached through a rigourous intellectual effort. These conclusions belong only to the order of reason...[they are] derived from experience through induction or deduction. Faith, in contrast, is always an unquestioning assumption, derived from supra-rational perceptions or perhaps through a gift of grace. And this assumption is about the true nature and value of phenomena, as well as of the nature of the relationship between one particular phenomenon ‘I’ with all other phenomena which are designated as ‘They’ or ‘Those.’
...our happiness and unhappiness even from the most trivial causes rest on deep cosmological presumptions of so sweeping a character that if they were brought up to the conscious level, they would frighten even the greatest philosophers. Only, we are not aware of them, although we are always acting on them...
In the suffering that I went through, the only thing that gave me strength on the moral plane, which I needed all the more because my physical strength was so little, was a spirit of fierce intellectual defiance. As I have related in my autobiography: ‘For long years I thought that the best which that thinking reed, man, could do was to go on maintaining an unyielding defiance to the universe. I subscribed to a creed of intellectual Prometheanism and repeated in the words of one of the greatest of my masters, and in despair and pain:
The entire universe does not have to arm itself to crush man: a whiff of vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But when the universe crushes man, he is still greater than that by which he is killed. For he knows that he dies and is also aware of the advantage the universe has over him—the universe knows nothing of all this.
In a word, I thought that the glory of life for a man lay in realizing that he was accepting defeat at the hands of material forces without minding it. It was a sort of Stoicism based on an old conception of Nature as the enemy of man. But I did not remain in that mental state. Through something which I would call a miracle I have been able to put an end to this duality between me and the universe. I have found peace in a new form of monism. I have been able to realize that the universe and I are one, and not at odds with each other. This is the very basis of my new faith.
But this faith has not exacted from me a repudiation of my early trust in the intellect. On the contrary, my yearning for a valid faith has made that stronger, because I have discovered that there are no sands more treacherous than the alluring fields of faith. They are often only dangerous swamps covered with thin vegetation on the surface. In no other area of the mind is the ground less firm, and the light more uncertain and fitful.
Without a very rigourous intellectual examination as a preliminary, a man of faith is likely and even bound to fall victim to charlatanism and to the abracadabra of false spirituality. In fact, nearly all the retreat to faith that I see in our present age of no faith is a surrender to that sort of weakness. The simple truth is that no valid faith can contradict anything established by reason, although by its very nature it can and should go beyond reason to a world in which faith is superimposed on reason to make in their combination an integrated whole.
I would say that intellectual discipline is the purgatory through which a man must pass in order to reach the paradise of faith, and the passage can be, in fact it often is, a torture. The final stage of intellection is like the belt of fire in Dante’s Purgatory, before which a voice cries out: ‘None goes further, if first the fire does not sting.’ All our superstitions and all our weak beliefs are burnt up in it. The greatest mistake in respect of faith has been that a majority of those who have recourse to faith think that they can have it without the purification.
I shall now define my intellectual position, which I have used as the springboard for my faith: [He proceeds to list eight intellectual faith principles (of which the first two appear below) that he claims are based on a rigourous, comprehensive, and complex use of the intellect, and therefore considers them to be tenable in reason. He also claims–somewhat improbably I think–that they are positions which can be established by observation, induction, and deduction, or, in other words, by the scientific method of determining truth. Some of these quasi-faith principles you can probably agree with, others you won’t agree with, still others may strike you merely as idiosyncratic. The important thing is to realize that faith, although it necessarily involves risk, can be a rational activity of the mind, and is the only thing that makes intellectual freedom possible. However, faith is also highly personal, and we must never expect the quality and content of faith to be exactly the same for any two people.]
1. That the cosmos or universe is not material in the ordinary meaning of the word, but is an organization of intangible energy in standard patterns of motion. It is this which is perceived by all living creatures as a conglomeration of material phenomena, although all of them might not perceive it in the same way. Almost certainly man’s perception of it is different from that of animals.
2. That neither phenomena nor matter really exist as such, but are subjective sensory perceptions. Everything is quality or attribute and nothing is a thing. That is to say, if wood is wood, gold is gold, or hydrogen is hydrogen, being one of these is the primary quality of something whose nature (in a certain sense) we can calculate, but never perceive except through that particular quality. In simple words, no object of perception regarded as material can be more real in its way than sound, colour, or light are in theirs. So, we live with and on sensations, although we do not call the primary sensations any kind of sensation at all.
This enumeration of the intellectual presuppositions of faith is so sweeping that you might ask: ‘What then remains for faith to do?’ I would reply: ‘Everything that can sustain effort and make for happiness, unless human beings are reconciled to living only under the biological urge, that is as mere animals.’ The great majority do so indeed, but even they make volitional effort all the time and seek happiness without trying to understand why they do so. Conscious enjoyment of living is dependent on our perception of values, significance of existence, and its infinite potentialities. Only faith can bring these things into the cosmos, which without them is neutral.
...in spite of difficulties faith is justified, and suspending intellectual doubts I shall make the following confession of faith:
I believe that the universe is self-increate, and with all that it contains, namely, the values which are conventionally known as matter, life, mind, intellect, morality, spirituality, and so on, it is without end, although it might have had a beginning; the logical notion that everything which has a beginning must also have an end, not holding in this case.
I believe that in its flow the universe is purposive, and the purpose has been partly achieved, but for the greater part it remains to be fulfilled, and in this purpose are included all that the mind of man, yearning after perfection, has regarded as the highest values, e.g. beauty, goodness, righteousness, or holiness.
I believe that the purpose is immanent in the universe, and not external to it, nor is it pre-existent as a complete idea, but that at every given moment the purpose is incomplete and infinitely potential.
I believe that the good life is that which is harmonious with the creative process of the universe.
To this short credo I might append a doxology: ‘Glory be to the universe, to the emergences, and to the values. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be without end.’
I am not at all sure that this formal credo of mine will be intelligible to others. A creed is a short verbal symbol, a mnemonic formula, so to speak, which calls up the totality of the teachings and historical traditions of a religion: an incantation to rouse the full consciousness of that religion. In my case, except to me, there is no world of ideas behind my credo.
Yet those who are familiar with Hindu religious and philosophical thought will be able to see the connection between my faith and the Hindu monism which proclaims the individual soul and the universal soul to be one. But that by itself would not have induced me to do more than take it as the starting point of my faith. I have elaborated it in my way.
Though I would not be justified in offering my faith to others on the strength of what it has done for me, the validity of my faith lies in what it has done for me. It has given a man who is equally weak physically and mentally confidence to work till he is approaching his ninetieth year; it has saved him from nursing any grievances either against the world or any particular set of men; it has preserved him from seeking compensation for poverty or deprivation in hatred, rancour, or debauchery. In view of all this, I can never be convinced that my faith is unfounded.
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