- Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House -
Several years ago, the social philosopher, Eric Hoffer, coined the term "true believer" to describe a person who rigidly clings to his or her beliefs so tightly that they will do anything in their power to defend their position and never budge an inch in pursuit of any newer or different ideas that may challenge them. I actually think there are a lot of "true believers" around today and they aren't always people who are traditionally labeled as "believers."
Plenty of religious people are true believers- absolutely certain that their beliefs in God are the true and only way. There are also plenty of atheists, so-called "non-believers," who are also "true believers" - absolutely sure that their flavor of unbelief is flawless with no doubts about how not to believe in God, absolutely sure that anyone who professes any sort of belief in God is someone who discounts the claims of science and someone who simplistically accepts the existence of a magical superhero floating in the sky.
Interestingly enough, if you look at the record of history and examine the broad scope of religious belief, you will very quickly discover that the great theologians, mystics and teachers of the major wisdom traditions like Judaism, Islam as well as Christianity are quite clear about the folly of thinking you can actually know all there is to know about God. In fact most say that you can't really "know" anything about God.
Al-Ghazali, one of Islam's great theologians of the 11th century said "The essential nature of God transcends all that is comprehensible." In the Hebrew scripture, God is so unknowable that "God" cannot even be named. The 13th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides observed, "God is infinitely more than we can ever even imagine." And from as far back as the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christian theologians like Augustine have claimed that "anything you think you know about God, is not God." Saint John of the Cross also observed: the higher one ascends on the ladder of the spiritual journey, the less one understands.
As I see it, absolute certainty is never a mark of faith- it is instead a crutch that masks fear and serves as a protection against deeper exploration into and experience of a transcendent mystery that underlies all human experience.
Oddly enough most of the best respected scientists of our own day (the gurus held up by many atheist "true believers") look at this world in which we live and offer very few explanations about how it all works. They throw up their hands and proclaim that most everything is a mystery- black holes and dark matter. And so the absolute certainty of the atheist can likewise serve as a mask, a protection against entering onto the deeper mystery of the cosmos that cannot be controlled and can hardly be explained away.
Because of all the baggage the word "believer" carries with it, I have come to a point in my life where I try not to refer to myself as a believer. Instead I think of myself as a person of faith, a pilgrim on a spiritual journey, an explorer diving into the darkness with a trust and confidence in an Abiding Presence of love pulsating throughout the universe that holds me up even as I dive into it.
I am reminded of a little story that comes out of the literature of the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers:
Once some brothers came to visit Abba Anthony who quizzed some of the younger monks about the meaning of several biblical texts. Each of them gave an answer and to each the wise old Abba said, 'you have not yet found the right answer.' Then the Abba asked young Brother Joseph, 'What do you think the text means?' Joseph relied, 'I don't know.' Abba Anthony then said, 'Indeed Joseph alone has found the true way.'
In his book about "true believers," Eric Hoffer also said:
It's startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary
to make belief possible.
I say Amen to that!