June 14, 2009

The Leap of Faith

Someone recently asked me to clarify what I mean about a leap of faith and why I claim that all people experience it. Let me begin by saying that I take a more inclusive view on the nature of faith. To me, it’s any unproven, or un-provable, premise upon which we base our decisions. I realize that most people see faith as a religious construct. However, I recognize little difference in the effect of 1) believing God wills the sun to rise in the morning, versus 2) believing the interaction of gravitational fields causes the phenomenon. Eventually, one has to put trust in a concept that is unseen.

I know what you’re thinking. One might object by saying gravity is a proven physical property, whereby God’s existence is not. To this I say: Proof, at a personal level, is something that occurs in the intellect and heart. For instance, going back to the concept of gravity, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to fathom Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which is sometimes described as a theory of gravity. While Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is quite easy to conceptualize (first-year physics students are required to understand it) the General Theory is dense and requires a background in complex mathematics, including non-Euclidean geometry, to master. To fully comprehend it, one must go beyond the conceptual breakthrough Einstein achieved in equating gravity with acceleration. Though I believe in his theories, I’m relegated to only professing faith in them. Despite much effort otherwise, I don’t understand his work in any degree that I can call knowledge. Furthermore, I can’t see gravity. All I can see of it is what I presume to be gravity’s effects, including the earth’s orbit around the sun.

What I’ve just described is also akin—I might say, nearly identical—to my faith in God. Though in many ways God remains a mystery to me, logic has led me to believe in His existence and the value of the gospel of love and kindness He espouses. The logical pathway that has led me to a subsequent leap of faith is perhaps the topic of another discussion, but for now let me say this: I’ve come to believe in God, not through any willy-nilly process, but through study and contemplation of life’s experiences. Yet, I’m quick to admit that my concept of Him might be wrong or incomplete, which notion keeps me learning and allows my faith to rest comfortably beside Einstein’s (and Darwin’s, as well as other people’s) theories. In fact, I’m convinced that God wants us—above all else—to never end our search for knowledge and to accept what is true no matter where truth is found. That idea is contained in the following poem I penned many years ago:

Drawing its timelessness incapsulated,
As from an apothecary’s jar,
The word stretched me beyond horizons
To give me a sense of God.

For what of Godliness,
Unless it be unfettered, unchained,
Free of horizons constraining mortal men?

Its good news changed this mortal’s course,
Having swallowed
(But being swallowed in return)
And hearing Him, who was more than philosopher say:
“Know the truth,”
I’ve searched.

But the search continues,
For somewhere unbound and never-resting,
The father of my soul urges onward,
To walk the path free of mortal constraints,
To be like him:
Unfettered and unchained.

A belief that the sun will rise tomorrow—whether it’s derived from religious faith, logic, or a combination of the two—results in behavior that plans and prepares for the eventuality. In the same way, if we were confident the sun would never rise again, would we go to work tomorrow? Most of us, I’m sure, would huddle with family and other loved ones in an expression of love and devotion until the end came or we were proved wrong. This result would be the same, whether rooted in scriptural or scientific revelation. To that extent, the effects of our assumptions are similar, no matter how they’re derived.

Here, I must be allowed a digression: Would the holocaust—or the inquisition, or slavery, for that matter—have occurred without religion? In my opinion, immoral and selfish people would have justified such abhorrent acts on the basis of some other philosophy or pseudo science. In each case, it was political gain and wealth that people were after and tortured logic made God a convenient scapegoat. (I’d like to discuss this in more detail in some future blog).

But back to my point: Another way to express a leap of faith is to say thinking people, over the course of their lifetimes, acquire sets of values based upon personal inquiries that little differ whether approached from a religious or secular perspective. These personal inquiries include the following:

  • Is there a God who loves me and can intercede on my behalf?
  • Is there a purpose for me in life? If so, how can I actualize it?
  • What is the nature of human beings? Are they good, evil, or neither?
  • What is proper behavior and what is its calculus?
Notice two things about these questions. First, they have been—and will continue to be—asked by spiritual and secular thinkers alike, and are as important to reason-loving Plato as to the deeply pious Kant. They are the purview of both religion and social science, and are topics central to what Mortimer Adler calls, “The Great Conversation,” which every generation must consider for itself. Second, none of these questions can be answered by pointing to indisputable physical proof, but must be concluded on a deeply personal basis. The process of answering these questions is the universal leap of faith of which I speak.

The resulting faith—the set of assumptions we each acquire—gives birth to core values and becomes the basis for every decision made. However, as I’ve said many times before, these decisions are rooted in beliefs rather than knowledge and we should be open to the possibility that better choices are available.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of the Time article entitled The Storm Over the Mormons? I'm interested to know where you stand about the prophet. If Mormons believe a prophet told them to do something, shouldn't they do it, no questions asked?


Anonymous said...

I think you've overlooked the fact that when the spirit testifies of something (like, for example, that God lives) then you have your proof. That's more proof than anything a mathematician can show on paper.


Matt's brain said...

I think the distinction between religion-based faith and science-based faith is that when I believe in a scientific theory, I do so with full knowledge that it may (and probably will) be supplanted by a more complete theory in the future. This doesn't mean that it was wrong to believe in the theory in the first place. It can be viewed more as a stepping-stone on the way towards the real truth.

Maybe this is the point that you've been getting at the whole time in regards to religious faith. I think what Christ ultimately wants is for us to search for truth throughout our lives. We may not learn everything there is to know about this world, but the mere act of searching (within his guidelines) is what makes us better people. I believe that doing so will bring us farther ahead than those who thought they knew the whole truth from the beginning.