Several news articles and reports this week speak about the level of despair and discouragement in our lives right now - the gun violence, yet another seemingly unrelenting war in Ukraine, racial tensions around jury acquittals, our diminished trust in the courts to uphold our rights and support the environment - can lead to disillusionment about whether the world can ever right itself. Often when we feel trapped and discouraged we are counseled to just have faith, things will be OK. But as I imagine you reading this, you and others would find that to be unacceptable and poor advice and consolation right now. What does it mean “to have faith?" Faith in what?
The traditional sources of faith - a religious affiliation, wise leadership, institutional stability, belief in our intellectual capacities - often feel like they have abandoned us as we struggle to keep adapting to an ever more complex and disheartening world. And as our trust in our cultural, institutional, and personal capacity is diminished we are susceptible to the fertile grounds for despair to insinuate its way into our lives.
So can we find a trusted means of holding faith in a viable future? I find the Jewish tradition most helpful in attempting to answer that question, especially the writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel* and other post-holocaust writers who speak through the lens of the devastating, faith-challenging holocaust. They teach us that In order for us to have a reliable faith it ultimately must be tested as the Jewish history attests. Faith cannot be simply a cheap antidote to despondency and despair. Heschel cautions that even faith (in God) must be able to be questioned, examined, challenged.
Heschel teaches that faith is never individual. It can only ultimately be strengthened through a communal process, a shared history, guided by the stories of those before us who have overcome grievous tragedy and despair. Our faith thus resides most fundamentally in our shared memory of our resilience and perseverance though adversity. Isn’t this also true of our own lives, our own faith that we not only survived, but we have heroically thrived as we have believed we would be able to continue to live faithful and full lives. It is indeed a tragedy when that faith fails.
What is most disturbing for many of us these days is that our nation’s institutional history (as much as we have not lost through our tendency to historical amnesia) is being broken open, as it must. But this is causing a major problem for many of us. We would prefer a comfortable memory of a righteous people, but that is now subject to reckoning with our nation’s horrific injustices. If our collective memory thus becomes compromised and shamed it is quite understandable we will also stumble trying for a positive frame for the future, and we thus feel confused and besieged. It is therefore not hard to understand the resistance from the conservative right against reckoning with our past because it presents such a daunting threat to our expectations of a future. The simplistic and exploitive “make America great again” approach represents the exact opposite of the difficult task of truth and reconciliation that will, indeed, make America great again if we are able to accomplish it.
A profound faith is based on our willingness to test our stories, challenge our memory, to square it up as true and honest, a faith that at core has the capacity for true godliness, kindness, justice, and peace. And this also holds true in the personal life of our families and in our own personal stories. Ultimately faith in ourselves is only as strong as we are able to test and trust in the honest conviction of our own stories.
Ultimately faith can be defined as our urge to rise above our own wisdom, to be grounded in the truthfulness of our stories - individual and communal. We know people who have that type of grounded, humble, solid faith in themselves that then becomes a model for others to follow. They epitomize nonviolence, kindness, compassion and peace while also standing strong in the face of the threats that so often define this chaotic world.
Granted my definition of faith in our personal and communal memory does not adequately explain how we are to have faith we will survive a climate catastrophe, war, or some form of pestilence and disease we cannot yet imagine. But our faithful stories do tell us we did survive all that in the past somehow, and they do provide us with the basis for faith in the still unimaginable future..
I will leave it up to the reader to imagine this concept of faith through your own lens and experience. Does your willingness to examine, challenge, and ultimately accept the challenges within your personal story help support your understanding of faith in yourself and faith in the future?
In peace and faith,
*I encourage you to read excerpts from Rabbi Heschel’s writing in Abraham Joshual Heschel: Essential Writings, Edited by Susannah Heschel, Modern Spiritual Masters Series, Orbis Books, 2020.