What is faith?

ב”ה

Looking over my posts to date, I see no mention of G-d, which is perhaps odd for someone who thinks of himself as a mystic.  But it’s hard, because the whole realm is so laden with emotional baggage (for many of us) and with misconceptions and assumptions, that to even broach the subject can feel overwhelming.  Where to start?

So, as is my practice in many areas, I’ll try to start with something small and see where it leads.  So let’s start with faith.

I don’t believe in faith.  At least, not as I used to think of it.

When I was a child of eight or nine, I remember my mother dropped me off at (religious) school early, and I was sitting in the early prayer gathering of the adult male teachers.  They were finishing up, and I saw some of them swaying in their prayer shawls and murmuring prayers.  “They really believe,” I remember thinking to myself.  “They have this unshakable faith at the core.”  And this was followed by, “Gee, I wish I had that.  But I don’t.”

People speak of taking a “leap of faith”, as if it’s possible to go from no belief to complete belief through some act of will, like leaping over a large puddle.  Or at least, that was how it strikes me sometimes.  That’s a kind of faith I can’t relate to.

I’ve thought about it over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two acts of faith that I can understand:

(1)  The first act that I consider to be “faith” is choosing to be open to the possibility of G-d.  By this I mean looking at the world and the different paradigms for understanding it, and deciding that maybe an omniscient, all-powerful being of some kind could exist.  It’s possible.  But more than just opening the mind to that, opening the heart to it.  Being vulnerable to that possibility.  I think this is no small feat, and is often overlooked or underrated.  This is not suddenly believing in anything.  Just opening to the possibility.  It’s not easy for many of us.  But choosing to explore the possibility of such a spiritual realm is, to me, a great act of faith.

(2) The second act that I consider to be “faith” occurs in a specific context, a context you may or may not have experienced.  It goes like this: I have an immanent experience of G-d.  I am overcome by The Spirit, The Presence, The Closeness, whatever your words are for it, but it is beyond words.  In that moment, I know, with a certainty I cannot explain, that G-d exists and is here with me.

And then, a millisecond later, The Presence is gone.  Doubt sets in.  Did I imagine that?  Did I want to experience it so much that I kind of made it up?  Perhaps it came from inside me and I just wanted it to be more or mean more?  The questions plague me.  That couldn’t really have been that could it?

So in that moment, I stand at a crossroads.  I have two equally valid realities.  On the one hand, when I had the experience, I knew without question.  On the other hand, I now have doubts, rationalizations, explanations, etc.  Both equally reasonable bases for viewing “reality” as I know it.

The act of faith, for me, is to decide to live my life with the first understanding.  “When I knew, I knew, even if now I doubt.”  That is an act of faith I can relate to; an act of faith I have experienced.

As the years have gone by, I have had many experiences of G-d.  Many could be explained (if I wanted to see them that way) as coincidences, intuitions, wishful thinking, etc.  One or two defy my ability to understand them “scientifically” (knowledge of future events, etc.), and sometimes I rely on them if I have a particularly strong bout of “what if we’re just on crack?” (as my son succintly puts it).

But mostly, I go through each day in conversation with G-d (picture Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof), talking back and forth as we do.  I understand that G-d exists and that we have a relationship because it’s the best way to explain my experiences, the only way I can make sense of what happens to me.

But if you’ve never had a direct experience of The Presence, what is your experience of a meaningful relationship with G-d?  How did you come to believe in G-d’s existence?  That’s a kind of faith I have trouble understanding, and I would appreciate your help with it.

So, Gentle Reader, do you have an experience or understanding of faith you’re willing to share?  I’d love to hear whatever you’re willing to offer.

May you be granted an experience of G-d’s Nearness.

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2 thoughts on “What is faith?

  1. Charlie Stainer

    Uncle Shimon,

    My experience with faith has been somewhat similar to yours. Like you, I remember going to church and seeing people raise their hands and listen to them talk about their relationship with G-d, and their “walk” with Him, and I would think, “Wow, these people really have it all figured out.” And then I would think, “What am I doing wrong, that my life doesn’t sound like that?” When I was in college, we once talked about how I was a “cynical Christian.” Thoughts and doubts and fears like that lead me to more or less disengage from Christianity for a while and give up on the Church. I never lost my belief that there was a G-d, because I have had experiences that could not be explained in any other way, and also because this world would be too depressing without Him. But I learned what faith really was in my senior year, which is to say that my head knowledge of faith was changed, and migrated from there to my heart. Faith used to be a “thing you had,” or a “thing you did.” It then became something less and more nebulous: something you decided to base your life on based for no good reason. My decision to believe in G-d is an act of faith because I can’t prove or disprove His existence. My decision to get out of the Navy because I don’t know if civilian life will be better or worse. Even buying a car can be an act of faith! Anyways, I just thought I’d share a little bit of my (pardon my Christianese) faith journey with you. I love reading your blog, and I wish you well with your marriage and your move to California!

    Charlie

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    Reply
    1. shimonwalner Post author

      Hi Charlie!
      Great to hear from you, and thanks for sharing some of your journey here.
      I’ve been reflecting of late that there are different modalities of “knowing” things, and I think over time we encounter a variety of them. Our own experiences teach us things we think we “know” — sometimes fooling us, sometimes a bedrock. We sometimes “know” things because people or organizations we respect have told us facts (I’ve never seen Neptune personally, but I trust it’s out there!). And we sometimes use logic and reasoning to extend what we trust to be true.
      Sometimes there are things that we just “know”, and have no way to explain how we know.

      And sometimes there are things that we think we “know”, or sometimes know for sure, but that at other times we doubt. And in those times of doubt, we can, if we want, draw on our certainty of other times to help us move forward in a satisfying way. The faith walk, I think some might call it.

      I’m glad to hear that your faith has moved from your head to your heart, and to me, your “Christianese” is just another dialect of faith talk, like a pleasant Southern accent.

      May G-d bless you and guide you.
      Shimon

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