“Are you religious?” is a question I am often asked, and one that I ask others, too.
It would seem that this question has always contained significant signalling power. It is in a sense a way of ask “are you like me? do we have common ground to discuss certain topics, or would a discussion be more or less a waste of time?”
In my case, however, I don’t ask it for this reason because with rare exception, I know that regardless of the answer, there is unlikely to be much pre-existing common ground. I ask the question rather to get an understanding of what a person thinks religious faith is rather than to determine of we share a religious faith. The nature of the answer is more telling in most cases than the substance.
Back in Arkansas, where I was born and spent the first 22 years of my life, the question would often meet with incredulity–as in “how dare you assume I might not be religious!” and those who were not religious tended to be more stridently so than they might have been had they been living in say a New York intellectual circle. In Chile, the answer is often “well obviously I’m Catholic, but I’m not very religious.” That’s one of my favorite responses, and is a stinging critique of a century of stagnation of thought at the Vatican and in Roman Catholicism.
In the intellectual and entrepreneurial world, however, the most common response is agnosticism followed by “spiritual but not religious” with a vocal minority of unreserved atheists. The more I move in increasingly diverse circles, I am encountering more answers, but the foregoing nevertheless still represent the majority view.
In a certain sense, though, there are really only two religious/spiritual views and everything else is just a matter of detail. Those two views are humility and arrogance.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster crowd and the Flame-Throwing Southern Baptists are essentially the same people, arrested in their need for certainty where none exists, and inventing one instead. At least the atheists are honest about their lack of faith–the hyper-conservative evangelical Christians are in denial about it. Faith is simply unnecessary if you are certain. Indeed, there can be no faith without doubt, and no strong faith without strong doubt. If you walk into the average Southern Baptist Church in America, though, you will be told that you need to “know that you know that you know that you are saved,” whatever that means. But it pretty decidedly means that you are supposed to know something for sure.
The doubting crowds, however, from all walks of life, are in a sense full of faith. Agnostics are in a sort of via negativa way the most faithful of all. The implicit view of agnosticism is “I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but if there is, I assume he’s not out to zap me and wouldn’t damn me to hell for eternity for not believing in him.” This is a rather potent form of faith.
Faith, then, in my estimation, is a form of trust rather than about holding “beliefs” about the validity of truth propositions. Christian faith is not about believing, in a rationalistic sense, the truth proposition of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but about trusting that the world is organized in such a way that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you works out in the end. Christian faith is about trusting that if you submit yourself completely to the Law of Love, that you are going to be better off, even when at the margin there are strong incentives to do otherwise. Christian faith is about trusting that if you take up your cross and follow the path of Jesus, laying down your life in sacrifice for others, that YOU will, in the final judgment of your life, in that moment before your death, say “I have no regrets.”
This sort of faith is precisely what is characterized by St Paul’s definition of it being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It has nothing to do with beliefs in truth propositions at all, but hopes for that which has not yet transpired, contingent upon a certain way of living.
But I would go even further, at least in my own personal case. I would say that for me, the Christian faith is about a vocation, a calling to become Christian. A calling that cannot be answered with words, but with actions, and one that is never actually answered entirely, for it is a calling that I am ultimately incapable of answering perfectly, and therefore requires of me daily humble submission to that which is greater, that all-encompassing God of Love, against whose backdrop I am a small and selfish finite being. The Christian vocation for me is a calling to transcend my finitude and my biology, and attempt to live not just marginally differently, but radically differently.
St Paul writes that each person must work out their faith “with fear and trembling.” There would be no need to do this if there were demonstrable certainties. Indeed, the right use of religious institutions ought to be to provide a framework for each individual to do this difficult work, a place to share the struggle, and a few basic shared principles by which that shared struggle may be continued unceasingly, even in the face of dire hardship.
It is for this reason that St Augustine gave his famous admonition “in essentials, unity. in non-essentials, liberty. in all things, charity.” Yet contemporary religion and atheism alike have turned all things into essentials. There is little room for liberty of thought without the shrieks of judgment. There is no room in most intellectual and scientific circles to ponder the concept of YHWH and the compatibility of this transcendent everything-ness with mathematics and physics. There is no room in most intellectual circles in the West today to question whether the Tinder hook-up culture is really good for the spirit or not.
There is no room in most conservative Christian circles to question whether the institution of marriage as it is currently defined has out-lived its practical usefulness and is instead damning millions of people to misery and lack of fulfillment in their lives. There is no room in most such circles to say “you know, it seems that anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and science have a lot to say about our religion–maybe we should start questioning everything in light of 2,000 years of discoveries in these fields and update our maps of reality accordingly, while preserving the essential tenets of our faith: love and mercy.”
Christians are obsessed with the little miracles like Jesus healing the blind or turning water into wine and they miss the tremendous miracle that when faced with death he could have called his followers to arms and started a revolution, but instead chose to die painfully and ignominiously as the Prince of Peace.
Most people who identify themselves as Christians are just Greek Pagans who believe in Zeus and think of Jesus as being born from Zeus’s forehead like Athena, rather than grasping the actual message of Christ that God isn’t some guy up in the sky meddling in the lives of humans for his own amusement, but is rather this overwhelming force of Love and Good who moves and works inside of the heart of each person, and whose power can be manifested by all people, even though very few will do the work to see it happen in their own lives.
–that we are all adopted as Sons and Daughters of God, all of us, equally brothers and sisters to Christ himself. It is odd how this clear and powerful teaching of Paul is shoved to the side while sanctimonious moral legalists condemn gays and lesbians for a biological reality they themselves cannot even possibly imagine living.
No, no, the Christianity we see today is just a Paganism that has adopted the names and trappings of Christianity, and has made idols out of customs and two-dimensional characters. It is a sad cult of nationalism which bears no resemblance to that blessed and historic religion whose highest ideal was the brotherhood of all men, the service of each other in love and humility, the sacrifice of the self for others, peace to everyone, and a spiritual mode of living rather than a materialistic one. For the evangelical American churches, their only God is their belly, and their hatred of their fellow human–immigrant, refugee, and Muslim–is a shame to the faith of the martyrs.
And yet I cannot claim to be a Christian. I am not one. I want to become one. On my best days, I am trying to become one. But most days I am sliding right back toward my nature and away from that goal. My faith is that this attempt of becoming will not be in vain, and that even though I will likely never reach the goal, my path toward it will yield for me a better life than any other path would have. It is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven until after the fact, in hindsight. Only looking back will I be able to determine if it was a faith well-placed or not. And that is the risk of taking what Kierkegaard described as the “leap of faith.” It is gravely risky. It might not pay off. But I’m trusting that it will, and I’m trying to organize my life on the assumption that it will.
I want to close by sharing a prayer that I think could only have been prayed by somebody with such a view of faith as this one–the prayer is entitled “For Order a Life Wisely,” by St Thomas Aquinas.
O merciful God, grant that I may
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.
Put my life in good order, O my God.
Grant that I may know what You require me to do.
Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will,
as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul.
Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter.
May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You.
May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You.
May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me
and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.
May any joy without You be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else besides You.
May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake
and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.
Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.
O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.
O Lord my God, let me fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
strengthen him by word and example.
Give to me, O Lord God, a watchful heart, which no capricious thought can lure away from You.
Give to me a noble heart, which no unworthy desire can debase.
Give to me a resolute heart, which no evil intention can divert.
Give to me a stalwart heart, which no tribulation can overcome.
Give to me a temperate heart, which no violent passion can enslave.
Give to me O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.
Grant that with Your hardships I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys I may delight by glorifying You in the Kingdom of Heaven.
You Who live and reign, God, world without end.