David Brooks [you may have noticed I have a man-crush on him] wrote an excellent piece titled The Subtle Sensations of Faith. One of his main points is that all humans experience a sense of wonder, awe, of being a part of something bigger and incomprehensible. Even people that claim they have no religious impulse experience this sensation, which, if not faith, is something close to it.
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday… These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
Faith then, is not irrational belief, but as David Brooks writes, it is a longing.
Religion does its best to ritualize these longings, this faith, in a way that makes it more likely to reoccur and give meaning to people.
All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.
Though Epicurus was contemptuous of popular religion, I suspect that he too experienced faith. In his garden, he must have experienced moments where life seemed to transcend the material. He didn’t believe in a life after a death, but knowing this must have made him more attentive to his own existence. This attentiveness helped him understand what makes life worth living: not fame and fortune but friendship and independence of spirit.
“The wise man, after adjusting himself to the bare necessities of life, understands better how to share than to take— so large is the fund of self-sufficiency that he has discovered.”
“Friendship dances round the world, summoning every one of us to awaken to the gospel of the happy life. “
Faith then, is not just for the religious; it is for everyone. Even if you are a rational and scientific person, this struggle for meaning, a struggle for faith, can potentially lead you to the good life. Just as Epicurus discovered that most worldly obsessions are painful distractions from true pleasures, you may discover that there are certain parts of your life that are making you unnecessarily miserable, and that you are doing too little of what makes your life enjoyable.