Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Faith, Inner Peace and Soy Curd

I have been pondering much lately about the practical nature of faith. Or, more accurately, I might say the impractical nature of faith.

It is a widely accepted axiom that faith is a great virtue. I think I have always been puzzled by this. Faith, it seems to me, in and of itself, is much like tofu. It is fine and good, but really comes into it's own only when combined with other flavorings. The other night, I sauteed some extra firm tofu in some olive oil with salt, pepper, and a generous helping of minced garlic. I kept the heat high to toast the outside of the tofu, browning and crisping the exterior layer. Much like the pan scrapings one uses to make gravy, that browning it's a wonderful flavor of it's own. I tossed in just a bit of Tamari and it was fantastic.

Faith can be soft, or firm, but what really matters is not the faith itself, but the object of that faith. I can stand on the pinnacle of a skyscraper, endowed with the most sincere faith that upon leaping forth I will fly. I can maintain that faith all the way to the ground, and someone may be impressed by my faith as they view my body lying broken on the sidewalk. More likely, they will be impressed by how far brains can spatter when hurled from a great height.

The problem here is that the object of my faith was a complete load of bull. If my faith had been in gravity, it would have been better placed, and perhaps would not have led me to such a disastrous end. The true practical quality of my faith then depends almost completely on the quality of the object of my faith.

I have been led to think about this recently as I have become much more aware in recent months of the way I respond emotionally to circumstances in my life, and how my responese affects my capacity to function effectively. I have been reading books, and listening to audio programs and talking with friends and colleagues. Much of this reading draws on sources that I recognize as springing up largely from eastern influenced religions and philosophies. In essence, if the only true divinity lies within you, then if you cultivate a proper response to the world, you will find answers to the questions of your life. I frankly have found much of the technique and practical advice of some of these sources to be quite helpful. At the same time, I am wondering why some of these answers aren't as strongly emphasized in my Christian religion.

The ideas are there, but they are not emphasized in the same way. For instance;

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Yet even though these and other passages in the ancient writings encourage us to cultivate contentment, there is not much in the way of instruction on how to cultivate such contentment. A mindset is a skill, and not something we are merely born into (although it is also a birthright bequeathed to us unconciously by our families) and can be purposefully constructed. It rather annoys me that the Dalai Lama seems to have much more to say about this than my own tradition. It is annoying, but not surprising. For him and many in that wider tradition of hindu/buddhist worldview, it begins and ends with you. And of course it begins again and again and again.

So why has christianity left this out? I think it's two things. First, in Christian tradition, we are transformed by hearing, studying, meditating on, and internalizing what the Bible (Yahweh's self-revelation to us) tells us about who God is, what He is like, and what He has done. God's character is revealed to us in His word. Through "washing with the water of the Word" we learn to understand God better, to trust in his character, and in the world He has made. Our focus is essentially outward, rather than inward. The God upon whom we focus is Other than us. The object is align ourselves with Him, rather than align ourselves with the god within. We do that through prayer, worship and study.

Second, is where I go theological, because then we must get specific about what the scripture reveals. What exactly is our faith to rest upon, and how does our faith function to free us? I'm beginning to see that it's mainly about doctrines of sovereignty, decrees and providence. These doctrines today are mostly abandoned or ignored, except perhaps by a few radical Presbyterians on the fringe out in Idaho. Nevertheless, deep acceptance of these docrtines has huge implications for the way on lives ones life. And those implications need NOT be moribund fatalism.

I think I need to tackle some St. Augustine.

I don't have time to develop this now for the blog, and so will have to pursue this in another post. Time for such writing is limited these days, but I'll get to it when I can.

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