The Trouble With Belief

02C63D43DA01429AB0C4B1E2D38FE38CIn college, friends would sometimes say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Had I been the scoffing sort then, I might have grilled them to discover what they meant.

Instead, I said, “Me too.”

Now, as then, not even that is accurate. I’m not sure I accept spirit. Belief comes hard for me. I have to scratch it from the reluctant clay of reason, one assertion and another and another. If I can agree something is so then something else might be, which means something else… and so on. My hands are full of supposition, taking no shape but what a mind can form of it.

In my classes, I sometimes suggest a distinction between recognition and realization. One is chiefly rational and the other emotional. Macbeth can consider the consequences of killing King Duncan. He can outline the reasons he shouldn’t and balance them against the plan proposed by his wife. In other words, he can recognize the meaning of the murder, completely and coldly. Not until he kills Duncan, however, does he feel what he’s done and sag under its gravity. His realization awaits the marriage of reason and emotion.

Belief for me has been largely recognition.

I’d prefer realization.

Recently a friend sent me an illuminating e-mail. I’d been talking, in a figurative sense, about getting most of my exercise from kicking myself around the block, and she suggested one fundamental need addressed by religion is explaining a person’s existence. Faith justifies the presence of a self and self-awareness, accounts for the burden of living and presents validation greater than any available by pure cognition.

It sounds complicated (and perhaps I haven’t understood her), but it makes a sort of sense. If you want to find a place, you have to believe in something bigger than the space you occupy. No fantasy, no mental castle in the air, no rational palace, will house you for long.

In July, in an avowed “Book report,” David Brooks wrote of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that, in an age of humanistic rather than religious experience, we experience many benefits, yet:

…these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.

This shift in consciousness leads to some serious downsides. When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”

I’m certainly Thomas. I think often of joining the local Buddhist temple because its belief comes closest to my thinking. The trouble is acting. The trouble is lying down before what seems constructed—one of many choices. Doubt lingers nearby, whispering, “Is this it?”

Life seemed much easier when I could call myself “spiritual” without commitment. It was plain. Now, the afternoon dims to gray, and my mind slips into its wake, equally low and dim in a calm welcome to diminishment and silence. “This,” I think, “is religious. I’m somewhere outside myself now.” Then some definition gathers in my brain, and the moment passes.

If I could hold, as people did in 1500, the fundamental assumption of God, that moment might last. But we don’t live then, and what rumination will bring me back? That part of my brain doesn’t talk enough. It keeps peace a secret.


Filed under Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Religion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

3 responses to “The Trouble With Belief

  1. Interesting post. Reminds me of my own checkered path of religious exploration. In hindsight, its been a bit of a food court approach with no particular meal being fully satisfying. Unitarian-Universalism has come closest, by celebrating the search itself (for meaning).

  2. Debbie

    By having faith, I experience a peace, joy and hope that sustains me during difficult times and elevates me in happy times. I have never seen God, but I feel His presence. I have joy. I believe. I recommend it.

    Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

  3. Interesting. I’m with Richard Dawkins on this one – having grown up with Catholicism.

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