Understanding Seeking Faith

Detail of the East Window of St. Anselm Abbey Church

Classes start next week, and I’m feeling that familiar foreboding that accompanies the end of summer. In poet Stanley Kunitz’s words:

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.

The creative flow I’ve been in for the last few weeks is finally meeting resistance: the rocky rapids of ordinary obligations, days littered with the great heavy blocks of segmented time. I no longer have the luxury to simply drift on the river. Get those oars out! Falls ahead!

I have two writing assignments due at the end of this week, for the August term “Spiritual Autobiography” course I’ve been banging on about here, and all the sudden, the writing feels like work again. I have to consider the audience for the work I’ll be workshopping in the next week, and (ironically, perhaps) the limitations of the confessional mode in the seminary setting. Still, the first line of my first “autobiographical excerpt” will surprise exactly no one:

“I don’t believe in ‘God,’” I’d said archly as we waited for our entrees.

What follows is an account of my “coming out” as an atheist to my mother many years ago, when I was still a teenager. I don’t identify as an atheist now, and didn’t then. What I was really saying is: “I don’t believe in your gods. I have my own (and a few demons in the bargain) I’m trying to corral at the moment.” I did not have the presence of mind to put it that way at the time, and it’s just as well. She didn’t argue with me. She laughed a certain laugh she always laughed when she could see I was trying to start something, and said, knowingly: “you’re in the wilderness.”

Ooh. She knew how to get my goat, she did.

I have here a bunch of themes I’m working with that I can workshop. I seem to be zeroing in on my mother’s “wilderness” comment, and how she seemed to be speaking from her own experience. In the past I’ve written a lot about how my later life was shaped by my father’s death, but lately I have been reflecting a lot about how my journey is entwined with my mother’s. Another theme is “spiritual wilderness.” Another clearly related to this is the isms we often rely so heavily on versus the experience of moving away from the culturally-constructed “God” concept du jour.

My personal theology is definitely a wilderness narrative. I was, after all, basically raised by wolves. My parents were both more or less orphans: My dad had lost his mother at birth and had grown up in boarding schools; my mother’s father had left them and she was kicked out of the house as a teen. There was a lot of wilderness in my upbringing. We weren’t really connected to any inter-generational traditions, and until I was 8 or 9 (as I’ve mentioned before) we didn’t really belong to any communities that had them. I didn’t have a proper religious belief system that I soaked up before I had a chance to be like: say what now?

So I had no sentimental attachment to a faith community or set of religious stories or traditions. When that’s the case, it’s a lot to ask for someone to accept faith rituals on their face. Any faith I would adopt from these origins I would be a convert to, and converts have their own set of complexes, don’t they? For people who grow up among adherents of the Abrahamic traditions their attachment to their faith is “in their blood.” It’s always been fused with their identity. For better or worse, it’s something that has belonged to them that they themselves have also always belonged to. Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day of life. Catholics are christened in infancy. Among Muslims, the call to prayer is whispered into the right ear of the child by his or her father, as the first words they hear.

For converts to a tradition, the process is obviously different. It’s a more compartmentalized process of acculturation and it involves active seeking outside of the comfortable dwelling of lifelong believers. And like learning a second language as an adult, the adult initiate will likely always struggle with many things “native speakers” don’t even think about. (A recent MIT study on second language acquisition in adults found that “trying can actually harm learning outcome,” that “superior cognitive function is better for almost everything else.” I think the same could be said of taking up a new religion.)

The convert’s journey reverses Anselm’s equation of faith seeking understanding. Modern converts often come with understanding seeking faith. In the more established traditions, they will always be outsiders. Catholic (for example) with an asterisk. Of course, modern converts (the kind that willingly enter into relationship with the tradition), also bring something to the experience of a faith community that can invigorate practices that’ve gone stale. But their approach to the business end of “faith” is fundamentally different from anyone who has inherited a religion. The “why” of the initiate and the “what for” of the inheritor are not the same question.

A lot of conversion stories suggest that the converted person has found something objectively true, found big-T Truth. The idea that this is The Point (rather than one among many) of religion or religious experience seems somewhat the perspective of the convert. Affiliation and access to the “deep well of tradition,” with its wealth of little-t truths, are at least as important to those who inherit a faith from their parents, their parents’ parents, and back generations before living memory. Part of the mystical, suspending disbelief element of religious experience comes from these ghosts of the ancestors, whose experience courses through the veins. Faith is an inheritance, not an act, though adherents are certainly expected to act in accordance with it.

“God” is often a word we outsiders use for that Big-T Truth: universal, eternal, outside of the particularities of our experience. Isaiah Berlin, in his famous takedown of Tolstoy, talks about two kinds of people: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know lots of little things, while the hedgehog knows one great big thing. Berlin said Tolstoy was a fox who longed to be a hedgehog — or rather, “was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.” I think most of us, especially nowadays with our online lives dominated by the massive, relentless flow of trivia, are foxes. I’m definitely one. For me, having spent my formative years in a wilderness outside of a faith tradition, the particularities of experience, over time, became my religion. 

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