04/29/2012 09:33 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2012

Is Faith the Rejection of Reality?

There seems to be a belief that "faith" is the rejection of the world as it is; a retreat in to fantasy and wishful thinking. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Faith means not wanting to know what is true."

Although it has become common to think of "faith" in this way -- as the blind acceptance of unquestionable, usually religious, doctrine -- this definition stems from extremist positions, and is not what theologians typically mean by the word "faith." In his classic book, "Stages of Faith" James Fowler provides a deeper insight: "Faith is a person's or group's way of moving into life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relationships that make up our lives."

This definition begins with the recognition that we all understand the world differently, because we all have created individual ways to comprehend and control our experiences. This process began in childhood, as we instinctively sought safety and acceptance in a complex and uncertain world, and built mental constructs of "how things are." These mental constructs vary based on the intensity of our experiences and our natural inclinations, and we may live our entire lives relying on these childhood visions, assuming that the way we see the world is objectively true, yet remain completely unaware that we have made it up. In this way we all live in "faith," because we all experience life through the filters of our own making, in which we place trust and confidence.

This does not mean that there is no objective reality, because there certainly are things to which we can find truth: There are measurable physical objects and phenomena, which are usually easy to agree on, and are the venue of science. And there are the meaning of our actions and the nature of our relationships with others, which are much more elusive and difficult to discern, and are the venue of philosophy and theology. It is this second category, though, that drives our lives and determines our level of emotional health, happiness and fulfillment.

As we discover that other people see the world in a very different way than we do, we may label these other views as wrong in some way -- naïve, cynical, selfish, foolish, irresponsible, anal, self-indulgent, weird or even evil -- without ever realizing that we probably appear these ways to others. We tend to resist examining our own deeply held positions, though, out of the fear of discovering something that we do not want to consider, that would cause us to question much on which we've based our lives. And we are afraid that these realizations will undermine our security and throw us in to chaos, depression or insanity.

So, when a truth presents itself that we do not want to acknowledge -- such as, "I've been selfish and insensitive," "I made mistakes that hurt others," "I've been angry, afraid, jealous, apathetic, manipulative, arrogant" -- we impulsively push these away. If the realizations are too painful we may even turn them around and blame others: "How dare they call me selfish after all I've done!" "No one appreciates me," or "If it weren't for [fill in the blank], I'd be happy/successful/accepted/loved." Then we dig in deeper, refusing to even consider that our worst fears about ourselves may be true.

These are the mechanisms of the ego, which fiercely seeks safety, and devises strategies to avoid looking at anything that it finds threatening. Our ego strategies keep us from seeing clearly, and leave us confused, defensive and neurotic.

The deepest spiritual practices, then, teach us to see the ego as the frightened child that it is, and to know that we are more than this. The goal is to dissolve the subjective explanations that we created so that we can experience reality as clearly as possible. This is the growth of faith, and it is the most difficult work of our lives because it requires that we muster the courage to objectively identify and gradually drop our egoic strategies, and surrender ourselves to life as it is, with the commitment to live in truth.

This is what the great 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meant by "a leap to faith." This leap is a courageous move toward what is true, and begins by accepting things exactly as they are, with as little ego distortion as possible, and without the impulse to immediately condemn, reframe or ignore. The leap is also toward the trust that creation is inherently good, and that if you approach the world with the desire to know and accept what is true, that all will proceed well, even if you do not understand -- or even want -- what shows up; even if it means that you will need to re-examine some deeply held beliefs.

This acceptance of things as they are does not mean that you will not want to change for the better, or that there are no value judgments and that everything is equal. Wanting positive change and objectively accepting things exactly as you find them are not contradictory, but are two required components in meaningful growth. If you only accept what is, without a commitment to improve it, you will be complacent and will slowly decay. If you only desire to find problems, you will lose compassion and will descend in to the egoic strategy of being "wiser" or "more discerning" than others.

When you drop the ego's need to control and to be accepted (which you soon realize never worked anyways), you finally experience life as it unfolds, and discover that you do not need to figure anything out. Instead, the instructions for positive action are actually embedded in the awareness of reality itself. Then you become an active partner in growth and evolution. This is the real meaning of mature faith.

It requires tremendous strength to look objectively at what is, and commit to growth, especially when it's about you. But this is the absolutely necessary first step in the development of faith. If you discover that you must change, though, it is crucial to avoid beating yourself up for what you've done or who you've been. Self-abuse is an indulgence that shuts down the process, and keeps you chained to stagnation and delusion. Instead, simply acknowledge the reality of the situation, determine how to fix the damage and avoid the same mistake in the future, and then forgive yourself in love. This will then help you to forgive others, which is a profound act of mature faith.

The realization that deepening faith leads to a stronger connection to reality and to positive action is a common theme in many religious traditions. From a Judeo/Christian perspective this is demonstrated in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Although the surface of this story is well known, a careful reading of the narrative reveals another level. It is only after Moses stops and looks clearly at this little bush as it really is, that he sees that it -- like everything in creation -- burns with the life force of creation, but is not consumed. Then his own life's purpose is revealed, as all the defenses that he created to avoid seeing the real horrors of the world that he ran away from evaporate. Moses responds with the simple words that announce a willingness to be available to whatever arises: "Here I am."

This is the highest level of faith, as you surrender yourself to life as it appears, with the confidence in the inherent goodness of creation and in your own powers to act effectively, the knowledge that your life has a positive purpose, and the assurance that you are eternally cared for and loved. This is an exciting way to live, because every moment is unexpected and filled with possibilities.