My discussion of belief and practice has in its background a larger discussion concerning what it means to be religious. I take it that religion is a way of being, of having and being oriented in a world, and that happens, ultimately, in practices rather than beliefs: practices have their meaning, and so, associated beliefs, as part of a religious ordering of the world. (Note 1: I am using the word “world” here as it is used in philosophy, “the place in which humans dwell.” It is not the same as “the earth” and almost always include the universe. Note 2: What follows is an edited, paraphrased, and expanded version of something I published, “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures).
To be religious is not to assent to particular propositions or assertions, though assent to beliefs follows from the fact that one is religious. The devils also believe (James 2:19), but it would be odd to describe them as religious. Instead, to be religious is to recognize–to reverence–the sacred and to live in a world of which the contents, including beliefs, are ordered by the sacred. For religious people, the sacred is the real, and the real is manifest in symbolic order. The sacred is the order of things as a whole, and religion gives us that order.
This goes against most of the ways we think about religion today. When we talk or think about religion, we usually do so as if religion were one of several regions of life. On this view, there are many regions of my life: the world of work, the political world, the family, the world of morality, the academic and scholarly world, the economic region, the world of leisure, and so on. Religion is one of these regions of our lives, and some people’s lives may have no such region. Though we engage in activities that involve the various regions of our lives, we assume that each is, strictly speaking, separate from the others, though possibly overlapping; in themselves, each region is on an equal footing with the others, and each region is differentiated in value from any other only by my valuing of it, in other words by my interests, desires, or needs. The relations between the regions and their relative values are ultimately decided subjectively (or intersubjectively).
My claim is that, however religious people, under the seduction of contemporary thought, might describe religion, it is not one of several possible regions of my life. Instead, it is the field within which any other regions or aspects are marked out and related to each other. Religion is that which makes regions possible and which gives the world as a whole unity, order, and meaning in and through symbols. (That is the point of the story of Creation–all three chapters of it–and, thus, also of the temple ritual. I include under the heading of “symbols” the scriptures and ordinances, for example. On my view, a symbol is a material object that incarnates more than merely its materiality; a symbol is not merely “something that stands for something else by vague resemblance.” ) On the religious view, as I understand it, we can still speak of regions of human endeavor and interest, but ultimately those regions, such as economics or morality or the political, get their meaning in themselves and in their relations to each other, as well as their relative weight and importance from religion rather than from our valuing. Religion is life in a world that is ordered symbolically.
Of course rational ordering and symbolic ordering are not necessarily at odds with one another. Within a symbolic order, rational discourse is one of the forms in which the real is manifest. Therefore, it is not opposed to symbolic ordering, but a possible part of any symbolic order. Nevertheless, there is an asymmetry between a rational order and a symbolic order. Though every symbolic order includes the possibility of rational discourse, if the order of the world is rational, then symbolic discourse cannot be made an instance of reason, except as a parasitic form of reference, in other words, as ambiguous or “poetic” speech (as in much philosophy see, for example, the work of John Searle). The symbolic order can include the rational order without making it ephemeral, but the reverse is not true.
My view of religion means that just as beliefs can only be understood as they are associated with practices, practices make no sense except as elements of life in a symbolic order, an order in which the world is what it is because of the Divine. It also means that the supposed conflict between religion and reason is not the conflict of two different spheres of existence. It is the conflict between two different ways of ordering the world, symbolic order and rational order, and it is a conflict only from a point of view that misunderstands religion as one of the possible spheres of existence or reason as the ultimate ordering of the world.
The brief description of my position ends there. You can easily stop and go no further. But I am going to say a little by way of historical background (caricatured because there is no room to do more):
The current dominance of the reason is a consequence of the failure of the symbolic order, a failure that resulted in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Descartes’s work is a good place to see the symptoms of this change (particularly Discourse on Method). He points to the failure of the symbolic order when he tells us that he needs something by which to adjudicate between the various plausible opinions he learned in the schools. Religion can no longer do that, so he find himself in a chaos in which nothing can be known or trusted (part I). Prior to the Reformation, the Church had given the world its order, but that order has failed for Descartes. Something other than religion must order life as a whole, including religion. Religion has ceased to give order to the world and has become one of its regions.
Finding nothing that orders our opinions, our claims to reasonable beliefs, Descartes must give a rational method for ordering them: reason must ground itself. Yet the necessity of grounding reason in itself would never have occurred to an ancient Greek or a medieval Christian, Jew, or Muslim because, whatever the many differences between them, for each, the exercise of reason occurs within an ordering that is prior to and fundamental to reason. Whether physis or Divine creation, reason has a ground that is, on a modern view, nonrational. (In spite of that, it is possible to identify the ground of reason, in the narrower, modern sense, with reason itself, as ancient and medieval philosophers generally did.) Even those thinkers, such as the Averroists, for whom the truths of reason and the truths of faith are ultimately commensurable do not assume that something is true because it is rational. Instead, something is rational because it is true. Truth–for the religious person, the divine order that shows itself in symbols–grounds reason; reason’s being is granted by the symbolic ordering, even if the rational order and the symbolic order are ultimately identical.
This means that those in the centuries before modernism did have a means for adjudicating between various plausible opinions. For Christians, the Church provided those means and order came to the world through that means. Descartes’s inability to adjudicate between differing opinions and his subsequent search for a method shows us that, by his time, a radical shift had already taken place, a shift away from an understanding that finds the use of reason within what is given by a symbolic ordering. Prior to modernism, the world had been given order by the Divine and reason was a tool for dealing with and in that order, though not itself the source of order. However, the loss of the Divine as a ground left reason and the world without moorings and, so, required something like the four-part rational method that Descartes prescribes (II.7-10).
This loss of the Divine as ground shows up in the difference between modern and religious understandings of certainty. Prior to modernism, Christian certainty was the certainty of salvation, a certainty given by the life of faith. Thus, though Christians had certainty, that certainty did not include a complete apprehension of the rational (in other words, of the mind of God), though it was also consistent with the rational. With modernism the ground shifted: since certainty is no longer given, it must be achieved; one must have a method for gaining certainty. This difference between certainty being something given and certainty being something resulting from the application of a method is perhaps the largest single difference between the religious view and the rationalist view.
As we can see in Descartes, the method for achieving certainty is necessarily a rational method, and the rational is thought of as self-revealing. Based on the biblical teaching that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), early modernism rethinks human reason and at least implicitly models it on the mind of God, a mind that is understood, strictly and theologically speaking, capable of only purely theoretic understanding. As a result, modernism assumes that the use of the proper method, a self-grounding method, will, at least in principle, lead one to the complete capture, the complete apprehension, of the rational (which, though no longer identical to the mind of God continues to be thought in the same terms: for example, as self-revealing and atemporal). This shift changes the meaning of everything–the rational, certainty, method, knowledge–in such a way that the religious understanding becomes inaccessible to modern thought, perhaps incomprehensible, at best naive and primitive.