Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What is Faith?; or, Faith Like a Child....

Kelly, you don't want to read this... unless you've picked up some holy water before logging on! :D

So I was reading a post on Debunking Christianity, as well as the following comments people were talking about... an the insubstance of faith was brought up on more than one occasion. It got me to thinking about my own loss of faith, when it occurred, the linchpin, the struggle afterward, but mostly, about Faith itself.

Faith, of course, is the hope of something that has no proof, or logical sense to it. Webster's defines "faith" in 2b(1)(2) as (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust, which I think sums it up nicely.

But why do we as people rely on faith? We certainly use faith everyday: When I place my key in the ignition every morning, I have faith that my car will start; When I place chicken in the stove and turn the knob, I have faith that it will heat and cook my dinner; when I turn the knobs on the faucet, I have faith that water will gush forth, or at least dribble out in an attempt at flowing.

Now, what happens when that faith gets challenged? When the car doesn't start? If my chicken were to remain cold and raw? When water doesn't come out of the faucet?

I do what every other person in the world does: Call someone. I make a call to my father, or I find the yellow pages and search for a professional to give money to, or I look it up on DIY to see if they can tell me how to fix it without handing someone a wad of cash.

When it comes to faith in God, though, what do people do? We turn to pastors, priests, rabbis, and other "professionals" who have been in training and schooling for years, someone to whip out an idiom from the pages of scripture, a proverb or psalm to ease our pain...

And for some people, that works. They shut off their brains, take their two pills, and "call" god in the morning. While others, kicking and screaming, unable to shut off their logic centers, say, "But why?" or "How can that be?"

When you start your car, of course, you have faith that it will start based on past experience. And while you have no proof that it will start, experience says it will. A mechanic, on the other hand, places his faith in the mechanisms which you probably know nothing about. He also starts his car based on faith, but with more working knowledge of how the car starts, with the turning causing an electrical signal that makes something move, which in turn, brings the engine to life. The engineer, who also places faith in both past experience, as well as the mechanisms, also places his faith in his original design, in the concepts of science and math he/she employed in designing the mechanism. It could be said the designer practices the most faith in this car starting mechanism. His faith is based on theories and mathematics most of us couldn't comprehend without some type of engineering degree.

But, in fact, the designer has no more faith that his or her car will start than you do. You are both exercising an immeasurable amount of faith. Just because you have more knowledge of how something works doesn't translate into more faith, but it does mean you have more knowledge of what you are placing your faith in.

Now this could be hard for some to grasp. The Christian, when presented with someone who doesn't place faith in God, says, "You need to have more faith," or perhaps, "You are placing your faith in the wrong things." Past experiences have made them interpret life events in such a way that they have placed their faith in a God that causes things to happen in certain ways. They have interpreted their experiences to mean that they have placed their faith in something that works, so therefore, it must be that faith that allowed A, B, and C to happen as opposed to X, Y, and Z. But, since faith cannot be measured, who's to say that it was their faith that made it happen, and not random chance?

Let's go back to the car. When turning the key doesn't work, certain things that past experience has also taught us come to mind: Did I fill the car with gas? Is it possible that the battery is dead? Did the mechanic not fix the previous issue correctly? Past experience has taught us that, while we may have faith that our car will start, it still doesn't always start. So the experiences of the past have a.) Told us a car is supposed to start when the key is turned, and b.) If the car doesn't start, is not the fault of the key, or even our faith, but is the fault of the car itself, or somehow related to something that the car has had an issue with before.

So let's say Aunt Phoebe is in the hospital. Maybe for a routine appendicitis. A Christian will place their faith in not only the doctor's and the hospital's procedures, but will kneel down in prayer, start a "prayer chain," or request that others, too, pray for dear Aunt Phoebe. An agnostic or atheist will simply place their faith in the doctor and the hospital.

Aunt Phoebe recovers just fine, the surgery was a success, and she'll be out tomorrow. And while the agnostic/atheist says thank you to the doctor, the doctor's experiences of the past, and the hospital's great staff, a Christian will, in addition, thank God. And they interpret this experience of Aunt Phoebe's as an answer to their prayer. And if Aunt Phoebe were to have died? In a less law-suit happy world, both the Christian and the atheist wouldn't sue. But they both might anyway. But the atheist will still shrug, attribute it to bad luck, maybe a drunk doctor, a bad twist of fate. The Christian will say that it was simply the will of God, and also, shrug, uncomprehending.

Both the atheist and the Christian exercised faith in the workings of the hospital (not to mention, so did Aunt Phoebe!), but how they compartmentalized their faith is slightly different. The Christian had the additional box "God" checked off on his faith form. And irregardless of the same result, whether positive or negative, the Christian will still place his faith in God when Uncle Phil is in the hospital next week, and the atheist will still place his faith in the doctor and hospital. They both may learn to send their family members to a different hospital based on Aunt Phoebe's experience there, but the distribution of categories their faith is placed in remain basically the same.

What can we learn from the car, the hospital, and God? Our faith in all these situations is the same. We place it, or distribute it differently, but until the "Faith-o-meter" is invented, a Christian has no place to say, "You are pacing your faith in the wrong things," and neither does the atheist have the right to say this to the Christian. Faith is subjective in it's tangible outcomes and procedures. There is no way to prove or disprove the effect of faith on any situation. And for one to say to another, "Your faith is misplaced" or "misdirected," is simply an exercise in folly.

Reading this draft from about a week ago, I am unsure what my actual, practical conclusion of this is. Certainly faith is immeasurable, but can one still say they have more faith in something than someone else? Can one Christian say to another, "You are not placing enough faith in God?" Certainly they would be basing this on observed worship styles, or maybe some sort of tally on how much each attends church. It would all be based on one's physical observations and practices of the other. And I believe that physical activity certainly has nothing to do with how much faith one person has over another.

A commonly used phrase in church circles is "have faith like a child." To not ask "why?", but to simply have faith that such and such is, and will always be. Just because you don't understand something is no reason to not have faith in it, they say. And to a certain extent, I can agree with this philosophy. I don't understand how my oil furnace works, but that doesn't mean I'll stop using it to heat my house.

Where I disagree with this philosophy is in that it seems to almost be a "prohibitive" idiom. I know, it really all depends on context and meaning of the person saying it, but to automatically tell all Christians that they must "have faith like a child" almost seems to be saying, "Look, okay, we have no idea about God's plan, and we certainly don't feel like trying to explain the in's and out's of what we do know, so, please, just take our word for it."

And anyone who knows me well enough knows that telling me to not do something or say something, almost guarantees I will do exactly that which I was told not to, after weighing all the facts and consequences of such. Perhaps this is why my faith left the church and God? Because someone told me to just have faith? I am still analyzing this part of my life, and who knows? Faith may one day return to God... but for one to tell me that I have "wrong faith" or "misplaced faith"? That simply shows a lack of understanding about what faith is, in my humble opinion.

Thoughts? Feelings? Flaws in my logic?


Dar said...

Nice post, great metaphors. You summed it up in the last couple sentences...I share your sentiments.

terriamachine said...

Being a teacher, this is a very busy time of year and I don't even have time to write this--yet I am. I should never check out my brother's blog when I have five free minutes before school starts, because that means I'll mull over the post all day, neglecting my profession's responsibilities--namely my students. But some kid said he was going to plant a bomb and kill people with a shotgun, so half of my kids didn't show up because they're scared, so whatever I have for them today probably fell on deaf ears anyway. But alas, I respond because just this morning I was pontificating with a fellow teacher (a staunch Catholic) about human nature. We do things because of what Poe calls the perverseness within us all; namely, we do things because someone told us not to. You tell me not to do something, and I'm going to do it--and so will you, and so will you, and probably even your grandmom (well, maybe not mine). But anyway, there's that little coincidence (or is it? perhaps you should read MY POST on coincidence, which my brother conveniently forgets to advertise, but that's because I haven't updated it due to the aforementioned job--that and the wife came back, which just sucks up more of my free time...), and then there's the good logic/bad logic my brother employed in his most recent post. He makes some very good points (mostly in his metaphor with the car), but he also makes some gross generalizations (mostly with the hospital analogies). He also continually makes the mistake of paying too much attention to the ludicrous din of the fundies and their mistakes instead of straining to listen to the source of all their beliefs. He has rightfully said that fundies and their ilk place their faith in those who oftentimes don't know what the hell they're talking about. It's true when he rails on their inconsistencies, generalizations, sweeping condemnations, blah blah. But he makes the same mistake. By lumping all Christians in the same boat, his railings are tinged with the same inconsistencies, generalizations, and sweeping condemnations. Christianity is a gihugic (giant, humungous, gigantic) umbrella under which billions and billions and billions of people use to shield themselves from the storm that buffets them about. What's my point...? I seemed to have lost it.... Basically, we need to be careful whenever we generalize. Christianity has taken on many, many, many, many, many forms over the past couple of thousand years, and this latest monster which predominates the White House and the South and his and my youth leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. In that my brother and I are in complete agreement. I loathe the Right Wing and all the bullshit my brother rails against on an almost daily basis. But there is a faint, extremely soft voice among the throngs of discordant harpies we call American Right Wing Fundamentalists, and that is the voice of the original teacher, the one who would be hanged on the cross again by most fundies today if he were to come back and tell them how fucked up they are and how much they have fucked up his message (just read The Brothers Karamazov). When he was speaking of childlike faith, what he was talking about was not "leave it up to the preacher man who really doesn't know what he's talking about"--he was talking about a relationship between a parent and a child. I often wish I had the faith of my children, both of whom love me very much. They have faith in me, that I will be there for them, that I will love them, that I will protect them. They have faith that daddy will be there for them through thick and thin. It's not a blind faith in someone from the outside (preacher man), but a cultivated faith through love, cultivated through time spent with one another, cultivated and nourished through a mystical relationship no empirical evidence from any scientist will ever be able to completely and fully wrap their little brains around. It's impossible to explain if you don't have kids. I never understood this message until I had kids myself. You cannot learn this type of faith vicariously; one can only learn of this through experience. Spend time around kids. They have this undying thirst for knowledge. Their imaginations are so ripe. This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he said to test all faiths. See which ones are true. The faith of a child is endless and boundless, fearless enough to test all, resilient enough to bounce back from falsehoods and obstacles. I could and should write more but that Catholic who I work with wants to leave and so I gotta split. I've already decided to start up my blog again when summer hits. (Maybe then I'll get a link on the evergrowing "Life and Otherwise...") I look forward to the dialogue. My brother and I think very similarly and oftentimes share the same misgivings. Where he is now I have been. There was a time in my life where I threw off the overbearing burden of Christianity and embraced other ways of thinking, but through good teachers, excellent professors, and exquisitey written books I have learned to focus on the teacher (who was just a Jew with radical ideas) and not the teachings (most of which are perpetuated by fear, greed, malice, envy, and just plain old assholiness). And those seven things he mentioned, I've worked through all of them myself, with the exception of one. I still have trouble marrying the god of the OT with the Jesus of the NT. Kill every man woman and child and take this land here from these people whom I don't like doesn't jive too well with let he who has no sin cast the first stone. But with my childlike faith, through which I trust the teacher yet test all possible answers, maybe I'll get there. Maybe I won't. I won't have all the answers for my kids, yet I hope they don't castigate me because I don't. This last idea is underdeveloped because the Catholic is giving me the evil eye... I must away... sorry for the underdeveloped argument...