I keep a running list of English words that are consistently misused. "Faith" is in the top five. (Other commonly bastardized words: "Beauty" and, of course, "Love.")
When people think "faith" though, most immediately think "religion" which causes the word to be extra charged. I was hesitant to title this letter "Faith" because I assumed those who've had negative experiences with religious organizations could find it instantly off-putting. Yet, I had to remember I'm writing this for me (though I'm grateful for everyone who reads), and I have, personally, begun radically shifting my perceptions around faith.
I grew up attending a lot of church, where people would ask me things like: "Do you have faith in Jesus?"
Generally, what they meant was: "Do you believe in this set of facts about Jesus and his life?" (You know, the classic manger > empty tomb Christianity continuum.)
I now consider this approach the opposite of faith. Faith is not about how you believe in a set of "known" facts; faith is about how you approach the unknown, the unseen, the non-physical.
Anne Lamott, author of my favorite writing book Bird By Bird, says:
"The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely."
I love that quote because it flips on its head how most people view faith. Faith is many things—but it is not forcing your tightly-held belief system down the throats of others.
In the Bible, the book of Hebrews, chapter eleven, verse one says:
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
Funnily enough, as a child, when I was asked my favorite verse, I'd often say this one. (I pompously believed myself too original to say something cliché like John 3:16.) (To be clear, little me didn't have a clue what this verse meant. :)
Turns out I still have Hebrews 11:1 memorized; when I was contemplating faith, it popped into my head and its profundity stunned me.
The evidence of things not seen.
Faith is about the unknown, the utter uncertainty of it all—and stepping into that abyss not overcome by fear, but with a sense of hope. A sense, you could even say, of knowing. Not knowing exactly what will happen but trusting that the forces of the Universe—or God, or a higher power, or Spirit—are guiding you along the way.
Faith that life is not happening to you but is happening for you.
The concept of the "leap of faith" is attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard calls it a "qualitative leap." To him, the element of the "leap" is a prerequisite of faith; faith is not a gradual incline; it's a jump.
Here's my personal interpretation of the "leap of faith": In order to live peacefully within ourselves (and in the world), we need to accept paradoxes within us (and outside of us); paradoxes which defy rationality. If we try to reason or to explain our way to meaning in life, we will almost certainly fail, and, likely, be overcome by fear and anxiety. So, we make a mental leap out of the realm of logic and into the realm of faith. Kierkegaard says:
"If I am capable of grasping God objectively I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe."
He also says:
"To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God."
[Aside: This quote really reminds me of the idea of freedom from thinking I discussed last week. We have a tendency to worship and cling to our minds, our thoughts, our so-called knowledge, but sometimes clinging is destructive and guarding knowledge can prevent you from true understanding. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein duly notes, "Explanations come to an end somewhere."]
I want to be clear: though Kierkegaard uses the word "God" I am not exclusively discussing faith in a Western, Christian God. Not at all. (I think "God" is another wildly misused word, though I won't dive into that today.)
For me, leaping is key to cultivating a faith that is both personal and powerful. It isn't blindly believing in doctrine, but peacefully surrendering to the Divine.
Indian philosopher Shrii Shrii Anandamurti says:
"You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars guides you too."
These days, I find myself leaping back and forth a bit.
Some days, it's difficult to feel a guiding force; the uncertainty stretching before me seems terrifying.
Others, I face that same uncertainty with a solid sense of hope. Not because I have any logical reason to hope—but because I have mentally leapt from the realm of logic to the realm of faith. It's less thinking, more feeling. I can feel myself connected to the guiding force of the Universe, connected, in fact, to all life around me, from the chirping Robin in the Prospect Park to the homeless person on the F train. And through this connection, I also feel myself being led, as the planets are led in their orbits, as the waves are led to the seashore.
As Rumi so beautifully and simply puts it:
"As you start to walk on the way, the way appears."
And when I have a day connected in faith —it truly doesn't matter to me, in the slightest, what doctrine anyone else "believes" in.
I say this with love: Although I'd gladly discuss it with you, I do not care what religion (if any) you identify with; believe what you want to believe. But if your life right now feels full of fear and anguish and sorrow and suffering—I've been there. And I strongly feel there is a more peaceful way to live.
The force that guides the stars guides you too.
with Love and with (star) Light,
p.s. Though it's impossible for me to imagine reading Bird By Bird without an interest in writing (I've been interested in writing since first grade), I also consider it a great book on living. The full title is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. (The quote above doesn't come from this book but gives you a taste of Lamott's insightfulness.) Also, if you want to talk writing, feel free to email me; it's one of my favorite topics. :)
p.p.s. A couple Kierkegaard gems for you:
"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."
"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."