Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

A Humble Faith

When confronted by people claiming to have some religion that the rest of the world needs, I have an easy and mostly foolproof way of ending the conversation relatively quickly. There are many methods, some more drastic than others, to get the written-propaganda-wielding Jehovah’s Witnesses to turn around and run away, but this one little question completely exposes the most vulnerable weakness of most followers of any particular Western religion.

"Excuse me, sir, I would like to introduce you to..."

"Are these writings based on your particular religion?" I interrupt.

"Yes, they are, there are wonderful stories about..."

"Is your religion based on faith?"

"Well, yes, it is based on faith in our Lord Jesus..."

"Wait. Before we go any further, you need to define what faith is."

They are delighted to tell you that faith is believing, for example, that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God and died for our sins, and so on. They go on to say that all of these beliefs are based on faith and faith alone, and that the rewards are an afterlife in heaven, and on and on. I simply tell them that faith is not at all defined in that way, faith is a human characteristic that is much more basic and even primordial compared to a complicated concept like religion.

When one wakes up at four in the morning, it is dark, but one has faith the sun will rise as it always does. It isn’t even a point of doubt for anyone, it requires no thought and no wonder, the sun will come up, even if we can’t see it at the moment. Our faith in that event is so strong that we do not even think about it. When we get out of bed to stand up, we never worry that gravity has changed at some point in the night, that we are either pulled to the ground or float upward to the ceiling, we know that it will be all right. Again, we have very strong faith in something that we cannot see, hear, smell, taste; or even feel until the event unfolds and we find ourselves standing as we always have, pulling on our jeans.

We get in our cars and have faith that our fellow humans are not going to ram into us on the highway. Although we are somewhat more skeptical, we are only alarmed when someone shows some obvious sign of incapacity to operate a vehicle – we mostly are not worried that someone is going to crash through the center divider on interstate five and test our side air bags. Or maybe we get on the bus without worrying that the bus driver has just finished a fifth of Jack Daniels, we have faith that he or she has our safety on the very top of the list.

"We eat fried chicken for lunch and have faith that it will not make us ill."

"But that is not the same kind of faith," they usually say. "The faith that we have is that believing that Jesus is the son of God will bring you everlasting life. It says so right in John 3:16..."

"Oh? And how is that different than believing that the faith that one has in gravity, astronomy, and our fellow human beings will bring us life for one more day? Isn’t everlasting life simply one more day and one more day and one more day and so on?"

And when they quote biblical scripture, it is always good to point out a couple of things. First of all, for example, the New Testament was written in ancient Greek. Then, translated into Latin. Then into German, and then English, Spanish, and so on. How much of that could possibly be lost in translation? Second of all, and more important, the books of the bible were written by scribes - men who made money writing whatever other men told them to. The words of Jesus are in red text, but a witness who was a human related all of it to a scribe who was also a human.

Presumably, this is the way that most of the bible was written. I wasn’t there, but this is the story as I have read it.

I tell them something like this:

"Base your religion on humility and I might be interested in it. Be humble enough to say, 'You know, we really have no clue how it really works. We have a lot of questions about all of this God and Jesus stuff. Here’s a book full of all of our questions.' If your religion ever prints a book like that, then I’ll be first in line to buy one. Any good religion should base itself on humility, not on something like faith. Everyone has faith. Very few of us have humility. Faith can be misplaced. A humble person has nothing but questions, and this can only result in a few answers."

Maybe I am a closet Buddhist. I have no idea.

* * * *

A week ago Friday, Jorge gave me a ride all of the way into Centro de Tijuana, and we parked up near Boulevard Niños Heroes. The Policia on the corner had been drinking, the breath mints could not affect his slurred speech and uncoordinated movement. Jorge and me had just left La Fuente bar, and I continued taking him on a tour of Calle Sexta. We crossed Avenida Constitución moving west to the Perico, when the officer stopped us and wanted to know what was in my pack. I have been through this sort of thing countless times in Tijuana, he must have known from my answer and selection of words and mannerisms and so on. I am neither untouchable nor infallible, but I am good on the Tijuana streets in the sense that I keep my cool and play the game well. I suppose that I have faith in myself.

And it helps that I have no obvious tattoos.

Jorge has tattoos like the Pope has religion. When the cop immediately gave up on me, he prompted Jorge to lift his shirt and reveal his marked past, most of the ink was not applied in jail, but through the learned hands and expensive ink from the Barrios on the other side of this man’s border. The cop told Jorge, in Spanish of course, that he would give him a break this time.

I choked back laughter and was thankful that he had not said that to me, because I wouldn’t have had the good sense to walk away. This is the difficult part of living in a part of the world where the justice system is Napoleonic. Guilty until proven innocent. I suppose that, in a way, ink that is permanently imbedded into one’s skin can be considered as means to imply some sort of guilt. Fortunately by sheer luck, and certainly not through a fear of needles and ink, I have never been around any tattoo parlors at any point in my life where I had an excess of either time or money.

Or booze. Or whatever.

Not very much of what I do or do not do is out of being humble. It probably should be. But it isn’t.

* * * *

There are many nights that I wonder if I believe in Scotch more than I believe in God.

I don’t feel at all guilty about that, but I do wonder about it sometimes.


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