The Seen Unseen

Bill Moyers also talked to Mary Gordon in that installment of his ‘faith and reason’ series. Gordon said a lot of interesting things, as she generally does; I like her, she’s shrewd, self-mocking, funny, and a believer in the non-triumphalist and non-accusatory (why don’t you believe too?) way that seems so out of fashion in the US. But I wanted to take exception to one thing she said because I think it relies on equivocation (though not necessarily deliberately), and it’s an equivocation that does a lot of work for believers of the triumphalist and accusatory variety.

Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen.

A belief in the unseen, yes, but that’s not how the word ‘faith’ is generally used right now. ‘Faith’ is used to mean either religion, in a flat substitution, as in ‘faith-based initiative’ or ‘faith school’, or pious ardent belief of a religious kind that is an antonym of empirical or evidence-based belief. So Gordon’s examples are tricksy; all of them. 1) We don’t exactly ‘believe’ or have faith that all men are, factually, created equal; we believe, in the sense of think (not really in the sense of have faith) that all people ought to be treated as equal before the law (and in some other ways, but not in all ways). That’s not really the same as having ‘faith’ that they are in fact created equal. 2) We believe or have faith that our mothers or dogs love us, for reasons. If our mothers or our dogs show every sign that they hate us rather than loving us, we tend to heed those signs, and think something is amiss with their love; that in fact it may have turned to hate. We don’t really have faith in a completely ‘unseen’ love of our mothers or dogs; signs of that love are seen. If the signs are not seen – if the smiles are replaced by frowns or stony glares, if the wagging tail is replaced by bared teeth (at the other end) – we don’t go on having faith in the unseen love, we conclude it has diminished or gone away. 3) The belief that the number four bus will eventually come is least of all like ‘faith’ as commonly understood. We believe the bus will come solely because of prior knowledge: we know there is a schedule, there are bus drivers, there is a bus barn, it has come before, it is supposed to come, people rely on it; and with all that we know perfectly well that it might not this time, it might have broken down or gotten stuck in traffic or even been driven off a high bridge onto the roof of an apartment building after a crazed gunman shot the driver. So the implication (if it is an implication – Gordon may have made the same point in the rest of what she said, for all I know) that religious faith is the same kind of faith as the faith that the bus will come, is a spurious implication.

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