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What Faith Means to Me

In my college days, I was required to take at least one course in religious studies. Seeing as how I was attending a (loosely affiliated) Presbyterian school, my choices were Old Testament, and New Testament. I chose Old Testament. I figured the violence and sex (Song of Solomon) would make it more interesting. It wasn’t very interesting in the end, but I did take away a very important lesson about faith.

One day the professor got up in front of the class and informed us that he would explain the difference between belief and faith through the dramatic telling of an allegory. Now I can’t match the fervor with which he told this story, nor can I remember the specific details exactly, so I’ll just give my brief paraphrased version.

One day a priest brings his congregation to the narrowest edge of the Grand Canyon. He then lays a thin plank across the canyon. The assembled people of the congregation observe with a slight tinge of confusion. Next, the priest grabs a wheelbarrow and rolls it right up to the edge of the canyon and turns to his audience. “Now,” he says, “I will demonstrate the difference between belief and faith!” And without another word he turns and pushes the wheelbarrow across the canyon and back again. The crowd is stunned by his daring stunt.

Upon his return, he calls out a question to the crowd, “How many of you BELIEVE that I can push this wheelbarrow across the canyon and back again?” Having just seen him do it, the congregation cheers wildly with approval. And so, once again he pushes the wheelbarrow across the canyon and back again.

Upon his second return, he calls out another question to the crowd, “Now, how many of you have FAITH that I can push this wheelbarrow across the canyon and back again?” The crowd is somewhat confused, not really understanding the difference in the question. After a little mumbling, they all cheer again in agreement. The priest then announces, “For each of you that has FAITH that I can push this wheelbarrow across the canyon and back again, GET IN THE WHEELBARROW.”

For me, this allegory was an epiphany but for exactly the wrong reasons that my professor intended. Were I a member of the crowd, there is no way in hell I’d get in that wheelbarrow and I wouldn’t feel the least bit sorry about it either. If THAT is the definition of faith, then I want nothing to do with it.

I think what the professor meant to convey, is that it is easy to believe in something. You have experience and tangible proof that you can base your belief on. You believe in someone because you have observed their character and you trust them. You believe it’s going to rain soon because you can look up into the sky and see the storm clouds gathering. You believe the priest can push the wheelbarrow across the canyon because you just saw him do it.

Faith requires, well… making a leap of faith. It requires that you accept something as true without any real proof to support it. More than that, it requires that you give yourself over completely. You must commit 100%. You must put it ALL on the line if you truly wish to demonstrate faith in something. Just because a man can push an empty wheelbarrow across a canyon, DOES NOT mean he can do it with the full weight and precarious balance of an extra person in the basin. He has not demonstrated that he can do it. You must have faith that he can.

To me, there is no benefit for getting in the wheelbarrow. I’m risking my life to demonstrate that I’m willing to believe in something without proof. That’s ludicrous. I wouldn’t risk wasting my time to demonstrate that, much less risk losing my life. That sort of behavior is brazen and foolhardy. It is certainly not the conduct of a rational being.

Yet I see so many people every day who are willing to jump in the wheelbarrow. I won’t deride their decision to do so, and I’m sure that on some level, they reap many intangible rewards for doing so. But perhaps this article will help to clarify that, from my perspective, it just looks CRAZY.

I am a man of very little faith. I want my decisions to be informed decisions. I want my beliefs to be informed beliefs. I need proof in order to accept something as true. I was already well on my way to becoming an atheist by the time I heard this story, but it really did turn on a light in my brain. I learned something important about myself that day: I am the man who does not get in that wheelbarrow.

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