What is faith? Faith has generally been associated with belief in a religion and its specific tenets, or ‘articles of faith’. We are educated within our religion of choice about the basic beliefs that underlie that religion and we are asked to accept them ‘on faith’. In some cases, these ‘articles of faith’ are due to negotiated agreements among church elders at some time in the distant past, and in some cases, these beliefs are fully contradicted by knowledge that has subsequently come to light as humanity grows and advances in its understanding. It is for this reason, primarily, that science has rejected the common idea of faith.
Faith, however, is not the affirmation of beliefs, tenets or dogmas associated with a specific religious background. In its deepest and truest sense, faith represents a form of non-mental ‘knowing’ that nevertheless is felt as true and self-evident. For those who are immersed in the mental consciousness, the idea that there can be a form of knowledge that is not directly available to the mind, or that relies on an instrument of knowing other than the mind, is inconceivable. Yet, if we examine closely, we can see that the range of mental understanding is limited within a specific upper and lower field. Below the mental level of understanding, knowing takes the form of a subconscious or even unconscious habit which we call ‘instinct’. Instinct does not rely on the mind and is evident throughout the animal kingdom. In some cases, this instinct is very precise and detailed in its working. Just as there is a form of knowing below the mental field, there are also forms of knowing above the mental field. The evolution of consciousness is not completed and man therefore is what Sri Aurobindo calls a “transitional being”.
Faith, then, from this standpoint is not a dogmatic belief in a system of ideas, but rather, the confirmation of a knowledge obtained through a different instrument of knowing than the mind. The ‘rightness’ and ‘truth’ of the faith is something more akin to intuition than to mental logic. Faith gives the individual the courage to continue even when faced with the contradictory view of the mind or the vital being.
Sri Aurobindo writes: “Faith does not depend upon experience; it is something that is there before experience. When one starts the yoga, it is not usually on the strength of experience, but on the strength of faith. It is so not only in yoga and the spiritual life, but in ordinary life also. All men of action, discoverers, inventors, creators of knowledge proceed by faith and, until the proof is made or the thing done, they go on in spite of disappointment, failure, disproof, denial because of something in them that tells them that this is the truth, the thing that must be followed and done. Ramakrishna even went so far as to say, when asked whether blind faith was not wrong, that blind faith was the only kind to have, for faith is either blind or it is not faith but something else — reasoned inference, proved conviction or ascertained knowledge.”
“Faith is the soul’s witness to something not yet manifested, achieved or realised, but which yet the Knower within us, even in the absence of all indications, feels to be true or supremely worth following or achieving. This thing within us can last even when there is no fixed belief in the mind, even when the vital struggles and revolts and refuses. Who is there that practices the yoga and has not his periods, long periods of disappointment and failure and disbelief and darkness? But there is something that sustains him and even goes on in spite of himself, because it feels that what it followed after was yet true and it more than feels, it knows. The fundamental faith in yoga is this, inherent in the soul, that the Divine exists and the Divine is the one thing to be followed after — nothing else in life is worth having in comparison with that. So long as a man has that faith, he is marked for the spiritual life and I will say that, even if his nature is full of obstacles and crammed with denials and difficulties, and even if he has many years of struggle, he is marked out for success in the spiritual life.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 41-42