Q: How can one's belief and/or faith have any influence whatsoever regarding what either is or is not absolute truth and/or reality? Isn't the kind of reality or truth you speak of more like the reality and truth of Santa Claus? Certainly, our beliefs and our faiths influence our behavior, but aren't you saying that our beliefs essentially create the reality of God in our lives? If so, then are you also willing to say that without these beliefs, God ceases to exist? More directly, does God have any separate existence apart from our beliefs? Finally, aren't we just talking about the rather simple difference between reality and make-believe?
-- J., Gainesville, Fla.
A: Faith is not the opposite of truth. Faith is a gateway to truth. Some people find truth through faith and some people find truth without faith. For religious people, faith leads us to truth in the way we read in the New Testament:
"For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love." (2 Peter 1:5-7)
My favorite Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, stated this relationship perfectly, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
I also love these words of St. Peter Julian Eymard: "Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe."
A wonderful contemporary rabbi, David Wolpe, put it this way:
"A tragedy of humanity in our time is the certainty that what we see is what alone exists, what we create is alone worthy; that by virtue of an existence whose origins we do not understand and whose beauty we did nothing to merit, we are all that is worthwhile. We suffer the peculiar blindness of those who see only the visible."
Faith is a story, a collective story. The story of faith is not about Santa Claus. It is about the story that our lives have deep spiritual meaning. As the author Madeline L'Engle has written, "Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."
A story can be true, but it is not true the way arithmetic is true. Arithmetic truths are absolute, but also trivial. The story of faith implicates our life, and that makes the truth of religious stories fabulous and life-transforming.
The key to the truth of stories is found in the distinction between truth and trustworthiness. You can trust in something without knowing if it is true. We trust in the love of family and friends and there's no way to know absolutely if what we trust is really true. Our trust is the result of what we have experienced in life.
You should know that "Amen," the word said at the end of our prayers, does not mean, "What I just said is true." The root meaning of "Amen" is trust not truth, or we would say, "Emet" after our prayers, which does mean "True." However, something can be both trustworthy and true. We know that the moral code of our faith is trustworthy because we see how following these moral laws produces lives of virtue and compassion, charity and forgiveness.
Because we cannot know until after we die what is absolutely true about God's providence, trust is enough. Trust can be a foundation of faith because trust is the foundation of our life. These are not absolute judgments. Life and God's role in it is a deep mystery. Read Psalm 131 (my favorite) again. It is directly relevant to this point and although it's the shortest psalm, it carries the deepest message about trust and humility in the face of life's mystery:
"Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.
"Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
"O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever."