Defining Faith v Religion - Part 1

searching the stars.jpg

Writing about faith and my ongoing journey towards understanding what that means was a major inspiration for creating this website.  The number one area where I explore this is in the 'Faith v Religion' series.  Experts in public discourse often say that you should begin by 'defining terms'.  While I didn't quite begin by doing that, I want to return to that now.  As is obvious from the series title, 'Faith VERSUS Religion', I understand and use these words to represent opposing beliefs, values and behaviors.  I believe that 'faith' and 'religion' each have two primary characteristics and that the embrace of these characteristics is a matter of spiritual life or death.  While I will again speak from the background of my own experience within a subset of Christianity, I would like to suggest that this conversation is relevant to any faith or life philosophy.

children and the stars

There are two questions that my three-year-old daughter will routinely ask when she sees a place on the T.V., or in pictures or just driving around.  The first is, "What is that?"  The second is, "Can I go there?"  One night when we were out looking at the stars, she even pointed up at the moon and again asked, "What is that?"  "The moon," I answered.  She, of course, replied, "Can I go there?"

Now how I answer this question is of infinite value and speaks to the heart of the first two and opposing characteristics of faith and religion.

religion and dogma

I've come to believe that a fundamental characteristic of religion is an idolatry of answers.  It's understandable even if it is dangerous in the end.  Human beings love answers.  They bring us comfort and a sense of direction.  Now please don't misunderstand these statements to mean that I fully embrace a totally existential world view--that is, that all truth is completely subjective and the creation of ultimately unknowable psychological factors.  I think I can know some things.  The entire basis of me communicating opinions on this website assumes some degree of relative certainty in what I perceive to be true and good.  The problem is when that process of coming to those kinds of conclusions is irevocably closed.  In religion, somewhere along the line someone(s) made definitive statements that were no longer open to debate and in some cases even discussion.  This is the codifying of dogma.

I experienced this in my own religious tradition of evangelicalism when I was studying theology at Multnomah Bible College (now University) and Western Seminary.  Both educational experiences traditionally close with some kind of seminar class in which you write 'position papers' on your personal beliefs and convictions.  Now understand that at the outset a prerequisite qualification for you even attending these schools is the affirmation of, for example, the World Evangelical Alliance's 'Statement of Faith' or a clear demonstration of predetermined Christian 'values' and behaviors, such as maintaining what is presented as a biblical, heterosexuality.  The same is required by all faculty and staff, therefore ensuring a theologically homogeneous environment.  So really it is assumed that the conclusions you come to in your 'personal' statements upon completion of your studies will be the ones with which you started.  The end result is a pervasive preoccupation to consistently state and defend that which we already know to be true while refusing to honestly question your current thoughts and perspectives and altogether ignoring the vast unknown.  It's ironic that this all takes place while affirming both a belief in the inherently finite abilities of humanity in contrast to an infinitely all-powerful, all-knowing, and mysterious God.  This is why I have concluded that any form of dogma is actually the practice of idolatry.

There is, as I see it, two types of responses to the unknown.  One of them is fear.  I suspect that the motivation behind religion's coming to these kinds of dogmatic conclusions is some kind of fear.  What kinds of fears will be a discussion for another time, though we will focus on one in particular in Part 2.

One last thought before we turn to faith: Let's not make the mistake of limiting dogma to traditionally recognized religions.  Atheists can become just as dogmatic and in doing so are showing themselves to be quite religious.  No matter what your religious or philosophical or scientific opinions, we must all be on the lookout for the idol of dogma.

faith and curiosity

In contrast to this is faith, which is rooted in the other potential response to the unknown: curiosity.  When asked recently what exactly I believed in, I shared with a friend that my creed is the question mark.  Faith, in my opinion, is a harmonious blend of humble conviction with a fearless and free exploration of the unknown that produces a courageous and limitless love of the other.  As the late British philosopher, Alan Watts, once said,

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world.  Faith is, above all, openness--an act of trust in the unknown.

Many years ago when I was in Bible college, I experienced the death of a couple of close family members.  This, along with an extremely high academic load and other ministry responsibilities, led to my first encounter with anxiety attacks.  Running alongside the physiological fears that come with this condition, I began to ask serious questions about my faith.  This was practically a traumatic experience given my conditioning to understand 'faith' really more from the religious mindset I have sought to, in part, describe here.  Even though I would ultimately return to the safe confines of religiosity, I did briefly flirt with faith.  In fact, I told people that, "My faith is only as strong as I am willing to question it."  While it has taken many years to break free, I now feel I have found a faith that is far more vibrant than anything I could have ever written on a position paper.

Which brings me back to my answer to Ellie's question that night as we gazed out at the vastness of space and the moon glowing in the sky.  When a child asks a question like, "Can I go there?", they are really asking for permission to explore.  I want Ellie to have the kind of wide-eyed wonder and childlike faith that perhaps Jesus had in mind when he reprimanded his disciples and told them to "become like children" (Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:13-16, et al).  So I turned to Ellie and said, "I believe you can."  This is how faith is born.

click here to go to part 2