In an earlier post I tried to articulate what it means for me to identify as ‘religious.’ Here I want to explore, after an interesting conversation with some friends, why I believe what I do. It will become very, very clear why I find myself in the Tillichian stream of existential theology.
I understand ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ to be references to (or perhaps even synonymous with) existential commitments. I say ‘existential’ because they entail, in the context of religious belief, whole-being commitments (not just commitments like agreeing to do a task). I believe or have faith in that which I find to be most compelling. ‘Compelling’ is a critical word for me. Things are compelling for a number of reasons, but for them to be existentially so they need be some combination of: visceral, rational (that is, sensible), recommended/endorsed by people I trust, and what I’ll call ‘ontologically resonant’ (meshes with the [to risk sounding like Tillich] ‘deep structures of my being’).
I have been compelled by being transformed by the love of people and a community rooted in the stories, tradition, symbols, and liturgical life of Christianity. This love entailed (though is not exhausted by) a sense of belonging/acceptance, purpose, and wholeness, what I might call deep solidarity (or participatory unity). It resonated with my sense of being at its deepest level as well as with numinous experiences I’ve had.
I have found my belief in this tenable precisely because it continues to be compelling internally (I can make some sense of it) and externally (it makes sense of the world). Thus the content of my belief is my best attempt to make rational sense of this transforming love – in conversation with scripture, tradition, and community – by way of attempting to develop a consistent way of thinking and acting. Transforming love is thus what I believe to be ultimate. It is my understanding of the ultimate, of God.
The Christian tradition has provided me with stories and symbols with which, and the help of many others, make compelling sense of things.
Because my faith is something historical (that has a history) I have used the past tense for all of my verbs. I have to add that it is still my faith because all these things continue to be compelling.
The discussion that provoked this post was around the question of what it is about belief/faith that I am unwilling to compromise on. What is uncompromisable? For me it is transformative love, as that is my ultimate. Thus, the Mt. Mariah question: if I ‘heard’ God tell me to sacrifice my child, would I? My answer is no because that violates my belief in/of the ultimate (God); that is, it is at odds with what I understand to be transforming love. My understanding of God, then, is ethically grounded. God cannot be non-loving. That would be for God to be not-God. Of course parsing what this means entails defining love appropriately, which is necessary but not this post. Therefore while I could imagine a God who is not committed fully to transforming love, it is a pure abstraction. My very understanding of God is precisely of transforming love.
I would not suspend the ethical (be willing to be non-loving) because of a religious experience (i.e. divine encounter/communication). This is because the ethical, defined as love, is the ultimate, the uncompromisable; or, perhaps said another way, the ultimate (for me) is inevitably ethical. For me to change or lose my belief in transforming love I would need to be existentially compelled. A mere experience could not do so. Nor could a rational argument alone. In the Mt. Mariah example, I would only follow through if I were completely convinced that such a sacrifice would be the loving thing to do. Which seems absurd enough to dismiss out of hand.
Given this and my place within the Christian tradition I certainly do speculate on how ‘it all works.’ But it should be clear that my belief isn’t rooted in the explanatory power of metaphysical systems or analytical arguments. But it also isn’t experiential alone. It lies in being compelled by transforming love.