Faith is not reserved for the religious, nor does any religion have a monopoly on it. To the contrary, at one level, faith is a common and important psychological coping mechanism used every moment of our lives to allow us to function as normally as possible. I am not exaggerating when I say it keeps us from going insane. We all need faith in this way -- the scientist, the laymen, the atheist, the zealot -- it is the mental bonding agent that allows us to hold it all together emotionally.
My faith that I will wake up each morning instead of drifting off into the underworld keeps me from going crazy the night before trying to contact people to say goodbye. My faith that I can drive to the grocery store without getting killed in an automobile accident keeps me from staying home all the time and starving to death. And perhaps most importantly, my faith that intolerance and ignorance will eventually give way to reason and compassion (regardless of how long it takes) keeps me from labeling every person with a narrow world view I meet as a waste of my time.
Unfortunately, at another level, faith is what some people treat as a type of official membership card in an imagined club God has sanctioned -- "my faith has been approved by God -- yours is just a cheap counterfeit." This "exclusive" belief is an attempt to secure afterlife insurance and a defense against uncertainty whether those people are aware of it or not. When faith is held as a shield against fear in this way, it can and often does lead to a blindness that is perpetually confused with clarity. Why look anywhere else when the truth is right where you're standing?
I might even agree with that logic if I could be sure truth was the actual goal of our faith instead of just security against uncertainty. But I'm not one to make that call for the rest. I can only speak for myself. I made friends with uncertainty long ago.
In the mid-1990s, when I first encountered a man who would become a good friend of mine, I was walking through the used bookstore he owned and noticed an entire section devoted to the subject of Theosophy. I was unfamiliar with the topic, but the fact that this particular section held both used and new books, as well as being situated in a prime corner of the building easily accessible for convenience, told me he regarded it with importance. I was intrigued. I introduced myself and asked him about some other titles before pretending to ask about the Theosophy section as an aside. He gave me the 10 minute tour of the subject (referring to it as a "religious philosophy" more than a religion) and said he and his wife had been Theosophists for the better part of their adult lives. He spoke to me the whole time in an informative tone and without proselytizing, something I thought uncommon in a religious discussion -- or even in a religious philosophy discussion, for that matter. He seemed rational enough for me to press him with a simple question.
"How do you know this stuff is true?" I asked.
His response surprised me and changed the way I would exercise my own spiritual health forever after.
"I don't," he said with a smile. "But even if it's not true, it's a good way to live."
I find this approach to faith refreshing. It isn't the stagnant pool of inflexible righteousness that has caused so much conflict in the world, but rather a view of faith that seems to validate the possibility of seeking alternate roads to answers that are true no matter how you get there. It encourages us to indulge our pioneer spirit and understand curiosity as a tool instead of a hindrance. And finally, it allows us to remain open to the views of others who are living their lives the best they can under the power of a different wind.
But the most significant thing I got from my bookstore visit that day was learning the motto connected to Theosophy -- an inarguable statement in its mathematical simplicity:
"There is no religion higher than truth."
Those seven words should be integrated into everyone's spiritual DNA. Try to remember them whenever you reflect on your own beliefs and, at the very least, hopefully you can always say your particular faith is a good way to live.