Monday, July 30, 2012
A Question of Faith
"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."
So said Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Catholic theologian. The longer I spend in this very religious country, the more I realize I’m in the latter group, something that’s sinking in even while my respect deepens for the work that people of faith do in struggling countries like Honduras.
I think of myself as an agnostic on all fronts – religion, politics, economic theories, health trends, social practices, you name it. I’ve got beliefs, of course, but a surprising number have changed over my lifetime after I gained more insight into a particular issue and realized I’d been wrong. So I try to keep an open mind about everything now just in case a compelling new argument surfaces that requires me to rethink what I thought I knew.
Religion has been one of the more complicated subjects for me. I was baptised in the United Church as a baby but essentially grew up secular, saying the Lord’s Prayer every day with all the other kids in my class but never really taking much in. At age 14 I had a brief flirtation with a charismatic Four Square movement targeted at young teens, and diligently read my gold Gideon’s Bible cover to cover. But I stalked out of my first Four Square service in a rage after taking offence when the minister invited us “non-Christians” to come forward to accept God.
I got married in the United Church, as did everybody in Courtenay, B.C. back in the 1970s. But faith never called to me. Outside of weddings, funerals and my travels in Europe, it’s been a rare thing for me to spend any time in a church.
Still, I never quite closed the door. Some of the purest, best people I’ve ever met have had faith, and witnessing them putting their faith into action filled me with admiration. My years at PEERS Victoria, which at that time was intensely influenced by the philosophies of Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous, taught me that faith is sometimes all a person has to hang onto, and is a powerful force for good in terms of motivating others to go above and beyond their job description to help someone.
But always, I was an observer. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t feel personally touched by any of it. I internalized the values at the heart of most faiths, but I just couldn’t buy into the concept of a divine presence watching over us, let alone that crazy story about a virgin birth.
That said, I do think that the world would be a much better place if more of us asked “What would Jesus do?” and acted accordingly. And in the last few years, I’ve had some of my best work/volunteer experiences working alongside people of faith, to the point that I now prefer to work with faith-based organizations. The social sciences have gone a long way toward creating smarter interventions for people in need, but you can’t beat love.
Here in Honduras, religion is just part of life (except in government, where Honduras actually scores lower on the scale of religious influence than Canada). Every Honduran I’ve met attends church, and sprinkles even the most casual conversation with several “Gracias a Dios” comments. Impoverished Hondurans struggling with unbelievable life challenges still thank God for keeping them alive to fight another day.
Faith also brings a striking number of young Americans to Hondurans, where they give up the comforts of home in the name of doing God’s work. I have to say, I haven’t run into a heck of a lot of committed atheists taking on similar commitments to make the world a better place.
So I’ve been trying to open myself up again, just in case I’ve been wrong about me and faith. My workplace does an hour-long devotional every Monday morning, and I dutifully reflect on the thoughts about God that my colleagues present. I’ve even hosted a devotional – on faith in action, of course! – and spent much time thumbing through my Spanish-English bible to find the right verses for sharing.
But the more I participate, the more certain I become that I just don’t have the faith gene. Is it because I’m a relentlessly practical person who wastes not a moment dreaming about how things “should” be? Is it because my years in journalism just confirmed to me that there is no plan, simply a rather random series of blunders, brilliance, and plain dumb luck? Maybe all of the above.
Here in Honduras, I see people spending hours attending church every week while their country falls apart for lack of civic engagement and social care. And yet I've also met so many who truly live their faith. In getting to know the poorest people I've ever known, I've also come to understand that when everything about a life is sad, hard and desperate, all you've really got is faith that something better awaits after death.
A lack of faith is often viewed as akin to losing hope. I disagree. I might not believe in divinity, but I’ve seen what hard work can accomplish. I’ll put my faith in the human spirit.