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Steve McSwain

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Confusing Faith for Belief

Posted: 07/14/11 12:15 PM ET

Lately, I've been thinking a great deal about faith. It seems to me that many religious people mistakenly confuse faith as trust with faith as belief. The latter is all about what you believe -- the content around which the ego-mind constructs an illusory fortress of "truth" and so the illusion of certainty. It's all about your specific beliefs, the "rightness" of your beliefs and how your beliefs are more right than the beliefs of others. It's the stuff over which religious people debate almost continually and eventually divide. It is also the explanation for why there are hundreds of denominations among Christians and that many or more among practitioners of Hinduism.

The former, on the other hand, is all about how you live -- the conduct of your life; your trust in and reliance upon your capacity to enjoy "the wisdom of uncertainty," as easterners call it; your freedom from the need for certainty and absoluteness, both of which are mere illusions.

The fact is, you can be certain of nothing, except I suppose the reality of death. Yet, when your religion is all about what you believe, know that the ego in you has taken over already. The ego is obsessed with beliefs, attaches itself to them, and so fashions an identity around them. This gives it a sense of self and feeds its desire for certainty, security. Beliefs are then more than a way of explaining or making sense of your religious experience. Instead, they take on a kind of absoluteness, and when that occurs (and it almost always does), it isn't long before you are driven to defend those beliefs against anyone who would question them or subscribe to a different set of beliefs. The ego in you will defend, debate and disagree almost incessantly. It is the cause of most conflicts between religions and between religious people within the same religion. The word "religion" itself is synonymous with exclusivity, divisiveness, even violence and bloodshed. One could almost say that the study of history is the study of religious madness.

From time to time, I get emails from other Christians who are feeling highly threatened by my writings or the topics on which I speak, precisely because they perceive my perspectives to be a threat to their own belief system.

Such was the case with the most recent exchange of emails I had with a Christian woman from the Carolinas. In several emails, she catalogued her objections with me with precision, mixed with anger, fear and even a few veiled threats of God's punishment for the things I had written. At one point, she asked me pointedly, "Are YOU even a Christian?" To which I responded, "Passionately."

"You lie," she retorted. "You're nothing but a phony." And with that, she trailed off on another tirade of charges, all proof to the frightened little ego in her that no one could believe as I believe and actually be a Christian.

In a way, I suppose she IS right. If, for example, you are reared to believe (as I was and many Christians still are) there is only one way to think of Jesus and that is as God's "only begotten son" (John 3:16) -- meaning "one-and-only-son" and not simply as "a unique son" (which is an equally valid interpretation of the text as any text critic knows) and so "uniquely like God" -- then the ego in you would feel justified in asking, "Are you really a Christian?"

When you know, however, it is only ever the ego that attaches itself to a belief (as one of its many attachments Eckhart Tolle has rightly characterized as "ego-enhancers") to strengthen its sense of self -- and so the illusion of "rightness," security and certainty -- then you're free to see from where this inner compulsion to cling comes. This awareness alone creates a space of acceptance in you where you are free of ego-attachments and so more capable of tolerating the viewpoints, perspectives and faith beliefs of another without the feeling you are compromising your own.

People who have given up on religion entirely, or who disdain religion as "the opiate of the people," may be aware of the ego in themselves or are just as unaware as intolerant, fundamentalist Christians or Muslims. When they are unaware, then their disgust with religion, as well as their disdain for religious people, is just an ego-reaction in them. They may be very intelligent people. But they are also very unaware that the ego in them has managed to fashion a sense of identity for itself, too -- one just as intolerant and narrow-minded, defensive and arrogant, as the collective ego observed and experienced among fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. The difference is only in the position and manner of their reaction or attack. Some react with words. Others use weapons. Both methods are mad.

The key to liberation from ego is "awareness." The key to growth in faith beyond belief is detachment. Know that it is always easier to see the ego in others than it is to see it in yourself. When, for example, you meet a notorious critic, you are really meeting a notoriously unaware person. You criticize in others what you overlook in yourself. So, to overcome ego, develop that capacity in yourself that Easterners describe as "the watcher" or "the witnessing presence." Christians would call this the "indwelling Holy Spirit." I suspect this capacity goes by many names. But my point is this: Train yourself to know when the ego in you lifts its ugly head. You can be sure whenever it does -- and it does so frequently -- it will strike with a venom that makes victims of everyone.

This witnessing presence or "the deeper self," about which I've written extensively in "The Enoch Factor," needs no crutch upon which to lean for a sense of self or worth or distinction. It is that part of you in oneness with Life itself. Because it is, there is no feeling of separateness from others and certainly no "us" and "them" mentality -- a common characteristic of a collective ego attached to a set of beliefs. As a matter of fact, this part of you knows only union with others, indeed all things. Gone is the need for permanency, rightness, security or absolutes. This part of you dances on a stage of paradox. Unlike the crippled ego-self, it is healthy -- solid, yet soft; strong, yet weak; on a cross today, beyond a tomb tomorrow. And it is always at peace with differing perspectives.

Why? Because it thrives in an environment of detached awareness. It has beliefs or, as I prefer, perspectives, but it isn't attached to them. As a consequence, there is an evolution of the self, what Christians would call "growth in Christ." There is an expansion of human consciousness, not a narrowing of it, which is what you often see with Christians. Instead of being in the world but not of it (John 17:16), as their forerunner advised, they are neither of the world nor in it, opting instead to remain in church 24/7, as if to hide from the world.

An environment of ego-detachment is the fertile soil for the growth of faith--a faith that is transformational; a faith that naturally springs from a fountain of spontaneity, knowing not when it's giving another a cup of cold water or feeding a hungry soul (Matthew 25). It is beneath and beyond ego attachments and so has no enemies. It is a faith that flourishes in a garden of contradiction, with an appreciation for the variety in perspectives and tastes.

This is why, for me, being a Christian is less about content and more about conduct. It is true I have perspectives and much passion around them. So I write with conviction. I speak with authority. But I also seek to know when the ego in me gets too attached to my perspectives and so tries to make "beliefs" out of them. I know where that road leads and I want no part of it -- not anymore.

I am a follower of Jesus but it isn't because he answers all my questions or has given me something to believe in -- something the little ego in me can attach to and so feel secure. I follow Jesus because his path makes sense. It's a way to know God, to live at peace with myself, with others and the world. But Jesus' pathway isn't easy. It is not paved with a cement of "certainty" or "absolutes." If that's what the ego in you needs, there are plenty of religions around -- Jesus called them "the broad roads" -- that are crowded and so presumed to be "correct." But in the end, those roads, no matter how right they may seem, are roads that "lead to destruction."

Why? Because, instead of forming you, you're con-formed; instead of freeing you, you're enslaved; instead of pointing you in the way to go, they prescribe to you the way you must go; instead of creating a more unified world, the world becomes more divided and conflicted. And in the end, the road leads nowhere, except to a world of those "like" us and those who aren't -- a world of believers and unbelievers, which really just means a world of those who believe like us and those who don't.

I wish, instead, to walk "the narrow road," as Jesus described it. Few travel this road because it can be lonely and unclear. Yet, it is the pathway of God. It is the pathway of faith.

There are few markers. Much insecurity. Little to believe in. But there's lots of compassion. Much to enjoy. No judgments. No arrogance. No presumptions. None of the "Our path is right; your path is wrong" nonsense.

No, this path is just one path to knowing God. But it is the path I have chosen. And it has brought me great joy.

 
 
 

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