Saturday, December 11, 2010

FAITH HEALER: WHAT BELIEF DOESN’T DO

I once reviewed a book by a man who had "lost" his religion. He was disgusted by pedophile priests, outraged that God doesn't answer the prayers of amputees by restoring their missing limbs, aghast that televangelist faith healers are often (I would have said always) fakes, and in desperation had conducted a series of social surveys revealing to his horror that people who claimed to have faith acted no better than anyone elseI certainly hope not! was my response. Religion doesn’t mean acting better than other people; it means, if we’re lucky, getting to act a little better than we used to ourselves.

FAITH HEALER BILLY BURKE 
Similarly, there's a huge misconception that faith provides some kind of consolation: that faith assuages fear, dispels doubt, and imparts a phony, infantile sense of well-being that the more clear-eyed among us, as a matter of intelligence and conscience (and if that were the case, I'd add rightfully), reject. Not long ago a friend of mine--great guy; funny, compassionate, smart guy who also happens to be resolutely atheistic--was facing eye surgery. He said, "I was coming home from the doctor's the other day and I was so scared and felt so alone and I thought: ‘Man, I could use some of that faith people talk about. Too bad I don't believe.’" And I, in turn, thought, Wow, do folks actually think that the person who "believes" suffers one iota less anguish at the thought of, say, eye surgery--or scorn or ridicule or rejection or abandonment or loneliness or poverty--than the person who doesn't "believe?" If that were the case, everyone would believe. It wouldn’t be faith, it would be a transaction.  It would be a magic trick.

bensbiz.mlblogs.com
But the interesting thing about belief is that it doesn't make you act better than other people, doesn't make you appear more together, doesn't advance you in the eyes of the world, doesn't relieve your terrible fears and terrible shortcomings.

What does faith do? It helps you to bear the almost unbearable tension of being a mortal human being without cracking. It helps you to bear your fears, your neuroses, your anxieties, your rage, your lusts, your loneliness, so that you don't lose your mind, or start swilling Night Train, or embark on a life spent watching internet porn. If you are very far along the path, it may begin to help you refrain  from taking the agony of bearing the tension out on other people. It leads you, or has anyway led me, to ponder the sort of Man Christ was. A Man who, nailed to the Cross, could still be focused not on his own suffering, but on the suffering of the rest of the world. A Man who, in the throes of death, turned to the Repentant Thief beside him with the reassurance: ‘This day you shall be with me in Paradise.’ [Luke 23: 43]

I find there are two basic types of people who attack when they discover I’m Catholic. The first are lapsed or disgruntled Catholics who claim to be revolted by the Church but can't stop talking about it. I love these types. Their hearts are broken. They’re always trying to trying to trip me up, get me to say something bad about the Church, convert me back to the cause of the unbelievers. The second type, the Pharisees (in a peculiarly unfortunate combination, the two "types" sometimes exist in one person), are always trying to get me to say something bad about other so-called (in their eyes lukewarm) members of the Church.

None of these folks can bear the hideous gap between how a follower of Christ should be and how a person who claims to be a follower of Christ actually is. It is horrible, it’s absurd. But don’t let that stop you! I want to say. Anyone who signs up to be a Christian signs up for failure. The very, very few who "succeed" die. In order to be any good at it you more or less have to be killed.  You also have to be somewhat nuts to set yourself a goal that is basically impossible to achieve. As Thomas Merton observed: “We must remember that in order to choose religious life, you must be a misfit…Let’s get away from the mystique that religious are the cream-of-the-crop Christians.”

No-one would embark upon such a way of life except out of love. No-one would want to follow such a Man except out of love. No-one would be willing to say: I believe and yet I fail, I believe and yet I doubt, I believe and yet I'm in terror, I believe and yet I lack love except out of the desire to love. 

Which is the segue into an upcoming post: Why I Am Religious and Not Just Spiritual. And the overflowings of a heart that is full--of gratitude, of a sense of awe-struck mystery--as we enter the Third Week of Advent.

TITIAN
CHRIST AND THE GOOD THIEF, c. 1563

19 comments:

  1. Thank you. That is all I have -- thank you.

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  2. My favorite metaphor for faith is a net beneath a tightrope. I have no idea if it's really there--I don't look down--but my assumption it is (the famous "leap" of faith) gives me some confidence crossing the rope. It's no less treacherous or exciting or invigorating a walk, but faith is like a balancing bar in my hands and I AM less afraid. (Okay, I threw two methaphors for faith in there. So be it.)

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  3. Good points. Someday I might have to stop reading this blog if I begin to have too many thoughts provoked! ;-)

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  4. I hear you, loud and clear. And I get it [what faith doesn't do] 100%. You say it so well!

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  5. Faith makes me look at the world in a certain way. It helps me to see the world as infused with beauty and love. It helps me to view suffering as redemptive and full of purpose. It gives me a sense that there is Someone in charge who loves and cares for us - that the world isn't at the mercy of Richard Dawkin's selfish gene. And, here I may differ from your view, faith does give me a measure of peace that is not availed to the atheist. I believe God is here with me sharing my thoughts, my pain, my joys. He is my most intimate lover. I think perhaps your atheist friend was alluding to this - the faith that tells us not to fear - that we are not alone. This is God's most merciful gift to us.

    So many people say they can't believe in God because of all the suffering in the world. Perhaps without suffering there could never be love, there could never be anything. In heaven, perhaps, when every tear is wiped away, there will be just the memory of suffering that allows love to be.

    P.S. Heather, I have read both Parched and Redeemed and thought they were excellent. You have quite a gift. I found so much in your memoirs that I can relate to. Thank you for your books and for your blog. They are a treasure.

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  6. Yes! I can't wait for the post on being Religious and not just Spiritual :)
    And Barb, I agree with you about the peace that faith brings - it's just that that peace is not always present - a person who is in the middle of depression or tragedy and still following their faith may feel no sense of consolation or peace even if they are still convinced of the truth of who they are following.

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  7. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as if such a thing were possible, of what faith DOES give, which for me is basically an entirely different way of seeing and experiencing the world. Which does include at times(though is not limited to) a kind of "peace that passes all understanding"...but inherent in passing all understanding is that it is not the peace the world gives. It's not the kind of peace I envisioned, if I envisioned it at all, before I "came to believe".

    It's not the peace that protects from anguish, for instance. If that were the case, Christ himself on the Cross, would not have been moved to cry "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me"...It's the "peace" that allows us to see that in our anguish, we are in solidarity with--and if we consent to bear the anguish consciously, and with love, in some sense helping to alleviate--the anguish of all humanity...to me, these are the kinds of emotional, psychological, intellectual, theological, existential riches there that the non-believer misses out on or is blind to...

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  8. Heather, this comment of yours is the best part of this post!

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  9. As usual, it only took me 7 or 8 hours of writing to get around to it...also, Barb, thanks for reading my books!

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  10. Heather, wow, I'm with Robert here. I was reading some of the comments, and when I came to this one, I was taken aback by its profundity:

    "It's not the peace that protects from anguish, for instance. If that were the case, Christ himself on the Cross, would not have been moved to cry "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me"...It's the "peace" that allows us to see that in our anguish, we are in solidarity with--and if we consent to bear the anguish consciously, and with love, in some sense helping to alleviate--the anguish of all humanity...to me, these are the kinds of emotional, psychological, intellectual, theological, existential riches there that the non-believer misses out on or is blind to... "

    What wonderful timing. On Friday, I referenced a blog post written by an atheist, mainly to make a point about my own faith. And I wasn't entirely surprised when she came back with an exposition on her blog as to why I am wrong. While I didn't intend to provoke and don't feel the need to defend myself in turn, her response did leave me wondering how/whether I should respond. I kept it light, just to seal up the "discussion" and learn what I could from it. And now, having read your post, I feel so heartened by your thoughts. Because they are SO TRUE and express so well what the Christian life is really about, as opposed to the inaccurate perception that is pervasive among non-believers. Thank you for putting it to words, even if it took you seven or eight hours. It was truly worth it to us, Heather. Well done!

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  11. Such good stuff! Your reflection of faith in this post is really one of the best I have ever read. Currently I am reading a book by Fr. Benedict Groeschel on the psychology of spiritual development and your words dovetail right in with much of what he writes.

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  12. Thanks so much, Roxane and Fr. Pat--I have put Fr. B. Groeschel on my reading list and am tickled pink that anything I wrote would be even remotely linked with the phrase "spiritual development"...Advent blessings to you both..

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  13. This made my day. Expressed what I'd like to say to people.

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  14. Ms King your words are the best definition to my calling myself "a sinner"!!!!

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  15. One of the BEST reflections on faith I have ever read; thank you so much for your insight and your willingness to "answer for the hope" you have in Christ Jesus. Many blessings this Christmas!

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  16. A friend referred to this post today, and I just wanted to say, good post!

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  17. hello Heather,
    I have just read this provoking article and comments and have just seen that I am a year behind !! Well its still good stuff as me and my friends here in england are discovering your excellent writings...

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  18. Your reflections are to me, what Simon of Cyrene was to Jesus. You lighten my load.

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