Faith

I was going to write about faith here, because it’s been on my mind lately. But just recently, I got this link in my e-mail – fortuitously, only a few minutes before I started writing this – and thought it was something good to hare, both because it deals with mental illness and it touches on faith:

Along with this, I thought I’d quote from a blog post of mine from last year on faith, since I think it still pretty much applies; you can find the rest of my post here.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t fall under the wings of any particular denomination; I’m Christian, but that’s about as far as I can go. Instead, my faith is kind of a grab-bag of things; some deism, some Christianity, some other bits and pieces – I think at one point I was seriously referencing the “Godfellas” episode of Futurama. Essentially, it all boils down to this: I think that there is a god, but due to the immensity of his/its likely power, intelligence, and abilities, there’s no real ability for humanity to seriously understand God, because we just don’t have the perceptive abilities to encompass him. And once God ensured we had free will, and the ability for rational thought, he stepped back, letting us find our own way, and watching as we tried to understand. Eventually, though, God decided that our understanding was important to him, and so he sent a messenger, one very important to him, to act as a conduit for our understanding – that being Jesus. And while we have free will, and God doesn’t often step in to act directly – because that would contradict our free will – we might never know if he does, because, quoting from the aforementioned Futurama episode, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

For the most part, I think that my particular version of Christianity is pretty chilled out – we’re supposed to be good to the people around us. We’re supposed to give aid to others in need, especially if we have more than we can reasonably use – if I have 600 sandwiches, and you have none, it doesn’t cost me much to give you food, but it might mean the world to you. But we’re supposed to give not for praise or acknowledgement, but because we think it’s the right thing to do. The belief should be matched by works – some effort, large or small, to help our fellow man – because words need to be backed up by deeds for faith to be taken seriously. I don’t know that I feel the need to actively spread my faith – if people are helped by what I do, then that’s good enough. I don’t need to proselytize; if they want to know, they’ll ask. Christianity isn’t a secret, hidden religion anymore – it’s the biggest faith on the planet, even if it is broken up into dozens of denominations.  And my faith is my own; I don’t have, or feel the need to be identified as, anything other than a Christian. I don’t think  my faith has any bearing on the faith of others, either – my beliefs are mine, and given that I can’t possibly know that God is real for certain, who am I to say that my beliefs are right? All I can do is act like a good person, and believe what I believe, and go from there.”

My faith isn’t the most complex of things, but I don’t think it’s wrong just because it isn’t complex. I’m not sure it’s right, either, and I’m willing to talk about it and bring in new ideas, because faith isn’t certainty. Faith is belief, and while it may be strong belief – Collins English Dictionary defines faith as “strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence” – it means there has to be room for change in that belief. And so while I believe that God is watching, I don’t believe that He has a particular plan for me. And I know my thoughts on belief and faith can be caustic at times – my sense of humor where faith is concerned seems to keep getting me in trouble, and may have been at fault, at least partially, in the loss of at least one good friendship. But my thoughts and what I say about faith are mine; I don’t mean them to apply to anyone else’s. When I make a joke about God, that is part of my relationship with God, and not meant as a slight or an insult. My faith doesn’t need to have any bearing on yours, or anyone else’s. When I pray, if I pray for you, I’m saying that I care about you and I want to make sure God maybe can throw a little love your way; I’m not asking you to share in my faith or my belief. I find all the hate and fear and anger people have with other people about their faith – just the beliefs, not necessarily the acts that back them up – to be bewildering. I want to be able to talk about faith and belief with other people of faith and not worry that everything I say will be taken badly. 

I guess I’m not really sure what I mean here, and I don’t know how to be clearer without engaging in some sort of dialogue with someone, so I’ll end with a quote – though who it’s from is unknown (it’s been linked to Marcus Aurelius, former Roman emperor, but seems unlikely to be his work):

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Oh, and May the 4th be with you.

Religiosity

Yes, I’m aware the title isn’t a real word. But I like it, so I’m using it. In any case, what I’m writing about right now is my recent experiences with religion and faith, and the realizations I’m coming to about my own faith. In the last week or so, I’ve been going to church with Calla – last Sunday and this Sunday, to be exact. I grew up Catholic, then spent a long time as an atheist, and Calla’s church is a Methodist church, so it’s been an interesting journey.

One of the first things I noticed about Calla’s church is that they’re a relatively young congregation (at least, at the services I’ve been to), and they’re very energetic. For someone who grew up with solemn Catholic hymns and the smell of old incense at church, in buildings most often made from hard stone and bare wood, the Methodist service was practically exploding with energy. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Catholic service, it’s just a very different feel. It was kind of nice, actually, feeling all that energy in the room. I got the feeling that the people there really meant what they were praying for and singing – and the music was much more upbeat, too.

Being at church has had me thinking a lot about my beliefs. I’m pretty sure I don’t fall under the wings of any particular denomination; I’m Christian, but that’s about as far as I can go. Instead, my faith is kind of a grab-bag of things; some deism, some Christianity, some other bits and pieces – I think at one point I was seriously referencing the “Godfellas” episode of Futurama. Essentially, it all boils down to this: I think that there is a god, but due to the immensity of his/its likely power, intelligence, and abilities, there’s no real ability for humanity to seriously understand God, because we just don’t have the perceptive abilities to encompass him. And once God ensured we had free will, and the ability for rational thought, he stepped back, letting us find our own way, and watching as we tried to understand. Eventually, though, God decided that our understanding was important to him, and so he sent a messenger, one very important to him, to act as a conduit for our understanding – that being Jesus. And while we have free will, and God doesn’t often step in to act directly – because that would contradict our free will – we might never know if he does, because, quoting from the aforementioned Futurama episode, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

For the most part, I think that my particular version of Christianity is pretty chilled out – we’re supposed to be good to the people around us. We’re supposed to give aid to others in need, especially if we have more than we can reasonably use – if I have 600 sandwiches, and you have none, it doesn’t cost me much to give you food, but it might mean the world to you. But we’re supposed to give not for praise or acknowledgement, but because we think it’s the right thing to do. The belief should be matched by works – some effort, large or small, to help our fellow man – because words need to be backed up by deeds for faith to be taken seriously. I don’t know that I feel the need to actively spread my faith – if people are helped by what I do, then that’s good enough. I don’t need to proselytize; if they want to know, they’ll ask. Christianity isn’t a secret, hidden religion anymore – it’s the biggest faith on the planet, even if it is broken up into dozens of denominations.  And my faith is my own; I don’t have, or feel the need to be identified as, anything other than a Christian. I don’t think  my faith has any bearing on the faith of others, either – my beliefs are mine, and given that I can’t possibly know that God is real for certain, who am I to say that my beliefs are right? All I can do is act like a good person, and believe what I believe, and go from there.

As a nerd, this is the metaphor I’ll use. Imagine a computer – one so big that its internal working are so immense that we couldn’t explore them all within our lifetimes, or even affect them in any meaningful way. We can look at the code, but it is billions upon billions of lines long, and in a language so complex that we can’t even start to understand more than even the most basic functions. We can understand that it is some kind of vast intelligence, far more complex than our own, but our communication is limited – until one day, we investigate and find an interface that seems designed for us. It lets us interact with the computer, make inquiries, and try to understand what everything is about. The computer is God, and the interface is Jesus. We still have extremely limited understanding of how things operate, but at least we have a start – and that can help us to expand our understanding on our own.

My views aren’t terrifically sophisticated, but given that I’ve only had my own faith back for a few months, I think it’s a decent start. I still have a ways to go, but it’s my faith. It’s not anything I’m certain of, but then, that’s part of what faith is – I can believe in God, but I’ll never know for certain until I die. One of the things I do believe very firmly is that once you go from belief to certainty, then you have passed through faith and into something different – and that something different is something I often find scary, because absolute certainty is something that only the most zealous people have, and they can do some pretty extreme things because of that certainty.

And hat’s all I have for now. Sorry for the gap in between posts – my move to the receiving room at work has left me less stressed, but more physically exhausted, which is a win in my book, but it means I also don’t always have the energy to think up and then post something here. But questions and comments are always welcome, especially on this topic.

Faith (Not) No More?

I apologize for the terrible, terrible title. And for the lapse in posting for the last several days; work and other activities have kept me fairly busy, and more tired than I would have expected. Plus, I haven’t exactly had a dearth of things to blog about, and thus my silence.

One of the things that has been on my mind lately is faith. I know that I have mentioned in past posts that I am, and have been for some time, an atheist. Despite having grown up Catholic, and even gone to high school in a Jesuit school, at some point during my undergraduate years I lost my faith; I no longer saw the point of believing in a god, any god, because I didn’t feel there was any reason. Now let me be clear – then, and now, I felt that faith was a very personal decision. My loss of faith had no bearing on what I thought other people should believe; I wasn’t anti-faith or anti-religion, I just didn’t feel that it was working for me personally.  For the most part, I still went through the rituals, because I didn’t really want my family to be angry or more worried than they already were, but there was no belief behind them.

I remained that way for a long time. If you think about it, I’d guess that my loss of faith occurred sometime around the year 2000 – that means that it has been 14 years. That’s over a third of my life that I haven’t seen the need for faith in any kind of divine being. Thinking about it now, I’m not really sure what to feel about that; I remember what it used to feel like to have faith – I wasn’t zealous about it by any means, but I was relatively active in faith during my high school years. I wore the cross that I got on one of our yearly retreats for years, and I still keep the Footsteps prayer that I got at my freshman retreat by my bed.

One of the reasons I have been thinking a lot about faith recently is because, shortly before Calla came back to Houston, she found her own faith again. I know that was a great relief to her, because from what she had told me before, faith had been an important part of her life, and I could see how sad she was talking about its loss. Finding it seems to have brought her a lot of stability and happiness – I mean, she went to two church services on Easter. That’s commitment there. I mean, even when I had faith, I found church services pretty unpleasant – bad singing, uncomfortable seats, and general placement at a time of day which I find unnatural, along with often annoyingly depressing and preachy speakers made church very uncool. But my aversion to most church services aside, Calla’s journey back to faith has, I think, put me on the path to finding my own.

It’s been kind of a nagging sensation in the back of my mind for the last few months. I think it all really started when Calla went off to her treatment center, and I got in touch with one of her friends, trying to make sure our support of Calla was as good as it could be. Calla’s friend is quite spiritual, and there were a number of times when she told me that the best thing I could really do was to pray. At first, I was skeptical – it’s kind of part of being an atheist, you know. But there were times when I felt desperate to either help any way I could or to get some kind of support of my own, and so I followed her advice. It was awkward to start, but I have had plenty of practice in the past, and so it started to come back to me. And, while I didn’t really believe for a while, I felt bits and pieces – infinitesimally small pieces – creep back in.

It didn’t even occur to me that something like faith might be returning until Calla mentioned that she had had some luck in finding her own faith once more. After that, I started to put some serious thought into the idea, and even picked up a little reading material on it. I though about C.S. Lewis, at first, but I figured that might be a bit much for someone as lapsed as I am. So instead, I went with something I’ve seen pop up a number of times at work (the perils of working at a bookstore, eh?), a book by James Martin, SJ, called The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. The Jesuit approach to religion and faith has always appealed to me, ever since I was first exposed to them in high school; I know that even though I was in a Catholic high school, the world religions course I took was more comprehensive – and unbiased, oddly – than the courses some of my non-parochial school friends took. The Jesuits are pretty practical in their approach to things, which appeals to me; the start of the book actually has a good joke that illustrates that practicality:

A Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit were celebrating Mass together when the lights suddenly went out in the church. The Franciscan praises the chance to live more simply. The Dominican gives a learned homily on how God brings light to the world. The Jesuit goes tot he basement and fixes the fuses.”

So, I guess the punchline for me is that after so long without my faith, it took someone else finding their lost faith to put me on the path to finding my own. It’s odd. But maybe they were both in the same place, some kind of metaphysical lost and found. I’m not really looking for advice or anything, but it’s kind of like using a muscle which hasn’t been in use for a very long time, and I doubt that whatever my faith ends up looking like, it will really map well onto any existing branch of Christianity (I figure that’s where I’ll end up, just because it’s familiar and comfortable – sorry, every other religion). It’ll be a long, strange trip, but then I have been on one of those for quite some time.

Atheist Morality

I overheard a discussion the other day between tow people – both apparently religious, one more reasonable (as in, willing to reason instead of simply decide something and never be willing to change) than the other – and they were talking about morality. One was fairly certain that even without a belief in God, or god, or a higher power, atheists could be moral, though not in the same way that a religious person is. The other, however, was vehemently opposed to this, saying that without faith in a power like God, atheists had no moral compass, and that all atheists were just a step or two from being total psychopaths.

Now, being an atheist, this kind of bugged me, but it wasn’t my conversation (plus I was working), so I didn’t jump in. But, despite being an atheists, I was raised Catholic, and I know what religion is, and what religious faith feels like; I used to have it, after all. I just don’t have it anymore. I’m not anti-religious; I’m just areligious – that is, I have no desire to be a part of a religion. Not because I think they’re all bad, but for the same reason some people don’t join bowling leagues or go camping on weekends – it’s just not my thing anymore.

But I also think I have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong. Being raised Catholic, I am well aware of what Catholicism, and the larger extent Christianity, views as right and wrong. And, largely, this tends to map onto Western society pretty well. But, being a fantasy nerd, my ideas of morality have also been shaped by my favorite characters, fictional and historical. Some of them are harder – much harder – to live up to than others, but I like to think that I try, even if not all that actively.

I think my second entry to this blog – or maybe my third – was on the fictional codes of conduct I keep in my wallet. Those were just the easiest to codify in a wallet-portable form; there are many great, moral characters that I feel have been important to me. The easiest example would, of course, be the Jedi from the original Star Wars movies – well, mostly Luke and Yoda, because Obi-Wan’s ‘true from a certain point of view’ schtick was a littler weak, morally speaking. But after that, I think the big one from early one would be Sturm Brightblade, iconic paladin-type character from the original Dragonlance novels. They aren’t high literature, to be sure, but they were one of my earliest introductions to fantasy literature, and my worn and beaten copies of that trilogy still rest on my bookshelf, over twenty years later.

There are so many other character which fit the bill as moral characters whose devotion to doing the right thing, even when times are tough, makes them guides and shapers of my childhood morality. Captain America is one – a piece of Captain America art is one of the few pieces of artwork in my apartment; my collection of Cap graphic novels was one of the important things I brought to Texas from St. Louis. The character of Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files book series is a great one, as well, even though he is explicitly a servant of God – he wields a sword with one of the three nails from the crucifixion worked into it.  There’s also Aragorn, the classic Tolkien character; while worn and hardened by life on the edge of civilization, he still has a strong moral core. Almost any member of the Fellowship of the Ring fits this bill, even Boromir – his momentary lapse in the face of possibly the second-greatest evil in existence never seemed to me a reflection of his character, just that people can fail.

I could go on and on – there are almost certainly more than I can think of in a reasonable period of time. But the point is, I’m an atheist with a finely-tuned sense of morality. Religious folk have no particular claim to that particular arena; without deeper insight into why God, or whatever divine being a person believes in, commanded people to by compassionate, merciful, and good, just doing so is meaningless. As Adam Lee notes in his article The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality, “In your column, you said that morality cannot be anchored without reference to a higher power: that if God had not commanded us to be good, we would have no reason to be good, and no justification for condemning those who were not. This claim betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral? Does he have reasons for that edict? If so, then we too can make use of those reasons, for if they are good ones, they will stand on their own without reference to who is giving them. On the other hand, if God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality is cut loose from any anchor. God commanded us to be merciful and kind, but that was just an arbitrary choice with no deeper significance. He could just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel, and those traits would then be the definition of goodness which we were all bound to follow. Can any rational person accept such a nonsensical conclusion?”

I try to do good, or at least not do evil, in my everyday life. I love my family and my friends, and I would do almost anything for them. I believe in helping people rather than hurting them – though occasionally (and profanely) I get rather violent-sounding when stuck in Houston traffic. That’s part of why I started this blog; not just to try and work things out in my head in a more open forum, but also to try and share any helpful parts of treatment I picked up with people who don’t have the luxury of going to someplace like Menninger. And I do all this not because I was commanded to by God, but because I want to. Because it feels right. I mean, hell, I feel guilty when I play a bad guy in video games. Zapping people with Force Lightning when I try to play a Sith in a Star Wars video game? Not fun, more like almost painful for me. 

So, is this morality? According to Merriam-Webster Online, morality is defined as ‘beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior; the degree to which something is right and good : the moral goodness or badness of something’. I think I have a pretty healthy regard for what is right and wrong. So apparently, even though I don’t have religious faith (at least, at the moment; I’m open to change), I can be a moral person. 

No offense is meant to any readers who are religious, by the way; just because I’m not religious doesn’t mean I have a problem with those who are. I simply take issue with the idea that, because I lack faith in a higher power, I have nothing to keep me on the straight and narrow. If you have comments on this, and are willing to be reasonable with them, I am willing to listen. I haven’t deleted a comment yet, and I don’t intend to start now.

Faith No More

Yes, I see the irony in writing about my own personal lack of faith on a Sunday. But it is something that has been on my mind for a while, because spirituality is referenced a number of times in my treatment. In IMPROVE, one of the many acronyms for various suites of coping skills in DBT, the P stands for Prayer. I may eventually discuss the rest of the acronym, only the P is relevant for now. Even in programs like AA and NA, while they say no particular religious faith is needed, it is also referenced. So why is it that I don’t have any?

I used to have faith. I was raised Catholic, and when I was young I went through CCD classes like a lot of other young Catholic kids. I was an altar boy on occasion, if you can believe that, and I prayed. I went to a Jesuit high school, and I remember being genuinely moved on the yearly retreats we took. I felt the Jesuits had a very liberal (for the Catholic Church, anyway) view of things, and I sympathized with that. I wasn’t a strict Catholic, by any means; I was sort of a one-man faith, my own views and beliefs having evolved over time.

Then, in college, things changed. I wore a cross for a couple years, though I didn’t attend church – I didn’t feel the need to, since my faith was my own and didn’t really mesh with the teachings of the Catholic Church to any great degree. But gradually, I began to lose my faith. It may have been a result of the fallout of my failed relationship, or part of the onset of my depression, or just that kind of general distancing from parts of previous life that happens in college. But by the time I left college, I was effectively either agnostic or an atheist.

I was, and am, perfectly aware of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that if there is a god, it is better to believe in him than not to believe, and if there isn’t, belief in a deity doesn’t hurt you, so why not believe? But I just didn’t have any faith in some almighty being anymore. I felt that my life was going so poorly that no benevolent deity would subject me to such torment. Melodramatic, yes, But it’s how I felt. That part of me just felt empty, and I had nothing to fill it with, so it remained that way, and has ever since.

I find my lack of faith odd, because, much like Agent Mulder from X-Files, I want to believe. I just can’t bring myself to cross that threshold. I can understand religion and belief in an abstract way – enough to get myself into arguments and trouble – but I don’t believe in it. Strangely, my favorite sort of character in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons tends to be the paladin – a warrior for good infused with the power of his (or her) deity. Perhaps the difference is that, in these settings, there is real, obvious proof that divine beings exist; they are manifested through various powers and creatures in obvious ways. Here on earth, we just have to take things on faith, and that is something I can no longer do.

I can still go through the motions, of course. I still know all the basic Catholic prayers, and can follow along when I go with my family to church on Sundays. Not only that, but I have the Lord’s Prayer memorized not just in English, but also in Old English, the language Beowulf was originally written in. But there’s nothing behind those. This often means that I am at a loss in situations  where theological knowledge is required; I didn’t do very well in the last Theology class I was in, probably because of this.

I’m not really sure if there’s anything I can do about my lack of faith, though. Can faith be restored? Is there something that can make me believe again? What sort of event can rekindle a faith that has been gone for as long as mine? I don’t know these answers, but I’d like to. I want to know if my life would be made any better through the existence of faith. I’m not asking to be convinced of the existence of god – I’ve heard the arguments before, and none of them made any difference to me. You can’t be argued into having faith; I guess you just have to discover it, if it is even possible to find again once lost.

I guess what I’m looking for is a guide. Which is confusing, because a guide to what, I don’t know; I don’t know if my faith, once found, will still be a belief in Christianity, or something else. I don’t belief one form of spirituality is superior than any other, so I suppose it is entirely possible that my faith could come in the form of Hinduism, or Asatru, or something even more different than Catholicism. I don’t know, and I can’t predict anything. 

Can one have faith in the return of faith?