A friend last week asked, “Are you a person of faith?” I wanted to respond, “Sometimes,” but that sounded too flippant.
Reminds me of Nicholas Cage in the film Family Man when his daughter asks him if he likes kids. “On a case-by-case basis,” he replies. Like a lot of people, I’m a person of faith on a case-by-case basis.
Skepticism and faith co-exist. In fact, they must co-exist. Same with faith and doubt. Above all, I doubt people of excessive certainty. I don’t believe faith and certainty can co-exist. They can’t even co-exist peacefully in the same sentence.
What about faith and belief? In my experience, faith transcends belief. Faith is closer to “trust.” Belief is closer to “certainty.” It is an act of faith every time I go out to eat and allow total strangers to prepare my food. When I don’t get sick, my faith is reinforced. Faith allows most of us to board an airplane and let it take us to far-flung places. You can have faith even when you’re nervous. I have faith in the plane even though I don’t entirely believe these contraptions can hold together, given the considerable natural forces stacked against it. But their safety record is undeniably impressive.
Faith is a leap that allows us to transcend our uncertainty. Then again, having faith doesn’t make it so. I firmly believed in 2016 that American voters were not crazy, ignorant, and/or self-destructive enough to elect a compulsive liar like Donald Trump as president. Unhappily, my belief was wrong, which shook my faith in my fellow Americans.
In 2020, I did not believe this country could run a free and fair election. But I took a leap of faith and voted anyway. Happily, my disbelief also turned out to be wrong. It temporarily restored my faith in the system, but given the Republicans’ concerted efforts to sabotage that system since the election, I have grave doubts whether voting will be free and fair next time.
Faith and belief can be good or bad. Many believe in Trump despite the Jan. 6 insurrection, all of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, and all of his lies, particularly the Big Lie about the election being stolen. And most of those believers, no doubt, describe themselves as “people of faith.”
Yet they have little or no faith in science and government. As a result, many refuse to get vaccinated, even though it’s clearly bad for their health.
Which is more about belief than disbelief. They firmly believe science and government cannot be trusted. And they have absolute, unshakable faith in Donald Trump and conservative media.
Bad faith is dangerous faith. If you disbelieve what’s good for you, and blindly follow what’s bad for you, then being a person of faith puts you in serious jeopardy. Skepticism is not good doubt if it prevents you, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, from taking a leap of faith to get a couple of injections that will save your life and the lives of those you claim to love. Faith is more than wishful thinking. It means taking action, fueled by belief or in spite of disbelief.
Am I a person of faith? Underlying my friend’s question is another question, “Do you believe in God?” I don’t believe in any of the traditional religious conceptualizations or imaginings about God. Or rather, I believe all of them contain some germ of “truth” but are, not surprisingly, incomplete. Do I believe in a God beyond our current ability to comprehend such an incomprehensible mystery? That is a much more tantalizing proposition, worthy of much pondering and puzzlement. I stand in awe before the possibility that something beyond our current reckoning might actually exist.
The writer John Green has a problem with the question, “Do I believe in God?” as he discusses in his wonderful book, The Anthropocene Reviewed. He takes issue not with “God” or “believe” but the word “in”.
“I can only believe around God,” he says. “I can only believe in what I am in — sunlight and shadow, oxygen and carbon dioxide, solar systems and galaxies.”
To me, believing “around” God means circling the Great Mystery, nibbling at its edges, staying open to the tantalizing possibility. I much prefer that to hard-and-fast belief.
Nonetheless, we are frequently persons of faith. Most of us went through the pandemic believing it would eventually end and that we and our loved ones would somehow come through to the other side, even though the possibility we might not was very real. It felt like being in a war zone. No guarantees. Living with such uncertainty is an act of faith. The triumph of hope over experience.
I believe that somehow democracy will survive the Republicans’ current efforts to destroy it. I believe we will defeat racism even though the outcome doesn’t look promising right now. I believe we will somehow save the planet, and that, in spite of everything, the better angels of our nature will win out over our lesser devils. I believe we will find a way to survive and evolve to wherever we are headed as a species.
More immediately, there is really only one test that proves whether you are truly a person of faith.