knowing and unknowing, faith and doubt

Ever since I started to consider my place in the world and to think seriously about life on a deeper level, I’ve been drawn to spiritual practice and genuine, heartfelt expressions of faith. I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and, for a complex tangle of reasons—including personal shortcomings and real issues with Catholicism itself—I turned away. In college I began to examine philosophy and ways of thinking and living completely devoid of religious practice.

It wasn’t long before I was drawn to Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhist practice, for in it I found wisdom and a way of living based on an embrace of life in the here and now without the added weight of cloudy divine guidance. In practicing Buddhism, I came to know and trust there are no easy answers to be found anywhere for life’s big questions and the essence of life will likely always be shrouded in mystery on some level. In practicing and living, in grappling with the very serious, yet ultimately acceptable, presence of personal suffering, I came to trust in a deeper peace beyond anything superficial or selfish. In time I even began to see that my previous issues with Christianity were as much about my own immature expectations and understanding as they were about any genuine problems with the teaching itself. Out of a strong desire for reconciliation between my spiritual upbringing and a wish to understand the religion that surrounds me in this society, I began to explore Christianity again.

Through the help of patient and loving friends and Christian writers like Rob Bell and Thomas Merton who speak to my Buddhist-enhanced understanding, I began to see the depth of wisdom inherent in Christianity. It was in practicing Buddhism that I eventually realized how shut-off I had become to many Christian ways of thinking and in time reopen myself to those ideas. It hasn’t always been easy over the last few years to set aside my strong disgust with those I think are acting as the worst examples of Christian faith.

Groups that shout the loudest, often through bullhorns, and sicken me the most are hard to look beyond sometimes. It’s the repulsively fundamental groups that would rather beat us over the head for our sins in the hopes that we’ll repent instead of approach our inadequacies with loving-kindness that I’ve often been stuck on. Yet, in the end, I knew this corruption of faith was not the heart of Christianity.

I’ve been determined to seek and understand the loving heart of Christianity I sensed and hoped was there. An undeniable truth wells up from deep within me that says our world needs love and compassion far more than condemnation. A strong belief in the need to help others lovingly and peaceably has been my compass in guiding me through the often murky waters of faith for quite awhile. I know in my heart that I’ve gone astray when surrounded by people who think they are the keepers of the one true way and are in some way superior to outsiders. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find more loving, intelligent, supportive Christians than the abhorrent kind. For this I am grateful.

Along with a far-away friend, I began reading the Bible for myself about a year and a half ago. I was surprised and encouraged to see how readable it is, but at the same time I’ve been challenged and perplexed by much of what I’ve encountered, especially in various Old Testament books. I quickly realized how inadequate my understanding is of the early Judaism out of which these writings arose. For me, a sense of time and place is necessary in better understanding these books. I do hope to learn more about the culture, history, and even the language of these ancient people. Judaism’s ethos and its related teachings cannot be wholly separated and time-warped into today’s world without some modification.

Even though I can appreciate the idea of divine inspiration for the writers of these books, I cannot see these words as the completely infallible word of God. How could I accept what I pick up and read in the Bible as inerrant when I acknowledge how human hands have shaped and reshaped what is today’s Christian Bible? Translation and interpretation have been necessary components of keeping the Christian Bible relevant. A great deal of trust and faith in those Christians that have come before me is necessary if I am going to really appreciate the teachings of the Bible.

I see no problem in keeping all the faculties of my mind in play in making sense of God’s word as handed down—and molded—by generation after generation. I refuse to turn off my brain and just accept on some sort of blind faith that the Bible is God’s final and unequivocal word to be taken literally and without consideration, because, well, I do think God is still speaking to us. For me, written truth does not trump observable, real-world truth as revealed in nature or in everyday life itself.

Not long after taking up the semi-regular practice of Bible reading I began to realize that much of it did speak to me. A growing fondness for the Christian story began to develop and I was coming to see and understand Jesus like never before. Much of this is still in the works and I suppose that will always be the case as long as I am serious about the practice of Christianity. I also came to see that any sort of worthwhile Christian cannot exist in a vacuum. I wasn’t entirely in a vacuum as I had one very helpful far-away friend and a few others here and there who I could discuss such matters with, but I have not had a real-life, local community of Christians to share and worship with in a long time. So I understood the need for community, for church. I had taken up the reading of the Bible and even began to pray and attempt to explicitly commune with God on occasion, but I was lacking a person-to-person connection in my developing faith.

Despite my doubts and remaining confusion regarding Christianity, I started to look for a church I could handle. I hadn’t gone to any church regularly since I was a teenager and was obligated to do so by my parents. In my initial search online I found the UCC (United Church of Christ) and their local church, Peace United Church of Christ. In examining the UCC website I was immediately attracted to their emphasis on the positive and healing aspects of the Christian teaching, especially the good news of the love God has for everyone. The whole message was wrapped in a welcoming, open to anyone package. Their method of worship was supposedly guided by scripture, yet serious thinking and continual reexamination of faith was part of their practice. It all looked wonderful on the screen and so I decided to check the local church out in person.

Sarah and I visited Peace United for the first time at the end of January and were immediately welcomed and introduced to the church by warm, friendly people. Actually, even before walking in the door I was impressed by a sign hanging outside that read “Our faith is over 2000 years old, our thinking is not!” Yes, that’s the type of Christian approach I was hoping to find! The place felt right, as right as Christianity has felt for me in a building in a long time. The service was familiar to my Catholic background, yet not as bogged down with ritual. The hymns were traditional, beautifully backed by organ and choir, albeit difficult for a non-singer like myself to keep up with— yet I have fun trying to sing. We’ve attended services there a number of times since that first Sunday and each time I’ve been impressed with the pastor’s sermons and the relevance of his messages to this life, messages that are culled from the same Scriptures I am now grappling with. I’ve been continually encouraged by the warm, genuinely faithful people that I’ve encountered at the church and I can see myself looking to them for support.

My original idea in looking for a church had me visiting several, but after going to Peace United over the last few months, I no longer think it’s necessary. If I’ve found a church home on the first try, why keep looking? This could be it.

I still struggle with Christianity. I am not beyond doubt. I have difficulty with probably a lot of the same ideas countless other people have had, I don’t think I’m special. Yet it’s all quite confounding sometimes and nearly paralyzing. How do I know in my heart that an actual practice of what’s become Christianity is what God wants for me? How is God even speaking to me in my life now? I’m trying to listen, are my ears not working properly? Why can’t he give me a clear shout out like so many times in the stories of the Old Testament. I know that’s a bit selfish and perhaps immature to wish for, but…

Problem is, Christianity insists there is an all-knowing, all-seeing creative God behind everything. And yet we sit here as human beings separated from him by what seems like an impossibly large gulf at times. Our faith is supposed to bridge that gap, but is Christianity as it has come to me now what God really has in mind for us in living a realized life in this world? Seems to me we as human beings still have a lot of work to do in that regard, in making Christianity what it needs to be.

I am trying to open myself to God, often not really knowing how. In getting back to prayer, even prayers of petition which I’ve often struggled with, I’ve taken to asking God for understanding as it’s begun to make sense to me that I should use the voice I have to ask for help. Sure, an all-knowing God would know my heart’s desire, but who am I to expect him to do the work of reading my mind? Am I so lazy and self-centered that I can’t call out to him? I don’t want to be. I am asking you, dear God, for your help in clarifying my way forward.

I have no problem believing and trusting in a creative force/being that is at the source of all existence. When I look at the world and its tendency towards chaos and destruction I also see and am greatly encouraged by our capacity for love and the undeniable ability we have to awaken to truth on a deeper level. Our willingness to love each other despite all the ugliness that comes with being alive in this world is profound and incredibly awe-inspiring to me. Yet I struggle envisioning God through a human conceptual framework. Seems to me God has to be so much larger than anything my mind can even begin to comprehend or even as often described in the Bible. Sure, I understand the idea of being made in his image, but still, that’s just an image of his ineffable nature.

So God sent Jesus as the ultimate sacrificial expression of love to ultimately bring his misguided world of creative beings back into line with his true way. It’s all so heavy and complex, so layered and nuanced, so mysterious and mind-boggling. Yet the more I learn about the Christian story and the life of Jesus, the more intrigued and even grateful I become. It’s quite a story! I’ve never failed to be inspired by the life of Jesus. It’s what’s often come after Jesus and supposedly in his name that’s bothered me. When I remind myself that everything labeled as “Christian” isn’t necessarily connected to God then I am able go on with less hesitancy.

I am trying to learn how to have a real relationship with Jesus, how to model my life after his and in a way make his life my own. Yet, what character in the history of the world is as massive and has bigger sandals to fill than Jesus!? He’s the so-called Son of God for crying out loud! And yet I can see how we’re all sons of God. Hello, Jesus, I want to know you. Please help me to be like you too. Furthermore, I’m a pragmatist and feel that as long as I’m a human being I’ll be somewhat constrained by my humanness. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for the seemingly impossible, right?

All this thinking of God and what it means for me now to live a life in pursuit of his way does not have to be contrary to present reality. Good thing, because if what God was asking me for was contrary to life in a real sense then I’d have to ask, “What gives, God?” I mean, the God of the Bible asks for our deepest commitment, but as of yet he hasn’t asked me to strip naked and run down the street singing “Hallelujah”. Nor have I been called to lash out at sinners and demand their repentance. Picking up a bullhorn and blasting others or going clinically bonkers are not in the cards for me.

Ultimate reality remains in balance with ordinary, everyday life despite our feeling of dissatisfaction. Regardless my wish to know the mind of God and to understand the deepest truths of existence, life goes on as it is, just as it is— as ordinary and profound as ever before. Mundane and scared are two sides of the same unified reality.

I will continue to rake leaves and prepare food, the need to pay attention to everyday activity will not go away in this life. Despite our obligations there is freedom and comfort in knowing all is as it should be, momentarily balanced on the head of pin in this time and place on the way to something entirely new in the next. The hard work of taking care of our lives and each other goes on without an end in sight. There will always be more to do and yet we can be filled with the trust available to us from the great unknown. This is the tenuous and wondrous life of a human being!

Recently at Peace United the opportunity has come up to become a member of the church. I think in writing and thinking about all this today I have decided to become a member, although I will continue to think and pray on it for a couple more days. I am definitely pleased with all I’ve experienced at the church and I know that if I am going to deepen my Christian understanding and faith, I have to continue forward with the help of others in that faith. All the questions that beset me now will not be answered today, but in time with God’s grace and the love and support available to me at church and elsewhere, perhaps my way will be clarified. Maybe one day I will really know what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

more inspiration from Thomas Merton

I recently picked up Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation again. In one of the sections I read yesterday, the section comparing sacred to secular life, I was especially excited by his description of the scared life in terms that very closely parallel the understanding I’ve come to through Buddhist practice:

The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves. On the contrary, it penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself. Hence the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery.

This is a most important discovery in the interior life. For the external self fears and recoils from what is beyond it and above it. It dreads the seeming emptiness and darkness of the interior self. The whole tragedy of “diversion” is precisely that it is a flight from all that is most real and immediate and genuine in ourselves. It is a flight from life and from experience—an attempt to put a veil of objects between the mind and its experience of itself. It is therefore a mater of great courage and spiritual energy to turn away from diversion and prepare to meet, face-to-face, that immediate experience of life which is intolerable to the exterior man. This is only possible when, by a gift of God (St. Thomas would say it was the Gift of Fear, or sacred awe) we are able to see our inner selves not as a vacuum but as an infinite depth, not as emptiness but as fullness. This change of perspective is impossible as long as we are afraid of our own nothingness, as long as we are afraid of fear, afraid of poverty, afraid of boredom—as long as we run away from ourselves.

What we need is the gift of God which makes us able to find in ourselves not just ourselves, but Him: and then our nothingness becomes His all. This is not possible without the liberation effected by communication and humility. It requires not talent, not mere insight, but sorrow, pouring itself out in love and trust. (pg. 53)

Buddhism talks often about “emptiness” (Sanskrit: sunyata) beneath all composite things (including the personal self, or “inner self” as Merton calls it). Basically the idea is that all things of this world are devoid of an independent, lasting substance. This is impermanence taken to its end. Because all things are undergoing continual change, there is no lasting essence we can pin down as unchanging. Emptiness is not nihilistic since the existence of things is not in dispute here, it’s more a reinforcement of impermanence by raising it to a level where it becomes very difficult to take anything for granted. Merton’s use of “nothingness” and “emptiness” have negative connotations that are not part of the Buddhist idea of emptiness, however, there is a definite relation.

Another perspective of the same reality reveals “suchness” (Sanskrit: tathata). Suchness is more difficult to talk about, but is often seen as the essential completeness of life— the idea that life taken in its totality, as it is without the corruption of discursive consciousness and the filters of self, is akin to awakening in the deepest sense.

When I reflect on Zen practice, especially the practice of zazen and allowing myself to completely sink into present awareness without any forced application of thought, I think of bumping against emptiness and, at times, experiencing suchness— life as it is-ness! When I read Merton’s description of the sacred life and how it “penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself” I am reminded again of the transition in perspective from emptiness to one of of suchness. I think of the depth of our lives that is always right here before us when we’re able to truly face it. Any form of diversion and turning away from the direct truth of now will only take us further from the truth, further from an embrace of suchness, and further from God.