Faith (Video Script)
Our senses are so easily fooled! Look at any table or chair. It looks so solid and substantial. Tap it with your knuckles and feel its density and hardness. Yet physicists tell us that these attributes are, to some degree, an illusion. The furniture is mostly empty space containing widely dispersed atoms. Likewise our knuckles are mostly empty space. The atoms themselves are mostly empty space consisting of subatomic particles, all of which no human has ever seen. We have confidence in the reasoning ability of scientists. We accept it on faith at some level.
Philosophers and mystics have long wrestled with this question of the ultimate nature of reality and how we can actually know what is real and true. For example, in his treatise, The Republic – the Greek philosopher Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain the illusory nature of physical reality and the limitations of sense experience in understanding truth. Plato believed that the world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it, and that the real world can only be apprehended by the mind.
Plato’s allegory takes place in a cave inhabited by prisoners whose arms, legs and heads have been chained since childhood so that all they can see is the wall in front of them. Near the mouth of the cave is a huge fire. Between the fire and the prisoners is a wall and raised causeway along which people walk carrying things on their heads, casting SHADOWS on the back wall of the cave.
Unaware of the nature and origin of the SHADOWS, the prisoners take them to be real. When a prisoner does manage to escape and experience the actual world beyond, it is confusing, even frightening at first. Enlightenment is a challenge. And when the freed and enlightened ex-prisoner returns to the cave – the world of illusion and shadows – and attempts to share this new vision of reality with others, difficulties arise.
Thus Plato has compared our daily waking lives on planet earth, to living in a world of shadows. From this perspective, modern materialistic science is the study of shadows.
The “real” world – the source of the forms that cast the shadows – exists at a higher level and can only be recognized by the enlightened consciousness of those who have thrown off the chains of illusion and made their way to the light of the fire, and then beyond out of the cave into the true form of reality.
In this allegory we are provided a simple model of the relationship between the seen and unseen levels of reality. That which is visible to our physical senses is mere shadow when considered from a broader perspective that includes the unseen realms that are the ultimate source of what we experience.
You may notice the theme of downward causation in this tale. In the higher realms of consciousness there is the true ideal, infinite form of all from which shadows are projected into the lower, denser realm of physical matter.
This is the pattern we encountered in our consideration of ideals and the process of creation and co-creation – spirit is projected through the forms of the mind into physical reality – the realm of shadow.
If Plato’s allegory seems a bit too poetic and distant from life in our modern world so as to be irrelevant, consider the materialistic philosophy that underlies our global culture. The physical universe is all that is. Mind is the firing of neurons in our brains – nothing more or less. Likewise, our experience of spirituality is merely a curious side effect of brain chemistry, probably perpetrated by the blind forces of evolution.
The universe has no purpose. All that we experience, including the amazing life forms on this planet, is the result of random events – molecules bumping together fortuitously like dice in a crapshoot. Such is the materialistic philosophy of this enlightened age in which we find ourselves. If spirit is real, if reality is more than just material substance, then from the realm of spirit this all must appear as little more than a darkened cave and flickering shadows, just as Plato supposed.
Faith as the Bridge
In Plato’s allegory, the impetus for the prisoner to try to escape his bonds and explore the true nature of reality is an act of faith. The other prisoners cannot even conceive of an unseen reality that is the source of their shadow world.
The faith that there is more to life, more to reality than material, sensual experience is the first step toward the unseen realm of spirit. Thus faith is the bridge that spans the gulf from the seen to the unseen realms.
Traditionally this chasm has been framed in the context of the classic debate between faith and reason. The physical, material dimensions of our mind reasons from the experience of the senses as we have considered with our example of the table and chairs at the beginning of this lesson.
Thus, direct empirical sensory experience is somewhat misleading. Even with the reasoning power of the mind to develop abstract models of atomic and subatomic theory, we have only moved a slight distance from the chains of our imprisonment in material reality. Like the adventurous prisoner in Plato’s tale, we need a bit of faith to continue our quest to enlightenment.
Call it a leap of faith if you like – or just a tiny step in the direction of spiritual awakening. Regardless of how your frame it, it is ACTION that allows us to make progress from the realm of shadow into the light of reality. It is ACTION that transforms a little faith into the bridge to our ultimate freedom from the realm of shadows.
Faith in Action
As we act in faith – as we use what little we have in hand, more is given. As we apply what we know – as we do the good that we know to do, we begin to transcend the limitations of the shadow world and catch glimpses of the unseen reality that is the source of all that is.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the escaped prisoner who achieves enlightenment returns to the cave to share his experience and bring light to those still in darkness. In the material world of his time, Plato envisioned this as the role of the philosopher king who would lead in the creation of a just and peaceful society.
We can certainly hope for a political solution to the problems of the world, and support leaders who embody the high spiritual ideals that can help move us together in that direction. Yet, ultimately it is in the seemingly small, daily activities of our individual lives that the most substantial progress can be made. We are not talking about an escape from the world of shadow and illusion.
By working with our ideals – by putting our faith into action at all levels of life, we can bring light and truth into the world for those around us. Spiritual enlightenment is about making the world we live in a better place for everyone to pursue their personal development.
As the first reading given for the Norfolk Study Group #1 noted: we are to work in a cooperative manner – first to the individual, then to the groups, the classes and finally to the masses – a little here, a little there … line upon line, precept by precept, applied faith brings light into the world of shadow.
Practically speaking (and ultimately in terms of spiritual awakening) faith is not simply a matter of belief in a mental or abstract sense. Rather, faith is what we do. It is the spiritual truth that we put into action that counts in terms of soul development in our search for God.