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Friday, March 17, 2006

An Issue of Faith

When I was young I wanted to be a priest, or a preacher. Trouble was, I didn't believe in religion. God, sure. But not the god found in the Bible or the Koran or any other holy book. Just God as a creator, as the prime mover. Omniscient, omnipotent, sure. But not one who handed down any commandments. God doesn't care if you eat pork or take his name in vain or commit adultery or murder or any other thing. Or if he cares, it's in no way we are capable of understanding. God, I believe is utterly disinterested in rewards or punishments. He gave us free will. He wouldn't revoke it in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife.

Which brings me to the issue of faith.

Coming from where I came from, surrounded by poverty (a distinctly American poverty, mind you, but when you don't have enough to eat or money to pay for medical treatments, you're poor in any country) listening to people saying 'you gotta have faith' in the face of hardship… Well, I grew up thinking of faith as the thing you had when you didn't have anything else. In my less kind moments, I thought of faith as an excuse not to get up off your ass and do something about your situation. More compassionately, faith was what you were left with when you'd run out of options... rather like when Tinkerbell dies in Peter Pan. Usually faith was just a poor substitute for planning, and if God didn't help you through whatever crisis you were going through, then your faith assured you that when you died at least, everything would be okay.

But even in elementary school I never believed in a God that would reach down out of heaven and, with a flick of His finger, remove an obstacle from my path. He may well know when a sparrow falls, but He does not stoop to catch it. At best He is the Eternal Witness; and if He is that, that is sometimes enough. From someone who has suffered many things in utter solitude, I tell you that is an article of belief that has power.

So anyway, I substituted endurance for faith. Like Matthew Ryan said, nothing very good or bad ever lasts. Time rolls on, and the intolerable situation is inevitably replaced by some other situation either better or worse, but at least different. I learned to grit my teeth and squint into the wind. Eventually my capacity for endurance became my Achilles' heel, but I've written about that at length elsewhere.

What's surprising to me is that it's taken me 35 years to really understand that the passive faith of my childhood is not the entirety of faith. There is at least one other side to it. I'm talking about, for lack of a better phrase, 'active faith'—the kind of faith or belief that allowed Gandhi to stare down the British Empire and empowered MLK to change the face of American society for the better. I'm talking about the kind of faith that is so powerful that, even after the person is dead, their faith-based actions continue to move in and shape the world.

I'm talking about faith as an engine for action, rather than a shield for the powerless.

That's what I wish I had. The motivation of faith. Instead, I find myself in a morass of conflicting impulses and motivations, the dog-ends of desires, the abandoned constructs of a half-dozen 'meaningful' directions. All of which leaves me standing still, blinking and puzzled at the beauty and ugliness of the world, physically vibrating with the need to have purpose. I'm puzzled and angry and longing for that sense of purpose and direction that has eluded me all my life. I am an arrow without a target. I am a sword cutting only air.


expat@large said...

I have faith in you.


BTW: further to the other night. I am as confused as any man can possibly be about these issues. How's this for my sober definition:

Morals = descriptive ethics. "This is right, that is wrong." Theoretical morality.

Ethics = proscriptive ethics. "What is the right thing for me to do?" Applied morality.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

That's the problem with having a soul. It makes you yearn for a purpose.