“Do you have faith?”

We were sitting in a cafe for lunch today, talking about the world and our place in it. A generation apart, she came to Washington a few years ago, and works on international human rights questions, hard questions that they are.

This question mattered to her too. I looked back across the table, and then around the room, “Everyone here has faith. Every man and woman in this room believes certain things are true, and certain things are not true. We have metaphysical commitments about the meaning life, about the nature of the universe, about who we are as human beings, and those shape what we see, what we care about. Yes, everyone has faith.”

But I knew that she wanted to know about what she saw as “religious faith”— though I wasn’t going to let her go so easily, as it matters that we are honest about what “faith” is and what “faith” isn’t. So I explained that Hindus have faith, as do Moslems, as do secularists of all kinds, as do evolutionary materialists, as do Jews and Christians. Every one of us believes that some things matter, and that some things don’t— and in those beliefs we trust. In a word, that is faith.

Clouded by the Enlightenment, the intellectual paradigm of last several hundred years in the West, we have labored under dualisms that are both untrue and unfair. The world is not one of “facts” and “values,” of “objective” knowledge and “subjective” knowledge. From my undergraduate thesis on, I have been exploring that dilemma, and it simply isn’t true to the way the world really is. Why is it that equally smart scientists “see” so differently, some concluding that the universe is created and others that it is by chance? Why did the Huguenots of Le Chambon see the Jews as worthy of their care, hiding them in basements and barns, when most of Europe failed to see the Nazi persecution as a problem that implicated them? Why did “neighbor” mean one thing to a religious leader on his way to Jericho, and something altogether different to a Samaritan businessman on the same road?

We see from our hearts. In the Hebrew anthropology, the heart is the center of human existence, at the “heart” of human experience. Everything comes from the heart, which is why the Hebrew poets argued that we should “guard our hearts, because everything comes from the heart.”

And so we talked about faith, exploring her questions, and thinking together about why the question of faith matters to all of us— whatever we believe about God and the world, about the human condition, about right and wrong, about justice and injustice. Eventually I asked her, “What about you? Do you have faith?” A morally serious person, she is unusually committed to things that matter, and the question was honest, wanting an honest answer.

She said that she wasn’t sure, and that was why she wanted to talk. A few weeks ago I gave a lecture on Capitol Hill, and she came because of her professional responsibilities— and simply, she was intrigued by what she heard, and didn’t hear. Why do we care about complex, difficult issues? Why do some people see themselves implicated, and some not? And maybe most perplexing of all, how do we keep at things that matter through the years of life— when we are no longer 27, and when everything we know has become more complicated, with moral and political and social weight we had not imagined when we started out?

I told her that those questions have been the questions of my life. She asked if we could talk again, perhaps even regularly, and I am sure we will.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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