Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Faith

Despite the fact that I am married to a minister, I sometimes marvel at the wishy-washiness of my beliefs. I really wish I could have a constantly-firm faith, one that is never shaken, one that from over here, where I'm standing, looks like it would make life so much easier. I have fleeting moments in which I feel I do, but if I'm honest, I have to admit that any religious fervor I might have leans much more towards the "I'm-in-a-crisis-I-need-you-now-God-but-why-the-hell-would-you-pay-attention-to-me-when-I've-been-all-but-ignoring-you-for-the-past-x-number-of-months?" sort than the "God-I-am-so-blessed-you've-been-so-good-to-me-let-me-bow-down-to-you-every-minute" sort.

I can't help it. I am a skeptic by nature. I absolutely, positively believe in the teachings of Christ. I'm convinced he was the greatest psychologist I've ever read. I want to believe he was God incarnate. After all, witnesses say he said he was, and what a humbling thing it is to think that God would become one of us to try to understand us better and to try to get us to understand God. But do I always? Truth be told? No.

Truth be told? I sometimes wonder if twenty years from now, I'm not going to look back on this as my "minister's wife/religious period," the same way I look back on my twenties as my "agnostic-leaning-towards-atheism period." I doubt that, because I get too much pleasure from the intellectual pursuit of Christianity (a side effect of having vicariously attended a very cool seminary), as well as the comfort it gives me in answering many of the questions I have about the mysteries of life, and I so enjoy being a part of a loving church community. But I know my beliefs aren't so strong that I can say with conviction that one day, I might not believe something completely different.

Is it any wonder, then, that I look at those whose lives revolve around fervent religious beliefs with both horror and admiration? The horror is reserved for those sorts of self-righteous believers who know they have all the answers, who can twist the love of God into a hate that must sorrow the God I hope is there, and who are sure everyone they don't manage to "save" is going to burn in hell (sure, even, that there is a hell). It's also reserved for those who would fly airplanes into buildings in the name of God for their own reward and salvation. Or for those who would walk into a church service and shoot a doctor, because he performs abortions.

However, living among the Amish, I find I admire them tremendously. Yes, there is much not to be admired -- no schooling beyond eighth grade, women in subordinate roles, the public shunning of those who might turn away from the faith -- but yet, how refreshingly honest they are when it comes to things like their Rumspringa ritual. Instead of pretending, as we non-Amish do, that teenagers aren't going to do things we all wish they wouldn't, parents just basically say, "Go ahead and do it. See if you really like it." And their powers of forgiveness put me to shame.

Mostly, however, I think I admire them because they don't feel this huge need to convert me. Yes, they do feel a need to keep their own members members, but they don't care what I do. As a matter of fact, they don't want me and are very skeptical of those desiring to "convert." They don't even involve themselves in trying to get the secular world to incorporate any of their beliefs. I am sure that they probably hope our government will stand for the same moral principles they hold dear, but they are pacifists who don't vote.

I also admire Hasidic Jews for standing firm and strong in their beliefs, while caring not the least about what I believe. Once, while Bob and I were hiking up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, we came across a couple of Hasidic families who were hiking together (I happen to know that, because I saw them all together later). One family was behind the other, the wife and three daughters dressed in skirts with bandanas to cover their hair, the husband (carrying the youngest child, still in diapers) in his long-sleeved shirt, long black pants, full beard, and yarmulke. Farther along the trail, we ran into the other family, sitting on a rock, reciting and singing prayers.

My first thought, upon seeing the wives and daughters in skirts was, "Hiking in skirts? Along these trails? How can they? I'm so glad I'm not Hasidic!" I hadn't paid that much attention to the husbands, but Bob had. It had been an unusually hot day (for Maine), and Bob had noticed that the men had both been drenched, looking "like someone had pushed them fully-clothed into a swimming pool." Maybe those skirts weren't so bad after all. I'd much rather wear a skirt when trying to beat the heat than a pair of long pants.

But think about it (come on. Just a little with me). How amazing are these people? They are climbing mountains (or, in the case of the Amish, farming and gardening) in attire that is far more appropriate for dinner parties in climate-controlled homes. They're sitting out on rocks, atop mountains, reciting their daily prayers, oblivious to those who walk past every five minutes or so. And they are not grabbing these people, informing them what sinners they are, and how they need to change their clothes and come sit on this rock and pray with them, lest they burn in hell. There is a part of me that envies them, that wishes I could live that far "outside" the world.

I'd like to have the kind of childlike faith that would so possess me, that was so much a part of my life, that I'd recite prayers with my family while sitting on top of a mountain. I'd like to be so overcome by my love for God that such thoughts as "I can't do that. I'm gonna look so weird," or "I can't do that. I'm gonna make others uncomfortable" never crossed my mind. I mean, does a four-year-old child worry about looking weird when his father steps off an airplane, and he races to fling himself into the arms of the man he so loves? Of course not.

I don't have it. I doubt I ever will. However, if such a faith ever does come my way, I certainly hope I am still allowed to wear my cotton shorts and tank top on the trail.


Amanda said...

I just read "Menonite in a Little black dress" by Rhoda Jantzen (I highly recommend it) and it filled me with respect for the Menonites (who are apparently a slightly less conservative version of the Amish). Their self sufficiency and the tight bonds of community seem pretty admirable. Actually I remember Chaim Potok's book making me wish I was Jewish. There's a lot to be said for belonging to a tribe

Anne Camille said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I often feel very much the same way about faith.

Emily Barton said...

A, oh yes, I have been told to read that book and plan to do so (especially now I know you liked it, too). The problem with tribes is that they fight with each other, and then, when they try too hard to defend and protect themselves, they often end up disintegrating. Still, I guess it's human nature to be drawn to them.

Cam, I could have guessed you might have similar feelings. Glad to me (as always) in such good company.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had enough strength of conviction, enough faith in my own values, that I didn't get caught up in the values of the broader society, which are pushed at us all the time, of status and possessions. It's easier to have that kind of faith when it's bolstered by a religious community who have made themselves into their own unit outside of the main by dress, food, custom.

Watson Woodworth said...

I don't think doubt needs to be threatening.
A lack of doubt could be a sign of a lack of thinking, lack of interest, lack of intelligence, or just a lack of honesty.

As for devotional attire, I don't think the clothes make the Amish or the Hasidim.
I mean, I'm reading a lot on Taoism and Confucianism and that seems perfectly normal. But were I to become a Sinophile I would be quite alarmed because that would be fetishism, not devotion. (I think)

Stefanie said...

I admire you Emily for even thinking and writing so honestly about your faith. It seems so few people do that these days, at least the ones who make the news.

You'd probably like my grandma. She is Lutheran and has a deep and quiet faith. She doesn't proselytize or anything. I am sure she would be so happy if my Jewish husband would convert but she has never said anything about it she just quietly includes him in her prayers and wishes in cards and letters to us. I admire the strength of her faith and how sure and generous makes her, but I cannot manage any sort of belief at all.

Rhian said...

I know what you mean about faith. I am sure that God is there (but is that just because of my upbringing?) but I don't think I have that strong absolute faith some people do. On the other hand I find the fanatically religious deeply disturbing. Thank you for such an honest and thought-provoking post. I am so glad I found your blog, i feel I have met a kindred spirit!

Emily Barton said...

Lilian, yes, it would be nice to be above the pressures of society.

Nigel, and Christ healed the son of the man who said, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief," my favorite tale from the Gospels.

Stefanie, thanks. I think more people should write this sort of stuff. Christianity has so many different voices, but very few seem to make it into the media. Yes, I believe I'd like your grandma very much.

Rhian, I am so glad you found me, too. Keep commenting when you feel so moved.

Lilian said...

Just wanted to also say thanks for writing about this subject - I often feel very similar to the way you do and wish I had more faith. I have also gone through stages of wanting to be Jewish - Judaism definitely has a lot to be said for it, I think.

In the end, I think having doubts is actually a good thing, because, as someone else has said, it means you're actually thinking about your faith and what you believe in.