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The 5-Word Philosophy That Still Speaks to Me

November 4, 2021


From time to time on Twitter, someone will invite others to define themselves or their faith or their favorite movie through limited words: “Without naming the movie, tell the story in four words,” they’ll write, and an amusing few minutes may be spent reveling in just how creative people can be.

My favorite invitation is “Tell the Gospels in five words,” or similarly, “Jesus’ message in five words.” My answers change depending on what is happening in the world and also my own mood. Recently, after watching tweeters heap judgement upon each other daily, usually with astonishing energy and a true sense of glee, my answer to that last was “Get off each other’s backs.”

That may not be as perfect a response as Mother Teresa’s famous “Five Finger Gospel” (“You did it to me”), but I still think “Get off each other’s backs” is a strong contender—backed up by Luke 6:37-42—and entirely relevant to the times.

It reminds me of another five-word adjuration that I long ago scrawled into a notebook during a cab ride through Brooklyn (in days long before Uber). I was shooting a few episodes of a discussion panel show produced by the local diocese, and the good folks at New Evangelization Television (NET) had arranged the fifteen-minute drive from subway to studio.

Typically, the cab drivers I encountered during these recording days were immigrants from the Middle East or India, and—with the exception of one crankpot who seemed to have had enough of driving through pedestrians for one day and offered loud, belligerent grunts as an ongoing social critique—these men were all soft-spoken but chatty fellows with seemingly genial natures. 

One particular driver and I had such a good conversation that I jotted it down in my notebook. He’d had an ornament hanging from his mirror—a red-cube thing with a rose atop it and some calligraphy. I asked him what the writing meant, and he replied, “It is the name of the prophet and of God, and it is a blessing for the car, a blessing for travel.”

“Oh,” I said. “I have something like that in my car, too.”

He must have noticed the crucifix around my neck. “You are a Catholic” he accurately surmised, and added, “I try to bring God into everything I do, throughout the day.” 

“I do, too, as much as I can,” I said. “It’s not always easy; I don’t always come up to snuff.” 

“God is merciful,” he said. “Many people, all kinds of people, try to live in this way. My people—some Christian people, some Jewish people—they all try, but it is not always easy, as some think it is.” 

“No, but we try,” I mused. “We people of faith all try to live it, and we all believe, and yet we have no peace between us.” 

He shrugged. I got the impression that this was a conversation neither of us would be having if we were face-to-face. “Faith is good,” he mused. “But peace . . . is difficult. We all believe different things.” 

Ah, the eternal struggle—the mobius upon which we all ride and cannot escape. Why can’t believers simply allow other believers their beliefs? Because they believe

I teased the driver, “Maybe, then, we believers should just stop believing, and that would solve everything.” 

“No, no,” he answered very seriously. “Not believing is even worse.” 

I was so struck by his answer and his gravity that I wrote it down in my notebook: “Not believing is even worse.” 

My notes include a brief parenthetical observation that “belief” can be as much about the secular as the sacred—that ideologies and pet causes can become a kind of religion to those claiming to have no religion at all—because something within our humanity will always drive us to pursue forms, formulae, and rituals with all the attendant prophecies, indulgences, sins, and punishments. We instinctively look for something greater than ourselves to serve.

Because “not believing is even worse”—it’s lonely, limiting, devoid of challenge.

I thought about that driver’s utter certainty in what he had said and found it was worth pondering unto lectio. With its qualifier, “even worse,” the line acknowledges the fact that belief is imperfect, that faith cannot be flawlessly communicated and lived within faulty and imperfect humanity. It says that to believe is not the perfect good. It is only a way to search for and encounter the Perfect Good. If we fail in that (and we all do, in one way or another), then all that is left is grace. And mercy. 

And, of course, for believers, there is the reality that our lives and our ways continually give scandal to “the faith,” no matter what faith. Jihadi give scandal to the Muslims; some televangelists give scandal to the Evangelicals; some priests have given scandal to the Catholics; the Hadassah lady sneaking a pork egg roll gives scandal to the Jews. My sharp answer to a stranger, while I wear the cross of Christ crucified, gives scandal. 

Even those professed unbelievers who become evangelizers for the godlings of politics or myriad new social virtues manage to give scandal when they suggest that the humanity of their opponents may be suspect, or may not exist at all.   

Believers aren’t any better than anyone else, and belief—for all the good it does, and it does much good—still serves as the impetus for delivering or communicating so much that is bad in the world.

Because we humans bring so much of our own brokenness to all that we believe. 

And yet . . . not believing is even worse.