Keeping faith

Recently I was reading a book, a memoir, written by a woman who had been raised conservative Christian and who is now (I think it’s fair to guess) a theist without being set on the particulars. She is highly educated, with a Ph.D, and like many people with higher education, she puts a lot of value on logic and reason. At one point in the book she’s being counselled about her relationship with her ex-husband, and her friend’s advice did not make sense to her. But she tried it anyway. And it worked.

She said she had taken her friend’s advice on faith, unable to accept that it made sense. And her conclusion was that sometimes, “faith is better than reason.”

And I frowned at that, disappointed.

Now, this was partially because the advice made sense to me; it was based on the concept of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. But that wasn’t the only reason. I really didn’t like the idea that faith is (without qualification) better than reason.

I’ve been poking at the idea of faith for awhile now, never satisfied by people’s definitions, particularly when it comes to religion.
From WordNet Web at Princeton University: A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny; “he lost his faith but not his morality”
From Wikipedia: Faith is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, concept or thing.
From Belief that is not based on proof.
From the Compact Oxford English Dictionary: Complete trust or confidence.
I suppose I could have gone to a theological dictionary based on my own Christianity, but I think the way we use this word everyday, what it means to people regardless of background, is the most important thing. And I think the definition from that really gets me. Belief that is not based on proof. I think if you asked the average person, that’s pretty much what they would come up with. But I don’t think that’s right.

Some years back, there was this episode of Star Trek: Voyager wherein a girl is very deathly ill, and the Aliens of the Week were telling our heroes that the only way to save her was to do something which the ship’s doctor (who we, the audience, knew and trusted) told them would kill her. In the end, Captain Janeway does it anyway. The girl survived. And then the Doctor was going on about how further examination revealed things he hadn’t known or understood before, and that in retrospect, what he thought would kill her really was exactly what was needed. At the time, the episode bothered me. I didn’t know what to make of it. As a Christian, I understood that we don’t always get what God is telling us to do, just like the crew of Voyager didn’t understand how the girl might be saved. As an analytical, science-minded person, I understood that the conclusions of science are trustworthy, just as the Doctor had all his reasons of why it would kill her. As the daughter and descendent of Christian geeks, I didn’t understand how the two could be at odds, and then reconciled.

But now I get it.

When people talk of reason and logic and science, they often have the idea that reason is kind of a lump quality: either you have it or you don’t. We rate people’s brains in pass/fail sort of way, we contrast it with “intuition” and “instinct” and, of course, “faith.” We expect the data of life to have one right equation, one right proof, one obvious answer. And if you have reason, or common sense, or logic, or whatever, then you’ll find it. That’s not my experience.

Reason seems to exist on a continuum. Maybe even a spectrum. In some ways this is obvious: try reasoning with a small child. It isn’t just that they don’t have the experience and knowledge that you do, it’s that they’re totally lacking the mental capacity to follow you on your level. You have to simplify things, make them obvious. You have to teach them reason. ‘Cause they have no idea what you’re talking about and no concept of how to react to it. Their reason must be developed slowly, gradually, over many years. But it doesn’t stop when we’re grown up, and different people will reach different levels and different entire realms. There are some people who I have to work to make myself and my ideas understood – not ’cause they’re stupid, either. We’ve got a whole different perspective, our experience is different, they understand things I don’t, and I may understand things they don’t. And there are people who’re way beyond me. Stephen Hawking may be able to explain his theories to me in terms I can understand, but I really don’t think I could ever understand them on the level he does. His comprehension is just that much greater.

And thus we have faith. Because if I were to define faith, it is the choice to rely on someone else’s reason instead of our own.

Think of the small child: he has no idea why you have just abandoned him in a strange room with strange adults, no matter how many toys may be on the floor. He has no concept that the strange adults are friends of yours whom you trust. He can’t quite grasp that in a few hours, you’ll be back. But maybe he grasps that you have never done him harm, that you know better than him, and that even if he doesn’t understand what’s going on, you do, and thus it will all work out in the end. It’s no good telling the kid all the reasons and logic. All you can say is, “It’ll be all right. Trust me.” Have faith.

We have a sort of expectation that once we’re grown up, we don’t need faith anymore. Because we are smart, educated grown-ups who can figure things out. On one hand, I hope we are smart grown-ups who can figure things out. On the other hand, I also hope we’re smart enough to figure out that there are many things we can’t figure out. There are things we don’t know because no one can know them. There are things we can’t understand because they are too complex for any human being. With discipline and hard work and the sharpening of the human intellect, we can learn a lot – vast, wonderful, amazing things of unimaginable beauty. But there will be times – there will always be times – when we just don’t know. We just can’t see. We just can’t make out what’s going on. And someone who we trust will say, “I can make sense of this”, and the best we can do is have faith.

Faith does not preclude reason, and reason does not preclude faith. I can’t say that one is better than the other, because in this world, neither is perfect. Faith is merely what happens when our own reason has failed, and we must rely on someone else’s. If our reason is faulty, we need faith. Sometimes our faith is faulty, and we need reason. And this is the really curious thing: if faith is proved right, you may find yourself discovering the logic after the fact. And then you have a whole new chunk of things you understand. Faith disappears, because reason has caught up with it.

And that’s not a bad thing. There’s a line in an old hymn that goes, “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight.” Someday we will not need faith, because our reason will be perfect. We will see, and we will understand, and there will be no other conclusion to be reached. But we’re not there yet. Until then, we need faith.