A few weeks ago, I talked about Satyagraha and wrote about it in response to a question about what I believe. The reality is that the question I answered is not what I believe; it was about what I know. There is a difference between what I believe and what I know. I have been told many things in my life. Some which I have believed and some of which I have not. Sometimes I can believe that what you tell me is true for you. At the same time, I know it is not true for me.
A few things got me thinking about the difference between belief and faith. One of them was a conversation I had with a friend of mine about my meeting with the Permanent Ordination Council when I was seeking ordination. One of the questions I was asked was about how I reconciled being a lesbian and being Christian. I told them that for me, it was not a question of reconciliation, but about faith. There was nothing I could tell them which was going to change their perspective or belief system about people who are not heterosexual, not did I feel called to try. What I did know was this. God knows me, loves me, created me, sustains me, and is in my presence whether I am conscious of it or not.
For me, there is a real difference between belief and faith. Belief is of the mind of the thinking. Faith is not about thinking, but about knowing. Belief is blind; faith sees all things. There is a story I have seen several times in my life that goes like this. There was a hunter who while traveling through a hillside village said to his guide “This seems to be a very dangerous cliff. It’s a wonder they don’t put up a warning sign.” The guide replied, “They had one up for two years, but no one fell off the cliff, so they took it down.”
Belief is blind. How many of us believe what we believe without question, just because it is what we were taught to believe. There is no depth of understanding why, it just is. I can say I believe in X or Y or Z, but do I have faith in it, do I know it. Is what you believe like the warning sign? You discard it when it does not appear that it is making a difference or doing anything. Is it something we read, look at, try on, but never embody? Belief in any religion or faith tradition is a means, not an end. When we stop at the level of the rules and laws, the doctrines and the dogmas—good guides as these may be—and call those things the spiritual life, we have stopped far short of faith. Faith is the ability to see beyond all the things that we make God so that we might find God.
We make religion God and so fail to see godliness where our own religion is not, though the God of life and goodness are clear and constant in the simplest of people and the remotest of places. We make national honor God and fail to see the presence of God in other nations, particularly non-Christian nations. We make personal security God and fail to see God in the bleak and barren dimensions of life. We make our own human color the color of God and fail to see God in the one who comes in different guise. We give God gender and miss the spirit of God everywhere, in everyone. We separate spirit and matter as if they were two different things, though we know now from quantum physics that matter is simply fields of force made dense by the spirit of energy. We are one with the universe, in other words. We are not separate from it or different from it. We are not above it. We are in it, all of us and everything, swimming in an energy that is God.
To be enlightened, to have faith is simply to see behind the forms to the God who holds those forms in being. To have faith is to be in touch with the God within us and around us more than it is to be engulfed in any single way, any one manifestation, and any specific denominational or nationalistic construct, however good and well intentioned it may be.
Each faith tradition has its own belief about God. To the Hindu, all life came from a single source; therefore, God is in everything. To the Buddhist, we live to put on the eternal Buddha nature so there is eternal wholeness. To the Jew, God is outside of creation but intervenes in it and guides it, so we are not alone. To the Muslim, God is present everywhere. And to the Christian, to us, God's spirit, the spirit that is God, permeates this universe.
Then, why do I not see it? The Sufi tale puts it this way:
"How does one seek union with God?" the seeker asked.
And the Holy One answered, "The harder you seek, the more distance you create between God and you."
"So what does one do about the distance?" the seeker persisted.
The Holy One answered, "Understand that it isn't there."
"Does that mean that God and I are one?" the seeker persisted.
"Not one," the Holy One answered, "not two."
"But how is that possible?' the seeker cried, dismayed. And the holy one answered "The sun and its light, the ocean and its wave, the singer and her song. Not one. Not two."
The Holy one makes the point: God and I are not the same thing but God is the essence of everything that is. Or to put it another way:
Rabbi Joshua was once asked, "Why did God speak to Moses from the thorn bush?" And Rabbi Joshua replied, "God spoke from the thorn bush to teach us that there is no place where the Divine Presence is absent, not even in a thorn bush."
God, in other words, is everywhere—as truly in those things where we are sure that God is missing as in those things, which we are sure, are infallible signs of the presence of God. The presence of God does not depend on an act of God's will; it depends simply on our own realization that where I am God is.
The challenge then is to come to the point that where God is I am. Wherever. Whenever. It is not a case of God being present to me. It is a case of my being present to God. There is no degree of darkness that is not filled with the light that is God. It simply depends on our ability to see and hear. Seeing and hearing take concentration, take contemplation, and take consciousness. Seeing and hearing at this level is what allows us to have real and authentic conversations with each other, with our pets, with our plants and yes even with stones.
Amma Syncletica, one of the Desert Mothers of the fourth century said: "In the beginning of faith, there is struggle and a lot of work for those who desire to come near to God. But after that, there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first, it's smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. But first," she goes on, “we must light the divine fire in ourselves with desire and with effort."
To have faith I must put down my notions of separateness from God. I must make the effort to see God in this moment. I must let God speak to me through everything that seeps through the universe into the pores of my life. Then the darkness of the night of the soul will disappear, then I will find myself, as Abbess Syncletica promises, at the flash point of the divine fire, then I will no longer doubt that I am not alone in the darkness.