Faith, Development and Poverty – Reflections

Having been involved in development professionally all my working life and having held to a living Faith for even longer, I have felt constrained of late to try to think a little more clearly about the two and how they relate. Although these thoughts have been derived from personal experience, they seek to address a broader topic than merely ‘me, my faith and my work’ but the larger questions of poverty, development and the role of faiths and faith based communities.Poverty, powerlessness, violence, corruption, exploitation, illiteracy, disease, and many other such words are used to describe the developing world. These adjectives do not capture the ‘humanness’ of the millions of worlds inhabited by ordinary people each day where other adjectives such as struggle, initiative, forbearance, creativity and fortitude are equally as appropriate. Right in the midst of this have existed the great world Faiths – sometimes assisting the poor, sometimes indifferent to the poor, and sometimes the direct cause of poverty.I do not mean by this article to be an apologist for the Christian faith or for Faith in general. I find the notion of engaging in a debate on the existence of God somewhat pointless – it is like arguing with a proponent of the Flat Earth Society – whoever wins affects the shape of the world not one bit, however compelling the argument on either side.To attempt to define the meaning of Faith is no doubt to tread on dangerous ground indeed. Libraries exist on the topic and people a lot more learned and wise than me have pondered on the issue for centuries Still, it behoves each of us to work out for ourselves what Faith means for us, with the input of our Holy Books, our teachers and our fellow searchers. So this is not meant to be a learned exposition of what faith is for others but what I have come to understand of it for myself.Faith for me is an understanding of the nature of the universe and reality. It is the answer to the ultimate question of “WHY?â€. When we have asked all other questions, either through physics and mathematics, through biology, through social and behavioral science, through religion, mysticism or witchcraft, and each successive answer has been followed by another WHY? we reach the conclusion that either all is an irrational, random, cosmic absurdity – or it is not. Faith is an understanding of what is, not of what appears to be. It is the actual reality beyond what we perceive through the meager ability of our limited senses – it is a mixture of the perceived, the revealed and the not-yet-known. The antithesis of faith is not doubt – it is sight. Faith provides Meaning to our existence, it provides the purpose and destiny of our life and in so doing clarifies the purpose and meaning of all the lives around us. Faith is not “religionâ€ – it is not bounded by institutional constructs although it is, for me at least, intimately woven into the notion of community – a community of the faithful and the Divine.The Object of faith is at one both the essence of reality and utterly incomprehensible, and yet, from my Christian frame of reference, is personal, rational and moral – an eminent Presence who is ‘servable’ and in whom all human (and all other) existence finds its meaning.So where do faith and development meet? Where does what on one level is intensely personal meet with the needs of millions? The question does not help and serves only to muddy the water. Faith – the nature of reality – is not for the indulgence of the individual, it is not a retreat into a personal world of spiritual isolation, or ‘fellowship’ with the like minded. It is an awakening into an understanding of the connection between all people and it results in a universal call for justice and an obligation of service – not out of compulsion but out of love. These are words (justice, service and love) which in themselves are the source of confusion and invoke deep skepticism because they so often mask indifference and selective morality.A mark of the great world faiths is the assumption of a moral reality and a critique of the basic human condition. These differ in substance and in detail and I am not equipped to review the details of any but my own. A mark of humanity is rational ability and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong – even with no other measure, we are incapable of living up to our own standards, let alone the standards of our peers and society at large.The question arises as to whether there exists such a thing as “Objective Moralityâ€, a moral and ethical basis which exists outside of the constructs of human society. Or, put another way, is altruism a response to objective morality or is it the author of morality, there being no such thing as objective ‘right and wrong’? This introduces a notion which is outside of behaviorper se. To reduce all ethical and moral issues to evolutionary or genetic ‘one-upmanship’ results in the logical impasse of where the concepts of ‘right and wrong’ come from in the first place – a dog is unfettered by such dilemmas. Perhaps, just perhaps, we comprise body, mind and spirit. The behavioural rationalist must of necessity jump through a host of hoops to explain altruism with only the body and the mind to work with. If Objective Morality does exist and we have more to play with than time, chemicals and electricity, then perhaps altruism is an echo of a higher reality which cannot be fully explained by any mixture of these base elements.Consider a world without humans – a world without rational consciousness. There would be just water, air, earth, vegetables and animals; ‘right and wrong’ would have no expression and no meaning. What ‘altruism’ existed would be of the ‘grooming among monkeys and apes’ sort and no doubt entirely explicable from a behavioural perspective. Rational consciousness brings with it a concept of ‘right and wrong’ which creates the dilemma of whether there is an objective morality or not. The notion of ‘right and wrong’ becomes a philosophical conundrum in the absence of a notion of objective morality. If the rational consciousness which distinguishes humans from animals is merely the same consciousness of the ape or the ant extrapolated through the addition of time and selection, it still does not account for the notion of objective morality. Perhaps, just perhaps, there are realities which are imperceptible through the meagre senses with which we are equipped.Without raising the question of objective morality, altruism is difficult to explain – it is like fighting your corner with one hand tied behind your back – ultimately it is not only a behavioural question but also a philosophical question. If we do comprise more than body and mind alone, that which we call spirit is perhaps what translates for us between the reality which we perceive with our senses and the reality beyond. It is the link between two realities or perhaps between elements of the same reality only a part of which we are able to perceive. If it is this which sets us apart as humans and enables us to even perceive that there is such a thing as objective morality, perhaps this accounts for at least some of our behaviour. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that those who hold religious beliefs and thereby acknowledge (in many different forms) the existence of something Other and who seek to increase their perception of the Other, generally tend to engage in altruistic behaviour. (Which is not to imply that those who do not acknowledge the existence of something Other are not altruistic.) Perhaps the “bystander effectâ€ is better explained by a society which has largely denied the existence of anything other than mind and body. – Reality is tough to live with when we are only able to see ‘as in a mirror dimly’.The difficulty of living a real life in the “developmentâ€ game, wherever that may be, is that it is just that – a real life. A life of the office, of budgets and targets and deadlines, of failed projects, of corruption, reports and meetings, and more reports and more meetings. Altruism which is more than a self-serving palliative is tough and many are the cynics and skeptics who have abandoned their visions and ‘grown up’, or were never foolish enough to have had a vision in the first place. Keeping the fires burning in the long haul, year after year, when our choices have a real impact on those we hold dear is difficult. Whilst not claiming any special privileges, Faith holds many answers.How do we bring our faith into our work, how do we live and work with integrity and integration – as one person and not as some form of intellectual or spiritual schizophrenic?Integration – or integrity – for me is the key. The ability to bring everything into a single frame of reference – work, family, faith, all of life. To live one life with our family, our friends and our colleagues, in their presence, in their absence and in our own solitude, is a never-ending quest which is at the center of many faiths. Increasingly this integrity is being understood as a key also to human and economic development – we need to hold all things in a balance, an ever changing dynamic between development and the environment, between individual rights and the public interest, between private enterprise and social welfare. Increasingly integrity in life moves things from being echoes or reflections, to reality. So concern for environmental integrity and biodiversity is the same thing as rights for the poor, the construction of well considered infrastructure or developing equitable tax legislation.How we take the tenets of our faith into our daily work in development and maintain our intellectual, professional and moral integrity is the challenge so that our faith can both inform our work and be informed by it. Why is faith the great taboo that we never overtly apply to the problems and situations we address daily when it is a deep well of centuries of wisdom and understanding which has molded most of the cultures and perspectives of the people with whom we work?These questions are the substance of future articles in this series.