Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Faith

My father nurses a fine, bitter hatred of billboards. We'll be driving along the woodsy state road that leads into town, speeding past McDonalds 2 Miles and Welcome to Super 8 and Injured? Call Ken Nunn, and I'll be able to see the fury dive down into him, scorching him throat to knees like a good scotch. His hands clench; the car jolts forward; we barrel through the trees and into town where commerce is everywhere: acceptable by force, like death.

Perhaps because of my father, I pay attention. If a billboard changes, I notice. Even if it's raining and early, even if I'm alone with a carful of air. Today the new billboard was a mile out of town on the left and it read: GOT FAITH? The letters were black against a sheet of white. In the lower left corner, a faucet dispensed water into a wine glass. Halfway trough the pour, the color of the liquid twisted itself like a dial, blue to red, water into wine.

Got faith? My father hates billboards because, like panhandlers in subway cars, they hector you. Buy this, do that! But isn't interrogation worse? At least the subway beggar doesn't ask you where you hid the chocolate, or what, exactly, your motives were when you tried to get James from accounting drunk at the office Christmas party. I lowered my foot a centimeter, cranked up the speed of the trees. I "got" lots of things. Brown hair, two backpacks, Parmesan cheese, doubts. But did I have faith?

Anytime you ask a question, of course, four more pop out of it yowling for attention. Questions are like randy white mice: feed them at your peril. So before I could determine whether I had faith, I needed to ask what, exactly, faith was. The easy answer was belief, but although that's a necessary condition of faith, it's not sufficient. I believe in the existence of my laptop computer, but because it's sitting right in front of me, few would term that faith. No, there's a stipulation attached to the object of your belief. To have faith, you have to believe in something unconfirmable via the usual sensory methods of apprehension.

Believe in shit you can't see? No way! Faith was for idiots! I was halfway across the county before I realized that, were faith really for idiots, the billboard wouldn't even be there. Faithful people would have died out, a cul-de-sac on the evolutionary freeway. Instead they're everywhere, squeaky and reduplicative as...questions. Ergo, there has to be an evolutionary advantage to belief in invisible things.

And there is, of course. Just because you've never seen a lion eat anyone doesn't mean it won't. Just because you can't tell the earth is round doesn't mean it's not a useful thing to know. Science, in a roundabout way, has its roots in faith: with what does science busy itself if not the corners of the world we can't make out with the naked eye, stuff we only come to believe, via empirical groping, is true?

There's a distinction to be made. On the one hand, there's believing in something you can't see. On the other hand, there's believing in something you can't see in the face of evidence to the contrary. This is where our president derails, making a point of holding fast to his principles in the face of countervailing opinions and -more dangerously- countervailing evidence. This is the kind of faith that gets you eaten by the lion.

Except that, sometimes, it's the only kind of faith that keeps you sane. There's lots of evidence, anecdotal and statistical, that people die on the highway. It's hardly common, but it's not absurdly rare either. Someone falls asleep or swerves or looks away and there you are: a pile of bones. Yet, I keep taking the old state road. I keep dumping myself out onto the highway with only my wits and four worn tires. I keep driving.

Got faith? You bet I do.

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