Friday, May 29, 2020

Faith, Religion, Spirituality, & Truth

"How's your faith and relationship with God?"

Born and raised Roman Catholic, once intrigued by the Jesuits and the monastic life, long interested in Buddhism and Taoist meditation, married to a secular Jewish woman, I have to pause when my sister asks that question every once in a while.

It's an interesting question, isn't it? Especially if you don't regularly think about it, but have some grounding in a monotheistic tradition (yeah, like Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc.). It began a rather deep conversation, though it had been many years since we'd discussed the idea of "faith." Perhaps it was the passing of both our parents within the past year, or it could have been about coming into middle age with my fiftieth birthday, or perhaps it was linked to this strange reflective pandemic experience we're all having. But we got to talking about that idea of faith and belief, and I've extended it recently with my son as he prepares for college in the fall.

Being born and raised Roman Catholic, with eight years in Catholic school and service as an altar boy in my past, the issue of faith isn't all that complicated for me, regardless of whether I attend services regularly or comment about being a "recovering Catholic" (both of which I have done). I've shared the idea with my son of people being "spiritual, but not religious." And we've talked about the difference between faith and religion, which for me is really just about dogma and ritual. I don't have all the answers when he asks about the differences between Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians et al. In fact, I can talk about the break from the Catholic Church, and I can share some ideas, but I honestly don't know all the details, and he'll find it all on Wikipedia if he's interested.

In terms of faith, well, if you ask me, Jesus is light, and God is love. That may sound glib, and some of it probably is. But light and love about sums it up for me. Where I see love, that is God. In terms of the Bible, my understanding isn't much different than it was during Catechism. Truly, the Bible is the word of God and the revelation of God's reality. But I'm also fully comfortable acknowledging it was written in a much different time, and as such should be read and discussed with that understanding. So, for example, as we've often discussed and acknowledged, the presence of things like polygamy or some of the more extreme rules or directives in books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy aren't exactly what we take literally today. The Bible is also steeped in metaphor and parable with the lessons and messages it contains.

Interestingly, in doing some reading about mindfulness and meditation (Like Pico Iyer's "The Art ofStillness) over the past year, I've been learning more about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote Seven Story Mountain. The Trappists, like the Jesuits or Benedictines always appealed to me, much like the Shao Lin did as I grew up on kung movies. The idea of the devout spiritual practice appealed to me from an intellectual standpoint, though it was obviously not the right path for me.  But what I found really interesting was how Merton was actually quite open to learning about many spiritual paths, and he noted that church and holy books were about doctrine and dogma, and that's not really worth debating with others, but that other faiths had many valuable lessons about the human condition. And, so that incredibly devout Christian spent much time in discussion and contemplation about those different faiths. And, as I pretty much always have, I think that's pretty spot on. 

An example of the value of that: I was just reading a passage from the Dalai Lama the other day, and he talked about how people often ask him about his holiness and sort of expect that he has some mystical understanding, and he really just dismisses that idea. But, and this is interesting, he talked about when he knows people who are suffering, especially when a personal connection asks him or tells him, he said that he "will pray for them." Interesting word choice, don't ya think? We don't often think of Buddhists as praying, but the Dalai Lama does. I'm sure when he prays, he's praying to the same God we do. And, that's probably a pretty important message to remember.

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