Statement of Faith

The room was dimly lit with an orange-carpet-candle ambiance. We were all sitting together mostly cross-legged on the floor, 30 strangers in silence meditating on the moment around us. It was a cool Parisian evening so there was that beauty to consider—the shadows cast by the setting sun on the twisted branches discreetly were overtaking the evening along with a wispy incoming fog. There was the upcoming dinner, which, although I could not readily smell it, the mere thought of a freshly cooked meal was enough to make any 20-something bachelor salivate. Finally, and most importantly, there was the focus of our meeting in the front of the room.  A photographic life-size cutout of Sri Ramakrishna dominated our immediate view. He was covered in an orange veiling and bathed in warm flourescent light. Roses and flowers of many kinds filled the front area, and to his left and right were photographs of the two great prophets of Sri Ramakrishna, lastly, covered by a permeating incense that filled the room. We were in a sacred place.

It’s amazing the things your mind considers when confronted by such an experience because the eventual result seems to lead to thinking about nothing. But after a while, I understood that was the objective, relaxing, but in a concious way. In that process, I realized how quickly my mind was wired. Move, move, move, and stop moving so I can rest to move some more. In my estimation, most people in the Western world could benefit greatly from this fundamental tenet of Hinduism: plan time to stop. Sometimes Christians do this too; the Gospels teach Jesus would often climb the surrounding hills early in the morning to pray.

These days, it is easier then ever to be skeptical and even cynical towards religion. Magic brooms, blood and body, sacred fires, and holy stones all lend an aura of mystique and concealed explanation to the mysterious and unexplainable. Some of the elaborate things I saw done in that beautiful sacred orange room had absolutely no meaning to me. Special bells were rang without apparent reason midsong, food was offered to jaya Sri Ramakrishna as blessing to his name, holy water was sprinkled on the faces of fervent believers. I think of growing up in the Christian church with all of our traditions, often equally ritualistic. We ceremonially dunk people in pools of water, offer candles to patron saints, passionately raise our hands, and sometimes speak in invented languages if we’re of a particular standpoint. All of this to an invented god extrapolated from a favored culture and passed down from one generation to the next hermetically sealed inside of a holy book, ultimately set aside from the forum of question and debate. I find it all quite ridiculous.

Playing a devil’s advocate here is too easy, however. What doctrine of the atheistic worldview guides me to live with a bent towards loving my neighbor, much less just living in peace with him/her? We can talk about the selfish gene and egotistic altruism, but at the end of the day I feel as if I’m left scheming and calculating on those around me to get the next leg up. Or imagine how it must sound to console a loved one saying, “Don’t worry, your mother isn’t in a better place, she just doesn’t exist anymore?” Atheism may provide a real solution to the relentless dogma of religion, but it does not provide a poignant framework for living through the messy elements of life, the poverty, the abuse, the depression, the sickness, all the unwanted negatives that humanity never seems to escape. In liberating us from god, atheism leaves us with his opposite—nothing.

At any rate, after 45 minutes of unmoving silence I simply got bored of observing everyone in that incredibly royal orange room and started looking inside myself. Nothing else was going on anyway. I found my hopes, a few of my dreams, my disappointments and mistakes, all the same stuff everyone else has more or less. There was anger and laughter living side by side, memories and ideas, projects and passions. There was life. That Parisian weekend I learned that faith is fluid. It’s always developing, wrapped up in the people around us and packaged in places we usually aren’t looking. Faith and blessings are not in a building or a priest or sacred flowers or a cross. They are in the actions you take when you turn to a brother and say, “I believe in you,” or when you face an enemy and respond with forgiveness. Those kinds of actions take more faith than believing in a cultural deity ever will.

—Many thanks to Salvator Jean Erb for providing me with my peculiarly touching orange room experience at the Hindu ashram in Paris last month.

5 thoughts on “Statement of Faith”

  1. Jacob,

    I read this post with much interest, both for your very expressive, creative description of the meeting you attended, but even more for the thoughts expressed therein. It sounds like maybe you are searching, and I think that is a good thing. I wanted to take the opportunity to offer my thoughts on what you said, and maybe ask a few questions of my own. Based on your comments I can’t say that I know what exactly you believe at this point in time, but for the sake of discussion I will just say up front that I believe passionately in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and savior of mankind.

    Religion is a terrible thing. In fact, I believe that religion is the invention of Satan himself. It is daily responsible for the murder of innocent people, with the Crusades proving that “Christians” are not immune to such stupid behavior. Even worse, however, is the truth that religion, especially the Christian religion, is largely responsible for suppressing the spiritual growth and maturity of the majority of God’s people (I can expound on that statement more later if you’d like). It keeps us focused on people, ritual and tradition instead of Jesus Himself. This is taken to a whole new level in America, where Christianity has for so long been the unofficial “state religion”, thus tying the expression of our faith to nationalistic fervency, causing us to identify ourselves more by our earthly citizenship in America than by our unique heavenly citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

    You spoke in your post about mystique and mystery. The Old Testament is full of mystery, as well as ritual, sacrifice, feasts, etc. In this respect, Old Testament Judaism is not unlike other religions of the world. The difference, however, is that the Old Testament rituals, feasts, etc. all pointed to the promised Messiah, who was finally revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The great mystery of the gospel, as Paul explains, is Jesus Himself, coming to die for man, with the greatest mystery being that He died for both Jew and Gentile. Since the coming of Christ the purpose of all that ritual has been fulfilled, and now we are left with one thing: Jesus Himself! We have no need for ritual for ritual sake. We have no need for feasts just for the sake of feasts. We have a daily feast in the person of Jesus. He is our portion!

    You spoke of dogma in your post, and your view of the bible as being “ultimately set aside from the forum of question and debate”. I can tell you that I grew up in a sect of Christianity quite similar to how you grew up. It was certainly true that the things said from the pulpit were not up for discussion. I also found my fellow Christians to be rather rigid in their beliefs, and were not very good about discussing others’ ideas. I even have to admit that I was chief of these close-minded people! I now see things differently, and believe that open discussion is essential to our pursuit of truth, as the Holy Spirit speaks to all of us, if we all stop focusing on the man behind the pulpit long enough to listen. Of course there are some things that I will not debate, because they are basic, well-supported tenets of my faith. The deity of Christ is one, the triune nature of God is another. Most other things, however, are open for discussion as we strive together to comprehend Christ more fully. I now feel that only one thing is worthy of my attention: the relentless pursuit of Jesus, individually and corporately with my brothers and sisters: to know Him, to see Him, to be remade in His image, to be found completely in Him to where I, individually, and the body of Christ, corporately, reflect His person.

    Finally I have a few questions to pose to you, if you will:

    Coming from the background you do, how would you describe your current beliefs, as they stand today?
    Do we need liberating from God, as if He is a great tyrant, or do we need liberating from man’s misinterpretation of who God is and what He wants? In my experience God is a real, wonderful, loving, self-sacrificing being, very much interested in what concerns me, but also very much interested in establishing His rule and reign on the earth. Interestingly, however, He came to establish that rule and reign by serving and sacrificing, and He calls His people to do likewise. Thus, I argue that the rescue needs to be from religion and dogma, and not from God Himself. In this sense, then, knowing Christ AS HE IS is the best solution to the “relentless dogma of religion”. In Christ we have ultimate freedom, we just haven’t lived it out.

    In summary, I agree with your last paragraph. Faith is not found in a building, priest or artifact. In fact, faith is only found in Jesus. I also agree that it takes more faith to live out the self-sacrificial lifestyle that Jesus demonstrated for us than to simply go to church on Sunday. It takes courage and faith to buck the worldly trend to respond in anger, instead of, like you stated, responding with forgiveness to an enemy. I have heard the Kingdom of God referred to as the “upside down kingdom”, as the ways of God are so different than the ways of man.

    Well, I hope you find this dialogue stimulating. I by no means intend to try to convince you to believe as I do. I simply hope to present a truth that is drastically different than how either of us grew up, thereby pushing aside the dogma of religion to reveal a Savior who is more real than the ground we walk on, and more beautiful than the most blazing Kansas sunset.

    We love ya here in Kansas, Jacob! See you this summer.

    Mark

  2. Jacob,

    While re-reading my comment one last thing came to mind that I wanted to share.

    When I was in med school I became disgusted with the brand of Christianity that I was in, and in fact disgusted with church in general as I knew it, and I quit attending church altogether. I found myself shattered, in a manner of speaking. Much of what I had based my faith on was removed, and I found myself questioning. I questioned the reality of God, the reality of Jesus, the reality of the Holy Spirit and the manifestations that come along with Him. It didn’t take me long to become settled in my belief in God, and Jesus as His son, but now it was MY belief, which I held because I believed it, not because my pastor or my parents did. Over the next few years much of the rest of my belief system was tabled, and over time the Lord has systematically dealt with me in these areas, leading me to understanding that I previously lacked. I sense that you are here: having decided that you will not believe just because someone else did, you are now striking out to find what YOU believe. This is a beautiful thing, as Truth will always stand up against a lie.

    Mark

  3. Greetings Mark,
    Wow, you have some very detailed thoughts! Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’ll quickly respond to your questions. My current state of faith is in living my life, this one life I have been given, with excellence in what I apply myself to, without giving in to fear, and with a contagious joy. Perhaps one could say we need liberated from man’s inherently flawed interpretion of God, but at this point I’m not convinced he exists, at least not in the manner I used to! I see this two ways—our nervous system is infinitely capable of imagining and imposing its senses to fit preconceived desires; that is to say we tend to hear in a myriad of ways what we’re already convinced of. Secondly, there are certain things in this life that seem to evade explanation. In such cases I have observed people jump to say, “that’s God, we have our answer!” I’d rather ask “why is it so?” and seek a solution. That’s not to be excessively logical or analytical; sometimes answers only come when you follow your heart. But to me, figuring out just what the Higg’s Boson has to do with the beginning of life is a lot more interesting than saying, “And God Said.” Nevertheless, I believe this matter must be ultimately decided with the Western seat of human emotions (ha, ha), my heart.

    If anything, God is love. That’s very basic, but I do hold on to the depth of that. I’ve been reading about evolution the past few weeks, really trying to comprehend the ideas posited by Darwin. I don’t get it at all yet but I think it’s important for coming to a meaningful position on this matter, whichever side of the pasture one sits on.
    What do you think?
    Jacob

  4. Jacob,

    One of the greatest debates of all time, and really the quintessential battleground between faith and science. Of course, there need not necessarily be a debate, but the two sides tend to come from such different positions that there generally is a battle. The scuffle that occurred in Kansas when the State BOE voted to allow each district to determine how it would handle the teaching of creation vs. evolution is a perfect example. The state was seen as backwards and stupid for giving districts the choice, as if it is so incredibly obvious that evolution is true! In fact, it is not, but again, this calls in to play the major differences between the two sides. Following is my opinion on the matter!

    I’ll start with science. Science should simply be about discovering and celebrating the wonders of the universe. If this were the case, there would be no rift between science and religion. In reality, however, science becomes a religion unto itself, because, by and large, science bristles at the concept that God created the universe. In fact, science bristles at the concept of God, period. The average science-driven person has to be able to explain EVERYTHING by scientific study, and, again in my opinion, many scientists have a vested interest in trying to disprove things like creation. Because, in the mind of the scientist (especially evolutionary scientists), God CAN’T exist. This is why I call it a religion. They put as much faith in their belief that God doesn’t exist as the Christian does in God’s existence. Because, if they admit that there is a God, then they suddenly have to accept that they (or we as mankind) aren’t the supreme masters of their (our) destinies that they’d (we’d) like to believe they (we) are. So then, science becomes the object of faith, because as long as I can prove to myself or make myself believe that there is no God, then I can live MY life as I see fit, because after all I am master of my own destiny. Obviously I am making some pretty sweeping generalizations here, which I realize is not fully fair. Nevertheless I think if one takes the institution of science as a whole, what I have said rings true (again, the stink about evolution in Kansas is a perfect example).

    Next religion. As I said in my previous comment, Christians are not very good at being challenged. Thus, Christians often feel threatened by science, because science seeks to prove truth that Christians accept by faith. In reality, we have nothing to fear. If what the bible says is true, then science honestly conducted will ultimately bear that out, to the extent possible. Certainly science can never disprove creation, unless they could PROVE the theory of evolution, which is why, again, this is such a hot topic. Now, there are a few Christian evolutionists, but I find that concept ludicrous. I will also say that, in my opinion, science is often not honestly conducted, especially in the field of evolution, because of the things I have stated above. (Another good example of science gone bad is the global warming theory. Recall the massive release of documents some months back, showing the dishonesty of scientists working on global warming. There was a political ulterior motive that subjugated the purity of science in this situation, as global warming fits into the political motives of those involved.)

    Another group to be mentioned here are creation scientists, who go to great lengths to prove THEIR belief regarding creation, which is the literal 7 day creation. These people call themselves “Young Earth” scientists, or something like that. I have been in this camp in the past, and they may have some good science behind them. I disagree with the concept of a young earth, and I think the dogged determination to insist on a literal interpretation of days is fallacy, although I understand their arguments. So I guess I am in the middle. I do not believe in Young Earth, but I also don’t believe in millions of years of evolution to get from the “Primordial Sludge” to present day creation.

    So, what do I believe? I believe God created all that we see. I would consider myself fairly scientifically minded. The innerworkings of things fascinates me, especially as it pertains to the human body. Having studied these things it is ludicrous to me that the majesty of creation happened by chance. I heard a statement once that believing that we evolved from apes, much less single-celled organisms, is like believing you could blow up a junk yard and get a cadillac. I think that about sums it up for me. It JUST IS NOT FEASIBLE for the wonders of creation to all happen by chance.

    In life we have two extremes of nature or behavior: complete self-preservation, where nothing matters except what is best for me, and complete benevolence, where one considers the needs and wants of others above their own needs and wants. Either of these can exist in a non-religious environment, and in reality both DO exist in religious environments. I think I can say that we both agree that the former manner of living is not desirable, leaving the latter as the obvious choice. Here, for me, is where the importance of my belief in God comes in to play. If I simply try by my own human efforts to better the world, I risk living my life largely disappointed, as no degree of human effort will ever change the state of the world. Granted we can make changes in individual circumstances, but ultimately the world will go on in spite of our best efforts. Thus, we ultimately have done nothing to address “the messy elements of life, the poverty, the abuse, the depression, the sickness, all the unwanted negatives that humanity never seems to escape.” If I approach my life, in Christ, by serving others and loving others, I now have hope and anticipation that, in the end, the Kingdom of God will overtake the kingdoms of this world, thus putting an end to all the above things.

    Finally, I will say this, kind of going along with the above line of thinking. I can choose to live my life in one of two ways, for myself or in service to others. It is obvious what manner of chaos is produced with the former, leaving the latter as the better alternative. So, to follow this line of argument, the natural order of the universe, so to speak, favors a life of love and service, again because the results of the alternative are untenable. So if I determine to give my life in service to another, the most logical source of that desire, in my mind, is the Creator and Sustainer of all life, who first sacrificed His life for me, before asking me to live mine for Him.

    Since making my decision so long ago to follow Christ apart from religion and organized church I have found such peace and such fulfillment. I can not even begin to describe the wonders and depths of Christ, dimensions that I never could’ve even imagined in my previous spiritual life.

    I hope this answers your simple question. I know it is a verbose response, but I guess I know no other way!

  5. It’s interesting the number of people I find that start doubting christianity while still
    holding on to the “god is love” sentiment.
    I also find it interesting the great similiarities between Jesus, Ghandi, and Budda.
    Lastly, I find your comment about the Higgs boson interesting as I’ve recently
    pondered the fact that god is commonly described as light which is also the basis
    of all matter, energy, space, and time. e=mc^2

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