Sunday, May 26, 2013

A TOUGH-MINDED FAITH FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS

Is there any place for ‘faith’ in today’s world? Do we need faith? If so, what sort of faith? When all is said and done, can we really ‘trust’ anyone’s word on anything? Is one person’s opinion on any given matter as good---or as bad---as that of anyone else?

The word ‘faith’ is ordinarily associated with another familiar but often misunderstood word. That word is ‘religion.’ Now, many religious people---even many religious liberals---talk about a ‘journey of faith.’ What do they actually mean by that?

Well, for starters, most religions require their adherents to have faith in something or someone. For example, in Christianity one has faith in God and Jesus Christ, faith being a combination of two things---belief and trust. Belief is largely, but not entirely, intellectual. Trust has been described---particularly by Christian commentators---as ‘belief activated,’ such that the basis for action is the level of trust one has in any particular belief. Trust is said to involve a confidence of a very special kind, namely, a resting on the testimony of a God, and perhaps also a Bible (or some other ‘holy book’), both of which, one believes, cannot lie or be wrong. So, in trust, and thus faith, there is a leaning of one’s whole weight on certain beliefs which largely take the form of certain ‘promises’ and ‘assurances,’ which are accepted as true---even though one has no empirical proof of the same.

The Bible says that faith is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb 11:1) [KJV]. Well, as I see it, if the word ‘substance’ has any sensible meaning at all it must mean something that is tangibly and objectively real, even if that reality is not presently visible. Still, I have great problems in believing anything that I really don’t know to be the case, simply on the basis that I ‘hope’ it will come to pass. There is too much idealistic fantasy in that for my liking.

Buddhism is quite different from all other religions. Indeed, at least in some of its manifestations, Buddhism is arguably not a religion at all. The Buddha said, ‘Do not believe, for if you believe, you will never know. If you really want to know, don't believe.’ Ordinarily, we tend to believe when we don’t know or understand. If we know something to be true, there is no need for belief at all. But why believe anyway? If the sky is blue, it is the case that the sky does not become any bluer because we believe it to be blue. Further, the proposition---‘the sky is blue’---does not become any truer because we believe it to be true.

That is not the end of the matter. Beliefs, by their very nature, take the form of prejudices or biases of various kinds and dissipate energy which is otherwise needed to remain mindfully aware at all times. Buddha referred to beliefs as being in the nature of thought coverings or veils (āvarnas). Beliefs are barriers to truth and realization. Consequently, my advice has always been---choose a religion or philosophy that doesn’t require you to believe or disbelieve anything. Life is truth, and life is never static but forever open-ended and dynamic.

So, then, what about faith? Can there be faith without belief? Well, let me quote the Buddha again. He is said to have given this advice, which has served me well over many decades:

Believe nothing because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing because it is written in ancient books.
Believe nothing because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself judge to be true.

Something is not true because it is written in some ‘holy book.’ It is not true because it was spoken by Jesus or Muhammad or someone else. It is not true because it is believed to be true. A thing is true only if it is---well, true. Truth means occurrence---it either is or is not the case.

I have faith in certain convictions that I have found out to be empirically true as a result of careful observation, choiceless awareness, mindfulness, critical thinking, firsthand experience, and analytical investigation. Despite what some people assert, there are certain truths that we can affirm to be true in an objective sense. These are truths we can experience and then come to know and understand.

There is another important meaning of the word 'faith,' and none other than the great Christian evangelist Dr Billy Graham, in his landmark book Peace with God, has given it this meaning. The word 'faith,' writes Graham, literally means 'to give up, surrender, or commit.' I have written elsewhere on this blog, in several of my posts, of the imperative need, when one is faced with certain difficulties and problems where 'self' is the root trouble, to find and rely upon a 'power-not-oneself' of some sort for deliverance. Addiction and other forms of mental, emotional and spiritual 'bondage' or 'imprisonment' are largely problems of self-obession, self-centredness, and self-absorption. The solution is to 'let go' of self entirely and seek the assistance of a power-not-oneself that is able to relieve you of the bondage of self. This power-not-oneself may or may not be a traditional god or other religious figure or image. The power may simply be the 'person' that one is---a 'person among persons.' One other thing---in order to 'let go,' one must first 'let be,' and the latter requires that the person first admit and acknowledge that they have a problem over which 'self' is powerless and then commit themselves to an entirely new way of thinking, acting and living, fixed, focused and grounded in that power-not-oneself.

 
In short, as I see it, faith is not some supposed ‘supernatural’ gift that some have and others don’t, but rather a firm affirmation of what we, individually, have come to know to be the case. So, never accept ‘on faith’ that which you have not already experienced, nor accept ‘on faith’ that which you would like to be true, or that which others whose opinion you greatly respect tell you is true. Only believe---that is, affirm---what you yourself have found to be true, that is, the case.

In my days as an evangelical Christian---by the way, those days are gone---I was told repeatedly that faith involved a ‘believing in,’ a ‘coming to,’ a ‘receiving,’ and a ‘standing firm’ (also known as a ‘holding fast’). If those words mean anything at all they must refer to a state of mind in which one becomes more and more convinced of the truth of some state of affairs. At first, we may need to assume the truth of certain things---for the sake of testing and investigation. In time, we may---or may not---come to affirm the truth of some proposition. We may even be able to ‘receive’ it as true---that is, affirm it to be true, knowing that it is true. We can stand firm, and hold fast, in such truth---but not otherwise.

Please remember this---nothing, absolutely nothing, is superior to facts. Never believe, or have faith in, anything that, after careful examination and investigation, you don’t know to be true. Indeed, cherish and rejoice in your doubts and reservations, for the latter are in my view much more important than faith and belief.



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