Monday, February 4, 2019

Glass-bottomed Bridges

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots -- in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.

Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. (Trans. Ronald Speirs)


An essay in brief, a mere outline of thoughts I've been carrying about in my pocket the last year plus.

Let's see if this works:

On December 23 a year ago China broke its own record for the longest glass-bottomed bridge. A casual stroll around the web gives the idea that China has become somewhat obsessed with building glass-bottomed bridges, walkways, and observation posts. Which is a curious thing, to me. This particular bridge crosses the Hongyagu Scenic Area in Pingshan county, is 1,600 feet long (that's shy a third of a mile, people) and is suspended 700 feet above the ground, which is a long way down. It is, says the article I link to below, designed to swing as people cross it, I am sure for engineering purposes. That in itself would be enough to keep me off it, glass-bottomed or not.

But it is glass-bottomed. And if you watch any of the videos on the web of these places you see that stepping on such a surface, over such a height, is not an easy thing. For some people a nearly impossible thing. And no wonder: humans are born with only two innate fears: loud noises and heights. We are hardwired to be afraid of heights. We are hardwired not to step on glass-bottomed bridges. To do so of your own free will requires an act of overcoming.

This seems to me a demonstration of the idea of faith. A person who fights through the fear and anxiety of walking across a glass-bottomed bridge is demonstrating faith: faith in the engineers who designed it, in the construction workers who built it, or in the park rangers (or whatever the attendants are called) who have themselves overcome the fear and assure everyone in their own act of walking, jumping, skipping upon the bridge that it is quite safe. A visitor steps on and walks across the bridge having faith in its safety despite their own minds screaming to them that it is absolutely not so. Indeed, the faith exists only because their minds are speaking so.

Because when you have achieved the point reached by those park rangers, where there is no fear whatsoever, there is no longer faith. To put it technically, the safety of the bridge has become for them a fact. And a person cannot have faith in something that it has been accepted as a fact. One does not have faith that two plus two equals four. One does not have faith that the distance to the moon at perigee is about 221,500 miles. One does not have faith that the sky is blue or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Those are things the mind accepts as facts, and facts neither require faith nor generate it.

Let me pull four points out of this, the first three of which are already present in the above.

First: I'll repeat myself, there is no such things as faith in facts. When walking upon a glass-bottomed bridge is no different than walking upon terra firma, then there is in the act no faith whatsoever. This can be said another way: facts, and acting upon facts, is spiritually a null event. Facts have zero faith value, zero spiritual value. When something becomes a fact, it no longer involves faith. Which is an interesting – and potentially profound – thought when you come to ideas of religious dogma.

Second: That faith exists for those walkers on glass-bottomed bridges overcoming their fear, opens up the curious recognition that faith only exists when there also exists its opposite: doubt. Faith is the overcoming of doubt. Without the latter, there cannot be the former. This to me is a big thing that I am saying very quickly. But we do see in it how, again, facts evince no faith.

Third: And again we also see something else inherent to faith: the overcoming. Faith requires action. A person does not demonstrate faith in a glass-bottomed bridge by waving to people on it from secure ground. You have to go out and walk on it yourself.

Finally, something that needs to be said just to be sure no false ideas arise: Faith is not in itself a 'good' thing. That is, just because a person has faith in something, does not mean either the faith itself or that something in which the faith is placed is spiritually positive. One might have 'faith' that the story of Noah's ark actually occurred despite the doubt created by the, shall we say, overwhelming obviousness that it did not. But that does not make you or your faith a spiritual positive. Though, to be honest, I am hesitant to call it spiritually negative. Perhaps, at times, it is merely spiritually immature. But, then, to the other side, if you accept Noah's ark as a fact, there is no faith to be found, is there? Ferventness in such a belief would really only be zealotry, which is never a good thing. (Which also raises interesting questions as concerns religious dogma.)

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