As far back as I can remember, the logical side of my personality has enjoyed taking my own beliefs, putting them under the critical microscope of analysis, and determining whether they can survive a conversation with the voice of reason. My rationale is simple: If a belief can’t stand on its own merits against formal questioning, it likely is flawed in some fundamental way and should be discarded. If my belief cannot be proven, with a rigor that is demanded of scientific hypothesis, how can I justify it a place in my personal foundation?
With a scalpel sharpened by this rationale in hand, I have gone through life cutting deeply into each of my beliefs. I wanted to ensure that each belief is based on provable knowledge. I wanted to be able to answer anyone who challenged me to explain the why behind my belief. I never wanted to be cornered by a question whose only answer was “because I do.” I’ve always wondered why I studied political science and philosophy in college, rather than following my natural aptitude for math and science. Perhaps the liberal arts provided me with a more plentiful playground of beliefs to dissect and reassemble.
This practice of testing my beliefs has seemed rather innocuous over the years — good fodder for late-night college conversations, but without a great deal of bearing on how I actually live my life. Last year around this time, I saw a book on our public library shelf titled This I Believe: The Personal Philsophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The book includes a series of essay written by people of all walks of life, from real estate attorneys to airport maintenance workers, from famous politicians to advertising salespeople. The idea is borrowed from a 1950s NPR show of the same title. The premise is simple: Write an essay of a few hundred words that describes one of your beliefs.
In his introduction, editor Jay Allison explains what they ask of the authors:
“We make the same requests of essayists that [the original radio show] did: Frame your beliefs in positive terms. Refrain from dwelling on what you do not believe. Avoid restatement of doctrine. Focus on the personal, the ‘I’ of the title, not the subtly sermonizing ‘We.’ While you may hold many beliefs, write mainly of one. Aim for truth without accusation, patriotism without political cant, and faith beyond religious doctrine.”
The book is a wonderful, insightful read — but, for me, the take away was the challenge to write my own This I Believe essay. Instead of using the logic scalpel to dissect and dismiss, I was confronted with the challenge to decide and describe in the positive. I no longer could just throw out what I didn’t believe. My scalpel was suddenly rendered as effective as a butter knife.
So what do I believe? I obviously had to believe something. Aside from some actions that are simply involuntary reactions, our beliefs are the basis for our decision making. When confronted with a choice, the path we choose in inevitably influenced by how we understand — what we believe about — the world around us.
The logician in me, the man with the scalpel at the ready, claims that these beliefs are based on repeatable observation. The sun rises. Living things evolve. If the scientific community has settled on something as fact, through the rigors of scientific inquiry, then it becomes a belief in my foundation.
But these facts, as solid as they may be, cannot comprise the entirety of my decision-making foundation. In reality, they are just the things I take as granted. That I know the sun is going to come up tomorrow doesn’t help me decide how to resolve a conflict with a friend. The details of evolution don’t give me any reason to trust the people I love. They really just explain how the world works on both a macro and micro level. The trouble is that we live most of our lives as individuals somewhere in between. None of the physical or biological facts discovered by science have ever answered the question, “What will human X do in situation Y?”
So what is it that I believe that helps me as human X to respond the way I do in situation Y?
As much as my logical side fights the notion and craves proof for everything, the answer I have come back to repeatedly over the past year is the concept of faith. I don’t speak of faith in a broad religious sense, for the idea of subscribing to a faith that someone else has defined for me is antithetical to my every fiber. Faith is how I deal with the presently unknown — and the unknowable. It is a faith that I have in the universe. It is a faith that I have in those I love and trust. But most of all, it is a faith that I have in myself, that I will somehow navigate the intricacies of life in a way that gives my existence meaning and worth.
Years ago, as I sat in a high school religion class, I read a single sentence that resonates with me today. My textbook defined religion as “an individual’s response to the mysteries of life.” As a 15-year-old student, the definition struck me as odd. I’d spent my entire life being taught that there was one faith, yet this book was telling me that I could have an individual response. I think the book was wrong. It is not religion that is an individual’s response to the mysteries of life. Religion is humanity’s way of attempting to define faith for the masses.
An individual’s response to the mysteries of life is faith. Faith is what allows us to get up in the morning. Faith is what allows us to open ourselves up to those we love. Faith is what helps us to make difficult decisions each and every day. Faith is what fills in the gaps between knowledge. Faith is what allows us to simultaneously live with confidence while admitting our ignorance.
As I write this, the man with the scalpel is screaming that my acceptance of faith is an unacceptable concession of colossal proportions. He demands an explanation based in fact. I can’t give it to him.
Why do I believe in faith? Because I do.