FAITH AND THE FEELINGS
Why faith is about much more than how you feel
Everybody eventually runs into a truth that clashes with their beliefs.
Your favorite thinker is wrong about something. The political party you hate most is actually right about something. New scientific data means rethinking past assumptions.
There have been instances where really random things made me question my belief in God, a belief I hold most central in my life. Psychopaths, bacteria, and aboriginal tribes have all brought up some interesting and challenging questions.
No matter what beliefs you hold, though, this happens. Life is so richly colored that it doesn’t really let you subscribe to any set of ideas without eventually sending something your way that doesn’t fit within that framework. Even if you’re a total nihilist, if you want to remain so, you’ll eventually need to consciously dismiss a number of patterns as a coincidence. This is the case with religion and philosophy and politics and art and science and any sort of belief you could possibly hold. Whatever you believe, you’ll eventually run into something that doesn’t add up. Either something that you experience, or something you learn to be true.
Truth be told, it’s not a comfortable experience. We build our lives and base our identities off the things that we believe. When we discover the possibility that we’ve been constructing those things on what might be a false foundation, it’s a little anxiety inducing, to say the least.
I suppose the short term to describe this is cognitive dissonance, but that term doesn’t seem to describe the experience as colorfully as a phrase like “dark night of the soul,” “season of questioning,” or “crisis of faith.” Those phrases come from those who have experienced more intense moments of questioning, and as they imply, it’s not a comfortable experience. In fact, I think trying to avoid such an experience is what leads people to one of two extremes– either vicious fundamentalism or a refusal to commit to anything. Neither of these things have very much appeal to me. Fundamentalism (and I think you can be a fundamentalist about anything, really) is responsible for so much violence. Non-commitment plays things safe, but without being able to take a leap of faith towards anything, life ultimately ends up pretty empty.
Moments of doubt and having to reevaluate the essential things I believe are a big part of my journey thus far, and I suspect that they’ll continue to be until the end. And while that doesn’t sound comfortable, I think it’s a good thing.
Faith is something like a muscle– if it’s never pushed to its limits, it goes soft. If it is pushed to its limits, torn and stretched, it rebuilds, harder, better, faster, stronger.
Few things have strengthened my faith like doubt. Each round of questions did wonders for my what I believed. I was able to let go of lesser beliefs that were keeping me from being more loving. I learned how to be humble and how to embrace mystery. And the beliefs that survived and emerged were ultimately beautiful ones, ones I appreciated so much more.
I think it’s extremely important to build a life on core beliefs, values, and purpose. That’s why I think it’s an important thing to take those well-trodden “meaning of life” type questions and wrestle with them yourself. Being humble and admitting you don’t know everything is nothing less than accurate, but in order to live a full and healthy life, you need to take a leap of faith, even when the evidence doesn’t add up.
Even though I’ve taken such a leap, there are times where the things I believe still don’t feel real to me. They don’t quite register as a “crisis of faith,” but there are times when I recognize doubts that I have or moments where everything I believe about God, Love, and life feels completely made up. This happens in spite of having also experienced moments where God felt so real to me I could feel the weight of the words he spoke to me. I used to think that after such an experience all doubts would disappear. But doubts are intrusive. If you allow yourself, you can question anything and everything.
It might sound strange, then, but the thing that’s given me the most freedom from doubt is giving myself permission to have doubt.
Here’s how that works.
Faith isn’t a feeling. Faith is a belief in something I can’t see, a blind leap in that direction that requires risk and sacrifice, and a commitment to staying course. Doubt, on the other hand, is a feeling. And feelings are very fluid and fleeting. I have a friend who says you should never use the word “should” when talking about feelings, and in my book, doubt fits the bill.
So when apparent contradictions arise, I can make the most of them. I can investigate ideas and mysteries and see the beauty in them. I can learn from them. Paradoxes remind us that the world isn’t black and white but full color. And I can do this soberly, while keeping the emotional burden of doubt in its rightful place. It’s a passing feeling. Faith is a big picture commitment.
All I can say after that is something I’ve said a number of times: fear is the opposite of faith, not doubt. Doubt comes to everybody. Fear is what keeps us from taking risks and leaps of faith and staying on course with a real commitment.