- Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. [attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.]
- . . . faith is a living thing. It has to grow. If your faith is just a notion, it is not the living thing. When you conceive of an idea and cling to it as the object of your faith, you risk losing our faith later on. [Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 57.]
- The different distorted interpretations of the meaning of faith can be traced to one source. . . . The most ordinary misinterpretation of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. . . . faith is more than trust in even the most sacred authority. It is participation in the subject of one’s ultimate concern with one’s whole being. [Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 2, “What Faith Is Not“.]
- Faith is love taking the form of aspiration. [William Ellery Channing]
- Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. [James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (HarperCollins, 1981), p. 4.]
Faith is acting to open life’s possibilities. It is acting for the good in the face of uncertainty.
Faith is the great Creative Force in the domain of action. It applies to all our relationships: our relations with each other, our relations to the world and the relationship each of us has with the self.
Every creative act is an expression of Faith. We do not know what the future will hold. The scientist who sets out to discover a cure for polio has no guarantee that he will find one, or even that a cure is possible. The young woman who opens a business has no guarantee that it will succeed. The parents who send an offspring to college have no guarantee that the money will not be wasted. The farmer who plants a crop has no guarantee that enough rain will fall to make it grow. Even money in the bank can become valueless if the economy collapses. Yet we cannot live active and productive lives without taking chances, with a Faith, expressed in action, that good may come from our actions. The act, not any belief or disbelief, is the expression of Faith.
Ours is not a blind faith. Everyone says that; we mean it. I have no Faith that I can flap my arms and fly to the moon. Our Humanistic Faith is grounded in reality. It is not absolute and it is not blind but at its creative best it expands the boundaries of what we may think is possible. Sometimes it obliterates those boundaries. In those moments, it can take the breath away or even transform a life. In that sense, it is transcendent.
Faith is a response to powerlessness, and in particular to uncertainty. When people say that Faith produces miracles, they are reflecting how easy it is for us to stop believing that great things are possible. When everything seems hopeless or all seems lost, we can produce a result that exceeds our greatest expectations by acting for the good and not accepting an unsatisfactory result. “Just do it,” says the commercial, and never give up. When we act like that, we give ourselves a chance to realize our most cherished dreams. That is Faith.
For that reason, Faith exerts its greatest creative force when doubt is greatest – when all seems lost. Faith is a way out of despair, sometimes the only way. That is why religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism appeal so strongly to people and are so enduring: they tell us, often through narrative, that we can attain our goals and realize our dreams. We Humanists have a narrative too: it is expressed in our lives, in our stories and in our art. Our challenge is to remain grounded in reality as we reach for lofty goals.
We Humanists insert an essential caveat: things are not true just because we wish them to be true. We have no power to create the universe or the shape of reality. Many people speak and act as though reality conforms to the writings or dogmas they have been trained or have chosen to believe. That is a cheap and easy way out, which has cost humanity dearly. As Paul Tillich observes in his splendid little book The Dynamics of Faith, this misconception of faith turns creative Faith on its head and inside out, transforming it into a force for dogmatic assertion instead of reason and for wishful thinking instead of creative action. For thousands of years, generations of children have been trained to think of faith in that way, with tragic consequences. Perhaps nothing in the intellectual life of our species is more important than the replacement of that kind of faith with an understanding of Faith as a creative action that is grounded in and informed, tempered and guided by reality.
I do not presume that “faith” means the same thing to everyone: words have no intrinsic meaning, and like many words, the word “faith” is used to mean many things. I am describing the meaning and role of Faith in the Human Faith model that informs this work.
And I am not saying that no one benefits from a more traditional conception of faith as belief. Believing that we will live forever, in the protective arms of a loving god, offers comfort to many people, but at a price. We cannot train children to indulge their wishes, pushing aside fact and reason if necessary, without feeding the dark human inclinations toward self-justification. There is no spiritual quality in this; on the contrary, it is a raw gratification of the ego. People protest that they are not doing this, and then they do it: this is the tragic history of what religion has become. The more strongly one believes in things no one knows, the more damaging the theology becomes, as we have often seen in historic movements such as the Crusades, the Inquisitions and current fundamentalist fanatacisms. So-called moderate theism gives these dark forces cover. If we are to transform our society into one that is both spiritual and scientific – idealistic and yet practical – there can be no compromise on this point. Each of us has a choice: we can train our children to derive their beliefs from wishes if we so choose, but if we do that, we will continue to feed the dark forces that have misinformed the world and resulted in profound damage to many millions of people and lasting damage to the human condition. The choice we face is whether taking the easy way out is worth it. This point is a true test of our religious commitment to truth.
I emphasize that we have a choice. No government should ever force people to abandon their religious beliefs. People must come to an understanding of their ethical responsibilities, as they pertain to beliefs, of their own accord. This is a true test of our ability to function consistently as civilized people. I write these words not because they will be popular but because they are true. If we are to live most productively and most harmoniously, we must conform ourselves to reality, not insist that reality conform itself to our wishes.
In a sense, Humanistic Faith proposes a way of making reality conform to our wishes but it does so in a way that is grounded in known reality. There is no clear boundary between realistic and unrealistic faith. Nearly every great creative genius has been shunned and mocked: their ideas once seemed impractical or fanciful. However, we can recognize our limits – we do not have the answers to the ultimate questions – and focus our attention on living creatively by acting in the world instead of merely hoping for great things to happen or worse, saying that they have happened merely because we wish it to be so. That difference expresses our idea of Faith.
In our model, Faith is more action than belief. Our thoughts and feelings may point us in the direction of Faith, but only when we act do we express Faith. In the Christian trinity, Jesus is the embodiment of Faith, deriving from the emotional core (mother-Spirit) and understanding (father-Word) to act for good in the world. As many Christians say, “Faith without works is dead.”
We may define Faith as acting for good even though we have no guarantee that good will result from our actions, or simply define it as acting to open life’s possibilities. Seen this way, life is a continuous series of opportunities to express and take advantage of the power of Faith.
Here are a few examples of Faith:
- every student who ever applied to a school;
- everyone who ever embarked on a career;
- everyone who ever sought membership in a group, team or organization;
- every scientist who ever conducted research or experiments to learn, develop or invent;
- everyone who ever tried to change how things are done;
- everyone who ever sought to lead;
- every businessman who ever started a business or took out a loan;
- everyone who ever cooked a meal or tried a new recipe or experimented with a new technique;
- everyone who ever tried to learn to play an instrument or experimented with a new form;
- every artist who ever created anything;
- every athlete who ever stepped onto the field or into the arena;
- everyone who ever wrote a book;
- every farmer who ever planted a crop;
- everyone who ever married;
- everyone who ever pursued a relationship with another person;
- everyone who ever tried to have a child.
Some acts of Faith are more charged with creative power than others. Doing something that is different or daring can change a life, a few lives or the world. A few examples of acts of Faith that changed the world are:
- the framing and adoption of the United States Constitution;
- Jonas Salk’s polio research;
- Galileo, Darwin and many others who published important but unpopular findings and ideas;
- Annie Sullivan’s attempt to teach language to a girl named Helen Keller (see the section on miracles).
Faith is child-like in that it inverts the usual adult approach to living; more specifically, it inverts the sequence in which the respective domains – thought, emotion and action – exert their influence. Characteristically, children act on impulse; they act without thinking. As they mature, children learn that impulsive actions often get them into trouble, so they learn to think before they act. A typical behavior sequence for a mature adult is intention, conception, generation (emotion, thought, action): the person forms an intent, conceives of a strategy for attaining her goals and acts on it. But what does the mature person do when he cannot devise a successful strategy for attaining his goals, when his aims are thwarted, especially when disaster is about to strike if he does not find a suitable answer. That is where Faith comes in. In cases like that, the adult may have no good alternative but to put aside her careful planning, which has not worked, and try something new, often based on a “gut feeling” or intuitive sense of what a better alternative strategy might be. In such cases, she has reverted to the early childhood model of acting first and analyzing it later. Success depends on remaining grounded in reality. Faith does not imply that one should attempt to get to the building across Fifth Avenue by leaping from one rooftop to the other. It is precisely for that reason that Faith is simultaneously so challenging and so powerful. Over the course of a lifetime the mature adult has learned to plan carefully. Faith challenges the assumptions behind that model. People who can successfully keep one foot firmly planted in each model, shifting their weight to take maximum advantage of creative possibilities, are the ones who become creative geniuses, from great scientists to spiritual masters. That is the essence of Faith.
Faith is all around us every day, all the time. If we learn to see it for what it is, that realization will transform the world.