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Why Can’t You Just…?

“Why can’t you just let go?

Why can’t you simply know?

Why not have full blown belief enough?”

My answer is equally tough.

 

I can as easily as you,

And when you really do,

No longer will you only see

All these limitations in me.

 

Each of us brings into our dream

A steady but refracted beam

Of colored light, yet incomplete,

That seeking blends to purest white,

Real and finally replete.

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I experienced a major challenge to the Christian belief system that my parents had tried to instill in me.  When I reflect upon it now, my naivete is comical, but back then it was a truly big deal.  I so wanted to be empowered by the idea that by believing in what they taught me, all things were possible.  Somehow, though, things just didn’t work out that way.

Back in the late fifties-early sixties, there was an evangelistic TV show, one of the first, put on by Oral Roberts.  I would watch this on Sunday afternoons, mightily impressed by the testimonies to instant healing from the people who came forth for the laying on of hands.  Wow!  There was proof positive that healing miracles really did happen.  At the end of the show Rev. Roberts invited the home audience to pray for the healing they needed.  I never seemed to need any healing, but one day I had an opportunity to put his miracle energy to the test in another way. 

My horse had developed bleeding lesions on her hind feet just above the heel of her hooves.  This had been a difficult thing to treat, unresponsive to the therapies my father and I had applied.  I decided to tap into Rev. Roberts’ healing agenda during that extended prayer time at the end of his show.  How fervently I prayed!  I just knew that this was going to be the moment of truth.  My horse would be healed, no more scary sores, and I would have my belief solidified.

I ran outside right after my prayer, fully expecting to see the lesions healed over, or at least forming scabs, in the same way that the limping, deaf, and visually impaired of the TV audience had a reversal of their problems.  But when I got to my horse, there had been no change whatsoever in her condition, and no change happened, even when I put my hands on her and prayed fervently.  My dad said it didn’t work because she was an animal, and animals didn’t have souls—another crushing blow.

That moment opened up the hole through which my belief would drain for a very long time.  It was the topper to an accumulation of shattered illusions: the Santa Claus myth, the Easter Bunny fantasy, and the Tooth Fairy fun.  This wasn’t small stuff, though.  This was adult.  That moment, seeing the stubbornly bleeding flesh, made me realize my own mortality.  Whatever small, childish faith I had fell to pieces in that moment.  Up until then, I had been willing to accept that there was a great, universal power that I could not see.  The problem was that miracles were supposed to be evidence of the existence of that unseen power.  Those bleeding feet bore the first testimony to the invalidity of that religious conviction.  I know now that Sunday disappointment was the first step of a lifelong journey in search of what I call spiritual credibility.

Let’s fast forward to another Sunday fifty years later.  I am at the funeral of a good friend who had led an exemplary life of Christian service to her church and community.  The minister is speaking of the afterlife, streets of gold, etc.   There are many references to our salvation that happens for us because of Christ dying for the atonement of our sins.  The big hitch, though, is that we must believe this.  We must believe, unquestioningly, the accounts of miracles, especially the immaculate conception, the atonement, and the resurrection.  Any doubts or questions, and we are in danger of going to the “other place” when we die.  What better venue than a funeral to drive home that doctrine?

At this time in my life, I realize that destiny isn’t really the focus for our concerns.  It’s the here and now that we need to be concerned with.  Whatever brings love and peace into a person’s life is a blessing, and religion should bring that blessing above all else.  Far from bringing me peace, the big demand for belief just makes me feel inadequate.  It’s too much like an insurance policy that we buy out of fear that something bad will happen, and we all know how insurance premiums just keep going up.  Of course, there is the promise of love eternal, beyond our imagining—a gentle, wonderful thing.  But, according to a lot of Christian doctrine, this one-shot lifetime is all we have to achieve it, and if we don’t, we are doomed to eternal misery.  Whatever happened to “…faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love”? (I Corinthians 13:13)”

So that brings me to the difference between faith and belief.  Often the two words are used interchangeably.  I have come to see them differently, though.  For me, faith takes over when belief fails us because of so many disappointments that lead to doubt.  Belief is more fragile than faith.  Too often we think we can make ourselves believe something, and we call this faith, but I think faith is much bigger than even that. 

When I was a child, I had a beautiful book entitled The Big Book of Fairies.  The illustrations were ethereal and captivating, and I was so drawn into them that in my imagination tiny beings really rode on the backs of dragonflies and used fireflies for lanterns.  I looked everywhere for evidence of fairies and left little tokens for them in every niche that looked like a nocturnal gathering place.  I adored them. 

Gradually, though, not ever having an encounter wore my belief down.  Finally, one afternoon I saw a swarm of dragonflies overhead just out of my reach.  I craned my neck into distortion trying to get a glimpse of fanciful little creatures riding between the heads and wings of these insect airplanes—a tiny foot in a jeweled slipper, another set of gossamer wings—but there was nothing.  Eventually, fairies remained sequestered in the vaults of my fantasy.  There was a little disappointment in releasing them from my material life, but I could be with them again in my imagination any time I liked.  I could make believe.

This whole process seems very natural to me now.  As we mature, we develop a healthy skepticism.  We are safe as long as we are dealing with what the world calls fantasy.  But when we are told, authoritatively, that the truth about our living and dying is based on our acceptance of an oral tradition as fact, skepticism becomes a precipice at the edge of a deep gorge of frightening doubt, and there is no going back. Still, we search for order and meaning in our chaotic, mysterious lives.  

Faith is the very real courage that carries us through this mystery, helping us to realize that our rescue is a process, and we don’t have to stand at the precipice paralyzed by the unknown. The unknown will always be there, but we don’t have to be swallowed up by it because by the very virtue of being unknown, it can be benign as easily as it can be malevolent.  Thus, we can learn to embrace the mystery through humility, realizing our intellectual limitations.  The process is laid out for us in Matthew 7:7, “Ask…, seek…, knock.” Our doubts can simply lead us to inquiry. 

We are the askers whom faith carries to become the seekers.  Like Thomas, we refuse to make believe. And, like Thomas, we seek by coming back a second time—for some, many times—for chaos and mystery to be dispelled.  Our doubts have now led us into a search for credible answers, and as we knock at the door of the Universe in humility and openness, surprising evidences reveal themselves to us.

Asking is what we do out of skepticism.  It is recognizing that we won’t find easy answers in a world that often seems designed to hide the truth from us.  Seeking is investigating diverse sources of enlightenment, trying to find evidence of a truth that can be applied throughout humanity.  Knocking is reaching out for a higher truth with an expectation of fulfillment, strengthened and emboldened by the meager understanding that one has acquired through the search.  Faith is what sustains us through this lifelong process.  It is that spark of confident energy that keeps us from being drowned in discouragement when life seems devoid of meaning.  When tragedy befalls us in spite of our prayers, faith is what remains to carry us through the search for spiritual truth that transcends magical thinking.  It is what we have left when a belief system crumbles, a kind of knowing that there is, after all, a capacity within ourselves to live lovingly and courageously as we learn not to trust our perception of our tangible but shifting world.  Ultimately, it is knowing that there is an attainable peace that is beyond our capacity to understand, and that’s OK. 

 

For extended reading on belief and faith, I invite you to read Jacques Ellul’s Living Faith.

Real and finally replete.

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