Sunday, July 20, 2008

Why believe?

I wanted to begin this particular blog post by stressing that this is not intended as an attack on religion or on religious belief. Rather, it is a reflection of my current struggle with religion, the effects of religion, and the purpose of religion. At it's root, my reflections today stem from the fact that I found myself musing on the question of "what's the point?" [of religious belief] and didn't have a very satisfactory answer.

So here I hope to express my thoughts, my struggles. I hope for feedback, for insights, for the wisdom of those who do me the honor of reading my humble blog.

It occurs to me that there are those who would say that they believe in religion (in whatever form) simply because it is, in their mind, true. Sadly, though, I find this to be an empty response. The truth of a divine Being is ultimately unknowable, transcendent, goes beyond human ideas and concepts. And even if such an idea is accepted (that a religious belief contains truth, albeit limited), then what? To what point do we hold onto this truth? Sadly, I see many downfalls of those who insist that they know "the truth." What's more, I am moved much more profoundly by those who would hold their sense of what is true in humility, who would be much more concerned with compassion and openness and love than in the attainment of "truth." So while the discovery of answers, of "truth" may be meaningful for others, it simply doesn't speak to my heart.

Neither, I should say, does the argument that through belief or faith we attain eternal life. I have a very difficult time believing in a God who would grant entry into heaven based on a kind of theological ACT test. And the notion that belief or faith is primarily about attaining eternal life seems...somehow empty, really. Almost selfish. Again, without intending any offense, I can't find myself basing a decision such as whether to believe based on some idea of what it takes to gain entry into heaven. It simply doesn't speak to me.

Third, there is the argument of transformation. This one is the one that most intrigues me. To my understanding, the argument is that faith is a transformative journey, one that causes us to grow in love, hope, joy. Faith (or perhaps developing a relationship with God) should cause us to grow, to become more like Christ, in the Christian tradition. Here at last is a reason that speaks to my heart.

But still I am filled with doubt, at least insofar as the issue of the role of faith is concerned. It is possible, it seems to me, to grow in love and hope and joy without a particular religious belief system. Many religious belief systems may suffice for this purpose, as could no religious belief system. One can grow in love through an openness to friendship, to life, to experience. I suppose it can be argued that it some vital sense such openness is an experiential relationship with the divine -- but, if so, then why add religious belief structures to it? What additional benefit is gained?

Finally, and I say this with some degree of doubt and even shame, I personally have never had a direct experience of connection with God through prayer, reading scripture, etc. I have had powerful experiences of love and compassion through fellow human beings, and have written about this in the past. But one needn't add another, religious layer of explanation to understand why these were transformative and meaningful to me. And I have tried various forms of prayer: listening, meditative, etc. My experience has been one of silence, and usually I have viewed this as having not been good at it. Now, however, I am left to wonder if there simply isn't a God, or if such a Being has little interest in communicating with me.

So I am left with this question: why believe? If it is not a search for truth, if it is not meaningful to see it as a quest for heaven, if personal transformation is possible without it, if prayer has typically seemed empty....why believe?

Peace to all of you who have been good enough to put up with my ramblings this evening. I covet your thoughts, your experiences, your insights, your prayers.


more cows than people said...

on our drive to our new city yesterday i was thinking "i wonder how steve is doing with his 2008 challenge." i was thinking this partially because we spent the weekend with a cousin and her family and she is on a church search. i offered to be a conversation partner to her through this journey and then remembered i had made such an offer to you, but had not kept up on my end of the bargain, necessarily. so i'm grateful to see this post today and to know the reflection, contemplation, seeking continues. and yes, i also though "So, S, and how are you doing with your 2008 challenge." The journalling fell by the wayside weeks into the new year, but I do think the challenge helped me quit sugar, and being pregnant I am caring for my body more faithfully than usual. Still have work to do on caring for the mind...

Anyhow... a few thoughts...

You speak of "belief in religion". I don't believe in religion. I believe in God, in particular the God made known in Jesus Christ. Religion is the structure or system through which such belief can be nurtured (or crushed- let's be honest). Religion is a human invention.

I think I've shared with you before Diana Eck's explanation of the source of the word belief. She says that it comes from the Old English word "to belove" and that it is not about intellectual assent to propositional truths (something I see you bristling against- and I get that), but rather about trust, about giving one's heart to a particular way of understanding the world or reality.

As you know well from your work, trust is so fragile. Few of us make it to adulthood without some trust issues. Maybe that is an overstatement, feel free to correct me. In my experience, we learn to trust and to distrust, through human relationships. If we experience unconditional love and safety in our human relationships, it is my perception that we then have a greater chance of trusting in such love and safety in the mystery beyond the edges of our perception. and i suspect the converse is also true. part of the reason i think we need religion, particularly religion as manifest in communities of faith (less so than in doctrines and dogma- though you know i see a place for those too), is because just as you acknowledge in your own reflections, you encounter the holy best through your relationships with other people. Private spiritual disciplines have not worked for you. If ever you have drawn closer to God it has been through relationships with people. This, then, it seems to me, is the greatest argument for investment in faith community or even in religion. For in an authentic faith community you are in the company of others seeking the holy, and seeking growth in all the virtues you see as noble reasons to pursue faith, and you can help one another along the way.

Could "the truth" somehow be wrapped up in the "growth in love, hope, and joy" which you desire? Is pursuit of "truth" necessarily in conflict with pursuit of "love, hope, and joy"? I think when folks are seeking a corner on the truth in a way that hardens and divides, yes these are necessarily in conflict, but my hunch is that drawing close to God's truth is one and the same as growing in "love, hope, and joy".

And I'm totally with you on rejecting belief as ticket to heaven or as fire insurance.

basically, steve, in reading your reflections i think you make your own case for pursuing a life of faith lived in community, which... takes the form of religion. and your doubts, steve, are the best food for faith.

enough. i'm writing fast, early in the morning, feel free to ask me to clarify if i've been unclear. i hope you get other input too.

hey, we're in the same time zone now!

Katherine E. said...

Great post, Steve; thank you. And I loved mctp's response. I'll only add these brief comments:

I came to the same conclusion several years ago. It's not about belief. At least, it cannot start there. That's inauthentic and, as you say so well, is just full of hazards.

It's about experience, including our experience of relationships. Of course I know there are all kinds of problems with experience (how it can be wrapped up in self-deception, etc.), but belief systems --dogma, doctrine, creeds--are just constructs, and they don't mean a whole lot to me.

But as I experienced increasing transformation, I realized I needed a goal, a vision, something to help me put some form and boundary to where I was going and who I wanted to be. The Christian story, as I really studied it more deeply, fit me very well. It offered more to me than the Zen meditation I was doing, although they remain a powerful complement to each other, in my view.

Plus, life is SUCH a strange, weirdly mysterious thing. Existentially, for me, it seems to demand some kind of that the universal is moral (complicated issue), faith that there is meaning to suffering, faith that what is 'good' is at work all the time.

So, I finally came to see that I do believe. Not because my religion says I must but because my experience tells me I have to have some way to put this all together. I hold my beliefs very loosely, but at the same time, Steve, I also came to see that I am staking my whole life on their 'truthfulness.' For me, it's a beautiful, powerful, and risky way to live.

I love your posts and the way you think and struggle with things. Thank you for blogging.

Diane said...

hey steve, just got here myself, and I am going to come back to this one and your other reflection a little later. my brain goes in and out of fogginess, though I don't think I can blame it on jet lag any more.

I am intrigued by the word "shenpa", and find your discussion of it in your last post really interesting.