- 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 taking the first step, though you do not see the whole staircase. It 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.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (1956).
- John Dewey, A Common Faith (Yale University Press, 1960).
- James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (HarperCollins, 1981).
I have decided not to try to have regular lessons for the present. I am going to treat Helen exactly like a two-year-old child. It occurred to me the other day that it is absurd to require a child to come to a certain place at a certain time and recite certain lessons, when he has not yet acquired a working vocabulary. I sent Helen away and sat down to think. I asked myself, "How does a normal child learn language? " The answer was simple, "By imitation." The child comes into the world with the ability to learn, and he learns of himself, provided he is supplied with sufficient outward stimulus. He sees people do things, and he tries to do them. He hears others speak, and he tries to speak. But long before he utters his first word, he understands what is said to him. I have been observing Helen's little cousin lately. She is about fifteen months old, and already understands a great deal. In response to questions she points out prettily her nose, mouth, eye, chin, cheek, ear. If I say, "Where is baby's other ear?" she points it out correctly. If I hand her a flower, and say, "Give it to mamma," she takes it to her mother. If I say, "Where is the little rogue?" she hides behind her mother's chair, or covers her face with her hands and peeps out at me with an expression of genuine roguishness. She obeys many commands like these: "Come," "Kiss," "Go to papa," "Shut the door," "Give me the biscuit." But I have not heard her try to say any of these words, although they have been repeated hundreds of times in her hearing, and it is perfectly evident that she understands them. These observations have given me a clue to the method to be followed in teaching Helen language. I shall talk into her hand as we talk into the baby's ears. I shall assume that she has the normal child's capacity of assimilation and imitation. I shall use complete sentences in talking to her, and fill out the meaning with gestures and her descriptive signs when necessity requires it; but I shall not try to keep her mind fixed on any one thing. I shall do all I can to interest and stimulate it, and wait for results. [Annie Sullivan, Letters, April 10, 1887.]
- Deborah Heligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins's Leap of Faith (Henry Holt & Co., 2009).
- Seth Fletcher, Einstein’s Shadow: A Black Hole, A Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Universe (Ecco, 2018): “The very idea of taking a picture of a black hole seems absurd, not just quixotic but outright impossible. Yet ‘Einstein’s Shadow’ is the story of people who worked to do it anyway and the challenges they faced along the way.”
- Michael Paterniti, Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays (The Dial Press, 2015): “. . . Paterniti’s work . . . shows an unshakable faith in both the power and range of great magazine stories and the reader’s ability to read and appreciate them, even when the going gets rough”.
- Celia Paul, Self-Portrait (New York Review Books, 2020): “. . . Paul’s account of her life and her work — or, more precisely, of her attempts to realize the possibilities of each despite the constraints thrown up by the other”.
Dark nights of the soul, when Faith is absent or lost:
- Ethan Zuckerman, Mistrust: Why Losing Trust in Institutios Provides the Tools to Reform Them (W.W. Norton and Company, 2021): “. . . a kaleidoscopic tour of everyone from Gandhi to Bitcoin enthusiasts, Brexit voters to Black Lives Matter activists — people and groups whom he calls ‘insurrectionists’ because they are trying to overthrow or work around what has been a worldwide decline in social trust.”
Documentary and Educational Films
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, took root from Beethoven’s progressing deafness. In the famous opening bars, he rails against his fate but as the symphony progresses, he returns gradually to the life-affirming humanism that characterizes most of his work. This symphony displays optimism, resilience and an indomitable will determined to overcome all obstacles. Circumstances may have pointed toward “no” but Beethoven responds with a resounding and active “yes,” the essence of Faith. Here are links to performances conducted by Thielemann, Harnoncourt, and Furtwängler (1954). While these performances are great technically, they do not conform to Beethoven’s intent. Benjamin Zander explains: “If we hear it performed as slowly . . . the music speaks with majesty, force, power, ‘Fate knocking on the door.’ If, on the other hand we hear it at the tempo indicated both by Beethoven’s Italian direction Allegro con brio and by his metronome marking 108, it seems driving, violent, impetuous, headlong, as though a gauntlet were being thrown down in defiance.” This makes the triumph of Faith heard in the fourth movement all the more powerful.
Set in a minor key, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, opens with a statement of doubt from the orchestra, which the soloist joins (2:27). The mood lightens a bit as the soloist wrestles with her seeming conundrum (3:38) but the orchestra continues to sound the doubt theme. As the movement progresses, a variation on the theme (5:58) suggests that a resolution may be forthcoming but instead the players continue to develop and wrestle with the theme. When the cadenza opens (2:19), we wonder whether that resolution might be at hand but those hopes are quickly dashed: the cadenza is brief and peppered with questions (for example, 3:45), only to be followed by a repetition of the doubt theme in the orchestra (4:45). As the doubt theme continues to sound, we hear not a ponderous doubting but a searching, tinged with optimism (5:01). The second movement is a Romance, suggesting a respite from concern. However, after a brief agreement between the orchestra and the soloist (:23), the minor key reappears in the orchestra (2:28). As the soloist explores variations on the theme (for example, 2:53 and 4:04), we hear that her mind is not at rest after all. She continues to seek a resolution but a single strong note from the orchestra (4:24, 4:46, 5:07, et. seq.) reminds us that life is not so easy as that. Eventually, the orchestra begins to express agreement with the soloist’s intent (7:29). Are our heroine's problems about to be solved? Mozart knew better than that. The third movement opens with a defiant declaration from the soloist, which the orchestra answers in kind (:16). The battle is joined. The soloist takes matters into her own hands with the announcement of a new theme (1:03). We begin to hear suggestions of harmony and optimism (1:43) but a resolution is not at hand. The soloist continues to work on the problem, exploring and varying the theme. The cadenza is not a resolution but a continued expression of the protagonist’s doubt (5:29). This time the orchestra interrupts with a bit of encouragement (6:54). All voices follow with a continued interplay of the main theme (7:08). The concerto ends without a resolution. Has everyone given up? For each of us, that is the essential choice. The soloist in the links above is Mitsuko Uchida, who is in the pantheon of great Mozartean pianists. An excellent performance of this concerto by Friedrich Gulda is accessible. Ivan Klánský offers a remarkably committed reading. Other outstanding performances are by Argerich, Lisitsa and Buchbinder.
Music: songs and other short pieces
Film and Stage
- The Miracle Worker: a young teacher works a miracle against all expectations – the story is the embodiment of Faith
- Julie & Julia tells the stories of Julie Powell, a young woman searching for a sense of meaning in her life, and the famous cookbook author and television personality Julia Child. Child is portrayed as she struggles to finish her first cookbook, before she became famous. As Powell struggles to cook every recipe in Child’s book, she offers a textbook lesson in human Faith.
- Stalker: Set in a surreal “Zone” in which “(o)bjects change places, the landscape shits and rearranges itself”, this “somber futuristic fantasy from the Soviet Union” illustrates the inner workings of Faith, which we express by acting in the face of danger and uncertainty
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
[from Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”]
From the dark side:
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Robert Southey Burke”
The man recovered his animation as he ate. My brother made him drink that good Mauves wine, which he does not drink himself, because he says that wine is expensive. My brother imparted all these details with that easy gayety of his with which you are acquainted, interspersing his words with graceful attentions to me. He recurred frequently to that comfortable trade of _grurin_, as though he wished the man to understand, without advising him directly and harshly, that this would afford him a refuge. One thing struck me. This man was what I have told you. Well, neither during supper, nor during the entire evening, did my brother utter a single word, with the exception of a few words about Jesus when he entered, which could remind the man of what he was, nor of what my brother was. To all appearances, it was an occasion for preaching him a little sermon, and of impressing the Bishop on the convict, so that a mark of the passage might remain behind. This might have appeared to any one else who had this, unfortunate man in his hands to afford a chance to nourish his soul as well as his body, and to bestow upon him some reproach, seasoned with moralizing and advice, or a little commiseration, with an exhortation to conduct himself better in the future. My brother did not even ask him from what country he came, nor what was his history. For in his history there is a fault, and my brother seemed to avoid everything which could remind him of it. To such a point did he carry it, that at one time, when my brother was speaking of the mountaineers of Pontarlier, _who exercise a gentle labor near heaven, and who_, he added, _are happy because they are innocent_, he stopped short, fearing lest in this remark there might have escaped him something which might wound the man. By dint of reflection, I think I have comprehended what was passing in my brother's heart. He was thinking, no doubt, that this man, whose name is Jean Valjean, had his misfortune only too vividly present in his mind; that the best thing was to divert him from it, and to make him believe, if only momentarily, that he was a person like any other, by treating him just in his ordinary way. Is not this indeed, to understand charity well? Is there not, dear Madame, something truly evangelical in this delicacy which abstains from sermon, from moralizing, from allusions? and is not the truest pity, when a man has a sore point, not to touch it at all? It has seemed to me that this might have been my brother's private thought. In any case, what I can say is that, if he entertained all these ideas, he gave no sign of them; from beginning to end, even to me he was the same as he is every evening, and he supped with this Jean Valjean with the same air and in the same manner in which he would have supped with M. Gédéon le Prévost, or with the curate of the parish. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter IV, Details Concerning the Cheese-Diaries of Pontarlier.]
- Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel (Ballantine Books, 2020): “. . . inspired by the experiences of the half million refugees who left Spain after the 1930s civil war only to be imprisoned in France.”