Faith is not a bunch of churchgoers praying for God to make everything alright. (with thanks again to polkadotspeedo)
I’m glad of the opportunity to clarify and work through logically what has, until now been only a feeling and a growing but unsure sense of what it is to be human. In the course of my existence I believe that it is only in the last few years that I have realised that to be human is not always a given for beings of our genetic make-up. I am reminded of the old monk Kosima in The Brothers Karamazov who imparted to the young Alexei a simple and fundamental truth about humanity in general – “my elder told me once to care for most people exactly as one would for children, and for some of them as one would for the sick in hospitals.”
Perhaps I am just repeating myself unhelpfully. But it is here that the “ignorance” I speak of rears its head. It is not simply lack of knowledge – we all lack that, we are not gods after all. Rather, it is something wilful, something chosen. We are all as human beings given some potential for self-analysis. We reflect on ourselves, our actions, motivations and ideals. It may be true that not all of us are equally endowed with this capacity – furthermore it is almost certainly true that this capacity for self-knowledge needs nurturing before it can become fully-fledged. Childhood experiences are one well-documented source of influences on character formation. But to put this side of the debate to one side for the time being, my contention is that man is fundamentally a self-regarding creature and it is in this realm that we can break our bonds with the determinism enforced upon us by countless external and internal factors.
I’ve just picked up a copy of Edward W. Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” and on the front cover is a quote from a review of the book by Noam Chomsky. It runs – “Edward Said helps us to understand who we are and what we must do if we are to aspire to be moral agents, not servants of power.” Now if we replace “Edward Said” with “Knowledge” – that pretty sums up the stance I have regarding knowledge and ignorance. But you see, here, knowledge is not some inert cold fact. Knowledge implies an imperative – rather in the sense of the Socratic idea of knowledge – that one who knows cannot but fail to do good and that one who fails to do good suffers from a lack of knowledge. Knowledge and lack of it are moral states. Kierkegaard worked with this idea further when he said that moral culpability in this lack of knowledge can be lesser or greater. At a certain point it becomes a choice to remain ignorant or to accept the responsibility of pursuing knowledge.
I’ve seen it and I’m sure you’ve seen it too. People running away from the existential pain of being human. The temptation to be something other than, less than human is often too great to resist. We can be cogs in a machine, blind followers of authority – be it political, social, the tyranny of common sense, the tyranny of fashion etc, etc... – we can give up our selfhood to become slaves (or indeed, masters over others) in any number of ways to escape the responsibility of being human.
For the acceptance of this knowledge – the acknowledgment if you will – I have chosen the word “faith”. I do so because it truly requires what you might call “a leap of faith” to accept it and to live by it. To live in and act on this knowledge requires not only moment to moment diligence but also a faith that when we stray from our path of becoming and instead fall into the numerous and very tempting traps of materialism, emotional dependence and neurosis, we have the power to will to get back on it. And that’s what I label faith.
Thus, it is my challenge to you to reinterpret your notion of faith. I think that the above explanation should exorcise any remaining doubts that what I consider to be faith bears no necessary relation to the idea of “faith in God” that so many unthinking religious people adhere to. It’s pertinent that religious people are often referred to as “followers”, a more appropriate designation than many of them probably realise. That doesn’t warrant the word “faith” – rather, it is the opposite, it is an escape from taking the responsibility to seek knowledge, to be the leader of our own destinies. There’s nothing blind about the faith I talk of. On the contrary, it is an ongoing acknowledgement of the need to be constantly vigilant.
Furthermore, while questioning is critical to the ongoing process of becoming, I reject the extreme relativism which states that truth is entirely subjective. Sure, there are truths that may be more or less relevant in a given situation but that does not stop them from being truths. Arsenic is a poison but this does not mean that it cannot be used to treat certain illnesses. Truths are always extremely interrelated – to isolate a truth, argue that its opposite is also true from a different viewpoint and then throw out both propositions in the name of subjectivity is methodologically invalid.
You fear that I am proposing that everything is “imposable” – you might say “deterministic”. I would say that we have the choice. Faith or determinism. We can on the one hand embrace faith in our essence as self-reflecting, self-guiding, self-improving, self-fulfilling beings and accept the responsibility of being “moral agents” or throw up our hands, accept determinism and become “servants of power”.