Saturday, January 5, 2013

I Choose Faith

I felt cornered, unprepared. At a rare dinner out with friends, I received an unexpected challenge: "you are an intelligent person. How can you believe that Jesus died and then was born again? How can you possibly believe that Mary was a virgin?" The questions were meant in a spirit of genuine inquiry and came from a friend who is a lovely and caring person, but they felt harsh, perhaps due to a combination of different moods and varying about emotional reactions about that which falls into the realm of the sacred.

I was taken aback, but on reflection have decided that that the unpleasant jolt was an important challenge. Maybe, out of the depths of quiet but hurried Advent and now Christmas reflection, I needed the impetus to think deeply on such hard questions, to bring more depth to my relationship with God and more meaning to my work.

I responded at first in a way that I later discovered reflected an incomplete understanding of the question, explaining why I believe in God. Doing so, I found my camera and played a video I had recorded earlier that day. While the girls had played a game at the aquarium, I had kneeled nearby in tears of awe, mesmerized by the gorgeous Leafy Sea Dragons. There are magnificent and appropriately scientific answers to their beauty and I appreciate those; knowing even a little about any element of science always makes me want to know more. However, their beauty also carries a faith analogy for me because the sheer beauty of their grace, intricate systems, and movements brought me deep gratitude and appreciation for the wonder of their existence and the exuberant love of a Creator who compliments our existence as humans with such beauty. In that experience lies an analogy to my belief in God: a decision to allow myself to feel that love and wonder, to orient myself toward that which is good, to appreciate on an ontological level that which reflects the magnificence of our Creator.

My heady explanation came crashing down quickly though, though not for any reason I might have anticipated. "Oh, obviously God is there. If I had been there, I would have been crying too, for the same reasons." I was surprised, but she continued. "I think that we can agree that God absolutely exists, that is a given." I was taken aback; if you choose to believe in the magnificence of God, what is the issue? Turns out that it is the specifics of her Christian belief that she most questioned, the virgin birth, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, His resurrection… and, I gathered, the religious traditions and expectations that honor those beliefs. "Why not just agree that God exists, be nice to each other, and drop the rest?”

That's a prevailing perspective among many, I know. "Let kindness be your religion" is a popular bumpersticker. I am not in the least bit inclined to argue against kindness. For me, however, individual interpretations of kindness are not enough unless they are grounded in that which is greater than all of us. For kindness to prevail, for it to intelligently inform difficult decisions with complicated ethical choices, it needs to be fundamentally rooted in the Divine, which is both more absolute and more eternal than individual interpretations can manifest. Kindness alone is great, but kindness that is grounded in faith has meaning beyond this life; that essential difference drives my feelings of awe and my desire to orient myself toward a faith that is both more important than and more eternal than the limitations of our current existence.

Christ carried a message of kindness in His word and in His life. Indeed. So why, in a conversation that began with a call to logic, why believe in Christ, in His message, or in His call to Faith? What is the relevance of the rest of his life, as long as we “get” that he was kind and it would be nice we were, too. Reflecting on this, it dawned on me that the answer lays not in a rejection of logic, but in its embrace. "For God so loved the world…." If you believe in that love and are a person of intelligence who embraces logic, then the obvious manifestation of that love is a strong statement, a unique decision to break God’s own laws of nature in order to effect a divine conception, to defy death, and to ground that message of kindness in extraordinary events. Religion provides the tradition that helps celebrate, remember, and believe in those events, worth experiencing precisely because they give meaning, credence, and relevance to that core message of manifested kindness.

To break His own laws, to come to us as a child, to live among us with all of the difficulties of human existence, to speak revolutionary truths, and then to die in a horrifying way… all of this is radical, a sure way to get our attention, a logical reason for God to break God’s own laws. But faith goes beyond logic, requires more than our minds, our intelligence. It requires our wholly authentic selves, engaged in a willingness to embrace that which is good, beyond understanding, and bigger than what we can know. In short, life is better with faith. Kindness is more authentic and lasting when grounded in belief. That belief is essential to sustain our imperfect souls, to orient us consistently toward that which is good, to sustain our need for human kindness while striving also toward possibilities for hope and wonder.

I am not a comparative religions expert, but find a home in Catholicism both because of family tradition and because Christianity is the only religion in which we know that "God is love,” the only one in which God died for us. I would never criticize other faith traditions; I have no basis in knowledge or in experience to do so, nor am I so inclined.  I do, however, worry for those who choose no faith traditions, for I think that there is a danger in not being open to the wonder and hope that comes with faith and belief. Doing so allows the possibility of reaching beyond our very mortal world to a more vivid and eternal one beyond. That hope, that journey, makes the experience of this life more deep and meaningful.

Father Roland Rolheiser writes about the requirements for a successful spiritual life in a way that resonates with me and provides justification for adopting specific religious practices instead of simply taking a "just be nice" approach. He describes four essentials for a spiritual life: 1) disciplined prayer practices (which keep spirituality from taking a back seat during daily chaos), 2) engagement in community (truly the Body of Christ, in Christian religious understanding, needed because we always have much to learn), 3) engaged work on behalf of social justice for others (because actions speak louder than words), and 4) a mellowness of spirit, which implies a trust in God and an understanding of ourselves that is grounded in humility and open to humor, companionship, and the emergence of manifested grace.

So, as this Christmas season draws to a close, why do I believe? Because I choose to. Because life is better when I do. Because making the choice to orient myself toward that which is good brings more depth and meaning to my life. And because the rewards of living authentically, of investing effort in developing the spiritual element of my life, of intentionally orienting myself toward that which is good brings me sustaining hope, strength, and joy.

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