“Faith is silly,” a friend of mine put on his Facebook profile where it asks for “religious views.” I don’t agree, but I think I know what he meant.
“Faith” is an interesting word, one of those we use like we think we know what it means, when in fact it means different things depending on who’s using it. This semantic fluidity makes conversation about faith–and the kind of interfaith work UCM is pioneering–challenging, and occasionally frustrating. We know what we’re trying to say, but something (sometimes everything) is lost in the translation between what I’m trying to say and what you’re predisposed to hear.
I took the word to our Interfaith Impact student group the other night, to see what they would make of it. At Interfaith Impact we try to speak from our own experience, and I had a feeling we all had a range of experiences of the word “faith.” So I asked people to think of a time when they were having a conversation with friends and one of their friends used the word “faith.” I asked them to talk about how they responded, and to characterize their response as either “eww” (as in “icky”) or “ooohh” (as in “how interesting!”). And we placed brief descriptions of their responses into corresponding columns.
I was hoping we’d get several items in each column–and we did. I was afraid we’d have many more in the “eww” column than in the “ooohh” column, and that was actually not the case–the two were about even. And I was hoping that by sharing our stories we might learn something important about our interfaith work. I think we did–and I hope you let me know if you think so too.
What we saw was that the “eww” responses had something in common, and so did the “ooohh” responses. All of the “eww” responses involved the responder feeling like the person who used “faith” was doing so to draw a line between the two of them, and to put the responder on the wrong side of that line. For instance: “It’s a matter of faith–you either believe it or you don’t,” with the clear implication that believing it is right and not believing it is wrong. And all of the “ooohh” responses were to “faith” used to describe an experience about which the speaker was trying to tell a story, and the responder feeling invited to identify with the speaker’s experience in some way.
One of the “big ideas” that shape Interfaith Impact is “Faith builds bridges not walls.” And I think one important thing we learned is that it can build both, but we aspire to use it to build bridges. Another important thing we learned is that the bridge-building kind of faith is inspiring, compelling, and powerful to us–it has power to shape our lives. Even if, sometimes, we’re a little shy about using the word.