What Faith Cannot Do

The word faith is widely used as a synonym for “religion,” just as “spiritual” has become, for some, a replacement for “religious.” Thus we might refer to a Christian as a “member of the Christian faith.” A Jew is often described as belonging “to the Jewish faith.” Thus, “faith” and “religion” are so intimately related that clergy are often expected to extol the power of faith and to expound on what faith can do for us. So, for a change, perhaps it might be helpful to think about those things that faith cannot do for us. If we are not to abuse our faith or misuse it, we ought to be aware of its limitations.

Most important, faith cannot exempt us from thinking. To believe does not mean to suspend our critical faculties. Tertullian, the third-century religious writer (and known as the founder of Western theology) famously wrote (in De Carne Christi), “It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd,” commonly paraphrased as credo quia absurdum.

The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (ch.5) has the same conception of what it means to believe. When she tells Alice that she is one hundred and one years, five months, and one day old, Alice replies, “I cannot believe that.” “Can’t you?” rejoins the Queen. “Try again. Draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”

No, true faith does not require us to believe the absurd or to shut our eyes to the realities of life, the discoveries of science, or the evidence of reason. Albert Einstein put it accurately: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” (In “Science, Philosophy, and Religion” a paper delivered at the Jewish Theological Seminary in September, 1940)  Moreover, those who believe absurdities will practice atrocities. One of G!d’s greatest gifts to us is the power of reason, and when we use it properly we pay highest tribute to the Holy One who, in the words of our prayer book, “compassionately endows the human being with understanding.”

Furthermore, faith cannot exempt us from toil. To believe in G!d does not mean to sit back and wait for the Holy One to do for us what we ourselves can, and should, do. An old adage offers sound advice: “Trust in G!d but row away from the rocks.”

Faith is not meant to be a narcotic but a stimulant; it is a call to action, not a substitute for it. Faith does not mean “G!d’s in Heaven, all’s right with the world.” It does mean G!d who is in Heaven urges us to work together with G!d in righting what is wrong with the world.

Finally, faith cannot exempt us from trouble. It does not shield us against sorrow or suffering. Our belief in G!d grants us no immunity against cancer or heart disease or death on the highway.

How often have I heard people state: “When my mother died, I stopped believing in G!d.” “He was such a good person. Why did this tragedy happen to him?”

Many of us have a faith that shrinks when it is washed in the waters of adversity. We forget that trouble and sorrow have a passkey to every home in the land; no one is exempt from suffering. To believe in G!d does not mean that we and those who are dear to us will be spared those burdens that are the common lot of all of us.

To believe in G!d does mean that we should live by our values, embedded in the system of halacha (Jewish law), so that our deeds bring no harvest of pain, remorse, or fear. Our faith should also give us the strength to go on in the face of adversity and the understanding that we may even emerge from our trials wise and more humane because of what we have endured.

Our faith compels us to admit and embrace the truths of science (e.g. the world is not flat, and climate change is not only real but is already a huge problem). Our faith must work with G!d to better the world, attempting to end prejudice and bigotry. This will mean, of course, that we need to continue to apply our values to our own traditions that exhibit, for example, a view that privileges men over women, heterosexuals over GLBTQ persons, and healthy individuals over those with physical challenges.

Our faith in G!d gives us grounding in life, guides us to self-actualization, a sense of the preciousness of time and the importance of relationships. Our faith in G!d gives us rich traditions that make life more joyous and render it so worthwhile. We need not pretend that faith can do more than it can do. That is o.k., our faith, our religion—Jewish spirituality—already does so, so much.

May you all find yourselves to be a person of ever-deepening faith.

Rabbi J.B. Sacks