fireside conversation

embersHere we are, the friends of my ponderings and me. We are sitting around the fire on a cool night. The fire has died to glowing embers and the night sky spreads out above us, full of infinite stars and infinite majesty. We look up, and sigh, and begin a slow and thoughtful conversation about faith and doubt and how it is that we find our heart’s true home.

“Just what is faith?” I ask, feeling around the edges of my soul for an answer that seems sure – an ironic search, I know, but an earnest one.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The words of the author of Hebrews come into my mind first as the ‘correct answer’ parroted by my Sunday school self, but as the words take shape in the cool night air, I can hear the essence of the very in-betweenness of faith – the knowing and not knowing.

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible,” muses Thomas Aquinas. I have to admit he sounds a bit smug. Maybe it’s just my ears.

‘Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking,’ Khalil Gibran nods in response. Again, the words seem pretty, but a bit foreign.

Sharon Salzberg makes it more personal, and more real, at least for me. “[Faith] is that movement of our heart that says, ‘Yes, this can be for me.’”

“Faith means an abiding trust that the way things are working out is part of something bigger and probably incomprehensible, but just knowing that it’s part of a larger constellation of meaning, it is a kind of comfort and a kind of succor and solace for a Jew.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, leans in closer to the fire. The reality of the Jewish experience gives his words a somber substance.

Anne Lamott chimes in, “Faith is a verb. … I don’t know what I’m going to see along the way, but I know that I’ll be sustained and I know I won’t be alone.”

Frederick Buechner takes up that theme, “Faith is better understood … as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going, but going anyway.”

Richard Rohr nods, “Faith is more how to believe than what to believe … an initial opening of the heart … our small but necessary ‘yes.'”

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” This bracing challenge from Martin Luther, who lived that reality.

His namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr., also has some experience in living the challenge. “Faith is taking the first step, even when we can’t see the whole staircase.”

I suddenly feel intimidated, sitting in the presence of those who’ve walked the plank of faith so much further than I’ve even dared to imagine. All of my doubts crowd in around me – doubts about my own faith, that, in self-protection, disguise themselves as doubts about the doctrines and ‘truths’ I’m supposed to believe. I sigh and shake my head.

Sharon Salzberg seems to sense my quandary and gives this assurance, “Questioning means longing to know the truth deeply and insisting that we can.”

The rabbi chimes in again, quoting his teacher, Samuel Sandmel, with a chuckle, “If you don’t seriously doubt the existence of God every couple of weeks, you are theologically comatose.” It is as if the willingness to seriously entertain doubt is the only way to hold on to faith.

This brings a chorus of assent, from Miguel de Unamuno, who suggests that “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith.”

Paul Tillich nods, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

Voltaire acknowledges, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Then, Robertson Davies takes that a step further, and with a sinister and all-too-politically-relevant observation, “Fanaticism is…overcompensation for doubt.”

“So, wait … is doubt good or bad?” I ask.

“Doubt is real,” comes the answer. “It is only good if you acknowledge it and use it to shine a light into unexplored corners. It turns cancerous when you either let it paralyze you or you try to deny it, entirely.”

“One of the challenges with the concept of faith is that it is too easily framed as belief. We think it rests most firmly in our heads. In fact, this whole conversation has been rather heady. But faith lives most vibrantly in our hearts. It is what we rest our hearts upon. It is what we most deeply trust. And when we move forward, based upon that center, we are moving in faith. Indeed, all of us have faith in something, else we could not move at all. And when we move, despite our doubts, we gather confidence in that deep center.”

Someone rises to put another log on the fire. We watch as the flame grows around it.

“See, just what I was saying.” And everyone nods.

[photo by Jon Scally per cc 2.0]

{Thank you to Krista Tippett and On Being for the seeds of this conversation.]

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