I thought that I was going to have a traditional life. And, somewhere along the line the mold broke – Trisha Brown, choreographer and dancer
My journey towards faith has seemed like I’ve been hopscotching around many spiritual disciplines. There has been a lot of Christianity (* Evangelical brand) here, a bit if Buddhism there, and exposure to World Religious Traditions everywhere. But it goes deeper than a religion de jour. In fact it has become a central quest in my life.
Years ago the mold of my childhood religion cracked and finally broke apart. What came after that? Leaving what we learn at our mother’s knee makes for a life-changing saga. In my case I did not land up in the wilderness of apostasy. Rather I migrated from belief to faith, the head to the heart, and eventually to the feet. I will never entirely to where I began. But my aspiration is to live a religion of my own.
Being a former Evangelical Christian, or in fact former anything, does not imply that one is without a solid center, devoid of a moral convictions, or has lost the ability to live a meaningful life. For example, secular Jews, Muslims, and lapsed Jack Mormons still carry vestiges of their ethnic culture without much of a religious overlay. Like everyone else they have in them the seeds of a new and vibrant life that when nurtured bloom into the flower of faith.
As a leaver I am in solidarity with millions. The winds of change are blowing in people’s religious lives today. Folks are divorcing their childhood religion in droves or are morphing into a “none” self-designation. The tradition of these migrants may go back many generations. However, they cannot tolerate the view that such a set of beliefs is the one and only true religion. Nor can they leave their brains or hearts at the door of their house of worship. They are so weary of hearing that their fundamental nature is flawed. They seek a more powerful and authentic experience of the self and one aligned with every human.
If faith is defined as that which we set our heart on, then what gets us out of our heads into our heart and off our behinds to serve a world of need takes a whole new religion. It takes a daily experience of the Eternal Presence where we are deeply loved and infinitely valued. That is our North Star. (In future blogs I will address the topic “What’s god (Presence) got to do with faith?”)
Consider that he word religion is derived from the Latin “Re-Ligare” which means “to bind” or to “connect”. Something deep within everyone, like ligaments in our body, binds everything together. When this is not the case we are unmoored, lost amidst our beliefs, ready for the mental Marriott, and alienated from others and ourselves.
Humans are innately religious and need to tie their philosophy of life together whether they practice a specific religion or not. As Timothy Eagan writes in “A Pilgrimage to Eternity”, “ We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life”.
Here is where my heart is set and my soul nurtured and fed.
From belief to faith
Belief is where religion starts getting us in trouble. Here my way becomes the right way becomes the only way.
With exclusive beliefs we neglect to see how they are shaped by our personality, cultural and political biases, and at times our downright ego preoccupations. A lot of these filters are unconscious and act like clouds that obscure the sun.
With belief the ego (what Thomas Merton calls the false self seeking to impersonate the substantial self) loves to take sides, and the longer and more vigorously it justifies its side, the more it feels like this is surely the final truth. As Fr. Richard Rohr writes
We end up not with orthodoxy but with egocentricity.
When a person claims, “I believe in god” he/she is mostly making an intellectual assertion (i.e. god is an intellectual fact that can be grasped and proven by rational thought). They are less likely to be claiming to have had a direct experience with the divine that would be more mystical and beyond language, have a strong emotional component, and be more soul-driven.
From the head to the heart
Every world religion that I have encountered (I taught World Religious Traditions at the university level for many years) contains seeds of truth based on direct experience. Many an adherent has had a heart-encounter with ultimate reality. The prophet Mohammed had a passionate and at times agonizing encounter with the “other” world during the revelation of the Koran. Moses had his encounter at the burning bush. Neither was sitting in some library dispassionately thinking about god. Not to minimize the power of great books and critical thinking. The latter is especially necessary to compensate for our own ego, cultural, and personality filters. We all have our own pet biases that can muddy the waters on any path to faith.
Thoughts and firsthand experience are like two oars on a rowboat. When only rowing on one side of the boat folks go in circles. An intellectual only religion turns into blind tribalism and cannot be baptized as the orthodoxy de jour. And a religion purely from the gut can be contaminated by our whims and fancies.
However, there is so much distrust for inner experience by organized religion. Fr. Richard Rohr writes in this regard,
Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority—in the form of Scripture, tradition, or various kinds of experts—instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience.
In other places I write about my inner direct experience. You might want to read my blog “The Night I Came Home to Grace” written earlier this year.
So how did I arrive at a religion of my own?
The Journey of Faith
The faith journey requires a radical rearrangement of our internal hardware. It involves a migration from the false (ego) to the True self (soul). It is a shift from doing to being. Above all, it is the recognition that the spiritual part of the self has been there all the time. As the Apostle John writes
“I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, I am writing to you here because you know it already”!
There is a resting in our acceptance by Eternal Presence rather than continual self-rejection. It is not something that I do to myself in the form of self-improvement (the True Self is complete and cannot be improved). Faith is something that comes to me as a gift of Grace and is something that is aroused by a loving Source in me.
We usually identify faith by what we set our heart on like faith in god, in an institution, a hero or role model, or in the Constitution of the United States. The focus of faith can be something ineffable outside of our skin. It is also something at the core of our being. It can be both abstract as well as concrete. One of the best descriptions of faith is by the writer to the Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures
Faith provides evidence for things not seen
This connects faith to both hope as well as something intangible. And in a world filled with hopelessness, uncertainty, and fear hope is cash in the bank.
We often speak of a person of faith. For me that person was my mother. She lived her whole life subject to what she called the “will of god”. Her focus was to “set her heart on things above and not things below”. She trusted in something that was as real to her as the back of her hand. I was often reminded of her long after her death when we lived in Mexico. Here the locals base their faith and all plans for the future on “primeramente Dios” or god’s will. In Arabic the equivalent phrase is “In Sha Allah” (If that’s what god wants). These perspectives put faith solidly on some external agent or transcendent Source that determines our fate. However, faith can also be viewed as something imminent, deep within us, or as the god, Source, Buddha, or soul within.
One of my deepest aspirations is to trust and be guided by this inner GPS. My challenge now is to open myself to this Ultimate Reality or the Source to empower me in these sunset years of my life. It’s what I go back to amidst the uncertainty and fear in the times of the Coronavirus.
Getting faith into my feet
However, faith is not some esoteric human aspiration or quality. It is very pragmatic and involves action. I find it of interest that some parts of Judaism is not just based on a set of beliefs. Sure “doctrines” are present but not front and center. Judaism is more aligned with how a person behaves. It is connected with one’s character, lived ethical standards, and even gets more granular reflecting what a person eats. It gets our feet moving in an other-centered not self-centered way. By definition then a good Jew is a good person.
The Christian scriptures focus on “walking the walk”. The writer to the book James states that, “Faith without works is dead”. We have been reminded of this ethical and behavioral imperative by some of our leaders in the past. President Jimmy Carter quoted the following words from the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah in his inaugural address.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”
My spiritual mentors
My sacred journey towards faith certainly was not a solo quest. The big difference between the now of my spiritual journey is that I am the co-designer of this religion and not a follower. But what I am designing today today is built on the shoulders of others. Many teachers came my way over the years from Thomas Merton to Richard Rohr, from Thomas Moore to Karen Armstrong, from my mother to my wife Kris, and to my dog that I joke is my spiritual director. The list can go on and on. Many times such persons seem to come my way by means of a lucky chance event. At other times a book jumps out at me pleading to be read. The older I get the more I start to view this serendipity as a part of the order of the universe or a gift from Presence. I don’t always catch these connections. However, I am more likely to benefit from these “chance” happenings when I look out for them. My compass of faith (what my heart is set on) is a way of reassuring myself, “This is where I am” or “This is where I still need to go”or “Listen to this person/event”.
The markers of this religion of my own show up when I dare to travel beyond the bounds of traditional religious beliefs and practice. One cannot have such a religion without being an iconoclast. I’ve had to break old molds of thought and seek to live the truth that has always existed within others and myself. In so doing there is the possibility of experiencing a religion that engages my head, heart, and feet.
Each practice involve risk taking on my part. The credo of the adventure of faith is “Jump, and the safety net will appear”.
And as I jump I begin to find my way home. The place that so many have discovered on the road less travelled. The road that bypasses some forms of traditional religion. At other times it comes from the very heart of true religion that sets our hearts on things above but keeps our feet on the ground at the same time.
- Evangelicals are not a monolithic entity. There is diversity of thought and a spectrum of beliefs in that religious camp. There is a growing group of “new” evangelicals that has moved beyond xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and anti-science. Thought leaders in this group include Jim Wallis from the Soujourner movement. All religions evolve to some degree or another. Cross-fertilization occurs at the confluence of religion and culture. A pure representation of the past seldom is seen despite the thrust of the older generations to keep it the same. There are many good people in any religion. No matter where they are on the religious spectrum they are not to be despised as “deplorables”.
Faith is about love not judgment.
I would love for your to share some thoughts about your own journey of faith.