A Strong and Supple Faith

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If you are like me and most Unitarian Universalists, the word “faith” is, let us say, suspect.  For many of us, it’s a word that stands in opposition to “reason,” and reason holds a high place in our pantheon of values.  One definition of “faith,” is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  Another definition is a “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof” (Google.com).  Another definition, this one from Merriam-Webster, says simply that faith is “belief that is not based on proof.”  I’m sure that there are some of us here who can subscribe to some of these definitions, maybe some who can claim all three.  And I hope that some of us, at least, can claim “complete trust in someone” as a faith claim.  But, for many of us, “faith” as a religious concept, is suspect.

I grew up as a child quite willing to believe the claims made by my church of what was true.  Most children, I think, want to believe that their parents and other trusted figures want what’s best for us and so can be trusted not to lead us astray.  Still, when we reach the so-called “age of reason,” which is understood differently in different traditions, some claims are too baffling to be accepted on “faith” alone.  Teenagers, especially, will question things– too many things, their parents think, often enough.  And when the answer you receive to sincere and pressing questions, is “You just have to accept that on faith,” that answer won’t always be sufficient.  And so, we begin to suspect all religious truths and find ourselves drifting away from organized religious structures.

So, I was quite interested to find a book on faith last summer with the subtitle, “Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.”  It’s a book by Sharon Salzberg and you’ve probably heard me mention it before, if only in reference to a small group ministry reading project that some of us took on earlier this year.

This book called Faith is, among other things, a spiritual memoir or the account of a spiritual coming-of-age.  In contrast to the definitions of faith that I’ve offered here, one of the early reviewers of the book (The Houston Chronicle) said that “Sharon Salzberg doesn’t associate faith with dogma, religious institutions, belief systems or even God.  She describes faith as an interior resource that every human being can tap.”  That’s the kind of faith I’d like to talk about today and the kind of faith I’d like to offer for your consideration– something that will be beneficial to you in a practical and inspirational way as you make your way through your life.

In this understanding, “whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely” (p. xiii).  “A capacity for this type of faith is inherent in every human being.”  For it to be useful, you have to recognize it and once you recognize it, you can learn to nurture it.  This, you can call “a journey of faith.”  We all have experiences.  And we all interpret our experiences.  The key insight that Sharon Salzberg expounds upon is, “How we interpret our own experiences gives rise to narratives to which we dedicate our lives” (p. 1).  And that interpretation, that narrative, and the dedication that we give to it, are what constitute our faith.  We can “weave the fragments of our experience into a greater whole… in a way that reveals relationship and connection” or we can create a story that is fragmented, that lacks coherence, that leads nowhere.  Clearly, faith is the product of a spiritual quest.  And, clearly, too, it is the product of some effort and some discipline.

The story of Sharon Salzberg’s own life has much tragedy in its beginnings.  She adored her father.  He disappeared when she was four years old.  And when she was nine, her mother had surgery, seemingly successful surgery from which she was recovering– until she suffered a sudden reversal.  Just the two of them were home together when her mother “suddenly began bleeding violently.”  The little girl was able to call an ambulance and then her grandmother to take care of her.  After that evening, she never saw her mother again.  Her mother died in the hospital two weeks later.  “After that (she) lived with her father’s parents and rarely hard mention of (her) mother again.  When she was eleven, her grandfather died.  And one day her father returned.  But, instead of the “handsome prince” she had imagined, he was “a disheveled, hard-bitten, troubled stranger.”  A few days after his arrival, her whole body broke out in hives and she had to see a physician.  Six weeks later, her father took an overdose of sleeping pills.  That evening, he entered the mental health system and “was never able to function outside of it again.”

These are fragments of a life.  How do you create a story which makes sense of them?  For a long time, she was not able to.  “No one spoke openly or even acknowledged all the changes as loss,” so her “grief, anger, and confusion (which she calls “immense”) remained held inside.”  The story that she told herself was that she didn’t matter.  There was no one to tell her otherwise.  She says at one point that she didn’t care about anything– or, at least, she says, that was the story that she told herself.  The protection that she needed she created in a vision of the world that embodied “distance… a narrow, compressed world.”  She felt that the world had caused her to turn in on herself and that there was no way out.  That’s one story.  A story of disillusionment and despair.  To describe her sense of her predicament, she adopted a phrase from an exchange in a “Peanuts” cartoon between Lucy, the 6-year-old psychiatrist, and her patient, Charlie Brown, “The problem with you is that you’re you.”

Sharon Salzberg’s own journey included an interest in Buddhism that began in college, which led to a trip to India, which exposed her to things in the world she never would have been aware of otherwise.  It included opportunities that unfolded before her, meetings that led her to unexpected places and further meetings with persons who were to play an important role in her life.  It was an adventure in life and of the spirit.  And it provided a kind of awakening.

Each of us lives a life of our own and it’s not necessary to summarize the rest of this particular author’s journey.  But, each journey we hear about allows us to think more deeply about our own journey.  Where have we come from, where are we now, where are we headed and what’s the framework of meaning-making that we’ve established?  Have we learned to trust our own deepest experiences or do they remain fragmentary and unintegrated?

Sharon Salzberg writes from a Buddhist perspective.  It’s the perspective that provided her a way to make sense of the otherwise fragmentary experiences of her life.  She was inspired by the new story that was told by the Buddha, the new way that he offered her (and offers anyone) of seeing her life.  She understood from personal experience the first of the four noble truths, “that because we are born, we experience suffering– not only suffering as pain, but also suffering as the instability, the sorrow, the hollowness of life.”

The second noble truth “talks about the causes of suffering as ignorance and attachment.”  We go through many moods throughout the day, every day.  Because we might feel powerful sometimes and powerless at other times, because we might feel angry, then sad, then relieved, then amused, then relaxed, we can easily submit to the temptation of identifying ourselves as any one of these passing phases, not remembering or realizing that all of them are insubstantial.  There is a freedom that comes from feeling not attached to any of them, but aware of each as it passes.  This is the freedom from attachment and from the delusion that our ultimate nature resides in any one of these impermanent states.  If we practice diligently, we won’t be easily trapped by the perils of egotism, which is attachment to a particular image of ourselves which we struggle to maintain and defend.  If we remain attached to this illusion, we are destined to be unhappy because it is not reality.  This kind of attachment, this kind of understanding, denies the power of potential, meaning the potential to change.

We may have a habit of fear or a habit of anguish.  Slipping into habits is a very natural thing unless we learn the discipline of attending– paying attention– which allows us the freedom to choose another course for ourselves.  The understanding that we are not trapped into a sense of self that derives from mere habit is the “glimmer of possibility that is the beginning of faith” (p. 11).

One of the insights of Ms. Salzberg that most impressed several of us as we looked into this in our small groups is that “Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don’t have, but something that we do.  We ‘faithe.’”  It may seem like a paradox, but, “The first step on the journey of faith is to recognize that everything is moving onward to something else, inside us and outside.  Seeing this truth,” Salzberg says, “is the foundation of faith…  However solid things may appear on the surface, everything in life is changing, without exception.”  When we realize that “the present moment … is dissolving into the unknown even as we meet it,” it becomes apparent that faith is a necessity.

If we are holding tightly to a self-image, whether it is a vision of ourselves as wonderful and heroic or dismal and dreary, we are fooling ourselves because we are always in the process of change.  It’s not an understanding that everything will turn out all right as long as we have faith.  It’s more that “we claim the possibility that we ourselves might change in ways… that (enable) us to aspire to a better life than the one we have inherited.”

So, let’s stop for a minute and reflect.  What is the story that you are carrying with you of who you are?  Take a minute now to think about that.  Think of three words that come to mind to describe or name the understanding you have of who you are right now.  Confident?  Frightened?  Confused?  Frustrated?  Impatient?  Dissatisfied?  Happy?  Content?  Excited about the future?  Enduring, just enduring?  Take a minute to think of just three descriptors.

Do you find in yourself a greatness of heart?  Do you find in yourself a source of love and compassion for others?

Sometimes, a statement of affirmation provides grounding, an anchor, a foundation.  One such statement of choice that Sharon Salzberg makes is, “I choose life, I align myself with the potential inherent in life.  I give myself over to that potential.”  “Potential” is an interesting concept because it implies that the seeds of the future are already in the present, which itself is the result of what was once merely potential in the past.  Potential, if we realize it or not, is always present, but we need to realize that in order for potential to realize itself.

What is necessary for potential to be realized?  The author says that one “significant step on the journey of faith” is what she calls “finding a spiritual refuge.”  I have found that to be true.  My mornings here on Sundays at nine o’clock, sitting with others, sharing readings that encourage reflection and discussion, centering my spirit in the group experience that we create together constitute a kind of “refuge,” the “refuge in the Sangha,” as the Buddhists describe it.  And, of course, you are always welcome to join us if you are in search of such a refuge.  And from such a refuge, you can ask some of the deepest questions.

Do you think that faith is deepened as you are taught more about what to believe?  I was taught that.  Many people still are taught that.  That’s the common understanding, I think, of how faith grows.  But, there’s another way to look at it.  “In Buddhism… faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives’ (p. 48).  “Rather than asking (us) to adopt a set of customs and beliefs, Buddhism (leads us) over and over again to the… challenge of finding out what is true in (ourselves).”  Faith, in Buddhism, is that that journey will be worthwhile, that all that questioning will be productive, that growth will occur because potential is being realized.

We spend much of our lives trying to avoid suffering.  Buddhism says that suffering is unavoidable.  In our conventional Western thinking, we think happiness derives from avoiding suffering.  Buddhism teaches that in confronting suffering and accepting it as both inevitable and transient, we find a way through suffering to liberation.  The Buddhist conception of faith, as Sharon Salzberg explains it, means stepping into the unknown not with assurance that “all will be well,” but with the assurance that we have within us the resources that will allow us to survive, to endure and to prosper through a variety of conditions.

One thing that I’ve noticed about belief systems is that most are designed to “keep all uncertainty and fear away, keep the complexities and ambiguities of the world away” (p. 51).  Ms. Salzberg quotes Freud, who describes “religious belief systems as ‘forging a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality.’”  A Buddhist belief system, as this author describes it, accepts that the world is a complex place, that it takes willingness, awareness, and discipline to attain the inner peace that is often called “equanimity.”  And one perseveres because one has learned the meaning of a kind of faith that accepts complexities and disappointments as woven into the fabric of what it means to be human.

Again, I’m reminded of my religious upbringing as a child, when baffling questions were greeted with an answer just as baffling, “You just have to have faith,” which was another way of saying, “There is no answer that can satisfy you, so just take it on faith that what I say is true.”  This is not something that I could digest and if you are sitting here today, chances are that you could not digest it either.  Salzberg says that for many of us, “what (we) had been denied in (our) experience with religious beliefs was the sense that (we) had the right to discover the truth for (ourselves).  (We) didn’t lack faith; (we) lacked the opportunity to verify (our) faith by examining (our) beliefs” (p. 55).

She says, “In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt.  In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern the truth” (p. 56).  “In Buddhism. This kind of questioning is known as skillful doubt” (p. 57).

One of the obstacles to achieving the kind of faith I’m talking about (or even the conventional understanding of what faith is) is cynicism.  Cynicism is self-protective.  It is a kind of defensive weapon that impedes us from attaining a healthy and well-balanced worldview.  It allows us to distance ourselves from the suffering that is part of being human by declaring a separation between ourselves and it.  And it can mask itself well, if we’re not careful.  Often, there is a kind of “bravado” to cynicism, an attitude of superiority that comes from “seeing through” all the idealistic illusions of others.  In essence, it’s a form of egotism that defines the self as separate from the storms and vicissitudes of life.  It can be quite seductive and alluring.  But, it’s a trap that leads to bitterness, in the end.  It denies that change is possible when the essence of all that is is change and the potential for change.

“We don’t know the ultimate unfolding of any story; certainly not enough to decide that what we do has no effect.  When we stand before a chasm of futility, it is first of all faith in this larger perspective that enables us to go on.”  All is connected.  All is involved in an endless system of complex interdependence which is also dynamic interdependence.  An immature faith may say “It will all turn out well in the end, just trust in goodness to prevail.”  A more mature faith understands that we all have a role to play in the future that we create for ourselves, that risk-taking is part and parcel of that role and that we have, if we but believe it to be true, based on our own experience, the capacity to make choices that will create the narrative that makes sense of our lives.  We’ll talk more about this in two weeks when we celebrate “Heritage Day” and talk about “Telling a New Story.”

But, we can talk more about this idea of faith now as the floor is open for reflection and response.

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Google.com: “Faith”

Dictionary.com: “Faith”

Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.  Sharon Salzberg.  Berkeley Publishing Group.  NY, NY.  2002.

 

 

 

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

on April 3, 2016.

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