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…

And a Blessed 21st of April to All!
HEALING THE BROKEN HEART A Gathering of Boundless Way Zen's Spiritual Directors
LEARNING TO FALL A Meditation on the Stoic Way
Happy birthday, Spike!
  • Rev. Alex Holt

    As is so often the case, James, your blogs are insightful and wise as well as helping the reader explore the outer limits of their own reality, reasoning and oftentimes at least in my case delusion (in a dharma sense). And thank you for your kind words in the blog. I am doing a series of three sermons on faith, hope and love as the three great virtues and pondering how UU’ism might understand them in the 21st century – not as theory but as experience. Last Sunday I talked about faith and belief. So we come back to belief…in my case, the Near Death Experience I had might or might not be ‘real’ in the sense of what I experienced. I have enough insight to understand that my brain might have been going through dramatic panic and a surge of chemicals. That said, is a reality that ‘happened’ within the confines of my brain and/or heart-mind actually Real or not? I cannot honestly say one way or another. As you say above “letting go of opinion. Letting go of certainty.” I have no objective empirical way to observe or analyze what I experienced. Does that make it less real albeit in a subjective way? I can still remember the thrill I had at my ordination, the times when Debra and I got together in 2001, etc. etc. My memories of what was ‘real’ might well be embellishments or distortions of what really happened. I still have the feelings that those events brought up.

    Here’s the rub for me. I am reasonably able to let go of attachments to ideas or even people. It is difficult for me to let go of a belief that death doesn’t end existence. As Suzuki Roshi said “you will always be present in some form in the universe.” Of course he didn’t say that we would maintain a self in the way we understand it. So I take the position that I will tentatively believe and accept what happened until proven otherwise. By that point, of course, I may not care or even be able to care (or swear as the case may be). So is this particular view of reality true or real? Who knows. You mention “Shedding beliefs is terribly important if we want to encounter the real.” and I think that’s a key question here. If a belief is provisional and open to examination, then we maintain an ability to shed it if needed. However, if that belief is one that gives us a framework of how to live well in the world, that is a slightly more solid use of a belief…still open to examination but held as a comfort. And now the babbling must end and I get ready for the next of many endless meetings. Thank you again, James, and deep appreciation

  • silvio nardoni


    An interesting piece on how belief can stand in the way of discovering who we really are. But it circles back on the faith/belief distinction when you consider that love is a kind of faith, because of its energetic engagement with life.

    Massive Attack’s “Teardrops” speaks to this: “Love, love is a verb. Love is a doing word.”


    Sivio Nardoni

  • Cushing

    I had a near death experience for which I am supremely grateful, and which helped to put me on the Zen path, though I didn’t know it was called Zen until much later. I was only 12 years old, but the experience was so clear and vivid that it informed me with absolute certainty that I have nothing to fear from my own death, that nothing bad is going to happen to me after I die. The death of others causes me endless pain and emotional difficulty, so death as a phenomenon remains an imponderable that I cannot stop pondering. My own death is the only death I do not dread (except feeling sad for any smattering of folks who might be stuck loving me). I know exactly what will happen to me when I die – it’s one of the few certainties in my life, and it doesn’t matter what it is that I know will happen or whether anyone agrees with me – I don’t tell anyone because what’s the point. The only things that matter are that I have no doubt, no need for faith, and that it’s no cause for dread or even speculation. It’s what happens while we’re alive – especially the presence of death – what you call the Great Matter – that brings me back to the zafu, that causes me such endless anguish, as you James so eloquently put it, ‘so much sadness amidst the joy’ – such infinite realms of light and dark.

  • Chris

    I’ve seen you quote that interaction twice. Let’s pull the string of its relevance. Everyone has cultural assumptions. Theists believe something you find difficult to swallow (tell me if that is too strong) and the humanists assumptions about the world and themselves are more to your liking and so belief seems too heavy handed. Their assumptions are based on science and so are more grounded (until we wait 5, 10, 20 years when all our understandings and assumption will be considered flinstonian) and plausible. Is this accurate?

    Your friend mentioned Charles Taylor who, in my mind, is well worth exploring if one would like their cultural assumptions laid bare. His cogent and rational arguments dismantle many of the beliefs our culture holds near and dear. Like the one about the ‘reality’ based arguments containing no beliefs.