by big mike
This is a narrative delving into faith that includes a interview.
| There have been martyrs in all religions—saints were crucified because they would not denounce their faith; monks lit themselves on fire to protest war; now men strap bombs to themselves and walk into markets. Darwin says that every creature shares the drive to survive, but for some reason humans have continuously found something to value above life. Men and women die for other men and women; they sacrifice themselves for one another. Humans die for words on a page, for flags, and even for whales in the deep ocean. Why do people do this? Death creates so much pain for so many people, how can one give oneself up willingly? In class, I have learned about death, the unknown, and the fear associated with it. I have learned about grieving, and how it can turn the strongest of persons into shadows of their former selves. I explored the medicines and the superstitions; the arsenal humans have built to combat death. Everything points t o death as the enemy, the hooded intruder. How can death be an answer, a message for good? I see only one logical answer to this question, faith, an undying commitment to a cause, a purpose, and an answer.
To discover more about faith, I spoke to Dennis Robbins, Head of the Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion Department, here at Loomis Chaffee. My questions for him were aimed to help me construct an overall view of faith from the institution to the individual. Our conversation was insightful, spirited, and at times, profoundly inspiring.
I left the snug five minutes earlier than necessary so that I would not be late for my second period interview. During first period, I scrambled to finish reading Meno by Plato, hoping that by finishing this Greek classic, I would be able to understand it and derive some provoking questions from it. I was nervous. That whole week part of me was hoping that Mr. Robbins would either decline my interview or just not respond to my email, so instead of tackling faith, I could write a paper about something easy and boring like old age or hospices. This, however, was not the case, and I found myself hiking to the third floor of Founders, praying that I would be able to find his office. My first run was unsuccessful; each office I tentatively peaked into did not belong to Mr. Robbins, and by the time I reached the end of the hall, I did not have the heart to turn around. So I made a loop by going downsta irs, walking across the building, and then going back up. By the time I reached the stair case, the bell had already rang and I was late. Thankfully, Mr. Robbins was standing in the first doorway at the top of the stairs and beckoned me in. For each of the last three years, I have spent one term with Mr. Robbins. As a freshman, he was my football coach. As a sophomore, I enjoyed his Social and Religious Issues class, taking from it some knowledge about world religions and an A-. As a junior, he critiqued my squat in the weight room. What I knew about Mr. Robbins before we had the interview is that he is a man of great conviction, when he speaks his words have a great deal of thought and care behind them.
So I sit in a chair in front of his desk and read him the first paragraph of this essay. When I look up I can see that he is listening intently, trying to understand the message I am getting at, the message that I’m still quite unsure about. I open with a question that I think is not only neutral, but also intellectual, the only question inspired by Plato, “is faith in tuned or learned; do we have faith when we are born?” Mr. Robbins did not dance around any philosophical ideas. He simply said “no, I do not think so.” So if people are not born with faith then they must somehow procure it. Mr. Robbins had a thoughtful explanation for how this process unfolds. He said that there are things about people’s lives that make us see our vulnerability, our smallness, that there are things that make us think of a larger power, things that make us ask and make us wonder. When he told me this, I could not help thinking about astronomy class and learning how large the universe is, learning how insignificant we all are. This was not a happy feeling. Did I find something new that day? Did I begin to consider the impossible? At the convocation the other day, many of us saw things that we could not explain, things that challenged us to explore new possibilities. It is in these moments that our insecurity leads us to adopt faith. Everyone wants to matter and everyone needs to belong. These are qualities that people are born with, says Mr. Robbins. So I ask him if he believes that people need to belong more than they need to live? He responds saying that by belonging to a power nothing else but that power matters and people will do anything. This explanation accounts for the martyrs, but I still want to know how people can come to make this commitment to a power.
Next, I asked Mr. Robbins, do you think faith gives people more strength and stability in dealing with problems? He immediately answered yes. He told me that he believes that once the ultimate questions are answered, people are free to live their lives without overwhelming doubt and despair. Faith gives people the strength not only to deal with problems but also the ability to live their lives. Building off this question, I asked him if he thinks faith and trust go hand and hand, if he trusts people more than society would. Again he gives me a short answer with a long explanation. Yes, Mr. Robbins believes that his faith creates a bond between himself and other people. Mr. Robbins believes that we are all in the same boat, that we are all God’s children so to say. From what I can tell, personal faith seems to breed virtues like trust, conviction, selflessness and others. Faith brings about a new interpretation of life, one with a foundation to stand sturdy on. At this point in the interview, I am beginning to doubt my own doubt. Maybe it’s because of the slow tune of the piano in the back round, or Mr. Robbins’s sharp powerful voice, but my armor is cracking and I’m wondering what’s so wrong with faith? Can faith offer me the stability I need to move on? Hoping that Mr. Robbins would not sense my spiritual instability, I ask him what he would say to a person who seems to be lost spiritually and feeling alone in the world. “You matter profoundly,” he said with extra emphasis on profoundly “there is no life in doubt and internal despair.” I believe this is another offering of faith, the ideal of purpose, that there is reason in everything. Mr. Robbins believes that skepticism cleans house, that by having doubt and despair people are able to clean away all the junk, the promises, that come with faith. By doing t his faithful people are able to check in with the real values they have come to adopt and live by, values like human connection, trust in the unknown, and the spirit. Some skepticism is good says Mr. Robbins, but it could be difficult to make a life of it.
In a last ditch effort to question faith’s ability to accurately lead people’s lives, I asked this long winded question. When children grow into adolescents and eventually adults, they lose many absolutes. My dad is not the strongest man in the world. My parents will not love each other forever. America might not be the greatest place in the world. If children did not go through this process, this change, then they would be stuck in naivety, in innocence forever and be unable to function in the real world. Is faith like this innocence, is faith just people holding on to something that may not be true, something that might change? And if this is true, how can people with faith function rationally in the natural, wild world? At this point I could tell that Mr. Robbins was not afraid to get short with me. He said that there is a huge difference between innocence and faith. First of all when we lose the innocence posed in the question, we are only learning the truth about trivial matters, nothing as complicated as the big questions in life that faith can help with. Again Mr. Robbins gives me an easy answer to a question I could wrap my head around for hours. “What’s true works,” he says and I can not argue, but how does this proverb connect to faith? I begin to think. If what’s true works, then what works must be true. So since faith and religion has worked for so many people in making their lives happy and livable then can I accurately say that faith is true?
Ok, so I seem to have lost my skeptical battle against individual faith. I now turn against the institution, the church. My first question to Mr. Robbins on this subject is as follows. Is faith a tool of control and do people use faith to have power over other men? Mr. Robbins sets up his answer by saying that there are two types of people who experience faith, there are the mystics who experience faith first hand and there are the people who institutionalize religion. It is the institutionalizers who become the rulers, who create the dogmas. Faith can be used to control people, he says; just take for example the crusades and countless other holy wars. “The use of faith depends on the user” he says. Mr. Robbins then explains to me a great irony; The one human in the last 1000 years who has lived like Jesus Christ was not a Christian he was a Hindu with renowned respect for the new testament. Gandhi used Hinduism and Christianity together so that he could filter through each of the religions’ nonsense to find a truer deeper faith.
I shook Mr. Robbins’s hand twice and we shared a deep breath that can only come after a good conversation. I wonder if he could see in my eyes how truly inspired I was. On the walk across the quad I could not help but pull at my hair to try and make my brain make sense of things. I had originally planed to write a paper that would look at faith from two sides and in my conclusion I would pin sacrifice on the misgiving of faith, the suicidal teachings of falseness. But now after learning a bit more about the inner working of faith I have begun to doubt my own skepticism. So what have I learned? I have learned that we are born with a need for others, a need for connection. I have learned that institutional faith has brought about the ugliness and fear, not individual faith. I have learned t hat faith can make grieving profoundly easier for people. Mr. Robbins quoted the apostle Paul on this subject, “we don’t grieve like others who do not hope.” Can individual faith truly be the missing piece, the unknown key to happiness in life? And if that is true wouldn’t it be worth dieing for? I am leaning toward yes now rather than no.