According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “faith” is “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”
With this definition as a basis, I am in full support of people who exercise their faith in whatever manner they see fit. Whether they choose to put their faith in Jesus or Mohammad, Mother Nature or the stock market, I believe that each person should be entitled to believe in whatever they want. So long as their actions match their belief system, and they don’t encroach on the personal freedoms of others, then everyone should be able to peacefully coexist.
Unfortunately, world history and present-day events are bursting with holy wars, genocide, slavery, and persecution, often times motivated by a misinterpreted faith tradition. As such, it is paramount for the good of the world that a person fully understands their faith before adhering to it, as opposed to simply following a faith blindly.
The first attribute of faith that should be understood is that faith is based on a belief system and not factual evidence, definitively. While many understand this fundamental attribute of faith, there are still many others that confuse their faith with facts.
For clarity, the definition of a “fact” is an “observation that has been repeatedly confirmed.” In simple terms, a fact is something that can be proven, over and over again. A fact is something that is universally true, whereas a belief is a chosen preference that is subscribed to.
For example, I believe that Carlos Santana is the greatest guitar player in the history of the world. This is not a fact, as there is no way to objectively and scientifically prove this to be universally true, thus it can only be a belief. While I may be wholeheartedly convinced that he is the best, and I can claim that I “believe it to be true” that he is the best, this is still just a belief.
When it comes to closely held beliefs, people will go to great lengths to portray them as truths. I’ve heard beliefs referred to as “personal truths” and “relative truths,” but this isn’t anything more than a misuse of the word “true.” Saying “well, it’s true for me” is like saying “it’s a fact for me.” But in order for it to be a fact for you, it has to be a fact for everybody, like gravity. Regardless of whether you believe in gravity or not, if you jump off a building you are going to fall at 9.8 meters per second per second. So, unless you can prove your belief consistently and repeatedly, then it can’t be a fact.
But what is “proof,” anyway?
In a court of law, a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty – beyond a reasonable doubt.” By that standard, if there is any reasonable doubt associated with a belief, then it can’t be proven as a fact and thus should not be stated as being true.
This is not to say that beliefs are bad, but representing beliefs as facts or truths is inaccurate at best and harmful at worst.
I was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant. As my parents are both from Mexico where 98% of the population was Catholic at the time, it was always a given that my siblings and I would all be raised in the Catholic faith. This was rather ironic since I was born and raised in Utah, the Mormon capital of the world, but it was ingrained in me from a very young age that faith is not something to be taken lightly.
Growing up as a religious outsider amongst my Mormon peers led me to adopt a very tribalistic view of religion. This view was strongly motivated by the vocabulary that each sect adopted about “knowing the truth” and being the “one true religion.” As the use of such absolutist statements left little room for questions, discussion, or doubt, it seemed the only option left was to pick a side and drink the proverbial Kool-Aid.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why a religion would discourage questions or doubts about its authenticity – if “reasonable doubts” are present, then it couldn’t possibly be “proven” to be “true” according to our earlier definitions. This would mandate that the followers of the religion acknowledge that they could be totally wrong and the security of (albeit misleading) facts would be gone.
Nevertheless, I toed the party line throughout my adolescence and well into adulthood. For the first 26 years of my life, I attended Catholic Mass nearly every Sunday, I served as an Altar Boy, and I completed all of my Sacraments (Confession, Communion, Confirmation, & Marriage) according to the religious law. I even graduated from a Jesuit University. Throughout this time, though I experienced the occasional season of doubt, I would always return to the safety, security, and ease of blindly accepting the teachings of the Church as fact. Not because I felt it was truly correct, but because it was the easiest route to take, and the alternative would call all of my beliefs into question.
As I was a half-hearted follower, carrying a faith that had never legitimately been tested, I wasn’t prone to get into deep philosophical conversations about the meaning of life and what happens after we die. Instead, I would stick to the cliché answers about how the meaning of life was to be happy and of course heaven was a real place. But, that was as deep as my faith went. I had no justification for these beliefs, and yet, they served me sufficiently well for the first 26-years of my life.
Then my wife left me.
It wasn’t a messy divorce, we didn’t have any kids to fight for custody over, and we didn’t even have any assets to split. So, in what seemed like an instant, my dreams of growing old with her were shattered, along with every superficial religious belief I had ever subscribed to.
As her dad was a deacon in the church, I thought for sure he would be of the mindset that divorce was out of the question. After all, their family priest said very clearly at our wedding that “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder (separate).” But on the contrary, his stance was that an annulment could be made by the church, not because it was justified, but because he was friends with the Bishop and he thought he could get it done as a favor.
It was at this point that I began to call everything into question.
I wasn’t sure who was lying in this scenario, but I was positive someone wasn’t being completely honest about their authority in this situation. Either the priest at our wedding was lying when he said the whole bit about “Man not being able to separate what God had joined together” or the Bishop was lying about him being able to separate our marriage. Either way, I wasn’t able to reconcile the two differing perspectives and was left to seek answers on my own.
In the end, the divorce was granted by the State of Florida and I never heard anything about an annulment from the Catholic Church. But this was just the beginning of my faith journey.
When my ex-wife first started talking about splitting up, I had a wonderful mentor point me toward the scriptures in the Bible that referenced divorce. Unfortunately, for me and my simple mind, though I was hoping to find a straightforward “gotcha” commandment that I could easily reference to win an argument, what I actually found was a number of verses that cited the purpose of marriage, God’s disdain for divorce, and some exceptions that tolerated divorce. Of course, these verses were not listed all together, but scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments and each one had to be studied, cross-referenced, and correctly interpreted to understand the actual intention of the text.
Though I had been a rule-following Catholic for the entirety of my life, this was the first time that I had ever studied the Bible in any sort of depth. Up until this time, the only Bible knowledge I had experience with were the readings during Sunday Mass, but even those were read out of a missalette as opposed to an actual Bible and didn’t come with any legitimate explanation. As such, I saw the scripture readings in church as nothing more than part of the ceremonial ritual of the mass. Being a child, I put forth no more effort than my parents required of me and since there wasn’t a quiz at the end of mass, my Bible knowledge was essentially non-existent.
I understood the basics from the Ten Commandments about not lying, stealing, or killing and appreciated both the Christmas story as well as the Easter story, but I had no clue what it meant to be an actual follower of a faith tradition or what a faith-filled life required of me personally. But that all changed as I started to explore the Bible for myself. What began with a superficial search of what the rules were regarding divorce led to studying the teachings of Jesus, the creation story, and eventually the whole Bible, cover-to-cover.
With each new understanding came a whole new collection of questions and doubts that would propel me deeper into the text. At first, just reading the scriptures seemed to be enough to address my curiosity, but as time went on I found myself learning about the words’ actual meaning in the original Hebrew and Aramaic that was later translated to Greek, along with the socio-political climate at the time the text was being written.
Through this course of study, I found that the Bible was not a straightforward textbook that could be easily read and understood in an afternoon. Instead, I found the Bible to be a collection of stories, first person accounts, third person stories, retellings of dreams, and ancient legal documents. Originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic over a span of about 1300 years, this collection was eventually translated into Greek at around 400 AD.
Since then, the Bible has been translated to over 1500 different languages and has been used to spread the “Good News” of unconditional love, sacrifice, and redemption throughout the world. Unfortunately, Bible scriptures have also been misinterpreted, misused, twisted, and weaponized to serve as a tool for hosts of destructive agendas from justifying slavery, to denying women the right to vote. Understanding that these scriptures have been used and misused for both good and evil from their creation through the present day, it became painfully apparent that this text was not simply to be taken at face value. Additionally, I learned that listening to anyone who referenced these scriptures at face value was usually pushing an agenda that was in contradiction to the Good News of unconditional love, sacrifice, and redemption that is the central theme of the Gospel.
Religion = Culture
Like most things I do, when I started to study the Bible I dove headfirst into the proverbial deep end of the pool. In addition to attending my regular Sunday Mass, I started attending a Baptist service as well, along with at least one or two mid-week Bible Studies. Within just a couple of years, I found myself hanging out in a church up to four or five times a week.
Throughout this season of life, I met many wonderful people who were fully committed to living a life of joyful service to their neighbors. Even so, I also met many folks who were only at church because it was a part of their culture. They didn’t necessarily believe in the doctrines and they didn’t really follow the rules of the church, but they continued to identify themselves with the faith tradition because they didn’t want to be disowned by the community they grew up in. So rather than reject the belief system of their parents, they would put on their church-clothes and their church-faces and pretend to be righteous followers of the faith.
I not only witnessed these culturally-religious people in Christian churches, but I also made friends in other countries from other religious backgrounds that explained to me the severe consequences of leaving their religions. From Hindus in India and Muslims in Malaysia, to Catholics in Mexico, Jews in South Florida, Baptists in Texas, and Mormons in Utah, it is my understanding that most religions have a cultural context that exerts social pressures on their members to conform. From these social pressures come legalistic practices that result in a sect of the community that follows the rules, but doesn’t actually believe in the teachings, at least not in action.
Having been culturally Catholic for my entire life, I decided that I no longer wanted to just follow the rules. Rather than superficially believing in a doctrine, I felt that I needed to either follow the doctrine wholeheartedly or be truthful about no longer subscribing to the faith tradition. Understanding this was a decision that would affect every aspect of my life, I knew it had to be my decision. Unlike so many of my other life decisions, I couldn’t make this decision to please someone else or to live up to someone else’s expectation of me.
When I finally decided to leave the Catholic Church, it wasn’t to become a Baptist or a Methodist. Instead, I chose to leave the Catholic Church in order to follow the teachings of Jesus without the impediment of the negative baggage and legalism of the centuries old institution. From the Crusades and the child abuse scandals to the opulence of the Vatican and the persecution of women, I simply couldn’t view the Catholic Church as the sole standard bearer of Jesus’ teachings. Similarly, I didn’t see any of the Protestant or Evangelical churches in a positive light either as they each have their own set of both historical and present-day transgressions as well.
For a handful of years, Bonnie and I served at a number of non-denominational churches where we experienced varying degrees of success. Regrettably, in each situation there was always a major part of the church doctrine we just couldn’t reconcile with the actual teachings of Jesus that would ultimately drive us away from the institution. The first time, it was the fact that church leadership believed it was more important to spend money on paying for the staff to get graduate degrees in divinity than it was to fund humanitarian mission organizations. The second time, it was because the leadership spent the churches money on expensive chairs they continuously touted as super comfortable, professional sound systems, and extravagant facilities, rather than in care for the poor. The third time was because the Elder Board made up of 30-year-old men didn’t believe that it was appropriate for women to hold leadership roles. And, the last time was because the pastor couldn’t convince either of us that he fully backed the manmade doctrine that the church was following.
At that point, Bonnie and I concluded that churches in the United States must not be the best place to find the teachings of Jesus being lived out, so we began to look elsewhere.
After studying the Bible intensely for over a decade, I have come to many conclusions regarding my beliefs and how they should shape my actions. While the majority of these beliefs are rooted in the Bible’s text, this makes how I do and do not regard the Bible of great significance.
First off, I don’t believe that the Bible was literally written by God, as some people claim. Instead, I believe that the Bible was written by men who were definitely inspired by God, but the writing was done by their hands.
Second, I don’t believe that just because it was said or referred to in the Bible that it is a universal truth that needs to be followed for all time. Examples of this include the condemnation of wearing poly-cotton blended golf shirts (Lev. 19:19), shaving (Lev. 19:27), and eating medium-rare steaks (Lev. 19:26).
A more significant example would be in Paul’s writing when he states that he wouldn’t let women teach, that they should be quiet, and they shouldn’t have authority over a man (1 Timothy Chapter 2). As crazy as it may sound outside of religious circles, I have actually heard people cite these verses as justification for why women aren’t fit for leadership positions, to which I promptly call bullshit. This is not to say that the Bible is inaccurate – I very much believe that Paul actually did treat women in this manner two thousand years ago, I just think he was wrong in doing so and I think anyone who follows his lead is also wrong.
Third, I do not believe that the Bible is meant to be read as a literal historical record of the history of mankind. This means that I do not think that the world was literally created in just seven days or that two of every animal on earth fit on Noah’s Ark. That is not to say that these stories have no value, only to say that they aren’t literal in nature. Just as David’s poetry in Psalms serves a purpose, even though it isn’t a literal accounting of events, so too, does the Creation story, regardless of its historical accuracy.
In general, I have come to understand the Bible as a collection of stories that depict a variety of imperfect people and their interactions with an all-powerful God. From Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in the Old Testament, and from Mary and Joseph to Paul and the rest of the Apostles in the New Testament, none of these characters were perfect. Yet, God interacted with each of them in their imperfection and guided them to serve the people around them. Understanding the imperfection of these characters is essential to seeing that everything in the Bible isn’t a model to be followed, but more so an account that God doesn’t require us to be perfect.
Who is God?
Throughout all of history to the present day, many people have professed to know for a fact who God is. To my knowledge, none of them have had any concrete proof, yet there are still countless individuals as well as entire organizations who will testify that they absolutely know the one true God.
Anytime I encounter someone who has an unshakeable certainty and presents pseudo-facts about their faith, I immediately retreat as it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Even though I absolutely believe some sort of higher power exists in the universe, I don’t have any actual proof. Moreover, though I may subscribe to one faith tradition over another, I can’t say definitively that all the other faith traditions are definitely wrong. At least not with a straight face.
When it comes to a higher power, I’m pretty sure I have more questions than I have answers, and I’m perfectly comfortable with this. For if there is an all-knowing, all- powerful, all-good God that literally created the heavens and the earth and spoke humankind into existence, how could anyone possibly comprehend enough about this God to profess anything with absolute confidence? It’s like a goldfish trying to comprehend the internet. If God is real, They are too big and too complex to fully understand. That doesn’t mean we can’t understand some things about God, but we must do so in humility, not arrogance, and always with a clear understanding that we could be completely wrong.
Is God a Man?
In Genesis 1:27 it says that God created mankind in his own image, male and female. But because patriarchal societies have ruled the churches for centuries, the representation of God as an old white man floating on a cloud in the sky has become widely accepted. Even so, I don’t see God as only having male characteristics any more than I see him as being exclusively Jewish, Middle-Eastern, or a poor outcast. For lack of a more inclusive and recognizable term, I refer to God using the masculine pronouns of He, Him, and His, but only to keep things simple. More often than not, I have found women to be more closely aligned with the teachings of Jesus than their male counterparts.
My Faith is Fluid
For many years, I had a desire to simply “know the facts” and move on, but I have come to understand that is not how faith works. Facts are few and far between and the majority of the most important questions have answers that are unknowable on this side of the grave. For example, is heaven real? Nobody knows. Is hell real? Nobody knows. Am I going to heaven? Nobody knows. What’s going to happen to my loved ones when they die? Nobody knows.
While I’m aware that some people say that they do know the answers to these questions for sure, my understanding is that they are either mistaken or they are liars. Either way, they shouldn’t be trusted. On the contrary, if someone were to tell me they believe or think they have an answer, I’m in full support of their right to believe as they wish.
As so many of these questions are either unknowable or irrelevant (like should we dunk or sprinkle to baptize? Wine or grape juice for Communion? Pews or chairs?), I have chosen to focus my faith on the relevant teachings of Jesus.
When it comes to Jesus’ positions on the topics of His day, very rarely was there any confusion as to where he stood.
He opposed murder and said that we shouldn’t even get angry with our brothers and sisters, lest we be judged.
He opposed adultery and said that we should avoid lustful thoughts at all costs.
He opposed divorce and said that both spouses would be committing adultery if even one of them left the marriage.
He opposed oaths all together and said it is best to simply state your intention and be accountable to it.
He opposed revenge and called on all of us to love our enemies.
He taught to give to the needy, but stipulated that we do so in secret so as not to become prideful.
He taught to pray in private and to do so succinctly.
He opposed valuing material possessions.
He opposed worrying and said it was a sign of little faith.
He warned us not to judge others because we would be judged in the same manner.
And He warned us about both false religious leaders and false disciples, stating that only a few will actually follow His teachings.
Even though Jesus was very clear on what He was a proponent of and what He opposed, people were always questioning Him as if to catch Him in some sort of contradiction. Like the time when an angry mob asked Him if they should stone a woman caught in adultery to death according to the law, He responded that “whoever was without sin should cast the first stone”. This was perfectly in line with His “judge not lest you be judged” edict. The same was true when the rich young ruler asked Him what he had to do to get into heaven and Jesus told Him to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus knew that the young ruler valued material possessions and status above all things.
Though the Bible is filled with over a thousand laws that first century Jews were required to keep in order to remain in good standing with their religion, Jesus simplified His teachings so that everyone could understand. When the priests and lawyers asked Him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
On the surface, these two commandments may seem straightforward, but they require an understanding of very nuanced questions like “who is my neighbor?”, “what is love?”, and “who exactly is God?”
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus very clearly answers that everyone is our neighbor, regardless of who they are, where they live, what the look like, or what culture they are part of and in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul explicitly states how love behaves:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self- seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
But even if you can wrap your head around these first two abstract definitions and accept them as sufficient answers, the question of “who is God?” still remains and as I previously stated, the answer isn’t nearly as clear.
God is Love
For the majority of my life, I just assumed that God was an old white man with a great big white beard that floated around on a cloud. I’m not exactly sure where I got this idea, perhaps from Michelangelo’s famous “Creation of Adam” painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it was the only image I ever associated with God. I never pictured God as Mexican, or young, or a woman, or sitting in a rocking chair on a sun deck. Always as an old white man and always far away. But over the past decade, this imagery has changed for me.
In 1 John 4:16, it says that “God is Love” and “whoever lives in love lives in God and God in them.” So rather than limit God to just one embodiment, I see God in most every form that is good. From my wife playing with our children in the yard and the trees blowing in the wind, to the waves crashing on the shore and two friends getting coffee together, I believe God can be seen all around us.
Understanding God as the act of Love, the feeling of Love, and the choice to Love makes Him so much grander to me than just some old white guy on a cloud. God as Love is close and accessible, rather than distant and judgmental. For so long, I couldn’t reconcile the idea that a compassionate God would send the majority of His creation to hell for all eternity because they didn’t say the right prayer or get baptized the right way. But comprehending God as Love has brought an entirely different perspective to some of the scriptures that I struggled with the most.
In particular, in John 14:6 Jesus says that He “is the way, the truth, and the life” and “no one comes to the father” except through Him. At face value, this means that the only way to heaven is by believing in Jesus and everyone who doesn’t is out of luck. This scripture never felt right to me as it sounds so exclusive and I never understood exclusivity to be one of Jesus’ traits. On the contrary, I always understood Jesus to be staunchly inclusive of everyone, especially the least fortunate.
But believing that Jesus is God and God is Love changes everything. When Jesus equals Love then “Love is the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no one comes to the father except through Love”. Likewise, if Jesus is God and God is Love, then 1 Corinthians 13 can be read as “God (love) is patient, God (love) is kind. God does not envy, God does not boast, God is not proud. He does not dishonor others, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. God (love) does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God (love) never fails.”
As this interpretation falls perfectly in line with the model of an all-good god, I am able to more clearly understand not only who God is, but also who God actually wants me to be. Rather than legalistic, judgmental, exclusive, and cocksure about who is righteous and who isn’t, I believe that God, through the embodiment of Jesus, has set forth a model of grace, mercy, compassion, acceptance, and inclusivity that is open to everyone, always.
Ironically, this isn’t the primary message that Bonnie and I found within the religious institutions that make up the Christian churches in the U.S. So, as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we’ve chosen to let go of the dogma and doctrine of the institutions and instead hold tightly to the actual teachings and actions of Jesus the Christ. For where religion teaches conformity, Jesus teaches a universal inclusivity.
Posifocus Mantra #16
God Is Love.
Do you act as though you have faith or facts? What happens if your belief system is inaccurate? Do your beliefs bring you peace? How do you treat people who have different beliefs than you?
Study the beliefs of a culture that is different than your own. Diligently seek aspects of that belief system that are similar to yours.
Join the Posifocus Group and share your thoughts and experiences with the Posifocus Community! Use the hashtag #faithfoundation.