At this point in the series, I’ve gone over belief here and here so now it’s time to move on to the next rung in the ladder: faith. I’m reading from the sixth chapter of Ken Wilber’s book, A Sociable God. Here’s an excerpt from Wilber’s section on faith:
Faith goes beyond belief but not as far as actual religious experience. The true believer can usually give you all the reasons he is “right,” and if you genuinely question his reasons he tends to take it very personally (because you have, in fact, just questioned his qualifications for immortality). His belief system is a politics of durability. The person of faith, on the other hand, will usually have a series of beliefs, but the religious involvement of this person does not seem to be generated solely or even predominantly by the beliefs. Frequently, in fact, the person cannot say exactly why he is “right” (has faith), and should you criticize what reasons he does give, he generally takes it all rather philosophically. In my opinion this is because belief, in these cases, is not the actual source of religious involvement; rather, the person somehow intuits very God as being immanent in (as well as transcendent to) this world and this life. Beliefs become somewhat secondary, since the same intuition can be put in any number of apparently equivalent ways (“They call Him many who is really One”). The person of faith tends to shun literalism, dogmatism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, which define almost solely the true believer.
Paradoxically, the person of faith is often in great and agonizing religious doubt, which the true believer rarely experiences. The true believer has projected his doubt onto others and is too busy trying to convert them to pay attention to his own inner status. The person of faith, however, begins to transcend mere consoling beliefs and thus is open to intense doubt, which the person frequently takes to be a sign of lack of faith, which worries him sorely. But that is not usually the case.
Here is what seems to occur: The person of faith intuits, although in a preliminary and somewhat vague fashion, the existence of very God. On the one hand, this confers a measure of peace, inner stability, and a release from mere belief. On the other hand, precisely because that is so, the person yearns for a greater closeness to this Divinity, a more complete knowledge-union with God. Since the person does not yet have this greater closeness, it throws his present state, by comparison, into doubt (and yearning). In fact the greater the faith-intuition, the greater the doubt. Zen has a profound saying on this:
Great doubt, great enlightenment;
Small doubt, small enlightenment;
No doubt, no enlightenment.
How different is that from the literal and dogmatic certainty of the true believer.
The distinction Wilber makes in this chapter between belief and faith helpfully zeros in on the current struggle American Christianity finds itself in. In a way, I hesitate to move on to the experience and adaptation entries since I could fill the rest of the year wrestling with tension between these two religious stages. Nevertheless, I will try to press on.
As I’ve attempted to make the case before that I believe the primary stage of religious life that most American Christians find themselves is belief. It’s somewhat difficult to get a more secure sense of where we are at due to the broad intellectual apathy that plagues many religous Americans. But I think I’m on safe ground when I make the assumption that most Christians believe that “right belief” gives them some kind of eternal reward. Our predominant religious conviction in Christian America is to attach treasures awaiting us in heaven to a correct doctrinal creed. The assumption is, first, that one can posses correct belief and, second, that said correct belief needs to be shared with unbelievers, or incorrect believers, so they too can enjoy some form of everlasting assurance.
Needless to say, some cracks have begun to form on this idol of the true believer and while it can be incredibly painful for many who seek consolation in the “politics of durability,” this is ultimately a very promising development that clears the way for what some hope to be a more authentic Christian pursuit. (When I say more authentic, I do not mean to imply that the belief is not legitimate, but merely less authentic. After all, in keeping with the metaphor of the ladder I used in part one of this series, the lower rungs are absolutely legitimate and necessary. Without them we cannot move upwards. But our view from the lowest rung of the ladder is not quite is exhilarating as it is from the top.) What is so promising about these cracks continuing to form and widen, is that a new posture is emerging within Christianity where doubt and ambiguity are to be wrestled with, cherished, even. When one moves from mere belief to faith, the Biblical text has become not just a static, inerrant, literalist playground. It receives new life in ways that makes one’s daily life more enriched. We leave behind the God who is in his black robe, angrily sitting on the bench ready to levy our deserved damnation and we awaken to a God who is in us yet all around us. Who welcomes us in like a father welcomes a lost son. Our religious life ceases to be defined strictly by a cold and rational system of doctrines. Instead, in faith, we attempt to embrace a love that includes and transcends reason.
As Peter Rollins has frequently pointed out in his books and speaking, we must continue to embrace doubt, not only as individuals, but as communities and institutions of the Church. He suggests that it’s easy to say as individuals that we embrace doubt and ambiguity, but we go to Church on Sunday mornings and leave our doubts at the door. Our songs and our teachings fail to embrace doubt because they, our pastors who teach us and lead us in music, believe on our behalf. Put more simply, we can afford to doubt as individuals because our community believes for us. Rollins uses the music found today in many churches as an illustration. Read the lyrics of a typical worship song and it almost sounds like the words are trying to convince us, the singers, that God is all we want and live for. It’s difficult for me to sing phrases like “I only live for you” when I know for fact, if I’m being honest, that’s incorrect. I’d like to live for “only You” and that sounds really lovely and all, but it’s just not entirely true and there’s no foolin’ the One we’re singing to. So who is it for? I think, like Wilber so wisely frames this issue, these words are being sung to our own unbelieving selves in order to trick ourselves out of our unbelief. It would be nice to have worship gatherings take the opportunity to embrace the ambiguities and doubts that we as individuals and communities will surely encounter. This would help to elevate the center of gravity of Christianity in America to a more authentic stage of religious life.
Next up, experience……but not before some George Michael.