Something I've wanted to blog about for awhile is "faith" in the sense of "belief not based on proof". It's an interesting thing because I both sympathize with faith as well as challenge it. So, I want to talk a little bit about both sides of my feelings towards the idea.
On the one hand, I completely understand what it feels like to have faith that something is true and being somewhat at a loss to explain just why you feel that way. There are plenty of things I still believe that I don't necessarily believe can be proven, such as there being inherent worth in each and every person. Sometimes things just resonate with you on a level that cannot be explained and the only sensible reaction you can muster is a total embrace of the idea. So, when I'm having a discussion with someone about a certain belief and at the end they say that they "just have faith," I can sympathize with that and a part of me seeks to respect that as an almost sacred bond.
Then there is the other hand, where I see faith as an all-too-common roadblock to critical thinking and discussion. This is because often times when people say that they have faith in something, it seems to mean that they have thought about it once, but now they are all done thinking about it. They have come to their official conclusion and all other ideas are merely lies and deception. They thus commit their entire lives to following the idea they have faith in and regard any inner or outer questioning of it as essentially evil. I understand this because this is exactly the approach I had to faith for a long time. Eventually though, I started to suspect that this was not necessarily God's view of faith and thus set out to see just where my questions would take me rather than constantly scapegoating them off on demons, devils and false prophets. In the words of Galileo "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
I think that there can be a happy marriage between faith and logic, which oddly, many people don't think is possible. They think the only options are to either take the path of faith or the path of logic but I totally reject that notion...you can entertain both and I think to some degree we all do subconsciously anyway. The approach to faith that I strive for values unexplainable belief while valuing critical thinking. It is aware of an inner spiritual attraction to certain ideas but yet is not afraid to examine those ideas from time to time to see if they are still worth embracing. To me, this is the only type of faith that doesn't eventually become stagnant and is where true spiritual growth is possible.
Something I've been thinking a lot about this past year is this thing we call "God". Belief in God is something that I have maintained throughout my life, but if someone were to ask "do you believe in God," I don't think I could answer it with a simple 'yes' or 'no' as in times past. The reason being because usually what people seem to mean by that question is "do you believe in MY God?" and while my idea of God may resemble someone else's in some respects, it may be radically different in others.
There are so many different conceptions of God or gods and definitely many more than I think most people are consciously aware of. For a good percentage of people, at least in the western world, I don't think the idea of God goes much beyond the famous 'magical-bearded-man-in-the-clouds' concept (as depicted above from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to which they either accept or reject. While it would be practically impossible to talk about all the different variations out there, suffice it is to say that "God" is almost a useless term unless you are in conversation with people that you are sure hold an identical or near identical concept with you. So, perhaps a question I could answer better would be "to which god concept do you believe in, if any?". Though even my answer to that would be extremely hazy, as the idea of God is more of something my brain likes to wrestle with, as opposed to being a solid and unchanging belief. Belief in that sense is relatively dead to me, anyway.
In a nutshell, I have come to perceive the word "God" as a kind of blanket category for a level of reality connecting all things that we have yet to fully understand or define, because (like all spiritual things) it pierces the limits of language that are applied to it. Yet, we have no other choice but to apply language and symbols to it if we hope to discuss it or make meaning out of it...hence the existence of all religions.
It seems highly unlikely to me that with all the different religions out there that a single one of them has just so happened to have properly and completely understood what and who God is, while all the rest are totally incorrect. A more reasonable view, to my mind, would be to admit that possibly all religions, philosophies, etc., may each understand certain things about the divine while misunderstanding other things. Everyone has a few pieces of the puzzle, but no one has the complete picture. And as the world becomes ever more connected through various media, I think a lot more people are actually coming to a similar conclusion concerning God and beliefs in general.
Now, as to what parts one group is right about and what parts another is wrong about is, obviously, a very debatable thing. Yet, I think the simple admission that no one is fully right and no one is fully wrong about the God question is an enormous step in the right direction. That admission allows us all to be teachers as well as learners when it comes to understanding this mysterious, mythical, yet real part of our universe. I would even be as bold to say that being open to this concept of God is a step towards world peace, as it would undoubtedly foster religious and cultural understanding.
In my last blog, I talked about how I had finally done away with the "Christian" label after holding on to it since early childhood. It has now been half a year since I decided on that and one of the downsides that I have found is that it's been increasingly difficult to structure my "spiritual life" since.
I mean, when I was a Christian, finding structure to my spiritual life was rather easy. Preschool easy, actually. There was going to church on Sundays (of course), youth group on Wednesdays as well as Bible study and worship band practice on other random days of the week. Not to mention that in between all that there was prayer, Christian friends on and offline, individual Bible reading and probably enough Christian books to fill every football field in the NFL. There is simply no shortage of avenues for Christians to explore their spirituality in a structured way.
I say this not to complain about Christianity but only to say that once you distance yourself from that culture it just becomes hard to know what to do with yourself. I suspect this to be one of the reasons why many people who leave such a culture and it's beliefs eventually become staunch agnostics or atheists -- there's just no structure for their remaining spiritual ideas to thrive in. It's also part of why I am much less zealous than I once was in changing the minds of others to my line of thinking -- it's a lonely road (at times) to travel that can result in a complete shut out of spiritual ideas and I don't want to be the cause of that (I also have no idea if I am correct on anything in the first place). That's not to say there is nothing for those of us outside the Christian culture but there is considerably less and even less so for the growing number of us who don't necessarily identify with any religious label.
In addition to there not being as much structure available for me, I think there is also not much trust or faith left within me to give to any other potential structure. For once you lose faith that a single religion and it's culture magically contains all the answers to life's greatest mysteries, you can easily become disenchanted with virtually all beliefs and any structure you could potentially arrange them into. It's like how we sometimes can be with relationships--we give our absolute all to one or more of them, that when and if they do break down it can be hard to give the same kind of trust and passion to any other relationship again.
Perhaps part of the problem may be that I'm not entirely sure what it is I'm looking for. I think the Unitarian Universalists have a bit of a good idea, based on what I got to experience in boot camp. All religions being viewed as equally valid spiritual avenues is a refreshing idea. Unfortunately,we do not have a group of them on base in Cuba and the online community seems to be lacking.
I guess I'm kind of half expecting to know what it is I'm looking for when I see it. I miss the community and structure of a church, so much so that I've thought about attending the Christian church here on base for the bit of sustenance I can get from it (since I can't go anywhere else in Cuba. I'm in Guantanamo Bay now, if you weren't already aware). Of course, I am reluctant to follow through with that based on the bad taste I have gotten from church in the past, despite the many potential good things about it. I may give it a shot anyway just to meet some people and get the spiritual gears turning in my head again but we'll see.
Maybe I'm just making this all too complicated, as I do with most things.
I no longer call myself a "Christian" after using it for a good 10 years or more. You are probably thinking that I've instead traded it for another phrase like "Christ-follower" to denote that I really follow Jesus and need to disassociate myself with the hypocrites...but no it's not that. It's just a term that I kept using until I finally became confused as to why I still used it.
My main justification for using it up until now was that since the birth of Christianity, there have existed multiple versions of the faith with both small and large differences in belief. Other than perhaps the Apostle's Creed, there has been very little unity regarding Christian beliefs (and even in the creeds, there's so much that can and is debated as far as interpretation goes). So, while I acknowledged that there were often common-held beliefs between Christians, it just seemed silly to me that any one group could truly lay claim to the Christian name. Like music, Christianity was not just a single artist but an ever expanding genre. If all these other groups could call themselves Christians, I didn't see why I couldn't.
However, for the past year or so there hasn't been much in my beliefs that I can say is very similar to other Christians. I still believe in God (though I find it hard to describe him or it), I believe Jesus was a very wise and special teacher and I believe the Bible can be useful from a practical wisdom standpoint -- that pretty much sums up the similarities. I guess I could continue to call myself a Christian even with those few beliefs, but what really would be the point? The only real benefits I see in using the name is to keep my family content and to help me feel like I'm still connected to the culture where I first experienced the Divine. The downside is that it no longer fully describes where I am on my spiritual journey and therefore doesn't feel right to me. I'd rather take flack for what I believe than be dishonest with myself or others. I was that way when I was a devout conservative Christian and I still am now.
That isn't to say I've totally abandoned Christianity. I certainly see the Christian faith as a potential vessel for experiencing God but it is not the only or even primary vessel. God can be known and experienced through many different faiths and ideas -- I can't see God as limited to just one. That's not to say that all people who consider themselves Christians see God as completely exclusive to Christianity but it tends to be the main realm of thought used to define spiritual things. I don't think any human-designed system of belief can solely or mostly define God and on the off-chance that it can I wouldn't know what system to select anyways.
If anything, the only thing I've really abandoned is labels. Labels can sometimes help give a snapshot view of what a person believes without getting into specific details. Labels can also just drum up a individuals preconceived notions about said label and cause them to make all sorts of totally inaccurate assertions -- which happens more often than not when I use the Christian title. I've learned not to care much if people write me off or just think I'm strange for what I believe but I'd rather spend a minute or two clarifying what I believe than continue to blurt out some word that means a billion different things to a billion different people.
So, rather than try to make certain individuals happy, or feel connected to a familiar culture or explain all the reasons I'm different from most Christians, I'm just going to avoid using the label for the most part. From now on if anyone asks me what it is that I am, I may just respond, "a fellow human being" -- anything beyond that is just complicated.