We think of faith in this country as homogenous, don’t we?
I mean, we see the United States as a Christian nation. It’s almost a given, the only differences coming via denominations, from the most fundamentalist to the outer reaches of liberal churches, and every biblical belief system in between.
In this country, anyway, if someone asks if you believe in God, it’s the Christian God they’re talking about.
But if you grew up in Tibet, you’d think the same way—only you’d be Buddhist. And puzzled that everyone else is not.
So much of what we believe was taught to us as children, in our family homes.
According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40% of people say they go to church every week, but statistics show that fewer than 20% actually attend.
Of course, attending church doesn’t give us an accurate idea of how people perceive religious affiliation. And statistics vary as to how folks identify their religions as well.
But religious affiliation and faith are different beasts, no?
We all know the folks who people the pews every time the church doors open, but seem to practice little of what they profess. Conversely, we also know those who never darken the doors, yet exemplify the teachings of the Christ with every breath.
And of course, someone’s faith meter is not ours to judge J
Although judge, we do. Wars are fought over this every day . . .
One phenomenon that has always brought awe, which crosses pretty much every religious affiliation, is the revelation experience. You know—where you have a personal encounter with a higher power, whatever you perceive that to be.
Perhaps you’ve had a profound one. Perhaps none at all. Or maybe you’re seeking that very thing.
Although humans have experienced such wonders since the dawn of mankind, a slippery slope exists here. So often, they take that personal revelation of the divine as something that everyone now “should” (or even must) believe.
I.e., seizing the personal experience and mandating it for all others.
Which is kinda tough to effect, since quite conflicting religious groups say all people now must believe as they do, act as they do, or Hell’s doors will open wide to swoop them in.
They profess to have that perfect bead on what the divine actually is.
Quite often, the approach is, “If you don’t believe what (whichever god) I do, then let me explain so you’ll get it. And if you still don’t, let me keep beating you in the head with it until you understand how right I am.”
Or, in the extreme, cut off your head entirely.
But as the Dalai Lama said when asked the difference in Catholicism and Buddhism:
“Same path, different walking stick.”
I’ve studied (and been a part of) different religious groups. I do confess—that’s been a while back.
Once you dig deep into the core though, they all resonate with parallel Truths.
For example, amazing when you study them how alike the original creation myths across ancient cultures were. The heart within them beats to a matching rhythm. Likewise the savior motifs, which unfold with identical patterns and designs.
And the plethora of pitfalls are the same as well, as the human ego attempts to grapple with and indeed tame the numinous divine. A divine which exceeds our grasps in this lifetime.
How often we make god in our own images . . .
I love the work of Joseph Campbell, and have studied him for decades. In the Masks of Eternity, he explores how all of our names and images for God are merely masks. They simply represent that ultimate essence, which transcends language and art. Which rises beyond this life.
And they simultaneously reveal and obscure the deeper divine.
“Well, you have to go past the image . . .” Campbell said. “The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier.”
The deeper divine, Campbell said, is one of transcendence, and experience. It has to be felt, has to shift from the head to the heart, from thinking to feeling, residing in what we call the soul.
Faith, to me, isn’t dogma. But rather, that experience of the divine, which resides in the inner reaches of the heart and echoes softly there. If you have a divine revelation that is different from mine, I do not believe yours is wrong.
I honor the sacred within us all.
As Jesus said: “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
I’m much more interested in how your faith dwells in your life; how by following the Truths found there, your world and therefore the greater one is enhanced and enriched. I love knowing how your walking stick helps guide your path.
Whether you believe in the God of Abraham, or the savior figure of Jesus, or
follow the Buddha, find your soul in the Hindu god Krishna, are drawn to the Great Mother in all of her incarnations, pray to your ancestors every night before sleep, or any of the other myriad belief systems, I just want to know what truths you’ve unearthed.
But more, I want to know how the experience of the numinous surges through your soul.
Because faith is that very thing in the end that eludes fact, historical, empirical, or otherwise. You know, that evidence of things not seen.
As Campbell said:
“Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.
He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.”
What does faith mean to you?
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.