Faith – The Power and the Peril
Can faith cure physical illness? To some extent, yes. Any time scientists test a new drug or other medical cure, they must use a control group of patients who take a placebo, a fake pill made with sugar or some such inactive substance, instead of the drug to be tested. Why? Because some of the patients always get better just because they think they are receiving a cure. In order to prove that the test drug is effective, the scientists must show that it cures a percentage of patients that is higher than the percentage who are cured simply by their own belief that they will be cured by the treatment. More broadly, any doctor or therapist will testify that patients do better if they have a good attitude than if they allow themselves to feel miserable and despairing. Religious faith helps people to have a hopeful and positive attitude, and to avoid fear and despair. In this way, faith can work real and sometimes dramatic physical cures. By curing diseases of the soul it can help to cure diseases of the body.
But focusing on miraculous physical cures can cause us to overlook an even greater and more common miracle of faith. Parents see a simple version of this form of miracle every day, when a child asks her mother to kiss a scraped finger and make it better. We tend to think of this little ritual as just “fooling” the child into thinking the hurt has been cured, but in fact, from the child’s point of view, the kiss really does make the hurt better. The kiss cures the child’s attitude towards the pain, and in doing so it makes the pain essentially go away. Faith can do the same thing for the larger ills of grown-ups. If you have faith that you should get on with your life as best you can, then you will focus your mind away from the injury or illness. By keeping away fear and despair, faith makes us feel much better, even if we are not physically cured. The wound may still exist, and it may still hurt, but we don’t mind so much that it hurts. Not everyone benefits from miracle cures of the body, even if they have very strong faith, but everyone with faith benefits from this miracle of the mind. It may be difficult to accept that God allows good people to suffer serious injuries or illnesses. We feel that in justice such things should only happen to bad people. God, however, does not deal in the material, but in the spiritual. Justice lies in the strength of spirit that good people acquire by learning alignment with God, a strength that will see them through the bleakest adversity, for their vision sees through the clouds that may gather about their person to a brighter light beyond. Justice lies too in the weakness of the corrupt, who suffer greatly from the thwarting of their material obsessions. For them, every pain is magnified a hundredfold by the microscope they focus on themselves. A mother may not be able to fix a bloody knee, but she can distract her child’s attention away from the blood and turn his screams into laughter by distracting him with a joke or a tickle. In the same way, God may not fix the physical hurt, but through our faith he turns our attention away from the pain, and makes us better. To get the most of this, one needs to focus on an action – caring for your family, working to help others from suffering your problem, or anything where you can focus on doing something helpful. Faith is an active process.
Can faith move mountains? In a sense, yes. If a person has faith that she should do the right thing, even if she doesn’t see any positive results from doing it, then she will be a powerful personal force. Think of the times in your life when you have failed to do something that you wanted to do. Why did you finally give up? Did you feel like you weren’t getting any credit or gratitude for your efforts? Did you get bored or frustrated when you seemed to be banging your head against the wall without making any progress? What could you have done if you had been absolutely convinced in your own mind that the thing had to be done, no matter what anyone thought and no matter how difficult or time-consuming it was? A single person with the faith to persevere can find ways to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. She may not be able to pick up the mountain, but she will chip it away stone by stone until the job is done. Faith is strength.
Can faith be dangerous? Potentially, yes. Faith is a very powerful force. By freeing us from the constraints of caring about public opinion or our own comfort or convenience, it permits us to take unpopular actions with enthusiasm. This is often a very good thing. Persons who opposed the Nazis in wartime Germany were undoubtedly not popular, but they were doing the right thing. On the other hand, sometimes popular opinion is correct, and an action may well be unpopular because it is misguided. Concern for public opinion causes a person to think twice before doing something that most people have decided is a bad idea. Strong faith can reduce this checking force, and thus places a stronger burden on the individual to make sure that his actions are not misguided. The suicidal followers of Jim Jones and the unfortunates in the Heaven’s Gate cult who tried to send their souls after the Hale-Bopp comet clearly had strong faith, but misguided ideas. Soldiers kill out of faith that their government is correct, when the soldiers of at least one side (and usually both) in every war should redirect their faith to a more reliable source. Religious zealots in every age have committed all manner of terrible crimes that would sicken most of us, overriding normal constraints of decency by the strength of their misguided faith in the rightness of their actions.
The above instances all share a common theme, which illustrates the way to avoid the dangers of faith. In each case, the faith involved is faith in the correctness of an idea mixed together with the faith that correct action should be pursued regardless of personal consequences. The latter form of faith provides the strength to do that which most people would reject, while the former form of faith provides the willingness to accept as virtuous that which most thinking people would rightly condemn. We should not have faith in ideas. Being the fallible creatures that we are, our ideas are probably wrong more often than not. Correct ideas never suffer unduly by being questioned, for if the questioner probes far enough he will simply clear the dust away from the gleaming beauty of truth. On the other hand, probing questions are the enemy of lies and error. Thus, an unquestioning acceptance of any idea is not wise policy; it is an open door to evil. The Father of Lies cannot succeed where all his lies are questioned.
Again, Christian faith is not faith in the specific tenets of the Christian religion. It is not faith in the truth of particular ideas. Even Christian ideas can and should be questioned. Christ was a great questioner of commonly accepted ideas that were enforced with some vigor by the religious authorities of the time. Not only did he ask questions himself, he relished being questioned by others. His style of teaching was to receive and answer questions, for he above all knew that questions would burnish, not tarnish, the lamp of truth. He even disliked providing straightforward instructions, which could easily be distorted and turned into dogma, preferring instead to speak in parables so that his followers would be required to think and understand, rather than to follow his commands blindly.
It is important to apply this same questioning spirit to little things as well as the large. It is very tempting to people who have enjoyed the good feeling that virtue gives to then set up a thousand little rules to follow, so that they can feel extra-virtuous for obeying all those rules. We must remember that one of Christ’s primary messages was that the scores of rules professed by the religious authorities of the day were nonsense and should be ignored, that instead we should concentrate on one rule – love. This, again, is the principle of connectedness. Christ wanted to make it clear that following needless rules is not the same thing as virtue, and that faith in rules is misguided faith.
Christian faith is simply faith in the value of virtue, and virtue lies in doing right by others.. Finding that virtue is a different matter. Fortunately, Christianity provides us with extremely helpful tools for that quest, and it is to one of those tools, prayer, that we will turn in my next article.
Faith provides the strength to get beyond suffering, to persevere, and to prevail – but its power must be properly directed
Faith can heal, and provides the strength to deal with suffering
Faith can enable you to move mountains – one rock at a time
Have faith in virtue – but be skeptical of ideas and rules
Springboards for discussion:
The movie Leap of Faith illustrates both the manipulation of faith and the power of the real thing