Is Faith just another group bias? We seem to be trying to eliminate bias, which favors group identity, and to embrace diversity to an ever greater extent. I even heard a faint echo in the homilies on All Saints’ Day which emphasized the variety rather than the similarity between saints.
The funny thing I’ve noticed about bias is that it is actually very easy to prove that we all share it. At our professional development (PD) day, the speaker did just that in elaborate ways. Unknown to us, he seated himself in the back of the auditorium dressed like a teenage, African-American rapper-clown. What was he doing there on our development day?! He later claimed he got quite a few looks. Meanwhile, on the stage where we thought we were seeing the real speaker, many of us were wowed by a young, suave, moon-walker whose good looks were only exceeded by his prodigious credentials. Of course, it turned out that the true speaker was the wildly inappropriately dressed figure in the back and the supposed speaker was the professor’s set-up.
In some ways, the exercise was quite revealing of our many assumptions, but in other ways, it wasn’t the “I caught you red-handed” event that the speaker hoped to have planned. Being biased doesn’t make you a bad person nor does the expectation that people will dress like professionals at an all-day PD conference. Likewise, we may stress that the saints were all different but that doesn’t mean they didn’t share basic qualities. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t reverence the Eucharist or show respect during the Holy Mass.
Faith vs. Evidence
So, what does any of this have to do with faith? Many are inclined to believe that a lot of human faith is simply based on bias and assumption. Faith, however, is very different from this. The speaker at our PD conference was asking us to throw out our bias, and this is exactly what faith demands.
The Book of Wisdom tells us that we shouldn’t put God to the test, “because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him” (Wisdom 1:2). It concludes that rather than being something in the world, God is somehow what fills it and penetrates even our inmost thoughts, “Because the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world, and that which holds all things together knows what is said” (Wisdom 1:7). At least two things seem apparent from these statements. First, faith is a prerequisite for faith, and, secondly, God is found within things, not in their externals. He is found in the human heart.
This is not to say that human evidence, the testimony of martyrs, and natural human reason cannot be used to support faith. It is saying, however, that none of these things will quite prove that God exists as much as looking inside of our hearts.
Going Through the ‘Rolodex’
The PD speaker claimed he was happy to make us go through (as he called it) our ‘Rolodex’ of memories and experiences to try to understand him. By this, he meant our collection of experience. In the end, he said we didn’t have anything from experience that could explain him to us. Actually, I imagine that this was akin to the experience of meeting Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Pharisees and non-believers of Jesus’ day found ways to classify him and to put him back in their ‘Rolodex.’ Obviously, Jesus wasn’t trying to make a social statement. He was trying to make believers.
Even to this day what with all our scientific know-how, belief remains something that we don’t really have in our collection of superficial experiences. Josef Pieper describes faith as something which both reveals and conceals itself all at once. He draws a comparison between faith in God and faith in one’s brother’s being alive as a prisoner of war. Faith that one’s brother is alive can be oddly jarring while belief in his death brings with it “the finality of resignation” and in a sense peace. Pieper writes “Once I regard the news as unconditionally true, I am tormented by the need to form a picture of the reality that is both revealed and concealed by the news. And at the same time, I know that I shall never succeed in doing that” (Faith, Hope, and Love, page 53). Faith then is the gift of seeing what we cannot see, and in this, there is both joy and disquiet.
Anselm’s prayer strikes me as a good place to end this musing. In his prayer or meditation called Let Me Seek You, Anselm says “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe: that unless I believed I should not understand.” This is akin to Jesus’ telling us that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Matt 12:39). Again, faith requires faith to exist. We find faith by having faith.
If we think of faith as faith in a person, this begins to make sense. Teachers must see the potential in the diamond in the rough. As Christians, we must see God in Jesus. We must see God in the carpenter from Nazareth.
As this essay makes clear, my experience at the PD was a bit of a struggle. On the one hand, I found the overall message about bias wrong, but, on the other hand, I found some of the points about bias useful. If I had to sum it up, to me the overall message was that we are all very biased and we need to throw out our traditional ways of thinking to correct this. This point of view can do a lot of harm. In our day and age, religion and bias have become almost synonymous. Somewhat ironically, there is also an almost unconscious bias against people who are classified by our culture as biased. Furthermore, practicing religion and holding traditional views on marriage are sure to put you in the biased camp. As a result of this type of thinking, a lot of what we used to think of as foundational to our society is being thrown out. However, the idea that we are almost preconditioned to be biased against what we don’t understand is an idea that I think Christians know well. Overcoming this bias is essential to a living faith. In short, our culture is trying hard to eliminate bias but it is simply becoming more biased than ever. A true Christian, on the other hand, is striving to be unbiased in the truest sense.