Are you a believer?
Have you ever been asked this question before? Did the question and your search for an answer make you uncomfortable? Did you wonder to yourself what does this question really mean? For me, the answer to all these questions is "yes."
When I was growing up, I often heard the popular refrain in Christianity that to be "saved" all one needed was to have "faith." When asked what "having faith" meant, the reply was typically "believing that Jesus is the son of God." In other words, all we are required to do in order to have eternal life is to believe a certain set of facts about events that occurred over 2,000 years ago, and whatever else we do in our lives (cheating, stealing, murder, etc.) is irrelevant.
I struggled with this issue because logically it didn't make sense to me. Why would an all-powerful God, who created all of existence, care about a single belief we held? Anthropologists would say that for the vast majority of us, our beliefs are culturally conditioned. Is the Hindu raised in India with little exposure to Christianity who lives an exemplary life going to hell because she does not believe what an American who grows up in the Bible-belt is taught from a young age? What happens when an article of faith (for example, that God created the world in 6 days 6,000 years ago) contradicts what we know from other disciplines like science, history, and archaeology?
The more I thought about this issue, the more it seemed that the formula of "believe in the doctrine of XYZ" and "you will be saved" was little more than a carrot and stick approach to encourage people to conform to the doctrine of whatever authority was making the proclamation. The history of politics has shown that this exact strategy has been employed countless times (often to terrible results) by authoritarian regimes to compel conformity and thus solidify the power of the institution.
The modern view of believing in Jesus in order to be saved has its roots in Martin Luther's Reformation which responded to the Catholic practice of selling indulgences (paying the church for salvation) by substituting the doctrine of Justification by Faith as outlined by St. Paul. According to this doctrine, we cannot be saved by our good works because at heart we are all imperfect sinners -- our works will never be good enough for God. We are only saved through our faith in Jesus.
However, as Luther's doctrine has evolved over the centuries, it has been distorted so that "faith" has become synonymous with "belief." What has happened is that a new requirement has been substituted for good works. Making belief a requirement for salvation is just replacing another kind of work -- the mental work of belief in something -- as a condition to salvation. It is trying to bring in through the back door the type of human action and interference in God's salvation that Luther objected to with the Catholic church selling indulgences.
So what is the meaning of Luther's justification by faith? This means simply that we are already saved. We don't have to do anything for our salvation, and this includes believing in a specific doctrine. When we combine this theory with the conception of God (which I have outlined in earlier posts) as the creative power behind all of existence (instead of a supernatural being who judges our actions like Zeus from the top of Olympus), we can begin to understand how we are already part of the infinite and eternal power of being. The "Kingdom of God" is already present and real because it is the basis that underlies all reality. However, we do not realize that we are already saved -- we do not experience this salvation in our day-to-day lives. We live lives in which our egos dominate us and in which we live apart from the ground of reality that is God. Using an analogy from science, we experience only one side of reality -- our bodies and the spaces around us -- but if we were to look at reality at the molecular level, reality looks very different -- what appears solid is actually made up mostly of space and the empty space around us is filled with particles.
The path to salvation thus becomes more like an awakening, an understanding, and an experience of what is already here but we cannot see. The spiritual path (prayer, meditation, fasting, worship, etc.) becomes a mechanism to peal back the onion layers of who we are and what we think the world around us is, so that we can examine the power of God within ourselves, within others, and within existence itself. Salvation is an opening of our eyes and hearts, a new way of seeing the universe.
Faith then is not belief in a certain doctrine about Jesus, but a trust in using him as an example of what it looks like to live a God-centered life. Through the stories in the Gospels (whether or not the details are historical are irrelevant), we can understand the nature of God's presence within the world and what a God-centered life looks like: a life of humility, compassion, love without boundaries, a life which experiences suffering and doubt, but a life that ultimately participates in the eternal power of God that transcends death.
We've all heard the expression "Try it on faith." This doesn't mean, "Believe me" but rather "Trust me, and experience it for yourself." Faith is about testing, questioning, and doubting. In science these qualities lead to greater truths, why shouldn't the same apply to religion? For me, religion is about embracing the unknown and the difficult -- a journey of exploration that never really gets there because ultimately I am finite. Faith is about being comfortable with my doubts because doubt is part of my search for truth. Faith is not a closing of my eyes and mind to the real world, to science, to modern knowledge, or to experience, but it is the opposite: an opening up and a new way of seeing.
Understanding evolves and changes with information; it is open and dynamic. The history of science shows us that whatever our beliefs and theories are today, they will probably be proved wrong over time, and we will then adapt our theories to the new information. Yet in religion we often hold onto cherished beliefs in the face of contrary facts. I think we should borrow from the model of science and allow our religious beliefs to evolve with time as well. But we should be cognizant of the difference between scientific knowledge and understanding through faith and religious experience. I view faith as another form of knowledge that is based more on insight and wisdom. It is using intuition as a way of understanding versus pure reason. But it should not be in conflict with reason, science, and experience. Therefore when I pose the question at the top of my blog "What do you believe?", I do so as an invitation to explore your beliefs, to question them, and to engage in a deeper search for meaning that may mean confronting uncomfortable facts and evolving your views.