20 October 2017

Faith is not blind optimism.

Hoping for the best needs something substantial to hope in.

As I wrote in my first piece on faith, it’s not the magical power to believe in goofy rubbish. Like believing in Santa Claus, fairies, unicorns, and non-western medicine.

Related to that, and actually a big part of what people assume faith to be, is the power to believe everything’s gonna be all right. Everything’s gonna work out. Times may be tough right now, but we’ll persevere, we’ll be successful, we’ll be vindicated, we’ll come out on top. Life will be good. Love will conquer all. How do we know any of this stuff? Why, we have “faith.”

No, you have blind optimism. It’s not faith.

No, I’m not knocking optimism. We Christians are called to be optimistic. To reject nihilism because even though our world is in fact meaningless, it’s being overthrown by God’s kingdom. To reject cynicism because even though humans are totally self-centered, some of us are actually seeking God’s kingdom. To reject pessimism because we’re meant to embrace joy.

The problem is the blindness part. Blind optimism assumes stuff’s gonna get better, but can’t tell us how. And no, that’s not because God promised stuff would get better, but hasn’t clued us in on the details. If that were the case, it would be faith, proper faith. But faith in God, ’cause he’s the one making things better. Blind optimism doesn’t know who or what will make anything better. It just assumes things’ll be better. Can’t say why.

Might guess why, but some of those whys are wholly unrealistic. Take Star Trek. The show’s based on Gene Roddenberry’s blind optimism that humanity’s gonna evolve past our petty differences and prejudices, become better people, eliminate hunger and poverty, and turn our world into paradise. Why? Um… well, he didn’t know. He left that to other writers to figure out. So later writers posited we’d meet benevolent space aliens, and that’d galvanize us into sorting out our problems. But if you know anything about human nature, humans don’t do that, and never have. Some of us rise to face new challenges. The bulk of us retreat.

And those of us who rise to face new challenges have a plan. True, it’s not always a good one, but it at least spells out how we expect things to get better. It’s not a big blank gap between the chaos of today and the promise of tomorrow, which we fill with wishful thinking. It’s a foundation, hopefully solid, to build faith upon.

And a lot of people have based their hopes in the future upon various plans for the future. People hope to be financially stable someday, and they’re taking steps to get there. People hope to become spiritually mature, so they’re working on spiritual fruit. People hope to be successful in their career, and they’ve laid the groundwork. People hope to raise self-sufficient kids, so they’re teaching ’em self-discipline, and to think and do for themselves.

The rest… well, they’re doing none of those things. But they “have faith” everything’ll be all right. You see the problem.

Faith in ourselves?

I’ve been told by people from other countries that Americans particularly have a reputation for being blindly optimistic. We get into circumstances where things kinda look hopeless, and where most other folks would give up and assume nothing can be done, the American responds, “Nah; we’ll figure something out. Give it time.”

Based on what? Blind optimism. The assumption things will work out. That “all things work together for my good,” even though that verse doesn’t necessarily apply. (Even when those Americans aren’t necessarily Christian.) It’s a significant idea in American culture. Deliberately so: We teach it in our civics classes, either bluntly or by textbooks skewed to emphasize how we Americans regularly overcome our problems, and how it’s only a matter of time before we overcome the current ones. We teach it in our movies and TV programs constantly, in every show with a happy ending… and even in shows without one. We’ll figure something out is our national mindset because we regularly emphasize how we usually do figure something out. Just give us time.

Maybe it’s ’cause I grew up American, but I really don’t have a problem with this mindset. I don’t assume it’s only true of Americans, either. Any human can do just about whatever we set our minds to. The LORD even says something like this in the bible.

Genesis 11.3-6 KWL
3 Each man told his fellow, “Come; let’s brick some bricks.
Let’s fire up fires to bake them.” Bricks for stone; tar for their mortar.
4 They said, “Come; let’s build us a city. A tower. A head in the heavens.
Let’s make ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”
5 The LORD went down to see the city and tower which Adam’s children built.
6 The LORD said, “Look: One people, one tongue, and they begin to do all this?
Now what they plan to do isn’t impossible for them.”

It’s a stretch to say God claims we humans can really do anything we propose, but we’ve usually found that once we put a plan together, and we have enough motivation to carry it out, we can actually pull it off.

Is this misplaced faith? Sometimes. ’Cause sometimes people promise a lot, but deliver little. Sometimes people’s dreams are bigger than their motivations. Sometimes people give up. Sometimes the plans contain a little bit of fudged data; the person who put it together made it look like a viable plan, but it’s missing an important detail. One they were hoping to discover before the plan came together. But they fudged it because they “had faith”—that blind optimism again.

My foreign acquaintances aren’t entirely sure whether this American trait is good or bad. On the up side, it does mean we’ll strive to succeed long after others give up—and sometimes it turns out we do succeed, because the solution to the problem required us to patiently (or stubbornly) scratch away at it. On the down side, they’ve seen Americans insist on a never-say-die attitude when we really should’ve given up a long time ago. Our optimism was unfounded.

All told, I think I’d rather be optimistic than not. It’s the difference between a possible payoff, or absolutely no payoff ’cause we pessimistically quit long before. Again, I admit maybe this is ’cause I grew up American, and was conditioned to think this way. But I still think it’s wisdom.

Now let’s be realistic: Optimism that we’ll ultimately figure something out, is a temporary optimism. Should be temporary, anyway. We shouldn’t be riding it indefinitely. That’s why blind optimism is such a problem. Too many Americans, including too many Christians, are basing their futures on “faith” instead of viable plans. They figure success will come because they trust themselves to come up with something, someday. Then they never do, so it never comes.

I’ve already written on those Christians who had “faith” their kids’d stay Christian, but their kids ditched Christianity in school. Once again, we’re talking blind optimism: They took no steps, or the wrong steps, to ensure their kids stayed Christian. They figured their Christianity would pass to the kids by osmosis, or through church, or the youth pastors would work on ’em, or something would happen to make everything work out. And they still assume everything’ll work out; that because they trained their kids in the way they should go, Pr 22.8 the kids’ll eventually turn back to Jesus when they’re older. Thing is, they really didn’t train their kids. They never put together a viable plan. They only had “faith.”

Yeah, sometimes that faith in ourselves is horribly misplaced. ’Cause we have no plan. Or our plans suck. Or we lack the patience to keep it up. Our “faith” is in the idea that somehow we’ll straighten out before the future catches up with us. That faith is misplaced too: No we won’t.

Although if we start making plans and taking steps right now, maybe we could.

Don’t confuse it for the real thing.

Actual faith is neither based on wishful thinking, nor blind optimism.

Hebrews 11.1 KWL
Faith is the solid basis of hope, the proof of actions we’ve not seen.

It’s based on something solid, not something we expect we’ll discover some day. It’s not “I believe in you!” shouted to encourage a kid who can’t kick a soccer ball to save his life; it’s “I believe in you” told to affirm someone who’s proven herself time and again. It particularly applies to God, who has proven himself, and still does.

So you might find yourself in a bind, and hope for the best. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t confuse that hope with faith. If a trustworthy person shows up and says, “I have the solution,” then we can start talking faith. If God replies to our prayers, “Do this and you’ll see results,” then we can start practicing faith—and see God act.

Whereas doing nothing, hoping things will sort themselves out on their own, and calling it “faith”? Most people would rightly call this behavior delusional. Or insane.

Again: Faith isn’t the magical ability to believe delusional, insane things. Faith is putting our complete trust in someone or something. Put it into someone worthy.