Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Faith


Today in class I asked the students to look at at Chapter 1 of the Apocrypha from the Bible, the passage sometimes called Bel and the Dragon featuring the prophet Daniel in the court of the Babylonian king, and culminating with the famous story of Daniel in the lion's den. (We've just finished reading the pivotal section of The Poisonwood Bible entitled "Bel and the Serpent," which references the biblical passage in several ways.) I asked the students to read the passage out loud to one another and discuss it in small groups, and then we opened up the class into a large circle and I asked the students to conduct a Harkness discussion. One of the points that emerged from the discussion is that the whole passage is essentially an argument for the power of faith, and argument which Daniel states explicitly in verse 38: "And Daniel said, Thou hast remembered me, O God: neither hast thou forsaken them that seek thee and love thee."

When I asked the students how they felt about this argument, some students said they were unconvinced because the examples being offered—like the angel of the lord delivering Daniel's lunch by carrying Habbacuc by his hair to the lion's den—weren't plausible. One student said that since she's not Christian, the argument didn't really seem relevant. Many of my students are not Christian, or are only nominally so. I am not a Christian myself. And yet I'm not convinced that the story of Daniel has no relevance. My experience as a reader has taught me that if you are reading something which cannot be taken literally, one way to move forward is to consider the possibility that it might make more sense if taken figuratively. So I suggested that the argument for the power of faith might be broadened to include not just faith in the Judaeo-Christian God, but faith in, well, whatever one chooses to have faith in.

There is evidence of the power of faith everywhere. Faith is one of the vehicles that allow human beings, limited in so many ways, to aspire to extraordinary achievement, to experience some form of transcendence. The 1973 Mets ("Ya Gotta Believe"), the U.S. hockey team in the 1980 Olympics, the pyramids, the great cathedrals of Europe, the Emancipation Proclamation: all these—and infinitely more examples—might be offered, are consequences that follow upon strongly held beliefs, acts of faith. I ended the class by asking the students to spend a few minutes this evening writing about some aspect of faith in their lives. And so, in the spirit of the assignment, that's what I'd like to do now.

Where is there faith in my life? Well, for starters, I'm not a Believer. Probably everyone has heard the song that I first learned when I was a member of a choir when I was 12 years old:

I believe, for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows...
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows...

I believe for everyone who goes astray,
Someone will come, to show the way,

I believe, above the storm the smallest prayer, will still be heard...
I believe, that someone in the great somewhere, hears every word...

Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky,
Then I know why, I believe!

I'm good with the first two assertions: the rain and the flowers, the night and the candle. But that's where I have to draw the line. The notions that everyone who goes astray will be led back to the path, and that every prayer is head, and that there is "someone in the great somewhere" out there listening strikes me as wishful thinking, pure and simple.

The newborn baby is an interesting case. There's a deep mystery there. To bring children into the world, especially into today's world, which is increasingly and increasingly obviously at risk, is an act of faith indeed, but one whose rewards exceed pretty much anything else I can think of. The little guy to the right already seems to have developed, or perhaps inherited, a certain set of skeptical tendencies, but I do have faith, despite an impressive preponderance of evidence to the contrary, that life, including (but not exclusively) human life, is a good thing. I find myself in sympathy here with Adah, the character in TPB who articulates most clearly the realization that human life is contingent:

As a teenager reading African parasitology books in the medical library, I was boggled by the array of creatures equipped to take root upon the human body. I'm boggled still, but with a finer appreciation for the partnership. Back then I was still a bit appalled that God would set down his barefoot boy and girl dollies into an Eden where, presumably, He had just turned loosed elephantiasis and microbes that eat the human cornea. Now I understand, God is not just rooting for the dollies. (529)
Which brings me to another article of faith: I have faith in flexibility, in uncertainty, in the value of being able to shift your perspective and see things from another point of view. Much of the horror and misery which humans beings have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate upon one another and upon the planet originates from what Eric Sevareid describes, in the passage I have been using as a footer for this blog, as "dangerously passionate certainties."

The faith that I have in the value of flexibility, and in the need for all of us to be able to hear one another instead of marginalizing and demonizing and dismissing one another, is what drives my commitment to teaching, which, as I understand it, is largely about encouraging students to try to broaden their angles of vision.

The leaf and the sky? I remember one of my college professors, who claimed to be paraphrasing Aristotle, although I have been unable to track down the reference (any Aristotelians want to help out here?), saying that all worthwhile human endeavor arises from a sense of care on the one hand, or a sense of wonder on the other. The baby, there's your sense of care. The leaf, the sky: wonder-ful.





2 comments:

Mark Hanington said...

Great essay.

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

I'm sorry but I have to tell you your baby photo is classic.

I think you could, if ever tired just post it again.
Sarah