When ‘magical thinking’ fails, then choose faith in humanity

Posted 3/13/20

Not to go all Greek on you, but the word for “faith” in that language is pistis. Occasionally, I meet someone named Faith and, in Greek mythology, Pistis was personified as a type of …

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When ‘magical thinking’ fails, then choose faith in humanity

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Not to go all Greek on you, but the word for “faith” in that language is pistis. Occasionally, I meet someone named Faith and, in Greek mythology, Pistis was personified as a type of spirit-fairy. She was one of the first to fly from Pandora’s box and — after taking a quick look around at humankind — promptly winged her way back to heaven!

Maybe a quick look at the news makes you feel like doing the same.

While I do know a couple of people named Faith, I know far more who claim to have lost faith in humanity. I think such cynicism and despair is a result of thinking of faith as a quantity or a possession — something you either have or not. I worry that such a concept leads to what writer Joan Didion called “magical thinking,” meaning the belief that enough faith will act like fairy dust and — abracadabra — make all our problems fly away. Therefore, the logic follows that, if problems still exist, then we must have lost our faith. But I think that line of reasoning is false.

I think it is preferable to conceptualize faith as a journey. Not a static thing to possess, but a twisting, turning, winding path up the mountains and into the valleys. You and I may not know what lies ahead in the journey of life or readily explain the potholes in the road, but we can take the next step forward. Practicing this kind of faith is what pastor Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

I’ve always liked that line. But sometimes it is easier to say than do. You and I know, deep down, that faith is not the “magical thinking” that pain and loss do not exist. We know there is no magic fairy dust that can make all our problems fly away. Yet we are tempted to lose faith because the journey can be long and wearying, right? Sometimes, as the Apostle Paul wrote, we may find ourselves “hoping against hope” (Rom 4:18). Or maybe feeling like Patty Griffin’s song, “I must have walked ten million miles.”

Yet faith is running the race that is set before you (Heb 12:1). Faith is trusting that you can continue in your lane, while cheering on those running beside you. Faith is trusting that being a caring and tender person will echo for centuries in your family. Faith is trusting that doing your work with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love will inspire and shiver people far beyond your ken. We may never know the abiding results of our small steps. But faith is trusting that each of us is connected to something more, something vast and true, something that the poet Mary Oliver called “the one world we all belong to.”

Does life resemble a Greek tragedy? Are you struggling with faith in humanity? Let me encourage you, gentle reader, to think of faith as not merely a possession — something to have or not — but as a long obedience in the same direction. With that journey in mind, turn to your neighbor and do the next right thing, however simple and insignificant it might seem at the time. A pebble dropped into a pond ripples all the way across the water. You can have faith in that.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the poet pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church and the author of the book Gently Between the Words.


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