Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"Faith in" what?

"Let thy soul be de-spirited of all things spirit; let it be spiritless. Love God as he is: a not-God, a not-spirit, a not-Person, a not-image; as sheer, pure, limpid unity, alien from all duality."
--Meister Eckart

One of my short informal "off the cuff" essays. This essay highlights a longstanding difference in perspective regarding religion in the West. Those familiar with Unitarian Universalism and other similar movements (which are typically non-mainstream within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) know that I am not originating this discussion. I'm just continuing it.


Faith is an interesting topic. One frequently hears professing Christians talk about the fact that they have faith. They are not unique in this, but given their influence on U.S. society and politics, is worth asking, "Faith in" what?

Faith in literal events and whether such and such was a literal person and they did such and such on this day for that reason? (Read: Burning Bush, Pillar of Fire, Plague of Locusts, Great Flood, Virgin Birth, Walking on Water, Resurrection, Angels, the Devil, etc.)


Faith in the truths or lessons embedded in these stories?

Example of the difference:

"I have faith in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This means I have faith that he was a real person born of a virgin to fulfill a prophecy and he had a bodily resurrection. I have faith there is some kind of personfied Greater Power called 'God' and that Jesus is a unique and holy manifestation of this 'God' in human form. I have faith that he performed real miracles while he was in human form on Earth and I have faith he is a real person who then ascended to Heaven. I have faith that I will go to Heaven and I have faith that Heaven is real."


"I have faith in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This means I have faith in the capacity of each person to die to their ego and therefore realize the basis for unlimited compassion, as exemplified in the Christ narrative as giving his life for the whole world. I have faith that we can all find this Christ-nature in ourselves, dying to our own selfishness and embracing a view that cherishes all things from the tiniest mote of dust to the cruelest human to the stars in the sky. "

In one take, faith is concerned with the accuracy of events recorded in a religious narrative (past and future). In the other, faith deals with the accuracy of our fundamental nature and potential as revealed in a religious narrative.

In the former the value of faith is judged by a litmus test of creeds about believing in the existence of various people and events, while for the latter the value of faith is judged by the transformation of the individual professing it. In the Abrahamic religions the former view has enjoyed relatively unchallenged dominance, particularly in Christianity and Islam. No wonder so many people who don't accept the required belief in the requisite people and events of such religions reject them utterly. It is the Christians who say that their faith is founded on accepting these beliefs. Even many of the more "liberal" Christians often simply pare down the required list, rather than simply rejecting faith defined in such terms. Without a strong, viable tradition in the Judeo-Christian lineage for the latter view of faith, unrestrained by creeds and "minimal" assent to the former brand of faith, debate over Christianity becomes a dialogue in whether one believes in magical powers, and whether physical evidence and historical documents support or refute the Flood Story or Plagues of Egypt or the Resurrection of Christ. When presented as "believe in the literal reality of at least these people or events" or no, many choose "no". These are the heretics and the non-believers, who are presented with the false dichotomy of religion by faith in logos versus no religion as opposed to religion by faith in logos and religion by faith in mythos versus no religion, where even this latter arrangement is oversimplified.

Logos and mythos need not always bet mutually exlcusive, but, ultimately one is going to be more crucial/pivotal than the other. Both forms exist in all sacred traditions, but for Christianity faith in events has been the keystone. It's not like you walk into a Christian church and find that it's the example/imagery which is key. If that were true, then whether or not someone held these narratives to be literal or not would be of secondary importance, a matter for small talk not a "test" of faith.

The difference is that for many, having happened is its only power. In other words, publish an nigh irrefutable study showing that Jesus never left the grave and I suggest you would get the following reactions:

A. People losing faith in Christianity.
B. People letting go of the resurrection but clinging ever tighter to other events as absolutely literal.
C. People denying the study and attributing its accuracy to a trick of Satan/test by God.
D. People coming to a deeper appreciation of faith.

If historical evidence makes faith more powerful, then that leaves reactions A.-C. at a loss for explanation. Reaction D. is actually antithetical to the notion that historical evidence strengthens faith.

Again I'm not trying to convince anyone of what to believe, but I think when you can "let go" of the importance of seeing the narratives in terms of infallible history it makes the meaning that much stronger. So, I would suggest that the having evidence of a narrative being historically true or not true does not make the narrative more powerful, just easier or harder to sell to some folks. Not everyone will agree with that. That fine.

To summarize I am questioning the idea that just because in Western culture one view of the meaning and value of religion has become so dominant then everyone judges their relationship to the whole notion of religion based on that view. One does not have to have dogma to have a religion, even though the popularity of dogma and religion have caused many people to conflate the two ideas and actually believe they are the same thing. The people who are most guilty of this are the people promoting a particular view of their religion, in which they have placed their hearts upon creeds and dogmas.

Basically, what is religion really about? All religions are basically about personal revelations. The difference is that some try to shorhorn them into a narrow permissible set of interpretations. The current excess of focusing on a particular method of validating the religious experience as taught by the current incarnations of Abrahamic religions doesn't mean alternatives don't exist, even if less visibly. Why is it so important to view the value of religion in terms of being able to tell "these" and "those"? I can understand why people *in* those religions who buy into such exlcusivism favor it, but I don't see their reasons as having any value to me.

Why should we accept what some people try to force it to be, when, even within Abrahamic traditions there has always been more room than just "doctrine and dogma". When compared to other world religions as well, there seems to be a strong case for rejecting the narrow meaning and usefulness that we have inherited in the west for the whole notion of religion, which is basically organized spirituality, or to use the other phrase, shared personal transformation.


  1. I ran into your blog randomly by hitting the nav bar. I maintain a reliion blog: www.markingthebeast.blogspot.com. My stuff is more sloppy, rough and less philosophical than what I perused here, but it is generally well thought out (I think)and strongly felt.


  2. Hello JT (or do you prefer hair-e?) Per your comments:

    **I used the Nav console before deciding whether to start a blog in the first place. Amazing what's out there (in both the "Wow!" good and "Wow!" bad sense)

    **Honesty is more important than sounding philosophical or having lots of polished editing. Challenging assumptions and reviewing conclusions are also very valuable.

    I had a look at the blog you linked. I appreciate the frustration people have with the perception of evangelical Christianity because of the social and political agendas of the highly visible organizations and individuals who are given a disproportionate amount of air-time and political clout, but I also appreciate that it's easy to miss all of the good things inspired by the same religion.

    Part of the rallying cry of the "knee-jerk" fundamentalists is that the whole religion is under attack, not just their fanatical branch. My personal preference is to try not to justify or appear to give credence to such claims. Anyone who thinks this sounds like a relevant or interesting topic, either in a good or bad way, should definitely visit JT's blog because he takes a lot of time to put together his opinions about what to do about conservative Christian fanaticism. It's a whole forum to carry on these kinds of discussions or (depending on your POV) debates.

    Oh, and lest I forget, thanks for visiting!


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...