Faith

For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.

— Matthew 17:20 NRSV

One concept I have run into again and again, both among Christians as well as among others with an interest in mysticism, is the idea that mysticism is about experience which is somehow different from faith.

The logic seems to go like this: as the author of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But mysticism, by contrast, is about the experience of God’s presence in our lives. Why would anyone settle for mere faith, which seems to be built on hope rather than real, lived experience? Wouldn’t it be better to trade faith in for a more direct, immediate, feel-it-in-your-bones sense of God’s reality and activity in our lives?

The Apostle Paul says we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). But if faith justifies us, how much more will direct experience contribute to real, lasting intimacy with God?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes an “either/or” relationship between faith and experience. Somehow, if we have a real enough experience of God, then we no longer need faith. “Faith is not important to me, because I know in my heart that God is real and God is present in my life,” someone once proudly told me. She was young, self-assured, a minister in a small church. Politeness prevented me from telling her what I thought of her aplomb: it sounded to me like she hadn’t had a dark night experience yet. Yes, mysticism is all about experience, but mysticism is both bigger and deeper than experience. Sometimes God comes to us through absence. Sometimes faith is tested in the crucible of doubt. And even when an experience hits us over the head with the proverbial two by four, we still must reflect on the experience and interpret it, with the language, values, and religious symbols that contribute to our sense of spiritual identity. Such a process of reflection and interpretation is a process that depends on faith: faith in the very trustworthiness of our own experience, and in our knowledge and ability to reflect on and interpret it.

Why is faith important? Why is it essential, even to the mystically inclined? For one very simple reason: No one has a perfect experience of God. Anyone who says that they do is just fooling themselves. Perfection is a concept related to completion, which implies that nothing can ever be perfect in human experience until we reach the end of our lives. In the meantime, faith is the tool by which we navigate all the great unknowns of life, including our relationship to the future, to our deep unconscious, and yes, to everything about God that is beyond our puny little experience, no matter how personally meaningful such experiences might be.

If you embrace the contemplative life, you will be opening your heart to a quest for experiential intimacy with God. This is a good and beautiful thing. But it doesn’t render faith unnecessary. On the contrary; faith becomes more important than ever. Cultivating faith is at least as important as daily meditation or the practice of virtue.

And how do we cultivate faith? Two thoughts here. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” proclaims Paul (Romans 10:17). Dust off your Bible, my friend; and if you aren’t already participating in the weekly Mass or worship service of your faith community, then start doing so. Participating in regular worship and daily scripture reading is of central importance when it comes to nurturing faith. Granted, the “word of Christ” can come to us in ways other than through Sacred Scripture. But keeping the ear of our hearts open to listen for the word of Christ however it may come to us does not render Sacred Scripture (or corporate worship) unnecessary. On the contrary, reading (and hearing) Sacred Scripture will attune us to recognize the word of Christ however it may come to us: in the words of a homeless person, in an insight while reading the news, in a conversation with a trusted friend. The more we listen for the word of Christ, the more we nurture our faith. And do I need to point out that such listening requires the cultivation of inner silence?

My other thought about cultivating faith has to do with the meaning of the word itself. Merriam Webster defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God.” So to nurture faith, we need to nurture belief, trust, and loyalty. Belief, incidentally, is not so much about certainty of the mind as openness of the heart; trust and loyalty are also heart-centered virtues. So faith comes not from the intellect so much as from the will: it’s not what we think, but the choices we make, that make us faithful. I choose to trust God. I choose to open my heart to God. I choose to stick with God, no matter what. Out of these choices, faith happens.

And faith does not replace or crowd out the experience of contemplative awareness of God’s presence: rather, it sets the stage for such an encounter to take place.

  • http://fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com Fencing Bear

    Beautifully put! Thank you.

  • laura kaye

    courage is the first step for me, because it takes courage to believe, and from that step i have created faith, and faith moves the mountains…
    so leave behind for each to see a coat of courage made for your heart, on this coat there are large outside pockets, for joy to be stored in, to share with the world. then when life winds of change blow cold, there is an inside breast pocket just for you, for this time to behold, the times of faith, that carries you into the life’s bold..
    ..by your faith be

  • http://lightandstorm.wordpress.com lightandstorm

    Faith is primarily an orientation to the world. It is walking through life without fear, with complete trust. This is essential to opening ourselves up to truth and the mystical experience.

    If we think of faith merely as an add-on to knowledge, yes leave it behind. But we still need that fundamental attitude of faith. Faith and love keep us free from fear and allow us to see into the truth of things. It keeps us from preoccupying ourselves with our own well-being.

  • http://thebyzantineanglocatholic.blogspot.com/ Joe Rawls

    The Greek for faith is “pistis”, which literally means “trust”.

  • http://None Emmanuel J. Karavousanos

    Mysticism is no great mystery once one attains it. The mystical state is an attainable state of mind and nothing more. I have spoken on this at conferences and meetings in the U. S. and in Canada, most recently at the Science and Nonduality Conference sponsored by the U. of Arizona. The mystical experience occurs when on analyzes things already known. We learn things as young children, take them for granted and eventually ignore them. Why do we ignore them? Because we learned them and known them. All too often things are known only on the surface, superficially and they are not realized intuitively. This applies to consciousness. Early in life we learn that we think, take it for granted, and subsequently have thoughts instead of every thinking about the thoughts we are having. We need to pay attention to this thing we already know, but know it only on the surface — not intuitively. This is why Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his book, Science and the Modern World, “Lt requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” Just before that he said, “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” How true….

  • Tom

    Hard for me to hear the Bible part. Parts of it are just horrific; parts beautiful. Just like real life, I guess.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Emmanuel, I certainly admire your knowledge of the science of mystical experience, and I agree that such scientific inquiry is essential as we move forward in our collective efforts to plumb the mystery of consciousness. Having said that, I find your “there’s nothing to it” message to be rather off-putting; and frankly, your post comes across as lacking in both spiritual and scientific humility. Evelyn Underhill said “If God were small enough to understand, then He wouldn’t be big enough to worship.” I think the same could be said of mysticism. Any mysticism that is reducible to a purely empirical science no longer deserves to be called by that name. I’m reminded of how scientists at the end of the 19th century confidently proclaimed that human knowledge was complete, that there was nothing new to discover. We should be careful to avoid making the same foolish mistake.

  • http://patiencetohope.livejournal.com/ James

    Thanks Carl. Love it. Wonderful, wonderful!

  • http://www.suecae.com Robert Halvarsson

    This certainly gives me food for thought.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Jeff

    My personal definition of faith is ” trusting in something you have good reasons to believe is true”. I doubt few people really embrace “the willing suspension of disbelief” as their operative notion of faith. Our reasons don’t have to be completely conclusive. We often don’t know for sure in many decsions we make in life – the marriage, the job, the choice of school, where to live, the candidate to vote, but we go ahead because we must.. So also with relgious and spiritual decisions with what we know. We often find out the final truth as we go forward in life. We may discover it was “truth”, but we didn’t put the effort in to make it work. Jesus said plainly “If you follow me you will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” I’ve discovered what He said was quite true, but also discovered I need to aim myself appropriately to be in His Light.

  • http://-- Emmanuel J. Karavousanos

    Dear Carl,
    Thank you for addressing my comments. Yes, I more than oversimplify the mystical and for that I apologize. It is, after all, one of the greatest of all human problems and questions. However, having a basis, evidence and the logic which are constructed out of the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things, and things we take for granted, we have good reason to seek ultimate reality which is, of course, precisely the same thing as the mystical state. The basis rests on the words of not one, but a number of brilliant minds. These include Alfred North Whitehead who said, “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” Hegel said, “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown. Huxley: Most human being have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. There are others, but we’ll go with these for the moment. Why must we look at things that are familiar, obvious, known and taken for granted. It is because they are learned on the surface — superficially — NOT intuitively! Then they are discounted and assumed there is nothing further to look into. Those most infortant things … are ignored. It was the histian, James Harvey Robinson who said that “we think, but think of thinking never.”
    Goethe supports him having said, “My boy I’ll say that I’ve been clever, I think but think of thinking never.” We can see why Buddhists and others as well, look inward for that much needed breakthrough. At this point we must inject the question of faith. The blind faith humans have turned to has failed us. We must turn to a faith with a basis. This is faith that will, in time, trigger the gift of mystical insight which, of course, is the onset of the mystical state. It is faith in something that has a basis, evidence and logic. It is faith in the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things and things we’ve taken for granted. I have been consistent in saying that at age 77 my motive here is not money or fame. It is the hope I have that our children and all those that follow us can have a better world.

    Emmanuel J. Karavousanos
    Author and Speaker
    EKaravousa@aol.com

    P. S. Carl, thanks again for this opportunity to post on this great site.

  • http://-- Emmanuel J. Karavousanos

    Dear Carl,
    Thank you for addressing my comments. Yes, I more than oversimplify the mystical and for that I apologize. It is, after all, one of the greatest of all human problems and questions. However, having a basis, evidence and the logic which are constructed out of the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things, and things we take for granted, we have good reason to seek ultimate reality which is, of course, precisely the same thing as the mystical state. The basis rests on the words of not one, but a number of brilliant minds. These include Alfred North Whitehead who said, “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” Hegel said, “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown. Huxley: Most human being have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. There are others, but we’ll go with these for the moment. Why must we look at things that are familiar, obvious, known and taken for granted. It is because they are learned on the surface — superficially — NOT intuitively! Then they are discounted and assumed there is nothing further to look into. Those most infortant things … are ignored. It was the histian, James Harvey Robinson who said that “we think, but think of thinking never.”
    Goethe supports him having said, “My boy I’ll say that I’ve been clever, I think but think of thinking never.” We can see why Buddhists and others as well, look inward for that much needed breakthrough. At this point we must inject the question of faith. The blind faith humans have turned to has failed us. We must turn to a faith with a basis. This is faith that will, in time, trigger the gift of mystical insight which, of course, is the onset of the mystical state. It is faith in something that has a basis, evidence and logic. It is faith in the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things and things we’ve taken for granted. I have been consistent in saying that at age 77 my motive here is not money or fame. It is the hope I have that our children and all those that follow us can have a better life.

  • http://-- Emmanuel J. Karavousanos

    Dear Carl,
    Thank you for addressing my comments. Yes, I more than oversimplify the mystical and for that I apologize. It is, after all, one of the greatest of all human problems and questions. However, having a basis, evidence and the logic which are constructed out of the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things, and things we take for granted, we have good reason to seek ultimate reality which is, of course, precisely the same thing as the mystical state. The basis rests on the words of not one, but a number of brilliant minds. These include Alfred North Whitehead who said, “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” Hegel said, “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown. Huxley: Most human being have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. There are others, but we’ll go with these for the moment. Why must we look at things that are familiar, obvious, known and taken for granted. It is because they are learned on the surface — superficially — NOT intuitively! Then they are discounted and assumed there is nothing further to look into. Those most infortant things … are ignored. It was the histian, James Harvey Robinson who said that “we think, but think of thinking never.”
    Goethe supports him having said, “My boy I’ll say that I’ve been clever, I think but think of thinking never.” We can see why Buddhists and others as well, look inward for that much needed breakthrough. At this point we must inject the question of faith. The blind faith humans have turned to has failed us. We must turn to a faith with a basis. This is faith that will, in time, trigger the gift of mystical insight which, of course, is the onset of the mystical state. It is faith in something that has a basis, evidence and logic. It is faith in the analysis of familiar, obvious and known things and things we’ve taken for granted.

  • http://-- Emmanuel J. Karavousanos

    Dear Carl,
    Thank you for addressing my comments. Yes, I more than oversimplified the mystical and for that I apologize. The mystical has been and is, after all, one of the greatest of all human problems. I have previously presented the foundation for looking back at things we know. Why must we look at things that are familiar, obvious, known and taken for granted. It is because they are learned on the surface — superficially — NOT intuitively! Then they are discounted and one assumes there is nothing further to look into. Those most infortant things … are ignored. Hence, insight cannot be gained. At this point we must inject the question of faith. The blind faith humans have turned to has failed us. We must turn to a faith with a basis. This is faith in analyzing things already known and can trigger the mystical experience.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X