By Susan Westall - Deceased, Retired Teacher, Writer
Published: June 2008
Related Topics: Leadership, Outreach, People
On Thursday, 27 March, at the Munk Centre, University of Toronto, in a forum on Is Faith Inevitable?, Steve Paikin of TVO asked the questions: Are we bound to believe? and Are we better for it? The whole topic of faith is apparently considered so important by the European Union that they have initiated a three-year project on the topic of "Faith". TVOntario has planned a five episode programme involving faith topics of which this latest is the third.
This present programme asked a number of questions as a result of those already indicated: Is Faith good for us? Is it inborn? Is it a neurosis? It suggested that, as we get older we depend more on religious faith. This made me wonder if our interest in "Faith" becomes more pressing the nearer we get to the end of our days in this world. If so, does this mean that "faith" is an escape from the reality of death, or may we conclude that, after retirement, we have more time to ponder upon life?
One of the panelists did raise the question "What do we mean by 'Faith'?", but the question was never really answered. It was pointed out that we go to bed at night with faith that we will wake up next morning. I observe that the Nazis and Communists both had faith -- they had faith in the belief that their system was the right one. Americans and others believe that Capitalism is the better system. They have faith in the system.
This led to the distinction between belief and conviction. The Concise Oxford tells me that to convince is to persuade firmly, to produce a moral conviction of something in a person. Unfortunately, it also has theological overtones of being proved guilty, particularly of sin. Is it healthy to be convinced that "I am a sinner?" To what extent does our belief in a religious doctrine become a conviction that our faith is the right one and that anyone who doubts is a sinner, with dire consequences?
The thought was expressed that people have to believe because they cannot explain everything. We have to try to explain what is invisible, what is behind the things we cannot understand. It was suggested that we are hard-wired for faith, but does this mean that we are hard-wired for religion? What is the difference? The thought was expressed that faith is a personal thing, whereas religion is a system, a tradition, even a superstition. It can also be a means by which we govern our behaviour--or, at least, draw up a system by which we hope to govern it.
I enjoyed the panel, as I do with most of the Agenda discussions, but I was disappointed in the outcome. No distinction was made between faith and religious faith, with the result that I finished up asking myself the question: where do we go from here?
I believe that one of our great problems today is that we use the term faith too narrowly. If you ask anyone "Do you have faith?" we seem to automatically think in terms of belief in God. My dictionary tells me that faith is "reliance, trust, in; belief founded on authority"--in other words we have faith in our parents (or we should have), We have faith that our car will start in the morning (our experience tells us we can trust it unless we have an old crock), and so on We trust these things to happen. A theological definition of faith includes "spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof" (italics mine). Strangely enough, there is no proof that my car will start when I turn on the ignition, but I certainly expect it to. Do I expect God to keep me healthy and give me a long life? Such things are not in my hands, but neither is my car, unless I am my own mechanic. I am not my own creator.
When we come to religious faith the apparent lack of proof is the bone of contention. The TVO panel brought out the problems in believing in a god or gods--there is no proof. Or is there? Why do so many of us have an apprehension of a divine truth? "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will" said Shakespeare (Hamlet: Act V, Sc. II).
One of our hymns reminds us that "God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform". I was browsing among my books looking for "Letters to Young Churches" by J. B. Phillips, when I discovered "New Testament Christianity", a book by the same author, published over fifty years ago, that I appear not to have read before. I opened it and found a whole section on The Faith-faculty.
The panel had been asked "what is faith?" The dictionary had sent me back to belief, trust and reliance and it seemed to me obvious that we commonly use the word in a more religious sense, whether we realise it or not. J. B. Phillips wrote in a way it is a pity that we have to use the word "Faith" to describe the faculty by which the unseen dimension is grasped, drawn upon, and lived by. < For someone writing fifty years ago he uses a very modern concept: dimension. I rejoiced.
Years ago, when he was rector at All Saints, Archdeacon John Rathbone invited us, during a sermon, to read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time". It's tough going, but well worthwhile for anyone with some knowledge of physics and mathematics. I came away with a reinforced concept of dimensions--of the states of which our senses make us aware, such as time, distance, space, colour, etc.
We all have an innate faculty of imagination which takes us into another dimension, intangible, but nevertheless real. We also have a faculty for the spiritual, the sense that there must be some reason for our existence, the sense that Shakespeare called a divinity that shapes our ends, a sense of the spiritual. We can deny it, or we can cultivate it. J. B. Phillips called it the Faith faculty, but added that our faith has degenerated into a rather dogged holding on to something which we believe to be true.< We need to cultivate the Faith Faculty.
St. Paul told the people of Athens that our God is "the God in whom we live and move and have our being". To understand that fully requires a concept of the Spiritual Dimension, a faculty that we have, but that we all too often have failed to cultivate. It requires meditation, the quiet moments; we need time to ponder upon life. I suggest that it is inborn, that we are "hard-wired" for it, but it can be atrophied very early on if there are no signs of its existence in the environment. We have been prone to keep our spiritual experiences to ourselves with the result that others are denied the environment in which their own spirituality may be developed. During two thousand years we have been indoctrinated with something that we are told to believe to be true and many of us have doggedly held on to it. We have not permitted our faith faculty to embrace it and to develop our individual spirituality. Youth today is developing its own spirituality, but traditional religious institutions are, in general, failing to offer encouragement.
Did your faith stop at your mother's knees or in the presence of a favourite Sunday School teacher, or are you letting it grow as you spend a few minutes in meditation?