Applying Heidegger to Religious Conviction

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A number of philosophers (Martin Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus, and others) argue that there are two basic “ways of being,” or modes in which we live-out our lives and make sense of the world:  the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand. The first denotes our ongoing, active, purposeful, and engaged involvement in relationships and activities as we go about our daily life. The second identifies the more abstract, detached, reflective, or more “intellectual” or “theoretical” way in which we sometimes take up the world and our place in it.

The following example from Dreyfus may help to illustrate this distinction:

We hand the blind man a cane and ask him to tell us what properties it has. After hefting and feeling it, he tells us that it is light, smooth, about three feet long, and so on; it is occurrent for him. But when the man starts to manipulate the cane, he loses his awareness of the cane itself; he is aware only of the curb (or whatever object the cane touches) or, if all is going well, he is not even aware of that, but of his freedom to walk, or perhaps only what he is talking about with his friend.((Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I, The MIT Press, 1991.))

In this example, the blind man illustrates each of the two modes of engaging with the world. The first, or “present-at-hand” mode, can be seen in his reflective, deliberative action with regards to the cane. In the present-at-hand mode, the cane is disclosed to the blind man as an object independent of him, possessing certain properties or qualities and characteristics (usually measurable and manipulable). The cane is some“thing” that can be broken, repaired, improved upon, discussed, and analyzed in the abstract. In other words, the cane is an object that is just there, “present” before the man, a thing to be contemplated, analyzed, identified, and categorized in one way or another, depending on the particular use to which the man wishes to put it.

The second mode of comportment, the “ready-to-hand,” denotes a way of engaging the cane in such a way that the blind man is hardly aware of the cane (as an independent object) at all, but rather is fully involved in using the cane to extend his awareness of the world around him, so as to navigate the meaningful contours and challenges of that world as he purposively travels from one place to another. In this mode of engagement, “one is involved in everyday practical activity and the phenomenon is transparent.” The distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-to-hand” is sometimes referred to as the distinction between the world of abstract things and ideas and the world of concrete, meaningful things and purposes.

These two modes of comportment or ways-of-being can be seen in every aspect of human life. For example, an auto mechanic working to fix the steering of an automobile will engage the car and its steering mechanisms as objects of analysis, things possessing certain qualities or features that can be measured, manipulated, or specified. In contrast, someone driving a car and on their way to visit a dear friend is fully engaged with the car in a very different way. To that person, the steering wheel is not one object among many that she is moving in a circle in order to exert an influence on a vehicle by means of a steering mechanism and drive train. Rather, she is merely turning left onto the street where her dearest and oldest friend lives — in a quaint red house at the end of the block. The steering wheel, as an object independent from a driver, is almost entirely invisible to her. It is not “occurrent” (another word used by philosophers), but rather is an extension of her active, meaningful purposes and engagement in the world of meaningful relationships and events. When the car turns, she is turning. The steering wheel and the car becomes extensions of her person.

Similarly, someone learning a new language might treat every word and sentence as an object of explicit concern, following abstract rules of grammar in order to arrange the words in a specific, proper order with deliberation and care. Someone more fluent in the language, on the other hand, simply invites a friend out for lunch at a favorite restaurant. Likewise, someone visiting a distant relative and helping to prepare breakfast might need to find the eggs, locate a whisk, figure out the mechanics of the stove; while the same person at home in their familiar kitchen might go about merely making scrambled eggs for breakfast, with none of those intervening steps disclosing themselves as distinct activities of explicit concern. Hopefully in such examples the distinction between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand becomes clear.

Religious Belief as the Blind Man’s Cane

We wish to contend here that our religious beliefs, assumptions, and narratives are much like the blind man’s cane:  they reveal / disclose the world to us in particular ways. The world looks different when we look at the world in light of these beliefs and assumptions. They disclose to us priorities, duties, and lifestyles that clothe our lives and relationships with meaning and purpose. Most often, we engage with our beliefs “ready-to-hand.” That is, we aren’t examining our beliefs (as, for example, abstract tenets or theological principles) nearly so much as we are examining the world with them and through them. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

On occasion, however, like the blind man above, we must examine our cane. Perhaps it isn’t functioning like it’s supposed to be. We keep running into things we weren’t expecting or detecting. Maybe the cane isn’t long enough. Or, maybe it’s too long. Perhaps it has been damaged in some way and needs to be repaired. The same thing can occur with our religious beliefs and assumptions. When we take up our beliefs in the present-at-hand mode on occasion, maybe to refine, clarify, improve, or expand them, we can then delight in new surprises and discoveries as we step back into ready-to-hand engagement with our faith. Think, for example, of eyeglasses. Most of the time, eyeglasses are invisible to us. However, sometimes, they need cleaning or adjustment. And, when we have cleaned and adjusted them, the world can look quite different to us. Indeed, we may now detect some things that we had heretofore entirely missed.

Now, having said this, we think that — as with almost all things — the “present-at-hand” mode should not be the default mode of our engagement with the world, nor should it be taken as a superior way of approaching and understanding the world. Rather, the present-at-hand mode is an interruption of what religion really is:  a practical way of life. If we dwell always in the present-at-hand mode with respect to our religious beliefs, we risk losing sight of the very purpose of our faith to begin with. We end up like a blind man who spends all of his time examining his cane and never leaves his house to travel to a friend’s house or attend to his work. And when we lose sight of purpose, we can quickly caught up in the unending swells of an epistemological storm. (More on that shortly.)

Conviction Is Found in Read-to-Hand

When I [Jeff] pray and ask God if He is real, I have rarely gotten a direct answer. When I examine my faith assumptions and appeal to God for more certainty, I have rarely gotten a direct answer. But when my prayers are less about me and my own need for certainty — when I relinquish my sign-seeking and frame my questions differently — I encounter revelation in my life far more reliably.

For example, when I pray and ask God to help me see ways to be a better husband or a better father, my own shortcomings are revealed to me throughout the day — and not in a self-disparaging way, but in a manner that makes me excited to be and do better for my family. I experience a divine hand guiding me towards ways to improve the way I think and feel about my spouse and children. But beyond that, I walk forward with a deeper conviction that God is real and cares about me and my family.

When I pray and ask God if the Book of Mormon is true, I have not always gotten a direct answer. But when I pray and ask God to help me understand the life of Alma, details in Alma’s story become clearer as I read, and I walk forward with a deeper conviction that this story was not invented by a 23 year old man in 1829, that these are the stories of real people, real men of God with life experiences to learn from.

When I pray and ask God if this Church is true, I have not always gotten a direct answer. But when I pray and ask God to help me use priesthood power to bless others, I encounter occasions to bless my family and minister to those in my stewardship. And I walk forward with a deeper conviction that this institution is, indeed, Christ’s kingdom and that we are acting as His hands in working miracles in the lives of His children.

In all these examples, I found answers to prayer as I engaged with my religious beliefs and assumptions read-to-hand. It is when those beliefs and assumptions were invisible to me, and I was instead reaching out into the world with those beliefs, that I encountered God’s guiding, steadying hand in my life. By examining the cane, the blind man does not find evidence of its utility or value. It is only in using the cane that he does so. The same is true of our religious beliefs, but with the added proviso that the measure of our beliefs is more than mere utility, but divine provenance. God is found, not in the space between us and our beliefs, but in the space between us and our service to our fellow man.

This may be a complicated and overly-philosophical way of saying, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). But it extends this verse from merely “applying” doctrines in our lives, to the added insight that God Himself is found in our practical engagement through Gospel, not in our abstract analysis of the Gospel. We can examine at our eyeglasses all we want, but clarity is ultimately found as we put them on and get to work in the work of redemption for the living and the dead.

The Epistemological Storm in Present-at-hand

As I’ve [Jeff] looked out into and “taken up” the world through the lens of the Restored Gospel, I’ve had experiences of direct revelation during and following such prayers, so distinctly that I cannot deny the existence and love of God and yet be an honest man. This doesn’t mean that I can’t abstractly analyze and probe whether those experiences were entirely due to a “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” as a skeptical Ebeneezer Scrooge might say. Of course I can. Those sorts of questions are ever present and can always reassert themselves — there’s no escaping them. I can always wonder if my marriage and domestic bliss is really just a fever dream, that I’m somewhere in a coma dreaming it all up, or a brain in a vat being manipulated in some alien lab!

Epistemology can be inadvertently made into a totalizing conundrum that consumes all other questions. (Indeed, in many ways this is precisely what has happened over the past few centuries in the Western intellectual tradition!) As ordinary human beings, however, we all engage in a world of moral duties, religious narratives, personal relationships, and meaningful interaction on a daily basis without ever encountering the intractable questions of epistemological certainty. If this weren’t so, we’d be quickly lost in the endless depths of an epistemological labyrinth of skepticism, doubt, and even paranoia. How do I know my wife is real and not a figment of my imagination? How do I know the parental duties I feel towards my children are binding? How can I be certain I actually enjoy this hamburger? How do I know you aren’t continually lying to me?

In the end, we have no real use for such questions, and even less patience for them. Questions of doubt, certainty, and epistemology rise to the fore only when we examine our beliefs and religious assumptions in the abstract, detached mode of “present-at-hand” engagement with the world, and can never wholly be evicted from that realm. Unfortunately, the longer we dwell there, the more fully we give ourselves over to abstraction and speculative detachment, the more apt we are to be lost in the epistemological labyrinth.

When we engage with our beliefs in the “ready-to-hand” mode, however, questions of epistemology and certainty usually recede into the background, hardly raised at all in the hum and thrum of lived-experience, interpersonal relationship, and practical engagement with the world. In short, “doubt” (in the sense of epistemological uncertainty) can never be evicted from the world of abstract analysis, but it can be evicted from the realm of ready-to-hand, where we put our religious worldviews to work as we engage in building the kingdom of God.


Often, we do have to repair our cane, mend or remake parts that are broken, and so engaging the world in the present-at-hand mode is both useful and vital — but the goal is to get to a point where we can use the cane again. We readily accept the importance and potential benefits of being in the present-at-hand mode. Nonetheless, we would argue that often what those who are struggling with their faith need is not more time examining their beliefs, dissecting their logic, analyzing the various propositions and parts in some abstract manner, but more occasions for encounters with God in the concrete, interpersonal and practical work of the kingdom.

This, we believe, is why it is so vital that we read our scriptures, pray, minister to others, visit the temple, invite others to Church, and otherwise live out our covenants with God in the daily activities and routines of our lives. We are convinced that it is in this practical involvement with the world and others where genuine conviction is found, and can be found again and again. Further, the measure of conviction is not the absence of uncertainty during those moments when we do take our beliefs into present-at-hand and analyze them in an abstract way, but rather in the peace, humility, charity, other-centeredness, and clarity we find as we engage in service to God and fellow man. For that is the Spirit of God attending us, dwelling with us. And it’s in our comportment towards God and our fellow man that we find abiding conviction — not in our comportment towards the content of our own minds.

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