Faith and Choice and International Meetings
One day, Sheikh al-Junayd set out on a journey and while traveling was overtaken by thirst. He found a well that was too deep to draw water from, so he took off his sash, dangled it into the well until it reached the water, and set about raising and lowering it and squeezing it into his mouth.
A villager appeared and asked him, “Why do it so? Tell the water to rise, and drink with your hands!”
And the villager approached the edge of the well and said to the water, “Rise with God's permission,” and it rose, and the sheikh and the villager drank.
Afterward, the sheikh turned to the villager and asked, “Who are you?” “One of God's creatures,” he replied.
“And who is your sheikh?” asked al-Junayd. “My sheikh is al-Junayd, though I have yet to set eyes on him,” replied the man.
“Then how do you attain these powers?” asked the sheikh. “Through my faith in my sheikh,” replied the man.1
The Argentinian writer Borges has reflected on scholars who have considered that writings with spiritual messages may have an infinity of meanings, perhaps even that each reader is predestined to find meanings unique to a person in time and place.2
The story of the sheikh and the villager can be understood in many ways. For me, the story proposes that faith can be the source of great and sometimes unexpected strengths. How does one choose a foundation of faith?
Many such choices appear to divide a world into light and darkness, good and evil, enlightened and unknowing. These choices attempt to offer an understanding of existence, and the entailments of the understanding are the conditions of faith.
There are humbler choices, ones that do not claim so much. One choice that may seem less than divine is the practice of medicine.
Hippocrates can serve as a summary figure for a faith's earthbound chosen foundation of medicine. This possibly real, composite, or mythical man lived beneath great tides of religions. His operational faith has persisted through many centuries of sacred and philosophical eruptions. A certain kind of painter, a William Blake or Mississippi's Walter Anderson, could portray him as kneeling beneath a constellation of divinities, one hand gesturing sufficiently to the higher beings, while his other hand takes the pulse, while his eyes gauge the pallor, while his ears register the respiration of a recumbent patient struggling with an illness.3,4 Far short of such an illustration, Figure 1 shows a temporal place for Hippocrates among historical moments of religious personification and expression.
The religious entries in this figure include a variety of epiphanies. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad communicated with God and prophetically offered holy words for the foundations of faiths. Zoroaster and Amenhotep created hymns to provide mystical, lyrical states of faiths. The poets, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, and the collationists of the Vedic hymns and Shinto developed narrative frameworks for complex religious traditions, offering patterns of belief, behavior, and hope for the faithful. Lao-Tzu and Gautama Buddha expressed intuitions leading to cosmogonies and ethics striving toward a higher reality beyond ordinary sense.
The great numbers of humanity, however, have lived beneath or tangential to these higher speculations. Hippocrates is their representative in the more worldly column of the figure. Confucius could join him there.
Hippocrates' choice for a foundation of faith is outlined in the famous oath attributed to him (Fig. 2). He develops a framework based on social agreements rather than divine or mystical directions. In some ways, therefore, the oath may lack the authority of commandments and miracles.