24 December 2008

Thoughts on Faith

Cal Thomas writes this week: "Faith cannot be taught (though teaching plays a role). No one is argued to faith, which is why it is fruitless to debate those who lack it. Better to demonstrate the faith one has than berate and belittle people who do not yet have it."

Considering the source, I suppose this is good, reasonable advice. It's also pretty telling about faith, since Thomas concedes that no one can be persuaded by reason that they ought to have faith in something like the existence of God. I infer that faith has to come from inside; you have to have a predisposition to it. Could that be genetic? I doubt that Thomas would agree, since he does believe that people can acquire faith -- though the way he describes the process somewhat begs the question.

"You don't have that kind of faith? You asked someone for a Christmas gift, didn't you? Ask God for the ultimate gift," is what Thomas recommends. This is a questionable analogy. Asking someone for a gift is to some extent an act of faith, but it's based on faith in the person's ability or willingness to deliver the goods, not on faith in the person's existence. Asking for "the ultimate gift" requires faith in both God's existence and his power, though the faithful would accuse me of redundancy.

Thomas acknowledges that there are different kinds of faith. There's children's faith in Santa Claus, which Thomas rather snidely equates with faith in the Bailout. There's also the "adult faith" in Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme. Then there's the reputed "messianic faith many have placed in Barack Obama, the faux messiah of our time." But the columnist never really spells out how faith in God differs from these, unless you take it on faith (or for granted) that faith in God has some more realistic basis than the other kinds.

All Thomas can give us is the old cliche from Hebrews 11: faith (in God) is "the substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen." To put it uncharitably, religious faith is a kind of confidence scheme. St. Paul seems to describe it as a sense of assurance, not unlike what you might have felt after a Madoff sales pitch or an Obama speech. Faith is a form of trust. Based on Thomas's column, it seems to depend on your own trustfulness or capacity for trust. God, Madoff and Obama make the same pitch to everyone (some might dispute that about Obama), so some people buy it and some don't according to their own inclinations. Some are more gullible than others, and others still are more willing, for individual reasons, to take a chance on what sounds like a good thing. But this is faith on the level of Pascal's Wager, in which you lose nothing by taking a chance on God, since you're dead anyway if you don't believe. Approached this way, some people appear to lack faith because the price of Pascal's Wager is still too high for them. The chance of eternal life and the dubious privilege of eternally praising God are not worth whatever compromise with oneself religion requires of some people.

For that group, Thomas has the usual puerile Psalm lyric: "The fool has said in his heart 'There is no God.'" For variety's sake, he has a less familiar line from I Corinthians 1:18 -- "The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." That one really impresses Thomas. He applies it to Bill Maher, who offended him by making a movie that mocks religion. "If Maher thinks the Christmas story is foolish," Thomas asks, "isn't that evidence he is perishing?" I have to answer this carefully. It happens to be a fact that Bill Maher is perishing. So am I, and so is Cal Thomas. We are all perishable, i.e., mortal. But disparaging a myth doesn't actually qualify as proof of that fact. It's just a superfluous detail. Of course, Thomas might wish to dispute his own mortality, but we'd have to take his counter-argument on faith, and I lack the predisposition to do so.

A certain level of faith in people is necessary for society, not to mention civilization, to function. Faith as trust and faith as loyalty are probably indispensable, but neither is based on the same sort of assurance that religious faith demands. In society, to some extent we have to believe in our fellow citizens despite the strong possibility that our faith in them isn't justified; otherwise we may as well all go back into the woods. Christians might think that a similar faith in God is just as necessary, but that may be a matter of predisposition like the inclination toward religious faith itself. There is a kind of faith that actually demands a guarantee, yet convinces itself that the mere imagining of an absolute being or eternal lawgiver is guarantee enough. I could understand that and let it go if people who thought like that didn't call me a "fool" for not thinking the same way. There are some times when you ought to take somebody's word on something, but when someone asserts that the universe is ruled by a "jealous" God who will torture me forever after death for not worshipping him, I shouldn't have to just take that person's word for it, or the word of an ancient book. That sounds more like an appeal to terror than an appeal to faith. It's inappropriate for the Christmas season, which is really all about faith in our fellow man and his capacity for good, however he discovers it, be he a grinch who steals the holiday or an Ebeneezer Scrooge. These tales don't teach us religion, but we learn the Christmas spirit just the same.


The Crime Think Collective said...

I have "faith" that if I step off the ledge of a building, I will fall. This is because I understand the law of gravity. I can see the action through any number of experiments. Show me one experiment I can perform that will "prove" that faith in god will get me anything.

It reminds me of an old movie made by a bunch of religious idiots. It revolves around the idea of a communist occupation of the US by Cubans. In the particular scene, a soldier is in a class room and asks the children who have faith to raise their hands. Then he tells them to bow their heads and "pray to Jesus for candy". They do so and, unsurprisingly, no candy. Then he tells them to bow their heads and "pray to Castro for candy". While their heads are bowed in prayer, a soldier walks around the room delivering candy to each desk. . .

Samuel Wilson said...

I saw the same film! It's called "If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?" or something like that. But the basic story is derived from something called "The Children's Story" by James Clavell, the author of Shogun. In the original, the kids pray not to Castro but to "the Leader," albeit with the same results. Meanwhile, "If Footmen" is a hoot, and your mention of it inspires me to look for clips for possible posting to MONDO 70.

Your point about faith reminds me of none other than Ronald Reagan. As the Cold War thawed during his second term, he used an alleged Russian proverb to describe his approach to Gorbachev: "trust, but verify." In our context, we might agree that someone is entitled to your faith or trust if he makes a claim or promise that you know can be verified, like a "falsifiable" scientific hypothesis, as long as the person has a reputation for keeping his word. Since religious claims can't be verified in the same way, they're not entitled to the same kind of faith. What religion really wants is a kind of blind faith that in practice is best called "obedience."

hobbyfan said...

When you ask someone for a gift at Christmas gift, your faith in that person is predicated on trust that he/she will deliver.

When you ask God to help you, you're placing faith AND trust in Him.

The Crime Think Collective said...

And when you ask a non-existing entity for anything, you can believe and trust you will get NOTHING.