Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Danger of True Belief

"Awesome Mystery"
- sunset in the desert -

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."  

As I think about it, maybe another name for “true believer” is “fundamentalist.”  I have had occasion to come across some pretty hard-core fundamentalists in my life: Christian fundamentalists, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, I have even had conversations with folks who are Buddhist fundamentalists, all of them were “true believers” clinging so tightly to the system of their own narrowly-defined belief systems that they refused to budge an inch in allowing for the possibility of other “ways” on the path to truth.

Interestingly enough, in my experience, I have also met plenty of avowed atheists and agnostics who were “fundamentalists,”  so-called "non-believers," who were essentially "true believers" just as absolutely sure that their flavor of unbelief was flawless.

Many atheist or agnostic fundamentalists have no doubts about how not to believe in God, deeming any person of faith to be an intellectual simpleton.

As I see, a “true believer” is a “true believer” regardless of the faith or the lack of faith they profess, and genuine dialogue with a true believer is almost impossible.  From my point of view, a true believer always faces a great danger on the path to wisdom. “true belief” often gets in the way of finding deeper truth.  

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 understand 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; instead, it is a crutch that masks fear, guards against doubt and serves as a protection from a deeper exploration into the uncharted territory of transcendent mystery.

Oddly enough many of the most-respected scientists of our own day (gurus and teachers who are often exalted by atheistic "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, like the certainty of religious people, 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 use the word “believer” when I refer to myself.  Instead I like think of myself as a pilgrim on a spiritual journey.

I am an explorer diving into the darkness with a trust and confidence in an Abiding Presence of Universal Love pulsating throughout the universe – a Presence that holds me up even as I dive into the unfathomable ocean of its mystery. 

Eric Hoffer also said:

It's startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.

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