Is Faith Ever a Virtue?

It might be, especially if you think of acts of faith as akin to fantasy. Faith, like fantasy, may function to do real work in the psyche. I think this observation of Ethel Spector Person, from a book of essays titled Imagination and Its Pathologies (MIT Press 2003, p. 116), though concerning fantasy, can also be thought of as a kind of defense of faith:

Daydreaming often signals recognition of an emotional reality previously denied. . . . Perhaps most important of all, daydreaming lends solace in sorrow and pain. Fantasizing a happier future may permit us to bear an untenable present rather than be overwhelmed by depression and feelings of hopelessness. Therefore fantasy’s chief benefit may be that it allows the fantasizer to hope, to trust in the future, even in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The above passage on fantasy strikes chords similar to those that I hear in the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, as when he writes:

Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.

If fantasy and faith are near of kin, perhaps Don Quixote is the proper model for human existence. What do you think? Is Don Quixote a comic figure, a tragic figure, or an admirable figure worthy of our emulation?

Is faith the performance of a fantasy in which the pirouettes multiply as the audience, slack-jawed, applauds? Are people of faith (I’m thinking in particular of someone like William Blake here) kind of like the characters in Jack Kerouac’s novels, burning with mad human beauty and naivety? I like this classic quote from On the Road :

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

Is that what faith is? Is it Niebuhr’s “animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence”?

Do you have faith?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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