The Challenge of Belief

When Casey Affleck announced last week that the film he made about Joaquin Phoenix was a complete fiction—that, indeed, the whole "character" of meltdown/I'm-quitting-actor Phoenix was just the latest convincing performance for the acclaimed actor—I think some of us were genuinely surprised. As much as we all have built-in mechanisms for fakery-detection these days (because we've been duped so many times in our lives, growing up as we did in the advertising age), there are still bits and pieces of us that long to believe. But it's increasingly hard to keep this capacity alive.

In a world where an actor can pull the leg of the media for two years, and get us to believe (however suspiciously) that he is legitimately losing his mind, why should we believe anything we see actors do in their "real lives"? Is Lindsay Lohan really failing drug tests? Is that really meat Lady Gaga is wearing? Does Bill O'Reilly actually believe half the things he says? It's hard to take anything at face value.

I saw the film Catfish this weekend—a documentary about a Facebook relationship. The film observes photographer Nev Schulman during his online romance with "Megan," who he gets to know on Facebook (along with her whole family). As the film progresses, however, Nev begins to have doubts about who Megan actually is. Is she a real person? What would happen if he tried to meet her in person?

The film (which you should see) demonstrates our contemporary longing for connection in a world that is increasingly surreal, virtual, and subject to doubt. It underscores how prone we are to trust what we feel to be real, even though experience increasingly proves our skepticism warranted. Should we believe anything anymore? What can be trusted?

We used to trust authority. Presidents, politicians, pastors...  Not so much anymore. It's hard when the media constantly feeds us stories of the scandals, dishonesty, and hypocrisy of these formerly heroic, respectable officials.

What about parents? Family? Friends? Can we have faith in them either? One hopes we can. But the pervasive paranoia and understandable skepticism of our era does make even this a challenge. Parents disappoint. Friend betray. We have many reasons to be cautious about trusting even those closest to us. But trust we must. How else could we live?

What in life can be believed without faith? I'm not sure there is much. Maybe the fact that 2+2=4? Maybe gravity?

Some would suggest that science provides the ultimate provable, "faith is not necessary" framework wherein reality becomes comfortably, reliably knowable. But it seems to me that even science—glorious human endeavor though it may be—is as subject to doubt as anything else.

In her recent book, Absence of Mind (which you should read), the brilliant Marilynne Robinson takes on the science-faith dichotomy, and challenges the scientific bias against the metaphysical. Can our endlessly complicated, ever surprising humanity really be understood by a "few simple formulae," or explained fully in terms of "optimization" through natural processes? Does the data of science help us understand our self? Certainly. But data should be thoughts of as "gifts," not "givens," suggests Robinson. We must recognize that science is limited and insufficient to give account of all the mysteries of existence, and that we must maintain "an appropriate humility in the face of what we think we know."

In the end, very little knowledge in this world is ironclad. Very little is absolutely proved or exhaustively understood. Vast mystery inheres in every moment of our lives, in all the minutia. But that doesn't debilitate us; we have faith in the functioning of the world. Faith is inescapable, even if we don't often recognize it as such.

The world may seem more dubious, confusing, and uncertain than it used to. Belief may seem increasingly unwise. But the reality is: The world has always been a rather unbelievable, mysterious place. And belief has always been a challenge. But it's a good sort of challenge—the kind that both enthralls and exhausts us, expands our human capacity and helps us realize more fully what we were meant to be.