Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Faith as based on fact

Imagine this: you've just received, brand new, a Nokia 9500 Communicator. You plug in your SIM card and fire up the cellphone, and voila! You're good to go. You call a few of your friends to boast of your good fortune. You even send off a few pictures taken with its built-in camera via MMS. Then you realize that you still have to enable its built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, but that's beyond your scope of experience. So what do you do? You read the manual, of course, and in short order you're connected to the nearest access point.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of faith at work.

What does faith have to do with a cellphone? Well, it's like this: you yourself don't really know the inner workings of the Communicator and as a brand-new user you're only familiar with the basic phone features. But you follow the instructions on the manual -- written by someone you don't personally know but whose authority you trust -- and you get the advanced features to work. Therein is an implication of belief.

Talk about faith and the immediate association that comes to mind is God. But that isn't so. Faith is a human act that we practice as a matter of course. We believe that the world is round. We believe that when we dial a number we'll reach the person at the other end. We believe that when we follow the instructions on a manual we'll get the results we're looking for. This is faith on a natural scale, necessary for daily survival.

Let's dissect this process of faith, using the example above.

In the first place, we begin with practical sensible experience. We see the cellphone, we can flip it open, we can press the buttons, we can see the displays, and we can hear the beeps. We don't know the circuitry or the software of the cellphone, but we do know at least a bit to use some of the basic functions.

Then we have the purpose to which we're aiming, but don't quite know how to reach. We want to connect wirelessly to an access point, something out of the range of our experience.

In the face of this difficulty, we turn to an authority. In this case, it's the manual. We don't quite know who wrote the manual but we trust it implicitly. In all likelihood, it's been written by a technical writer, not by the actual designers of the phone itself. Nevertheless, we're quite willing to go along with the instructions because we believe them to be true.

Why should we believe the instructions in the manual? Most telling, of course, is that it bears the same logo as the phone and came from the same box. But there's also the communal and historical aspects of this belief. Possibly hundreds of other Nokia 9500 owners have followed the same instructions with positive effect. Similarly, earlier generations of Nokia cellphones also worked according to the instructions given.

We then apply the instructions on the cellphone, putting our faith in the anonymous author of the manual to the test, as it were. If the writer did his job and we followed instructions properly, then we should be able to get a connection; if otherwise, then we don't get a signal. Assuming that we did follow all the instructions of the manual to the letter, then justifiably our faith in the writer would have proven to be misplaced. Then, it's an angry call to the customer service center.

At no point would you take an action on your Nokia 9500 knowing that the instructions were bogus. It's a very expensive cellphone, after all. To be sure, the writer of the manual could have made a mistake, even maliciously inserted some errors, but we work on the assumption that his instructions were correct. In any case, our experience upon application will bear it out.

It's an imperfect analogy, but the same principles of operations would be at work with supernatural faith.

So what is the cellphone analogous to? God? That's probably the association that comes to mind, but no.

The cellphone stands for ourselves. We have experience with ourselves, and we have experience with the world. We don't know everything about ourselves, but we do know enough to fulfill some of our basic longings.

God is the ultimate end which we're aiming for, that connection to the access point, if you will. He is something out of the range of our human experience, though we feel some intimations of this objective. It's hardcoded longing in our souls, as it were.

If you say that there is no God or that we cannot make the connection to God, then that's another story. That's outside the scope of this argument, unfortunately. You can stay with the basic functions of human beings. But you'd be missing out on a lot....

To reach our objective of God, we turn to an authority. We make an act of faith that what this authority says will lead us to our objective. This authority is not the designer of the product, i.e., the human being, but we believe that he's studied the product and has conferred with the designer of the product, who also happens to be God.

Here we might hit our first difficulty. Talked with the Designer himself? Yes, it sounds alright between technical writer and cellphone designer, but between a human authority and God? It sounds preposterous! But this is a condition that we must accept, otherwise how can we truly believe that the instructions this authority gives will move us towards that end which is God?

At this point, we should already rule out all "authorities" who do not claim a direct line from God. We might commend them for their honesty, but we can be certain they won't have the answers to making that connection to God.

Why should believe this authority and not another? In the early stages of our relationship with the authority, it might be because of the communal and historical aspects of this authority. Is there a community of believers around this authority? Has this authority been proven historically? It's a good first test.

The real test, however, is in the application and in the results. Are we making that connection to God? Here's where it becomes a little difficult. With a cellphone, you get instant feedback; with a human being, you don't. It's extremely hard to say when you're both the operator and the machine.

But this is not an insurmountable difficulty. We have feedback mechanisms in the form of conscience and reflection. Yes, these can be hard to use, but it does grow easier with practice (30 minutes a day is the recommended period). Can the conscience be mistaken? Yes, and that is why we have to form it and exercise it. But for a fact, we will never be mistaken in following it; it is the imperative.

And if we're not making that connection to God? Then it's one of three things: either we didn't follow the instructions of the authority to the letter (in which case, follow the instructions to the letter); or we're not reading the instrumentation properly (in which case, reflect some more); or that, sadly, the authority we're listening to is mistaken. Before you jump to the last conclusion, though, you would have to double check on the first two; most problems come from failing to follow instructions properly and failing to read the signals properly.

This essay, out of place as it may seem on this blog, is my attempt to trace the action of faith in order to show that faith cannot be based on fictional premises. We may be wrong in our faith, but we cannot logically adopt it if we know that it is wrong. This is my response to the supposition that fiction is a valid basis for faith.

Note that I have not identified any specific Faith in this discourse. I leave it up to readers to act according to their conscience. But if any readers need help, they're free to call up the customer service center I subscribe to.


  1. Excellent analogy, Dom. It is especially interesting in the sense that I can use the same analogy to describe how I learned to use my cellphone, and how I sometimes approach my faith.

    Now, I recently received a cellphone from a friend (it's not a Nokia 9500, but an older model Sony Ericsson). It did not come with a manual. I could have looked up the manual on Google, but I did what I usually do with these gadgets, I pressed some buttons, tried to figure it out on my own. Eventually, I learned to use all the different functions of the phone that I needed to.

    There is a certain faith in this act too. The faith that the designer of the cellphone made it in such a way that those of us who like to figure things out for ourselves, can.

    Imagine that each of us received a cellphone along with 5000 similar, but sometimes conflicting manuals. Some people might pick up one manual and follow it to the letter. Some might pick one up, try it with the cellphone, and if the manual doesn't work, throw it away for a different manual. Some might pick one manual up, and where it conflicts with the cellphone's workings, write some user notes.

    And some few might just start pushing buttons, and try to figure things out for themselves.

  2. Thanks, Roy. Indeed, the button-pushing approach also works to a certain extent; but with a very complex mechanism, you'll find that you'll miss out on certain features (try setting the time on the stereo of the CR-V without a manual, I dare you) or take a longer time to get to do what you want.

    Sometimes the button-pushing approach is borne out of necessity; sometimes it's just plain old conceit ("we don't need no steeenkin' manuals").

    Realize also that not everyone is gifted with the same level of intellect to take the button-pushing approach. That's where the manual comes in: it makes the features accessible to the greatest number of people.

    On your point regarding the conflicting manuals: I go back to the criteria I mentioned, plus lots of reflection.

    And above all: let's not forget the action of grace.

  3. i have longed to see somebody write deep about this thing called "faith". indeed many people claim they are an authority on faith. but are they really? why are there so many problems in this world, and why is it that the world has never been a better place to live in? is there no God at all? or are these authority figures on faith wrong after all...hmmm, very contentious issues. are they really following the "manual", or have they inserted some errors on the manual they claim to have an authority on.

    i would like to believe that many of these authority figures on the "manual" did the latter.

  4. I think what you have been describing above with the Nokia 9500 analogy is 'trust', not 'faith'. It is 'trust' where you can say, "The real test, however, is in the application and in the results". Faith does not depend on results, otherwise, the early Christians would not have accepted being fed to the lions, the Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war would not have barbecued themselves, nor would there be any Islamist or Tamil Tiger suicide bombers today. Even the book of Job would lose its meaning. I would think that the real test of faith is whether a given story resonates with the individuals in a society because it reflects a deeper truth, brings about some form of insight or understanding or it just somehow ‘makes sense’ of it all. That is why we cannot exclude fiction as the basis of faith. Otherwise, a devout Christian has to believe that God really created the world in seven days and the Flood literally happened.

  5. Thanks for the comments. Analogies are imperfect, and I am just trying to get my head around this.

    Riche: the problem, I think, is in the application rather in the instruction. Then, of course, there's the problem of the fallen nature of man. That's why on earth we're the Church militant.


    Trust - Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing

    Faith - Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.

    When I talk about results, I don't just mean outward results, I mean first of all internal results. That is why I place the emphasis on reflection. When I practice my faith, do I note a change in myself?

    Something is amiss with your examples: the early Christians did not actively seek out the lions. What sort of statement would that have been? Not so with your other two examples. What does that say?

    If faith is based on a fiction, it would be based on that aspect of the fiction that reflects the truth. Even then, we have the obligation not to be complacent in our faith but to discover as much of the truth we can from it.

    In any case, here's the definition from the Catechism - Faith is a personal act - the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.

  6. I now realize that i was not able to appreciate that you meant 'internal' results. I would have understood the context if only i did not cherry pick the sentence i referred to above and disconnected it from the next one, i.e. "...Are we making that connection to God?".

    You're right in pointing out the incongruence among the examples. Seems to me then that a Christian does not choose death unless he/she really has to, unlike in the other two examples where dying is more readily used as a means to make a statement. (It would be interesting to find out the Church's position on hunger strikes, a practice which i associate with a non-Christian like Gandhi, but which has been resorted to by nominal Christians like Ninoy Aquino as well.)

    Your explanation on faith "not being an isolated act" and that "Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers" is something that i think Resty (from the Expectorants blog) would be glad to read about in connection with Sassy's post on Christianity being 'Shallow'.

    As far as the supposition that "fiction is a valid basis for faith", i guess yours, DJB's and my positions do not seem different at all as long as 'empirical fact' and 'deeper truth' are not considered one and the same. Faith can arise from and be sustained by a story that is well told.

  7. cvj: Internal results, but also external results. Remember: "if you had faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains." But it's the internal results that matter.

    A story that is well told because it has the element of truth. My main contention is that one can never have faith knowing that what believes in is false.

    In any case, it always falls back to the application of faith. Faith can never be just an intellectual exercise with no bearing to reality. It has to affect the way one lives.

    The explanation was not mine, but lifted from the catechism (to which I might point people out to for the online version.) Nothing specific about hunger strikes, but you might be interested in #2435.

  8. i replied to the older post before i saw this one. in addition to my comment, i'd just like to add that "fiction" doesn't necessarily mean "lie." after all, the nativity stories of matthew and luke are conflicting. either one or both of them are wrong, or neither was trying to report "facts."

    the truth is that they were trying to explain the birth of jesus in a way that their specific audiences in specific places and times could understand. and that's what the church hierarchy today has not done.

    they have, in fact, allowed others to explain the faith to believers, instead of proactively trying to communicate with believers in language that they can understand--and not in latin or very theological documents that very few lay people can really decipher =)