Thursday, April 10, 2014

Beyond Faith

"A Burning Bush"
-Sunset at the Desert Retreat House-

In her newly published book, "Living With a Wild God," self-avowed atheist and author, Barbara Ehrenreich, tries to make some sense out of a very powerful experience of the "transcendent" that she had earlier in her life.  She tells of a time when in the course of an ordinary day, she suddenly became aware of what she calls a "Presence."  She experienced this "Presence" to be something like a consuming fire that engulfed everything and everyone, filling it all with a terrifying, yet intimate and loving energy.

In her book, Ehrenreich claims that she still remains an atheist. She does not believe in what she calls the "God of religion" - a Deity who is an "enforcer of ethics."  However she cannot deny her very real experience of a numinous Presence, a powerful sense of the ONE who is greater than all the parts. She writes: 

I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender;
faith is a state of wild delusion.
But experience -empirical experience-requires me to keep an open mind

While I take some issue about belief being intellectual surrender and faith being a delusion, I totally agree that there is a big difference between belief, faith and experience.  As I see it, experience goes "beyond faith;" and the thing is, all religious traditions would also agree with this distinction. 

Beliefs about "God" are always human constructs - rational attempts to make some sense out of something that is beyond our intellectual capacity to grasp.

In the Book of Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures, "Faith" is defined as "the substance of things hoped for." "Faith" is a leap into the unknown.  The act of "faith" is an act of placing trust in something or someone who you "confidently hope" exists. 

But "experience" is something different. Experience is not about holding onto beliefs, and "experience" goes beyond faith. It is not a leap into the unknown. Experience is awareness of real life, real-time Presence.

While religious institutions have at times painted a picture of God as a "Deity who enforces ethics," the contemplative traditions of all major religions are replete with multiple accounts of experiencing Holy Presence - stories much like the one told by the "atheist," Barbara Ehrenreich. 

I think about the Hebrew tale of "Moses and the burning bush."  Moses goes up onto the metaphorical mountaintop seeking God who is revealed to him as a consuming fire, a bush burning with a love so intense that it engulfs everything and everyone - all the many parts into the ONE.  Moses' experience goes beyond faith.  He does not need to make a leap of faith into the unknown. A veil is lifted and he actually experiences the Holy Presence as being very real.  

I think also about the many wisdom teachings of my spiritual ancestors, those 4th century Christian monks who moved out into desert caves to live in community with one another and follow the way of Jesus. When you read their teachings, you almost never hear them talk about their beliefs, and the word faith is rarely used. Rather, like their Buddhist counterparts, their focus was on leading a life of mindfulness, paying attention in the moment so that they could "experience" the transcendent -  the Holy Abiding Presence-the Divine Energy in whom everything and everyone lives and moves and has its being.

When I think about my own life, I no longer spend my energy thinking about my "beliefs" about God; and to be honest, nowadays I don't put a lot of my energy into my "faith" in God.  I am at a place in life where, like my spiritual ancestors who lived in those desert caves, I simply try to pay attention to the revelations of the moment, and when I do, I often discover fire - all the many parts enflamed with the ONE. 

I love this ancient desert monastic story:

The young monk went to the wise old abba and said, 
"Every day I say my few prayers, I fast a little. I follow the rule and live in peace as far as I can.
what else am I to do?"
The old man stood up, stretched his hands toward the heavens 
and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.
He told the young monk,
'If you will, you can become all flame.'

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