Reflection on Faith

faith (n.) mid-13th-century; "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," from Latin fides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from Proto-Indo-European root bheidh (source also of Greek pistis). Theological sense is from late 14th-century; religions called faiths since circa 1300.
-from Online Etymoligical Dictionary
Some us have a warm, fuzzy response to the word “faith.” Others of us have a cold, prickly reaction to the word. I understand the cold, prickly reaction. Far from its original sense of “fidelity; fulfillment of duties with which one has been entrusted,” “faith” today has sometimes seemed to mean “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” If that’s what “faith” means, it’s no wonder that many Unitarian Universalists would rather have nothing to do with it.

If we are to have fidelity to the truth, we understand that we must always be willing to change our belief in light of new evidence. To define “faith” as “refusal to modify beliefs, whatever the evidence” is to make faith into the opposite of the fidelity that “faith” originally indicated!

The Greek word was pistis. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the goddess Pistis personified trust and reliability. In Roman mythology, her name was Fides (hence, fidelity). The Greeks often spoke of Pistis together with Elpis (hope), Sophrosyne (prudence), and the Charites (a.k.a. Graces, which variously included such minor goddesses as charm, beauty, fertility, creativity, splendor, mirth, and good cheer – all attributes generally associated with harmony among people.) When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians that “faith, hope, and love abide,” he was clearly evoking this Greek background.

For the Greeks, Pistis evolved to include persuasion. In the Greek understanding of rhetoric, pistis are the elements to induce true judgment. So the idea of fidelity to duty morphed to refer especially to fidelity to the truth, and the logical means of persuasion of the truth.

In the hands of the writers and the interpretive community of readers of the Christian ("New") Testament, the Greek pistis evolved further from “persuasion” to “conviction.”

The Christian Testament was originally written in Greek, and pistis (uniformly translated to English as “faith”) appears many times. Below is a sampling. As you look over these passages, I invite you to consider what difference it makes if you read faith as “fidelity to an entrusted duty” or as “conviction of belief.”
  • “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
  • "So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)
  • “Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Rom 3:30)
  • “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
  • “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Rom 4:13)
  • “For through the spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. . . . Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5)
  • “for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col 1:4)
  • “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess 5:8)
  • “When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one[a] in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matt 8:10)
  • “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” (Matt 9:2)
  • “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’” (Matt 9:22)
  • “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” (Matt 9:29)
  • “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matt 15:28)
  • “He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matt 17:20)
  • “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done.’” (Matt 21:21)
  • “’Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.’” (Matt 23:23)
  • “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40)
  • “Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God.’” (Mark 11:21-22)
  • “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)
  • “And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:24-25)
  • “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
  • “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
  • “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:32)
  • “Peter…addressed the people, ‘…And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.’” (Acts 3:16)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
All these meanings – fidelity, persuasion, and conviction – echo through our conception of faith today. What is at the core, unifying these disparate meanings?

Jumping from the ancient Greeks and the Christian Testament writers to today: recent reflections on the nature of faith provide important avenues for getting at the core of faith while discarding the association of faith with willful disregard of evidence and reason. Let’s take a look at three contemporary approaches.

1. Wieman

The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) provides helpful guidance on the nature of faith. Wieman’s view, as described by Virginia Knowles:
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” (1992)
We all have egos, and our egos desire recognizable achievement -- socially, financially, physically, professionally, politically, or artistically. Our egos motivate us to do some good work, but Weiman identifies excessive devotion to the ego’s desires as evil. We may be saved from that evil, suggests Weiman, through commitment to grow and change in ways that make us increasingly better able to avoid the evil of overly focusing on the ego’s desires, increasingly oriented toward humble service of enduring values rather than ego desires and inconspicuous harmony with life and our world rather than recognition of achievement.

Wieman’s understanding of faith captures what has been most central and important about faith in Western religious traditions. The outcome of faith – personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires -- is precisely the outcome that the traditional Western religions have seen as the product of a faithful life. Wieman has showed us a way to embrace this valuable function of faith without the unfortunate notion that faith requires irrational conviction that flies in the face of evidence. Try reading the above samples from the Bible with Wieman’s understanding of faith in mind. Does it work?

2. Salzberg

For American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg (b. 1952), faith is
"the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."
Rather than believing without evidence, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown often does feel like leaping -- hence the phrase, "leap of faith."

At the same time, Salzberg is drawing upon the tradition that faith stands in distinction from reason and evidence. After all, reason and evidence tell us about what we can know. Making our peace with unknowability is also a crucial part of a whole life.

While Weiman draws attention to the ego’s focus on achievement, Salzberg’s formulation points to another trick of the ego. The ego pretends to know more than it actually does know about what's going to happen next and about where your life is headed. Ego loves its illusion of being in control. Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery.

Following Salzberg, we can see that faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in life. It means the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith is the overcoming of the fear that could cause us to withdraw and stand safely on the sidelines. Faith is jumping in -- there's the leap again -- into all that life has to offer, the joy and the triumph and the grief and the loss. Faith is stepping, jumping, skipping, leaping, somersaulting right into the middle of possibilities for how we might evolve and for what goodness might burst forth. Faith's opposite, then, is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.

This understanding leads to seeing faith as also awareness of an interconnected universe. We are not alone no matter how alone we sometimes feel. What happens to us and from us is part of the larger fabric of life, always rippling out through threads of connection.

If we read the above Bible samples with Salzberg’s understanding of faith in mind, do they may more sense? Less?

3. Fowler

James Fowler (b. 1940, Prof of Theology and Human Development at Emory and a United Methodist minister) defined faith as:
“a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.”
A “religion,” then, for Fowler, is “a community’s way of giving expression to faith relationships held in common.”

Fowler’s definition preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths (or, more specifically, are names of communities that give expression to faith relationships held in common among the community’s members). Each offers a certain way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.

The idea that it’s a good thing to have convictions that are entirely unshakeable regardless of the evidence is a bad mistake. That idea does nevertheless convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence is not the same thing as meaning, and evidence alone does not suffice. The way we understand the world is more than just evidence. Fowler’s definition preserves that nugget of insight about faith: that evidence alone doesn’t offer much guidance. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, fit into an overall context, made sense of.

There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is, for Fowler, a faith. We all have faith – it’s unavoidable – since we all interpret and make sense of existence. To have “little faith,” then, would be to have a rather haphazard and often incoherent way “knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” To have a lot of faith would be to know, construe, and interpret existence in a way that coherently makes sense of a vast range of data. How does it work to read the above Bible verses with Fowler’s definition in mind?

Weiman, Salzberg, and Fowler each offer us an active conception of faith. It’s the act by which we commit (Weiman), the act of opening (Salzberg), and a way of doing something, namely, interpreting existence (Fowler). Faith is best understood not so much as something we have, but as something we do – or, sometimes, fail to do.

Photo by the author


Authority and Taqwacores: Boxes Too Small 2

Michael Muhammad Knight
(Wikimedia Commons)
We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. Only by nailing individual conscience together with accountability to our guides and companions do we have any chance of breaking out of boxes that are too small for the grandest possibilities of life – possibilities we can but dimly sense and cannot concretely imagine.

We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray.

Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority – the internal authority of your conscience, or the external authority of a leader and a community, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the project of liberal religion -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We live in that creative tension which plays out in many ways.

So let me illustrate that with a story about a very different context.

Michael Knight was born in 1977 in West Virginia. When Michael was age 2, his mother, Irish Catholic, took him and fled from Michael’s father, who was Pentecostal and also mentally ill and abusive. When Michael was 13, he heard about Malcolm X in the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. He started reading more about Malcolm X, and about Islam, converted to Islam, and, at age 17, went to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. Now named Michael Muhammad Knight, he spent several years in Pakistan. He grew gradually disillusioned with orthodox Islam. After returning to the US, he wrote The Taqwacores -- a novel about a group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York. He imagined the book as his "good-bye," to Islam.

In the novel, the narrator, Yusef, draws parallels between Islam and punk:
“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”
Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of The Taqwacores. Then in 2003 it was picked up and published by a punk record label. The characters include:
  • Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.
  • Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.
  • Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.
  • Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.
  • Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.
  • Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.
And various other comers and goers.

A 2010 film was made from the book
What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they call themselves Muslim, study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, and say their prayers facing Mecca. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Others of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for a movement. As a New York Times article explained: Many
“young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, "Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book," 2008 Dec 22)
So they made their own form of Islam.

Next: Punk Islam Confronts the Tolerance Paradox.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Previous: Part 1: Nailing Things Together


This Week's Prayer

Dear Beat, rhythm and Beatitude of life and being, pulse of existence,

Everything we have ever known and will ever know is one.

We wonder, with Kerouac, “what God had wrought when he made life so sad,” even as we also sense that “life is holy and every moment is precious.”

We grieve the violence that killed journalist James Foley and so many others.

Our hearts go out to the kidnapped, to the long-term disappeared, to the survivors of kidnapping;

to the rescuers combing through the site of landslides triggered by rain in Hiroshima, Japan, desperately wishing not to find more bodies;

to those clearing up from the flash flooding in Arizona and those enduring severe drought in California;

to the scientists working to learn and tell us about the world’s weather;

to the tourists being evacuated in parts of Iceland, as another volcano threatens to erupt under the largest glacier;

to those who try to predict seismic events, things present and things to come, and thereby save lives;

to those in Western Africa suffering the Ebola virus or living in fear of it, and to the doctors and medical staff caring for them;

to those who teach and those who desperately, determinedly, seek an education that the sum of human understanding may grow – and to those who deny learning for themselves and others;

to those rioting in Missouri and to those harmed by the rioting; to the families of all those who never deserved to be killed by a police officer and to the officers wrestling with their demons and fears and inadequate training;

to all those who mourn.

May we all find a path to healing, to the holiness and preciousness, to the oneness of all we know.

May justice create the space for all beings to dance exultant joy to the universal beat.


Nailing Things Together: Boxes Too Small 1

Comedian George Carlin – a muse to whom I often turn – said back in 1972:
“You can buy anything in this country. Anything you can think of! You can probably buy a left nostril inhaler if you look around long enough. With your state motto on it. Glows in the dark. Anything, man. If you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.”
Call it American innovation or call it American hucksterism.

Peanut butter and jelly – slapping together two things that had never been put together before. It’s a combination you will rarely find anywhere outside America. The smart phone is basically the result of taking a cell phone, and nailing lots of other things to it. I can’t wait until it’s also my garage door opener, my TV remote control, and an electric razor. Is there an ap for that?

Pilgrims and puritans came here seeking a place to build the city of god. Then there were a lot of other Europeans that arrived on these shores because the British, French, and other colonial empires used North America as basically a penal colony. In the 18th-century, 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America. The two main strands from Europe that formed American culture were the churchy types who liked rules and the criminal types who really didn’t get along with rules. We’re a nation created from nailing together very different things.

Unitarian Universalists also nail together things that are generally regarded as very different – like diverse beliefs worshiping together as one faith. How about these two: Punk rock and Islam. Surely those haven't been nailed together? They have!

There have been Muslim Punk bands since at least 1979, in fact. I had no idea – until I came across a reference to a 2003 novel, The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. That novel, I since learned, sparked a Punk Islam lifestyle movement. I want to talk about that today because I thought it was bizarre and strange – yet also compellingly illustrates what we’re all up against.

We’re trying to nail together two things that often seem at odds. The need to do that keeps arising because of the inevitable tendency to do what some call putting God in a box, what we might also call relying on rules and formulas instead of being open in each moment to possibilities we never had previously imagined but which creatively reveal new ways to understand, to love, and to connect.

Unitarian Universalism is all about nailing together individual responsibility and community. We Unitarian Universalists come out of what is called the left wing of the Protestant reformation, or the radical reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther undermined the entrenched priestly hierarchy by proclaiming the priesthood of all believers. Unitarians went a little further, explained our theologian James Luther Adams, and also proclaimed the prophethood of all believers.

Five hundred years ago, Luther was indicating each of us is of the priesthood, no one can make your spiritual truth but you. No one but you can do that work. It's up to you to open yourself to grace, which then takes over. That’s a hard basis to make community upon. Not impossible, but not easy.

The call to individual responsibility militates against the tribal tendency of religion. Emphasis on each individual's responsibility to make or find her own spiritual truth makes community-building more difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that only a community that recognizes each person's divinity and authority has a chance of lasting.

As long as there are external authorities, there will be competition among them and rebellion against them. That doesn't mean that rejecting all religious authority ends the competition and rebellion. It goes on internally. Within each psyche, impulses compete with and rebel against one another.

The divine, spiritual truth, God, the ground of healing and wholeness that we call by many names -- whatever we call reality at its most inclusive -- is too big to fit in the box of what any one authority -- person or doctrine -- decrees.

External authority is one box too small. The internal authority of our own egos is another box too small.

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This is part 1 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 2: Authority and Taqwacores