THE PERILS OF NEVER BEING WITHOUT FAITH

It’s inspiring to be around people who express their faith quietly rather than bombastically, gratefully rather than militantly. But what makes confidence like this possible?

This question has inspired many different answers. Here is a particularly problematic one: quietly confident faith comes from growing up in a faith community so nurturing that the nurtured never remember a time when they did not feel surrounded by love, important to God, and a cherished part of its spiritual environment.

Without doubt, there is a sweet glow to this answer. But there is a worrisome side to it as well.

In communities like these, there tends to be a shared conviction, not always stated, that the purest faith is an unquestioning faith. The truly faithful, its members are led to believe, are those who gratefully accept at face value all they have been taught in it, and who show compassion toward those who have not have been raised rightly in the right faith.

Unfortunately, the compassion is often a mask behind which there is little more than condescension.

This approach to faith reduces it to something that has to be received intact from others and guarded carefully against change. It is not something that one must come to on one’s own, by asking questions, entertaining doubts, and respecting that there is more to Sacred Reality than any religious tradition can possibly bring to full expression.

Faith that is only other peoples’ faith, itself taken on faith, cannot separate what is central and transformational in a religious tradition from what is peripheral and spiritually destructive to it. And because it cannot, its vitality depends almost wholly upon its practitioners’ losing themselves not in the Divine but in the faith communities that cling to it.

It can be a good thing to be held comfortingly and lovingly in the embrace of a caring community of humble and thankful people. But not if its members are unwilling to consider the possibility that spiritual growth often goes better outside than inside it. And that it is always better to experience the truth of faith for oneself.

“Better” here does not mean “easier.” It is anything but easy to discover for oneself what is true and what may not be true about a faith tradition, especially one’s own. And why we cannot avoid the journey and have genuine faith at all.

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WITH FAITH, ARE ALL THINGS POSSIBLE?

Close to the end of his ministry, Jesus made one of the strongest statements in all of religious history about the power of faith: With faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you can tell a mountain to move, and the mountain will do it. And nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20, Mark 11:23).

Though inspiring — eventually, at least — to his disciples’ own faith, Jesus’ promise has proved immensely challenging to others’. Telling people with mountain-size troubles just to have a little more faith, as well as to pray more, can make them feel even worse.

This little story of “mustard seed faith” offers a classic example of what can go wrong when religious texts are taken out of context, and when they are overly literalized.

In Matthew’s version of it, Jesus’ comparing faith with moving a mountain was in response to his disciples’ consternation over not curing a young boy’s epilepsy. They failed, Jesus told them, because their faith was too small — smaller even than a mustard seed. Here, the “mountain” in Jesus’ saying is illness, and faith is what (re)moves it.

Mark retains the statement, but gives it a very different setting and meaning. Jesus is standing with the disciples on or near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and telling them that by faith they can hurl the whole mountain — that is, Judaism with all its priestly trappings — into the sea.

The kind of faith that Mark seems to be envisioning here is unwavering confidence — with not the slightest admixture of doubt — that the repudiators of Jesus’ message about God’s coming Kingdom will, and should, all be destroyed. That this has not yet come to pass in the generations which followed Jesus’ own, Mark is attempting to explain, is clearly the result of Christians’ insufficient faith.

It should be more difficult than it has proved to be to imagine Jesus believing in a God who deliberately brings about others’ harm.

Pretty obviously, both of these Gospel writers ventured very, very far from what Jesus himself most likely understood by “mustard seed faith”: the courage to confront hardships, overcome obstacles that can be overcome, and trust God when they cannot be. Sometimes, the mountains are just too big to overcome, and the faith which knows it is stronger than the faith which denies it.

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BELIEVING THAT GOD IS, AND TRUSTING THAT GOD LOVES

A student says to his religion teacher: I’m not sure I still believe in God. The teacher says back: The real question is whether God still believes in you.

This is an old, old story in church, university, and seminary circles. Its glibness still elicits groans along with gratitude, because it substitutes cuteness for empathy in making what are in fact several important points about God and faith.

One is that having an idea of what the Divine is like comes before having an assurance that anything divine exists. To say this another way, the central question for faith is not whether there is a God at all, but whether there is a God worthy of being worshipped.

Throughout the history of religions, many ideas of God have surfaced which cannot yield a satisfactory answer to this question. The deities they conjure are best referred to with a small g. G for false.

Some of these gods seem utterly indifferent, others endlessly demanding, and still others perpetually angry. All of them are more self-absorbed than they are evil. But none exhibits a goodness that should ever be construed as deserving of praise. Alienated from whatever wisdom they once might have possessed, their power runs amok far more often than it secures order in the world.

Gods like these are best hoped to have no existence at all outside the overstimulated neurons of disordered brains.

Another point this story’s judgment-laden punchline suggests is that religious people, who should know better, often do not listen well. From this perspective, the story’s cleverness cannot cover over how shockingly uncaring “answers” to serious questions can be. In this case, instead of respecting its poser’s inner distress, it one-ups him with an almost gleeful flourish.

Many, many people are suffering this same kind of distress today. The dark side of the gods they have been told about are slowly and insidiously extinguishing the light, truth, and life which are the gifts of faith at its fullest. And sometimes they do not know to whom to turn for help.

What they most need is permission and encouragement to name the kinds of god in whom they neither can nor should any longer believe. And an invitation to think about what it would be like to worship a God who believes in unbelievers more than they may believe in themselves.

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IS A CONVERSION EXPERIENCE ESSENTIAL FOR FAITH?

Many people can recall to the day, hour, and even minute when their faith began. And the experience with which it began. As if in a moment, they say, their old life passed away and a new one began.

In many respects, coming to faith is very much like being reborn. The powerful embrace of losses, suffering, and pain, of resentments, fears, and sadness, of self-centeredness, guilt, and shame are all of a sudden broken. A new world dawns, this time filled with grace, meaning, possibilities, hope, love, and the joy of welcoming others into it all.

For many faith traditions, having a deep, personal, and transforming experience is an essential condition for considering oneself, and being considered by others, to be a believer. Without it, or without at least a desire for it, faith is either incomplete or not genuine at all.

However, it is one thing to find the idea of being born again attractive and inspiring. It is quite another to insist that without the experience of it, one’s life will be neither.

In truth, faith is as much something sought for as it is something found. It is something in process more than something perfected.

This is, of course, a different kind of faith than conformity with others’ teachings and practices. It is the deeply personal faith that arises from anguishing over life as it has come to be and of wondering whether and how more can be made of it. No one moment of this kind of faith’s appearing — no single, overwhelming experience — can provide sufficient understanding of all that a relationship with the Divine is meant to be across a lifetime.

A richly symbolic representation of this fundamental fact about faith is Islam’s story of Muhammad’s multiple encounters with God-sent angels. To The Prophet, they bore many messages in and for many different situations. Each contained something new for him to remember, recite, and to struggle with as much as its hearers would struggle with it in their own inner jihad.

In the language of faith, “conversion” means a turning away from — or a being turned away from — one way of living toward another. It can take place in an instant, or require a whole lifetime to come to fruition. What matters is the turn itself, not the time it takes to make it

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REDISCOVERING LIFE’S MEANING

One of the Bible’s most sobering passages is the litany of life’s “seasons” in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8). It culminates in difficult to translate words at verse 11: … he has given to human beings a sense of time in its wholeness. Or: an understanding of our own allotted span of time and of what we are meant to accomplish in it.

For the Preacher — or Speaker (Qoholeth) — of this book, the human experience of time is the experience of recurrences. The same things, good and bad, come to pass and repeat themselves over and over.

We cannot know whether there is any ultimate upward movement in this process. We can know only that whatever happiness there is to be found in it will be in the brief interludes of satisfaction through our “work.”

Even though we may eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves from it, the sage says, the work that God metes out to us is meaningless toil meant merely to keep us occupied. If he is right about this, there can be little real difference between the time for living and the time for dying.

But the Preacher is not right about this. Most especially, he is not right about why we are meant to do the work that we are meant to do.

In the language of faith, that work is to discover within ourselves what makes us most like the Divine. Then, it is to make it the foundation of our deepest sense of self, personal identity, and responsibility toward others.

Put in more philosophical and psychological terms, it is to discover within ourselves what we are uniquely capable of doing that is worth doing, and to cultivate the insights and the skills to do it well. And it is to experience the transporting sense of meaning that accompanies doing what we are meant to do, and becoming who we are meant to be.

Joseph Campbell frequently referred to this process as following our bliss. A less self-centered way of characterizing it is to say the divine part of our nature is most fully expressed as finding our greatest joy in putting others’ well-being ahead of our own.

The greatest frustration about life is not that it must come to an end. It is that our bodies will fail before our souls fully know that the quest for meaning never does.

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LOVE ALMIGHTY AND PAIN UNCEASING

Can there be a good reason why some people live in constant pain and others escape most forms of it altogether?

For many faith traditions, there is a reason, but not a good one: pain is a necessary punishment for offending or disobeying Deity. Those who experience it very intensely and/or for very long are simply getting what they deserve for how they have chosen to live their lives.

Compared with this outrageously condemnatory perspective, the view of modern medical science on chronic pain, based on empirical knowledge rather than faulty theology, almost overflows with understanding and empathy.

Pain, physicians tell us, is not always a bad thing. The capacity to feel it when we inadvertently touch a pan of boiling water, or stupidly exercise too long at the gym, is what keeps us from bringing even greater harm to ourselves.

But physicians also acknowledge that the pain some people endure seems wholly disproportionate to any good that can possibly come from it. And to make matters even worse, some painful conditions offer up neither a cause nor a cure.

Fortunately, there is now available a considerable variety of medications which, if not capable of eliminating pain completely, can make it at least manageable. And because there is, it is difficult to understand why so many medical practitioners seem so indecisive about making effective use of them.

More often than not, their stated concern is to minimize the possibility that a patient will become addicted to “pain killers.” This is a legitimate concern. But what if the killer is the pain itself?

From the standpoint of medical practice, the primary purpose of alleviating pain is to make it easier for people to get more enjoyment out of the life they have ahead of them, however long or short it may be. From the perspective of faith, there is more involved.

Certainly it is a worthy goal of physicians to help their patients enjoy life more. But it is also a worthy goal to help people make the kind of difference in other peoples’ lives that God enjoins all of us to do. When pain gets in the way of both endeavors, and when it can be reduced, it is a good thing to expend every effort to reduce it.

Medications can help, as can the compassion of understanding friends and caregivers. Staying other-centered may help even more.

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CAN GOD BE RIGHTEOUS WITHOUT BEING WRATHFUL?

Psychology tells us that children do what others expect of them largely from fear of what will happen if they don’t. Religion adds that if humans’ displeasure is not enough, an angry God’s just might be.

As children grow up, both kinds of fears should give way to less childish thinking and acting, both moral and spiritual. It’s too bad that too many adults aren’t that grown-up yet.

With both their children and the Deity, their relationships remain contaminated by chronic apprehensiveness. A he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake… mentality that isn’t fair to anyone, even Santa Claus.

By contrast, a grown-up mentality focuses on doing the right thing for its own sake, and not to avoid others’ displeasure or win their favor. Its idea of being good is for goodness’ sake, and not for the sake of reward.

And hoping that others will follow the example because they see its intrinsic rightness and goodness, not because they are looking to escape a wrath to come, either in this life or the next.

When expectations — other peoples’ and Deity’s — take the form of laws and commands, they do, or at least should, generate awareness that consequences follow from not acting in accordance with them. But must the consequences be thought of only in terms of punishments? And must their imposition always be administered out of a sense of righteous outrage and wrath?

In the spheres of family rules and civil/criminal law codes, perhaps so. Many believe that in these arenas of human life, fear of other’s disappointment and anger isn’t as powerful an inhibitor of bad behavior as fear of the punishment itself.

And in the religious sphere, things seem not to be all that different. There, the consequences of defying the divine will in this life are proclaimed to extend through all eternity. When God’s righteousness is mocked, it turns into wrath, and those upon whom the divine wrath turns are doomed to everlasting misery.

At least, that is the message of a childish faith. But for those who grasp the importance of putting away childish things, the divine righteousness has to mean something else. It has to include a patient love which never gives up hope that human beings will come to do good and great things simply because that is what they are meant to do.

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IS THE WILL OF GOD ALWAYS THE SAME?

Most serious students of human behavior agree that moral codes are fashioned by human societies under the pressure of changing circumstances and new challenges. Times change, and so do concepts of what actions are and are not morally praiseworthy.

For many people of faith, though, this way of looking at morality is downright wrong. Typically, two assumptions form the basis of their criticism.

The first is that valid moral laws are divinely and not humanly ordained. The second is that they express the unchangeable will of Deity for human beings at all times and everywhere.

Are the differences between these two outlooks reconcilable? I think so, primarily because both rest upon a confusion which should not be as difficult to resolve as many seem to believe it is.

The confusion comes from blurring the distinction between (a) conforming to the moral rules of a particular society, and (b) respecting the reasons for striving to be moral in the first place. In the order of importance, (b) always transcends (a). Moral rules (as in Do this, not that) may and do change across time, but the reasons for having rules at all do not.

The main reason for seeking an understanding of what is genuinely — and not just conventionally — right and wrong is that it is part of the very essence of being human to do so.

To be sure, the process begins with acknowledging and conforming to a moral code taken pretty much at face value. But then, for thoughtful people at least, the questions must come.

Why this rule? Why this code? Why 613 moral laws? Aren’t two enough? And aren’t these two (as in Love God, and others as your neighbors) more like general principles than specific rules?

It may be that the search for overarching ethical principles to guide us is determined by genetic coding just as much as is the imposing of parochial moral codes to bind us. But I wonder. Living ethically just doesn’t seem to have the survival value that living conventionally does.

Striving to be ethical and not just moral is more like preparing for life that will be far more encompassing and lasting than the life we now know.

God clearly has changed his mind about enforcing every jot and tittle of old rules. But not about our making sacrifices for others’ good.

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DO DIVINE WORDS NEED HUMAN INTERPRETING?

Sometimes the best place to express a strong conviction is on a bumper sticker. Here is one that offered a complete theology to drivers waiting for a stoplight to change: God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

That God “says” things is an important symbol in many religions, East and West. As a symbol, however, it refers not only to his words, but also to what he intends by them, for different people at different times and in different circumstances.

Remembering the words is easy. Grasping their intention is not.

Is this a problem for faith? For religious institutions and authorities, the usual answer to this question is: Of course not. What God means is whatever we determine that he means, and we can tell you what that is whenever the words themselves don’t.

Less abruptly stated, their point is that religious traditions are based on what was told to their founders by prophets and sages — and maybe even angels. And that through them, God spoke with a clarity beyond any possibility of being misunderstood, ever.

It is the very simplicity of this way of thinking that makes it so attractive. It relieves people of having to figure so many things out for themselves in the spiritual realm. And it encourages returning, over and over again, to the divine words themselves, e.g.: Let there be light; Behold, I am making all things new.

If only these words, and many others like them in religious scriptures, meant the same thing in every tradition which makes use of them. By way of examples, the “light” that God is said to have called into being is not only Jesus of Nazareth, and newness of life comes not only from the forgiveness of sins.

The history of the world’s religions makes plain that their most profoundly inspiring words and images can and do mean profoundly different things to different people. How could it be otherwise? The words and the images are the spiritual currency of finite, fallible beings and as such, can never adequately express the overwhelming fullness of what is truly divine.

Without listening for and rejoicing in his words, there will be nothing heard from God at all. But without interpreting and sharing their meaning as well, there will be little understanding of what we are to believe and do to honor him here and now.

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WHAT THE AFTERLIFE CANNOT BE LIKE

What happens to us after we die? The most sensible answer to this question — the one that relies most on sensory evidence — is that we return to the dust from which our atoms have come.

This answer may be sensible, but it has not been universally satisfying. Neither, however, are many of religion’s alternatives.

Consider, for example, the depressing depictions of an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth governed by impersonal karmic laws whose accumulating demands are for all practical purposes impossible to satisfy.

Or the terrifying prophecies of world destruction at the hand of an enraged deity and agonies to be suffered in everlasting fire.

It takes a poignantly incomplete understanding of the Sacred to find any real satisfaction in images like these. They offer no hope whatever that wrongful actions and attitudes might be redeemable through the grace, mercy, and love which flow from what is truly divine.

By its very definition, “afterlife” is a state of being which is beyond ordinary sensibilities. Most people who believe in it do so on the basis of wishes, intimations, and intuitions whose truth cannot be determined on the basis of sense experience alone.

But if afterlife is the provision of a sacred order of things truly deserving of human exalting, it is something truly worth hoping for rather than fearing. Whatever knowledge we may claim to have of it, though, must include at least two acknowledgements that might be unsettling.

The first is that we are not yet fit to experience the fullness of its benefits. The second is that to become so, more than one mortal life may be necessary, either here or somewhere between here and heaven.

Just as the truth of beliefs about afterlife, it would seem, must rest somewhere between the sensible and the unsatisfying.

To the silenced denizens of a shadowy Underworld and the screaming souls in a flaming Hell, it surely would be better to have no afterlife at all.

In other words, there is a moral dimension to human destiny: the morally deficient can expect their experiences in the next life to be lacking much of what those with moral integrity will enjoy. And that is the unsatisfying part of believing in it.

But the satisfying part is their promise of a blessed afterlife to those spiritually and morally ready to receive it.

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