Over the last ten years or so, the idea of faith has cropped up in a number ways that have caught my attention. Faith has surfaced as a factor in a wide variety of contexts and has been used to express feelings, provide comfort, divide parties, stir politics, rationalize policies, strengthen resolve, bring people together, provide focus and unity after great tragedy, and engender comfort in a time of personal loss. Faith can be as concrete as loyalty to a person or idea, as ethereal as hope in something unknowable, or as reassuring as the acceptance of divine will. I know people who find in their faith the core of their spiritual life and are strengthened by it everyday. I have also seen exclusive faith used as a weapon to divide people and rationalize terrible things. I have experienced what I know as faith in comforting a friend who was dying of cancer. Now I am almost 50-years old, have an 11-year old daughter (which definitely changes your focus in life), and am bringing a Buddhist perspective into my reconnection with my Christian roots. So, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of faith lately. Particularly, what is faith? More specifically, what is the character of my faith and what does it mean?
I am often told to have a little faith (in something or someone) or to “put your faith in…(God).” I wonder if this is a justification for blind faith. Is faith simply belief: a belief in something that can’t be explicitely proven? That dilemma of faith is embodied in the classic battle between science and religion, we have often been told. The root of the word faith comes from ancient words meaning “to trust”. So are we to have blind faith in an invisible power that can never be fully explained? Perhaps that is overstating it a bit, but we have many examples of things where unquestioning trust has led to disaster. I think instead, that the creative force that is so elusive, that some sort of unsubstantiated understanding is inevitable also embodies the power of the intellect, the questioning mind, the verifier. I see this as the Yin and Yang of spiritual life, the knowable and the unknowable, the quantifiable experience and the mystical presence that is simply known.
I often think that, to paraphrase the blues song, “If it weren’t for ‘bad’ faith I’d have no faith at all.” You’ll notice that ‘bad’ is in quotes. There are those who believe in a monolithic idea of true faith that has specific fixed parameters that must be met or you don’t really have faith. I have seen some politicians use this kind of faith to sway their constituents and some have used it as a smoke screen of distraction. In fact, there are some who would tell you that if you question your faith then you don’t really have it. And there are many who when faced with beliefs outside their experience feel that they may be at risk of losing their faith. They often feel that the faith that questions itself is a bad faith incapable of true belief. It will come as no surprise that I would question this kind of certainty in the face of the morass of problems, prejudices and politics such faith has often brought us. In fact, I would ask, if that faith is so strong, why would there be a fear losing it?
If you know the Yin-Yang symbol, it is the embodiment in its swirling separateness of the reality of the Buddhist notion of the transcendence of opposites, the false duality of our perceived reality. Inside of the larger areas of black and white are small dots of the opposing color; a dot of black inside the white and a dot of white inside the black. This symbolizes the inter-reliance of one upon the other. White cannot exist without the black to contrast it and the black could not be realized without the absence of black which is white. So in a discrete symbol we see the unity of all things in the display of the false dichotomy of simple hues we take to be opposites and yet have the most intimate of connections. One could not exist without the other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, God is the sum of all things.
And so it is with my personal understanding of faith at this moment along my own way to where ever it is that I am going. For me the questioning mind is the strength of the trusting soul. If there weren’t acceptance of some divine principle, what would I be questioning? When I come to questions of faith I do not rely solely on belief, but I put my trust in the question and the act of questioning itself. I think that no matter the outcome, my faith will be stronger for it. I will either confirm the faith I have or I will inform my existing faith with new knowledge which will allow me to grow in my spiritual life. This can be disconcerting, even fearful at times because it requires a release of certainty in order to be open to the process of spiritual growth. And therein lies the rub. In this view, true faith is never fixed, never completely realized. It is a dynamic process to be experienced and wrestled with, not arrived at and held tightly.
When I was young I believed that things were finite and life would be realized and then you would have arrived. Over the last number of years, the nature of this existence has become clearer and my relationship with that which I call God, “I am”, has expanded beyond simple obedience and static belief. It is the process, the journey that is the living of the spiritual life. In that sense, the static faith that one simply trusts in the omnipotence that will take care of all things, is easier than struggling with uncertainty. That is where, I fear, the judgmental separation of believers and non-believers, faithful and unfaithful can creep in. For some it is this very notion of the certainty of fixed faith that allows the unity of all things, of all peoples, of all traditions to be overlooked.
And so, I cling to my unclingable notion of dynamic faith, that paradox of reason and mystery that I find so intriguing and provides, I feel, the only road, whether we are aware or not. Thank you for taking time to read and consider these thoughts. Please share your ideas of faith if you are so inclined. I am interested in your questions and/or answers that they may inform my own. I wish you peace on your way whichever it is.