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Faith Redefined


Words and Meanings

This essay is an attempt to return the true meaning of the phrase "faith and good deeds;" the meaning that has been buried for centuries under the rubble of tyranny and deception. The word Faith has been reduced today in some cultures to mean blind belief, synonymous with strong conjecture, and the antonym of empirical evidence. When someone isn’t sure where the car keys are, he says "I believe the keys are on the shelf," expressing uncertainty. In other times, he would use the word faith to describe something he believes in but cannot prove. For instance, he says he believe in angels. Then, in other cultures, faith became synonymous with piety. When someone says her faith is strong, they mean she is religious and pious.

Like any other word in language, its meaning changes over time. We have witnessed, within the same generation, the change in meaning of many words, while retaining the same spelling and pronunciation. These changes are not random, but can (and in some cases must) be traced back to the original meaning. Take for instance the word "cool." Today we refer to someone as being "cool" and we are not talking about his body temperature. One of the uses of the word "Cool" now is to describe someone or something perceived as great or excellent. But that came from another meaning of cool, which has to do with being not angry (anger leads to increasing body temperature). A cool person is a calm person. And being calm is a desirable trait. When not angry, a person is doing fine; doing great, and thus she is cool. That was an easy word to trace. Others may be not so obvious. Take for example the word "Christ." It comes from the Greek "Xristos" which is the precise translation of the word Messiah, which comes from Aramaic (Masiha), Hebrew (Masich ????????), or Arabic (Maseeh ????), all of them meaning "the anointed one," from "masaha (to anoint; i.e. to rub ointment or oil)." In ancient times, Mesopotamian cultures rubbed oil over the head a person they choose to lead them, like a king, during a ceremonial ritual. Thus, when one is anointed (has oil rubbed over his head), he is thus chosen. Christ, or Messiah, simply means "the chosen one."

I am contending that the word "faith" has lost its original meaning due to intentional or unintentional deception throughout the centuries, till it became rendered too vague and general. A faithful person may indeed be pious and religious, but that does not mean that being faithful is the same as being pious and religious. A faithful person may have blind beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that every blind belief is faith. So what is faith, truly, and what is the significance of faith?

Because it is very difficult to explain an intangible concept with other intangible words, we rely on parables and allegory (the most reliable way to deliver a meaning is through comparison). In the past, people used to think that one’s mind was in one’s chest, i.e. the heart. So when we read a biblical text, for example, where it says "their hearts are calloused" or "their hearts are ill," today it simply means "their minds are closed" or "their minds are making wrong calculations."

 

Faith (???????) 

Faith is a mental state that one can possess through the mind; through a chain of thoughts. Faith is acquired through a mental process, and it can be deduced through many paths (many thought chains), not just one. The levels of faith are infinite, starting from little or no faith, to having a rock solid faith – it is near impossible to identify two people with the exact same degree of faith. Acquiring faith leads to many other characteristics, such as courage, strength, love, perseverance, steadfastness, happiness, kindness, and peace of mind. From the outside, faith may appear synonymous with a life style, or a belief system. This may be true, but faith is non-transferable through tradition. A faithful parent does not necessarily raise faithful children. Faith is not something that can be taught or passed down, but must be discovered from within, deduced from within the mind (heart). This is why one cannot say that a child is faithful, because the child has not attained the mental faculty necessary to possess faith. Experience and mental capacity and their growth are the tools used to acquire it. In other words, every person has the capacity to attain a certain level of faith, but very few can attain high levels or reach their capacity, especially in today’s techno world where the powers of the mind are being outsourced to machines to think for us (like TV).

To have faith is to understand, to fathom, and to be aware of how everything around us works; be it nature and science, or society and politics. To have faith is to have vision, sight beyond sight; to deduce from experience why, for example, being kind and respectful is important and useful, that they are not just random traditions, but the most effective and efficient way to adapt to one’s environment (survival of the fittest). Faith is an overall life strategy, constructing a personal system by which one can live without fear, disappointment, confusion, unpreparedness, indecisiveness, and ignorance. A faithful person knows when is the right time to be honest, loyal, courageous, and when to let go and be forgiving, all learned from experience and self-reflection. For instance, a teenager may use faith to program himself to tell his parents the truth always (think of the cry wolf story), because out of personal experience, or a friend’s experience, the teenager will have realized the fruits of telling the truth. It’s true that the teenager might think to himself that lying can sometimes be more beneficial at a specific moment, but only a smarter teenager would have the depth to realize those momentary benefits of lying cannot compare to the benefits of telling the truth in the long run. Parents can be of more help and provide better guidance if they knew what trouble the kid was going through. Too many secrets and lack of trust might lead to a troubled childhood which would affect a man’s entire future.

Not all teenagers can see this, and thus we say they lack the faith. Thus, when someone’s faith is weak, they tend to cheat or lie more often, and with habitual lying, one would only seem to run into more trouble and end up with fewer close friends. And in order for one to build a stronger faith system, one would have to have the ability to reflect upon one’s past actions, to enhance the speed and accuracy of the learning curve, and to be able to conclude new or enhanced strategies strategies in life.

To have faith is to possess the mental understanding of what is the right thing to do, and why it is the right thing to do. Now we can see why we describe a man who does not cheat on his wife, or a woman who does not cheat on her husband, as faithful. We say "he’s faithful to his wife." In other words, a man or woman requires faith; that sight beyond sight, in order to see that sexual infidelity would almost always lead to undesirable consequences. Even if one was too careful not to be discovered and manages not to be discovered ever, one’s relationship with their spouse would still get affected negatively. One may learn this from personal experience, or from observing and learning from others. Thus, faithfulness is not the equivalent of sexual fidelity, rather it is what leads to sexual fidelity.

In the same sense, a faithful person would believe in fate. This belief should not come from tradition, but from mental exercise; observing and reflecting upon events. In science, both natural and social, we have been able to conclude that one’s behavior is a product of one’s genetic code and environment (scientists still argue which side has the greater percentage, but they agree that there is no third factor). And since both our genes and environment are not of our choosing, then technically none of our choices in life are of our own making, but a product of genes (nature) and environment (nurture). Every choice we make can be traced back to some combination of environmental and genetic preconditions, even something as mundane as opening the fridge and choosing something to drink!

Jake looks inside the fridge and what does he find? Orange juice, apple juice, water, coke, sprite, milk, and beer. Suppose that Jake is a little overweight (genes), and is very conscious about it (environment), and so milk is out of the question. Suppose the weather is too hot and his throat is dry (environment), so he reaches his hand to grab the bottle of water and then realizes that it’s just been put in the fridge a few minutes ago, because it’s still warm (environment), which means water is out of the question because he wants something very cold. He just had soda an hour ago, and it’s too early for beer, so it comes down to orange juice and apple juice. Jake thinks for a moment, and then decides to check the expiration date on the orange juice carton and the apple juice bottle, and finds out that the apple juice would expire sooner, so he chooses to drink apple juice.

Jake’s entire reasoning was affected by a combination of nature and nurture. What percentage of Jake’s choice came from within, unaffected by his biology and the environment? A sociologist will say: none. And so would a faithful person who believes in fate, or God’s will. No matter how obvious free choice may seem, it is through faith that we begin to see the limitations of free choice. Not all people believe that all their choices are free, or that all their choices are not free. Life isn’t as black and white as some may believe or wish it to be, but with faith, the gray area can be minimized. Having the idea of fate and inevitability in the back of your head will always come in handy when problems occur, or when death visits a loved one. A lot of people, those who suffer from a severe lack of faith, may revisit a certain event over and over again in their minds, constantly wallowing about the ifs, like saying: "If only I was there when he was crossing the road, and held his hand, none of this would have happened!" But one who realizes that the world is based on action and reaction, that it is like a table of billiards with zero friction and no holes (every ball has been set on a path determined by that first hit), and that everything is going to happen the way it is supposed to happen; one would become more at peace with any event, especially the undesirable ones. To have faith, to believe in inevitability and fate, is to become immune and much more capable of handling bad events, precisely by realizing the inevitability of any event. A faithful person would be able to surpass disaster much better than a person who lacks that faith.

From all these examples and parables, we can say that faith is a belief system based on knowledge, reason, and experience. And faith comes in an infinite number of degrees, not something you either have or don’t have. Faith can be acquired and expanded, but can also be lost due to various factors that aren’t the topic of this particular essay. But he who loses faith after having gained it suffers the most.

 

Good Deeds (??????? ???????)

What constitutes a good deed should be noncontroversial. But unfortunately this is not the case. Those who lack faith often confuse good deeds with bad ones, and I’ll explain why. An army general may order the slaughter of refugees, and it would seem to everyone that the general’s deed is evil, but certainly not to the general. President Bush and the US Congress directly or indirectly declared war on Iraq and Afghanistan, two honorable populations dubbed as evil terrorists and struck with shock and awe. Yet some, including Bush himself, saw these acts as good deeds, for as they strike terror into the heart of the Middle East, they would send a strong message to the rest of the world not to disagree with America’s will, and become fearful of the consequences of disagreement, and also to expand business interests and signing contracts with corporate profiteers. In the eyes of the faithless, the lives lost due to their actions brought profits to themselves, and they view the positive economic impact of their aggression as a greater good, or a lesser evil. Thus, even war crimes can be justified on moral and ethical principles, when one lacks the faith (vision, depth, knowledge, etc.).

The Star Wars Trilogy introduced this concept with the "dark side" as metaphor of the very concept of how good and evil are not as obvious as night and day. In episode three (Revenge of the Sith), Anakin Skywalker, Obiwan’s faithful student, begins to lose faith in the Jedi’s ways (of good deeds) and gradually moves into the dark side. His first encounter with the dark side is when Chancellor Palpatine asks Anakin to kill Count Dooku (an evil Sith Lord), after Anakin had just cut off Dooku’s hands and subdued him. Anakin hesitates, saying "I shouldn’t do it," but Chancellor Palpatine urges him to finish off Dooku, and Anakin musters enough will to decapitate him. Anakin expresses his regret for killing Dooku, while Palpatine insists that leaving the dangerous Dooku alive would have been a risk no one should take. Anakin reiterates "but he was an unarmed prisoner … I shouldn’t have done that, Chancellor. It is not the Jedi’s way." While Palpatine reassures him by saying: "It is only natural. He cut off your arm [previously], and you wanted revenge." Was killing Dooku a good deed or an evil deed?

The next sign of moving further towards the dark side is when Anakin shares his recurring nightmare (of losing his pregnant wife, Padme, while giving birth) with his master, Yoda, who tells him: "Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin. The fear of loss is a path to the dark side."

ANAKIN: "I won’t let these visions come true, Master Yoda."
YODA: "Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is."
ANAKIN: "What must I do, Master Yoda?"
YODA: "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."

Palpatine’s plan is to become emperor, transform the republic into an empire, and dissolve the senate and the Jedi Council (which protects the Republic and democracy). But he needs Anakin, the strongest of all the Jedi, to be on his side, the dark side. And throughout the story, it becomes more apparent that Anakin is slowly becoming more understanding of Palpatine’s views: the empire as the only way to secure the galaxy and perpetuate peace and prosperity. And in this logical version of "good," the Jedi Council become the obstacle, and thus "evil."

Anakin meets with Palpatine again at the Opera, where Palpatine explains to Anakin that good and evil are based on one’s point of view: "Good is a point of view, Anakin. And the Jedi point of view is not the only valid one. The Dark Lords of the Sith believe in security and justice also, yet they are considered by the Jedi to be…" and Anakin finishes Palpatine’s sentence: "…evil." Finally Palpatine convinces Anakin, and he switches sides, to the dark side, and becomes known as Darth Vader. He gets sent out on mass murder missions, while he still sees that what he does is truly for the good of the empire; the greater good. But in return, he loses trust in Padme, and his masters, after he had killed everyone else at the Jedi Council, including children. His wife and Obiwan try to dissuade him from the dark side he had joined, in their final dialogue where Anakin declares confidently that his new ways have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to the empire, which, one can argue, he did!

Think of Saddam Hussein of Iraq as an example. Was he an evil, war criminal, dictator? Or was he a wise man who brought stability, peace, and security to an ethnically divided Iraq? Many would argue on either side and would find plenty of justification to back their views. Think of other dictators, current and past.

Think of Kantian versus Utilitarian philosophies, like if a serial killer is looking for your sister. He knocks on your door and asks you where she is. Would you tell him the truth? Perhaps lying to a serial killer about the whereabouts of your sister is a good deed!

Or think of the future consequences of a good deed. Suppose you see a little kid about to cross the road and get hit by a bus, and you’re standing right next to him, where you could simply grab his arm and prevent him from certain death. Should you grab his arm? It would seem pretty obvious that saving a child’s life is a good deed, unless you knew that when that child grows up into a forty year old man, he is going to rape and kill thirteen innocent young girls before he is caught. If you were to know that future, would you still save his innocent life at age six? The Quran provides a similar story (Moses and the Wise Man) to that effect in chapter 18 "the cave," verses 65 through 82.

All of this is to explain that the divide between good and evil, or virtue and vice, is not as clear as many would think. That is precisely why all major philosophers, prophets, and sages have taught their followers not to judge others, but to let the gods do the judging. No single human being could possibly possess the authority over good and evil, for they differ from one person to another, and each case has its own aspects. Even though some abstract guidelines can be useful to approximately distinguish between good and evil, such as the Golden Rule: Do unto your brother what you wish to be done unto you, they are rarely ever practiced when it comes to real life situations. So for example, do I wish that my friend sends me 10,000 dollars as a birthday gift? Yes I do! But that will not be enough incentive for me to give my friend such a gift! That may be an exaggeration, but if you look closer into your relationships you will notice how often most of us do not follow the Golden Rule. When a guest comes over, do you serve him your favorite and most expensive snacks, which you’re about to run out of? Or do you pick something else you don’t usually eat, or have plenty of? Certainly, as guests, we expect to be served the best snacks available!

 

Ignorance is Bliss

Those who say "ignorance is bliss" are truly ignorant yet do not experience bliss. A shallow girl might cry and sob for weeks over tearing a nice dress she bought when she accidentally leaned against a wall with a nail she did not see. Shallow people also experience pain, but on stupid things. Children are the best example; they seem to be severely ignorant, due to lack of experience, and they may seem to be blissful, if one chooses to have only selective memory; like seeing children playing and laughing and eating ice cream. But children also suffer, precisely because they are ignorant. They end up fighting with other kids over what adults perceive as silly, like "he broke my doll to pieces!" Children may be kidnapped by a child molester who tells them: come over to my house, I got candy! As for ignorant high school graduates, they may end up kidnapped by the army (telling them: join the army, and be all you can be) and sent into war zones where they will surely suffer a great deal, should they come back alive. So I’m not quite sure what ignorant person made the statement "ignorance is bliss," but it is one of the stupidest pop-culture products I have ever come across. It’s almost a justification not to read books or contemplate about life.

 

The Connection

As we discussed above, to have faith is conclusively better than to have no faith. And more faith is better than less faith. For what is faith but deep knowledge built on experience, reflection, and reason? But what is the significance of having faith? What is the end of having faith?

As for good deeds, it is certain that doing good deeds is to our own benefit; that’s the definition of "good." If it was not to our own benefit, then it is not good. But as we discussed above, the problem is in distinguishing a good deed from an evil one. Some acts seem to be good, but they end up hurting us, and vice versa. If only there was some mechanism or a mathematical equation that is so precise; where we could plug in the specific numbers and get a definite answer: plus or minus, increasing or decreasing, good or evil.

Oh but we do have that tool; that little flickering red light on the remote control to tell us whether it is working fine or it needs new batteries; that magnet which we can use to tell us whether a metal was iron/cobalt/chrome or not. It is faith. And the more faith one possessed, the more capable one’s perception to see the distinction between a good deed and an evil deed. Faith is the magnet, and the deeds are the metals.

Through the goggles of faith, I can see good and evil in two distinct colors. Is giving money to a friend in need a good deed or a bad deed? Tradition might jump in and say it is a good deed, and yet most of us who do observe others giving money to their friends as noble and socially superior, but we don’t seem to find it easy to apply it unto ourselves. What if that friend doesn’t return the money? Wouldn’t giving away my money to those in need simply turn me into someone who is also short on money and in need? How is that beneficial to me? And what about idioms like "money and friendship don’t mix" ? But with the goggles of faith (which were designed based on years of self-reflection and accumulated knowledge and experience) the answer can be much easier: Give your friend that money as long as you don’t run short yourself! If he doesn’t pay it back, it should be alright, for life is short and money comes and goes, and he needs it more than you do. You might choose to refuse giving him those $100 which were going to keep food on his table for a couple of weeks till his problem is resolved, but then you end up choosing to spend them on one fancy dinner with a girl you don’t even like that much, or buying new clothes that you take home and then realize they weren’t as good as you thought they were at the store. The faith goggles can make you see all this, and make the wisest decision possible; which is to do good. And the benefits of helping a friend are endless.

Faith without deeds (without living life) remains an abstract. And deeds without faith can lead to either bad effects or good effects, and are usually very hard to decide on, as they would be based on fear, confusion, and ignorance, among other things. Without faith, deeds can bring misery. For a better life, one must strive to grow one’s faith and incorporate it into every aspect of life.

 

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