In a couple of weeks I’ll be blogging from Italy (part of a travel course to Italy involving 16 students), so Thursday I had to trek down to Augusta to order Euro traveler’s checks.  I usually advise strongly against the use of traveler’s checks, they are an obsolete form of bringing along travel money.  One hotel does not take credit cards though, and buying Euro dominated travelers’ checks here is the cheapest way to go.

En route I was listening to a talk radio show by a guy named Glenn Beck who had a guest on talking about faith.  He said that believers in a religion (it doesn’t matter which religion) tended to live seven years longer, and have better health than non-believers.  Moreover, survivalists say that “belief in God” is the most important factor in overcoming intense difficulties.  Again, it doesn’t matter which God.    Part of the benefit of religious faith is to be part of a community that helps each other and reinforces/supports one another.  There is no doubt that such communities are of real psychological value.  The second seems to be a belief that there is reason and meaning for existence, that one isn’t simply at the hands of a cold chaotic nature, where life is just an accident prone to arbitrary slings and arrows.  There is purpose.

I am not part of a religious community, nor do I believe in any particular form of God.   But I do have a deep and strong faith that there is meaning and purpose, and that the material world is just the surface of a far deeper, more complex and fundamentally unified reality.   I daresay this faith is as strong as that of anyone who puts their faith in Jesus or Allah, and perhaps stronger than those who mouth the religious tenets, but deep down live in fear of things going wrong, or of displeasing their God.

This faith is constantly tested, of course.   In my personal life there are ups and downs where I might get off centered and worried or stressed out.  But usually if stress or irritation levels rise I go back inside myself briefly and reconnect with my faith.  I know the world is good.  I know no matter what the moment may bring, there is a greater beauty and meaning.  And because I know it — I don’t just believe it, I know it — it makes everything in life so much easier.

To be sure, one can easily say that it’s impossible for me to “know” this; there is no direct, objective evidence outside my own subjective feelings.  People know a lot of things in their heart.  Some “know” Jesus saved them, others “know” that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.  Anyone’s subjective knowledge could be mistaken, and I realize that.  But to me, this is not just faith, but something I know to be true.

I teach courses that go through the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Zimbabwe, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and mass famine and malnutrition throughout the third world.  My academic specialization is German politics, which means I’ve studied Nazism and the holocaust.  Reading the stories of what people went through, especially the human side of how individuals fought, struggled, and suffered, it’s easy to get discouraged by the amount of pain and suffering on this planet earth.   It seems unfair, arbitrary, and often very, very evil.

Yet, if there is evil, there must also be good.  If our hearts cringe and our eyes cry when we read of Romeo Dallaire watching a three year old in Rwanda cuddle up to the corpse of his mother, eating a stale UN ration, or   when we want to vomit after seeing fields of mass victims of genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda, then deep inside we know that is not just value-free reality, something wrong is happening.  And you can’t know something is wrong, if something can’t be right.

How can one have faith if there is so much suffering?  Is my faith real?  I don’t focus on any God image, and certainly I can’t support it with objective evidence.   If my wife and children were to die in an accident, if I were to lose a limb, if the economic crisis caused me to lose my job, would I still see the world as beautiful, with an essential meaning?  Would such events destroy my faith, or would my faith give me strength to overcome them?

To be sure, I don’t want to have to endure that kind of test!  Still, pscyhologists note that our values are set at an early age, and often do not change even when circumstances change drastically.  For whatever reason, this faith is an integral part of who I am.  It has been that way for my whole life.  I cannot recall not looking at life positively, not being optimistic, not thinking that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.   Faith, it seems, leads necessarily to optimism and positive thinking.   They are really the same.  Without faith, optimism and positive thinking look more like naive wishful thinking, after all.

Yet in our materialist culture where a false dichotomy between rational thought and spiritual faith has been created,  people who reject religious mythology as not making sense get pushed into thinking the only alternative is to embrace a kind of soulless secular rationality.   In so doing, life too often gets defined by the stuff one has, ones’ job, the respect one gets from others, or external sources of meaning that always and inevitably run out.

Faith can come in different forms.  A secular non-spiritual person may have faith in the complex order of the universe, and see playing a small role in a corner of it as an amazing and meaningful experience, even if they believe that life is just a short biological event, with the soul and identity dying with the body.   Anything that allows one to see the beauty beyond particular events and circumstances provides faith.

Finally, the fact it pains us to see the injustice and the pain is a strong message that meaning is gained and accentuated by trying to fight against such conditions.  We feel pain at what is wrong so that we are motivated to try to make it right.    Faith not only should not make us like Voltaire’s Pangloss, but in fact should give us the energy and motivation to keep fighting for what’s right, even if others lose their spirit and give in to negativity and depression.   If you have faith, you never surrender.

And if my faith is misplaced?   Well, no harm done.  And it might even help me live longer!

  1. #1 by henitsirk on January 31, 2009 - 04:08

    That phrase “religious mythology” caught my eye. I often look on all the commonalities in world religions and mythologies: creation myths, flood stories, etc. Why is it more irrational to believe that the reason these stories have so much in common is that there is some spiritual truth behind them, than it is to look at nature and see the commonalities in structures (e.g., the Fibonacci sequence in sunflower heads, pine cones, etc.) and ascribe them to a mathematical truth? Why can I not use the same deductive reasoning to lead to a belief in the spiritual truth of religion?

    I’m not a philosopher; I can’t tell my ontology from my phrenology, frankly. But I agree with you that we tend to create false dichotomies in our materialistic culture, and that we end up being quite soulless.

    My husband and I have a running joke based on a quote from the TV show Friends: Phoebe was talking about not believing in some scientific truth, and she said, “Don’t even get me started on gravity!” We always say that to each other when we’re talking about something we just do or don’t believe, even if we can’t rationally describe why. I guess that’s a kind of faith, too.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on January 31, 2009 - 05:17

    I agree that the commonality across religions — especially as regards the importance of love and the superiority of the ‘spiritual’ over the ‘material,’ is pretty compelling. I grew up a pretty devout Christian. In college, at a Lutheran school (Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD) I took a World Religions course that changed my life. It was taught by Dr. Orvis Hanson, an ordained Lutheran minister who nonetheless respected other faiths and looked at commonalities. I realized that world religions share a lot of basic beliefs, even if they divide themselves on details. I do find that to be compelling evidence.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on February 4, 2009 - 04:20

    I’ve started a “Christianity 101” class at our local Lutheran church (where my son attends kindergarten). It’s been interesting so far — the pastor seems quite well-read and educated, and also passionate. But I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get totally on board with it. I’m not sure I can just say that the entire Bible is “true” and not a bit metaphorical at times. I’m not sure that I completely buy his assertion that things like the Council of Nicea 1) were inspired by God and 2) used empirical criteria to make their decisions. Seems like there’s some slippery logic in there somewhere.

    But I’m there because I’m feeling that some sort of faith, some sort of spiritual community, would be very beneficial for me. Maybe I’ll never be a fully baptized member, but I’ll continue to attend services sometimes.

    Good and evil are two sides of the coin, aren’t they? Maybe if something horrible happened to me, I’d have a hard time seeing good in the world. But then horrible things have happened in my family — my mother’s mother and aunt were her only family members on that side to survive the Holocaust — and yet those ladies could still go on to live good lives, give lots of love, and hopefully they died in peace. The only thing is, neither of them were religious at all. They ended up celebrating Christmas as a sort of American cultural default. I wonder how their lives would have been different if they had retained their Jewish religious heritage.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2009 - 04:47

    One of the most positive people I’ve met is a local travel agent named Chanda Luker. She is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, having lived through horrific scenes as a child. She gave a two hour talk on campus just talking about her experiences in Cambodia, and the crowd was in stunned silence, lots of tears and students shocked that such things happened. 300 people were there. It was powerful. The irony is, I had used her as a travel agent for travel courses before, not realizing where she was from. I was teaching a unit on the Cambodian genocide, reading personal accounts and student reactions, which was emotional. I needed a break, so I decided to work on the Italy trip I was arranging that year. I couldn’t find her e-mail address so I went to the website and clicked “about us” and then read “Chanda survived the Cambodian genocide of Pol Pot…” Damn, I thought, I can’t escape this theme!

    But she was positive, and said that the important thing in life was to spread kindness. Perhaps having seen the worst of humanity, she wasn’t as bothered by the daily annoyances that trouble the rest of us. I don’t know, but her positive loving attitude despite her experiences as a child were really inspirational.

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