Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods. – C. S. Lewis
I’m in the midst of a monthlong “vacation” of some kind – that interval between summer work and college where most people unplug on some level to travel, visit friends, and relax. I’m using this opportunity to connect more deeply spiritually, whether at home in New York City, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or, currently, in a small idyllic town in upstate New York. For the most part I’m keeping off the computer but I wanted to share some of my further thoughts on faith. This is to some extent a repackaging of what I’ve recently been studying, but I hope that the propositions below are helpful or at least thought-provoking. I’d be very interested to hear your responses.
There are four varieties of faith. These are all four aspects of the same thing, as will be discussed later, but are usually experienced as separate types. It’s useful to approach them as separate types, too, as they each relate to a different and important aspect of the spiritual experience. It’s important to understand that faith doesn’t just mean belief. I can believe that the derivative of the integral of F is F, but unless I have experience with derivatives and integrals after a semester or so of calculus, I don’t have faith that it actually works. I can believe that yoga is “good for me,” but unless and until I start to see yogic principles at work in the world around me and experience better physical health, higher energy, and calmer nerves personally, I don’t really have faith in it. I can believe that Andrew Moravczik is a fantastic professor, but until I’ve taken a course with him, I don’t necessarily have faith in him.
An integral aspect of faith is experience. One of my most revered teachers Dhanurdhara Swami says, “Faith does not mean that you believe Krishna exists or not. Faith is the sum of your positive experiences with Him thus far.” It’s experience that enables trust and positive action and that creates the thirst to go deeper.
The first faith is in God. This is faith in the bigger picture; faith that there is a world beyond this one; faith in particular spiritual or philosophical teachings or in a particular tradition. It’s also faith in God as a person, that Supreme Person who loves and cares for every living being and whom we in turn are meant to love and serve.
The second faith is in the teacher. This is the Guru or spiritual master, and the gurus with lower-case “g’s” – those teachers who provide access to spiritual or philosophical teachings. Key elements of this kind of relationship are trust, gratitude, and affection.
The second faith is in the transformative process, or the Path. It’s faith that the recommended practices “work” both in the short term and the long term. It’s also faith that the practices and teachings themselves are eternal, and that whatever element of sadhana or inner work I am engaged with now is a part of my eternal state of being.
The third faith is in myself – or, my Self. It’s in myself and my ability to engage with the other three faiths, and in the existence of my higher Self and my ability to be in touch with that. This presupposes a basic understanding of ontology: the nature of the Self, our little ego self and material existence, and how we got this way. It also requires some level of hope. Faith in the Self and self-loathing cannot exist at the same time. Faith in the Self mandates some appreciation and gratitude for reality, and hope that with greater presence to that reality and greater understanding, my Self will come into being.
I think the experiential distinction of all these is clear. The “tattva,” if I may be so bold, of their unity rests on the basic principle that all comes from God. The Guru (or gurus) make coming into contact with the Divine tangible and understandable for us. Shastra [sacred texts] lay out the truths about the Divine and our relationship to the Divine, and contain important instruction and examples. The Self is our nature when most present to Reality, or, to Divine reality. The transformative process is how to come into contact with that Self. Any kind of spiritual practices presupposes faith in all these.
Sounds like a tall order. How often can I really say my heart is open enough to have full faith in all of these? How often are we granted faith-building experience when we are in a time of doubt? The good news – for us unfortunate strivers – is that “reasonable” faith is often good enough. Reasonable faith is the kind based on prior experiences, on logical understanding, and on witnessing the experience of others. In a time of doubt, or when first experiencing a new spiritual reality, often reasonable faith is all we have to go on. Reasonable faith is usually primarily in one of the four areas listed above, but with cathartic experience, a little bit of mercy, or further study, it usually expands to include one or all of the others.
In my next post I’ll explore my experiences with reasonable faith and faith in the Self.