What to Believe: An Action Plan

So, there I was sitting at one of our organizing meetings for Voices of Faith, which we hope will become a state wide interfaith organization sponsoring dialogue and education among the various spiritual traditions of our community.

One of the more interesting aspects of this organizing effort is that the local humanist group has been invited to the table and they have accepted. Two unlikely things following hard upon one another. And something I take as a good omen for a difficult project.

Anyway one of the early issues bubbled up when one of the Christian clergy said to the humanist representative (a rough quote here), “We both have faith.” This didn’t sit well with the humanist, and I agree with his caveat. Faith that the sun is likely to rise in the morning, my humanist friend noted, isn’t really the same thing as faith that there is a God in heaven. And honest dialog requires allowing the distinction to be a distinction.

So far, so good…

Still, it raises a hard question about faith, about belief. Now, when I was in seminary people liked to make a distinction between faith and belief. Belief for them was accepting assertions from authority, while faith was energetically engaged. A dynamic I find resonance with, if I’m not really so sure there’s all that much of a functional difference if the premise is in general violation of common sense.

I found something along these lines today when I posted a reference to a study that strongly suggests biological sources for near death experiences. A friend, an old and dear friend, wrote a comment saying, if I’m being fair, and I’m trying, that the biology doesn’t matter. He had the experience and it is important in his understanding of what happens to a person postmortem.

I’m reluctant to address directly another person’s experiences and the conclusions they draw.

And, I’m pretty committed to pursuing the real.

Which, of course, begs all sorts of questions. How does one define real is an important starting point. Merriam Webster’s Third International gives the first definition for real as “of or relating to fixed, permanent, or immovable things…” something I don’t actually find true. To my observation everything is in flux, nothing is permanent. But, its second definition speaks to “not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory…” which I find much more useful, particularly as modified in clause (b) “occurring or existing in actuality…”

Now I have friends who say we can know nothing. I would say we can know nothing with certainty. But, I believe our senses and our analysis can gather enough information and order it accurately enough for us to survive for decades and decades, and that supports a conclusion we can know enough. We can know in part, only, yes, but, enough…

And with that there’s what I’ve gotten out of Zen Buddhism. Way back when I was first trying it on, my teacher suggested that the only thing I was asked to believe was that it was possible that I might find value in paying attention. That was about all the faith I could muster up, but I could muster that much.

And I started the discipline.

Along the way I figured out lots of what was presented was doubtful, and slowly I let go of the things that didn’t stand up to close examination. Some emphasis on slowly, particularly because what isn’t immediately obvious isn’t necessarily not true.

But, letting go is part of the process of paying attention.

Letting go of opinion. Letting go of certainty.

Now, this isn’t rationality. That process of analysis has a part, an important part, but the project here isn’t to understand things, rather it is to understand myself, who I am, what I am.

And one can only think about it so much.

The direction, the invitation is a bit different.

Here I find myself thinking of my friend the Dharma bum Weasel Tracks, whom I quoted in my last book. The drift of the citation was how he was asked if he believed in God. He replied no. He was asked then if he were an atheist, to which he replied no. Exasperated the questioner asked, what do you believe? To which he responded, as little as possible.

Shedding beliefs is terribly important if we want to encounter the real.

And the real, in my experience, is the only thing worth pursuing.

We believe something, okay. But, if something we believe doesn’t stand up to close examination, try on letting go of it.

See what happens.


Here’s an action plan.

Might take one to something more important than what we believe.

For me it has been a path of discovery. Amidst the sadness, so much sadness, amidst the joy, sparks unspeakable in their delight, something…

In that presence.

The word that doesn’t quite work, but keeps returning for me that I find in presence is love.


Of course, for you to find that thing that place that moment which I’m summarizing inadequately as love requires you don’t believe what I say…

And instead, look,

And let go.

See what happens.

And repeat…

And then at last…

And then repeat…

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