02 December 2011

Two Faiths

A year ago I lost faith in faith. I made a formal admission to myself of agnosticism, and declared I would neither affirm nor deny the existence of God, an afterlife, a cosmic web of life, etc. My reasons were sound, but my emotional motivation came largely from my everyday reading of abuses of human beings done in the name of faith.

It has been noted that our language limits our thinking. In other words, whatever thoughts one thinks are confined by the structure and definitions found within that language. No language is perfect, so there are limitations on what we can think. Even English, with its absolutely huge vocabulary, doesn't have a word for everything. I say all that in order to propose this: I think where I have erred in the way I thought about "faith" was due to the fact that the word lacks sufficient definitional specificity. In other words, I've recently come to realize there are (at least) two kinds of faith.

One kind of faith, the faith I reacted to and rejected, is a faith of certainty. When one has this faith, regardless of what he believes, he believes it to be absolutely, unquestionably true, and that there is no unambiguity about it. In other words, a person with a certainty faith knows that his position is incontrovertible, and anyone who doesn't accept that position is at best deluded, and at worst evil and worthy of being stamped out. Whether it is faith in Christianity, Islam, market capitalism, communism, your sports team, your nation, whatever, the belief of this sort affords a certainty in one's own rightness, and the absolute wrongness of those who do not believe the same way. This faith implies a tribalism: those who agree with me about Christianity, market capitalism, Manchester United, or whatever, are part of my tribe; those who do not are not part of the tribe, and therefore not as worthy. This is a kind of faith, a faith of certainty.

The other kind of faith, the faith I forgot about, is a faith of ambiguity. This kind of faith recognizes that there are ultimate truths of Reality that we will never comprehend, and that not only is the world not divided into the dichromatic black and white that the people of certainty faith only see, it's full of gray, and beyond gray many hues, and thus quite probably colors we can't even see. That while we can count on the earth to spin a little longer, kittens to be cute, and politicians to lie, there is a whole universe out there we just cannot comprehend, and therefore make a part of our clockwork, routine world. This kind of faith rejects tribalism because it cannot be certain, and tribalism demands certainty. This kind of faith must necessarily prompt it's believer to dwell in uncertainty, in ambiguity, and in trust that the ultimate truths are vast, unknowable, and yet part of life. It is a faith of harmony, because if I have this kind of faith, regardless of my religion or philosophy, I cannot sit in judgement of anyone else, because I must first admit that I do not know it all, that faith in my case is as much about what I don't know as what I do know, and that certainty is a trap we set for ourselves to keep us divided from one another.

The faith of ambiguity says that life is a mystery, and that it is so vast, I simply do not have the time and energy to spare on tribalism, on being a jerk to others because of who they are or what they believe, and that I must be humble and tread lightly on the earth because I don't have certainty. Kindness and compassion are key to the faith of ambiguity, because when we have this faith we realize we are all caught in the uncertainty and we need compassion for our struggles, our ignorance and our imperfections.

This kind of faith I can believe in.

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