The Purpose of Faith
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”
– Abraham Heschel
For a very long time, I did not understand the purpose of faith. I have had an above-average religious education for an American, but it was by no means world-class. I wonder how it could be that after years of discussing religion, faith, and God, that I could never felt anything more than a rote understanding of millennia of wisdom. I think it was the hypocrisy. Even as my teachers preached the necessity of faith, we students sensed their lack of organic enthusiasm. They understood “faith” as another human responsibility, an incomprehensible orthodoxy that one must accept for personal salvation. In their worst interpretation we were faithful to please God, and in their best interpretation faith would lead us on the path to a righteous life. An excellent religious education would have urged discussion on the purpose of faith, but I was disappointed to find that we young students were relegated to the role of passive consumers of information. Faith was demanded of us, so we must give ourselves to it freely. Many students recognized that oddity of subsuming our God-given free will to the edicts of a school with an authoritarianism problem. I can see the results today. Those who paid little attention to our education and never felt the grip of inner conflict, remain nominally religious. Those who struggled to reconcile this education with our own aesthetic sensibilities have become atheists, agnostics, or any manner of apostate.
Faith is irrational, and any attempt to reconcile faith with rationalism results in absurdities like Pascal’s Wager. I speak of faith in broad terms. If we have faith in God and we are made in His image, are we not also required to have faith in our fellow man? Faith gives us the opportunity to do the impossible. When cold rationalists read a situation, they quickly establish the limits of possibility. A faithful person sees that same situation and has the faith that the limits imposed by the rationalist are as artificial as the political boundaries on a map of Earth. In the conundrum of human relationships, faith is what holds us together. Anwar Sadat attributed his agreement to sign the Camp David Accords to a personal religious experience. You may scoff at this explanation, and it does seem that every professional sportsman attributes his personal success to faith in God. But Sadat’s faith differs from that childishness – faith drove him to risk his life for the betterment of humanity. Is there any doubt that the calculating rationalist would have spurned Carter and Begin? Sadat was assassinated 2 years later largely due to his signature on the accords, but a pragmatist would have lived forever.
There is still a place for faith in contemporary society. Dreary pragmatic technocrats may rule the day in the western world, and their cowardly self-interest scleroses. They fritter away the gains for humanity with their desire to achieve the possible while shunning the necessary; their offices replete with the stench of objectless ambition. But I do not dismiss the possibility of fundamental change, a realignment of human values. I have faith that such a thing could occur, however unlikely. Faith is what remains when nothing else is worth having.
“Careerism is a leprosy, a leprosy.”
– Pope Francis