Faith column: Belief may well be its own reward

My favourite modern parable is drawn from a brief exchange in Michelle De Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog. I have been telling this story for years now, and on re-reading the passage recently I see that I have misremembered nearly all its key details; but not its core truth.

In my rendering, a father and his adult son disagree about the trustworthiness of a handyman. The father pays too much for some work on his home, and after taking the cash, a crisis of conscience brings the handyman back to repay the excess. The son, vindicated in his view of his father’s naivety, says to his father: "See, I told you he couldn’t be trusted." To which the father replies: "See, I told you he could be."

Faith has many meanings. Some kinds of faith – that the building won’t collapse – are essential. Other kinds – religious faith, faith that we’ll pull through this pandemic, faith in institutions – are more optional.

I work in the field of cognitive disability and have often wondered whether faith is a cognitive exercise, or indeed its complete opposite.

In Melbourne Andy Calder, a Uniting Church minister, has explored how people with intellectual disability experience spirituality. Scottish academic John Swinton, meanwhile, has shown how religious rituals can remain profoundly important for people who have experienced cognitive decline.

This rings true to me. My own father, an Anglican priest, had dementia and spent his last years in a residential aged care facility. On one occasion an older visiting priest held a service at the home and used an old prayer book. Suddenly, normally silent participants joined in, remembering words from decades earlier.

Another family story involved my wife’s dying uncle, a Catholic priest, and former missionary, who was experiencing significant cognitive decline. Near the end of his life he took part in a moving blessing with a senior priest. Rather than blessing my wife’s dying uncle, the senior priest humbly asked to be blessed by him.

Were these rituals meaningful for my father, or for my wife’s uncle? Who can say for sure. They certainly were for those around them.

It is quite widely accepted that some level of faith – beyond the functionally necessitous – can be good for us. We know that low levels of faith, or high levels of distrust, can be profoundly unsettling.

Moreover faith, and indeed lack of faith, have the curious propensity at times to be self-fulfilling.

Rutger Bregman makes an intriguing argument along these lines in his book Humankind. Not only are people, on the whole, good; simply holding this belief makes it ever more likely to be true.

All of which leads me to offer a respectful variation of a famous Buddhist quotation: "You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger." Applied to matters of faith this might be rendered: "You will not be rewarded for your faith. You will be rewarded by your faith."

John Chesterman is an honorary fellow at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, University of Melbourne.

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