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When testing faith, God may not be a good test taker

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The Test of Faith

This summer, the story of a man fatally wounded by a lion after entering the latter's den in a Ukrainian zoo (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13157554/) sparked a series of debates within my mind on the feasibility of testing faith. The man reportedly cried out, "God will save me, if he exists" and promptly lowered himself into the proverbial jaws of death. Regardless of the debate on the man's state of mental health, is the fact that he was not "saved" indeed an indication that God doesn't exist? Or, had the man not been killed but merely wounded or left unscathed, would this by necessity prove that God does indeed exist?

Although theological works such as the bible are filled with tales of trials and tribulations faced and overcome by sheer faith in God alone, such stories are suspect at best, perhaps the creation of a writer attempting to teach a lesson using didactic fiction or an isolated event in which other factors that may have contributed a role in the “miracle” were inadvertently – or conveniently – overlooked. Certainly, attempts by individuals to recreate or duplicate a miraculous test of faith fall far short of their intended results, but is their failure due to a lack of faith, devout inspiration, divine commandment or something else altogether? Why do some acts of faith appear to succeed while others fail?

I believe that the very crux of this question is not necessarily the fate of the believer - however misplaced his/her faith may or may not have been - but instead hinges upon the very notion of "testing" faith. Faith is defined by Merriam-Webster as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof" or "complete trust" (
http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary). Thus, if there is no proof for something in which a person believes, by what means can anyone devise a test upon which proof could be provided? It seems contradictory to suppose that a test of any kind may be imposed by someone in an attempt to quantify that which is transcendent and unquantifiable, namely God.

In fact, if such a test could be devised by philosophers or scientists, then one could certainly apply the scientific methodology of testing, refining and retesting to verify results. Hypotheses could be formed, tests made and theories coalesced by hard, scientific evidence which could hold up to the scrutiny of publication in scientific journals. Yet in thousands of years of conjecture over the nature and substance of God by many renowned figures, the fact remains that belief comes down not to factual analyses and theories but to faith: visceral, emotive, "un-" reasonable faith.

As I stood on my deck two nights ago, staring at the heavens and pondering the faith versus reason quandary, I imagined myself praying fervently and emotively in what was a theological equivalent of an Einsteinium thought experiment. Working myself up into a frenzy of prayerful, heartfelt and contemplative communication with God, I imagined calling upon him as I leapt from the deck and onto the patio below. Would I land unharmed or would I end up hobbling back into the house with a sprained ankle and scrapes or bruises? Would the fact that there were (I supposed) no witnesses present to testify to this "leap of faith" (excuse the pun) make a difference? Or would the fact that I try to live an ethical albeit flawed life make any difference on the outcome of my landing? What if I tried this experiment repeatedly, each time working myself into a greater holy, existentialist fervor before hurling myself from over the railing? Would the results change? What if perhaps one of those times I landed unharmed or no more harmed than I previously found myself? Would that be proof of my faith?

When a plane goes down over the Peruvian Andes and 166 of the 167 passengers perish, can the lone survivor claim that their survival is evidence of faith in God? What of the other 166 passengers who died; is their ultimate death - regardless of all the prayers they may have been muttering as the plane goes down - evidence against the argument for faith? I have heard it said that the survivors of catastrophe claim it was their faith in God that got them through it; but what about those whose equally strong faith in God resulted in death? For example, recalling seeing his family die in the mountain snow, plane crash survivor Fernando Perrado said, "They remained there in the snow, but I knew I had to live. Before this I had lost a little faith. Now I have regained it, very deeply. God heard our prayers" (
http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/low/dates/stories/december/22/newsid_3717000/3717502.stm). Are we to suppose, then, that God did not hear the prayers of those who were to die, as Perrado's logic suggests?

Obviously, one may not wish to test their faith through involvement in a plane crash, but is mere survival of a great catastrophe appropriate evidence of faith? What would the victims say had they a voice to speak? I am deeply disturbed by the notion that one can test their faith through some act of blind trust, where placing themselves in a perilous situation -willingly or otherwise - can provide a tangible, quantifiable argument for faith itself. Were faith "testable," it would almost beg the definition of "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." A child can believe in the tooth fairy and provide a few coins discovered from beneath a pillow as evidence for their faith, but the very act of believing necessitates setting all other explanations aside in favor of blind trust. Thus, if a cancer patient prays hard and believes he or she can be healed, then beats the cancer, faith that some higher power delivered them of the disease excludes all other possibilities as to why they got better, such as their health, diet, therapy or treatment, even the possibility that random causation led to their improvement, such as the variances between virility of the cancerous growth and the biology of the person with the disease. Many cancer patients overcome the disease and never pray once; others pray and believe in a healing incessantly, a healing which never comes. What is that evidence of?

I purport that not only may faith not be tested, or testable by definition, but also that the very act of assigning the positive result of some event to faith is erroneous and undermines the word by placing tangible, concrete qualifiers on a transcendent, epistemologically unknowable concept. Once faith becomes testable or the alleged results of faith are offered as evidence of its knowability, faith moves from "belief in something for which there is no proof" to belief in something provable, and if it is provable, it can be tested and quantified by scientists. I have not yet heard of anyone purporting to be able to test faith in a controlled environment. Until then, faith must remain the purview of philosophers and theologians.

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