Faith and Ideology

“The wise is one only. It is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.” — Heraclitus

Recently, I have joined a community chorus here in Salem, Oregon called the Festival Chorale Oregon, where for our Christmas Concert, we are rehearsing two choral pieces by Benjamin Britten: “A Ceremony of Carols” and an oratorio entitled “Saint Nicolas” — not Santa Claus, but the original 4th Century Greek bishop and Saint from Myra, a Mediterranean port city in Anatolia (modern Turkey). The libretto for latter piece is fairly aggressively Christian in theme, as it relates hagiographic legends associated with this early saint, periodically inviting the congregation to join in singing familiar hymns interspersed throughout the narratives. But there are a few passages in this narrative that I find offensive. In one, Nicolas is said to have attended the Council of Nicaea, where he “boxed Arius’s ear,” for promoting a slightly alternative ideology of the Trinity to the one eventually adopted. Another passage, on his consecration as bishop, concludes with a fugue on the line, “Serve the Faith, and spurn His enemies…”

All these references to “the faith” and the supposed “enemies” of God puts me in mind of a time many years ago, when I became deeply involved with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Eugene, since I sang in the choir and got to know many interesting and thoughtful people in the congregation. I was even asked, by one pillar of the church, whether or not I might be interested in becoming a Deacon(!) — until she discovered that I was not actually a member of the church. I was even contemplating attending their Confirmation Class and actually becoming a member — but one thing held me back. It was a line from the weekly Eucharistic liturgy that stuck in my craw: “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” Whenever I heard this line, something within me screamed, “Who, pray tell, are the ‘People of God’?” And — more to the point, who are NOT the “people of God?” After all, if God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” as the Nicene Creed states, how can He have any “enemies” if He Himself made them?

It was this recurrent “Us and Them” character of their belief system that stopped me from going any further — that finally pushed me out of the Christian fold altogether toward Buddhism. For I saw that it was integral to the Christian faith that THEY — those who had embraced their creed and hence had been “saved” — were the People of God, while the rest of us — including not only other religions and secular people without a religious creed, but also other denominations within Christianity, were cast into the outer darkness, doomed to eternal damnation unless they, too, were “saved” by conversion to (their own brand of) Christianity.

What rot! If spirituality is exclusive, it is nothing but religious bigotry. Unless the “people of God” include every man, woman, and child — every living being — on the planet or in the universe — the very concept of “the people of God” is a recipe for hatred and intolerance, and nothing more. Now I know that many Christians would deny this, claiming that the phrase simply means that they have been “saved” by giving their lives to Jesus, and that this sets them apart from the rest of humanity, albeit with the mission to go forth and “save” everyone else (i.e. by converting them to Christianity as well). But what if others do not want to be “saved” in this way? What if they are perfectly happy in their own belief system, or none at all. The Christians answer: “Then they are going to Hell.” To which I ask, “How do you know?” What follows, of course, is a broken record:

“Through Faith.”
“What is Faith?”
“Belief in Jesus”

…and so forth. But the upshot is, they are “saved” because they believe that they are saved, and that all others are going to Hell because they believe that all others are going to Hell, and they believe this because “The Bible says so” and they believe the Bible because it is the Word of God and they believe…”

This is, of course, pure tautology…

In other words, for the average Christian (and Muslim as well — they are no better) — Faith is the same as Belief — there is no difference. And in order to be “saved” you must “believe.”

But wait: Why must I (or anyone) “believe” anything?? Especially if it violates common sense altogether? (like the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Descent into Hell, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the “Right Hand of God” and so forth — all the arrant nonsense that Christians repeat weekly in the Nicene Creed). If God did not want me to think, why did He give me a brain?? So I can be condemned to everlasting hellfire for simply using it??

This belief — that “nonbelievers” will be condemned to hellfire — inevitably leads, of course, to intolerance and persecution — for if “we” are the People of God, it follows logically that “they” — all who oppose us — must be the “enemies of God.” And this logical conclusion led to all the recurrent brutal horrors that have spattered blood across the canvas of Western history — from the burning of the Library of Alexandria and the torture and death of the brilliant philosopher Hypatia through the horrific Crusades (where armed Christian zealots massacred an entire population of Muslim men, women, and children in the streets of Jerusalem) through the burning of heretics, the hideous wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, and the wholesale genocide of Native American peoples across two whole continents following the invasion of the New World — not to mention the obscene rape of Africa in the 19th Century.

Yet despite this lamentable history — a true chamber of horrors — Christianity has hundreds of millions — possibly billions — of devout “true believers” all over the world. This fact has always baffled me — but then when you are told something over and over from childhood — i.e. that you must be “saved” by Jesus or else you will go to hell after you die — it sinks in below the level of critical consciousness and becomes something you are mortally afraid NOT to believe, at a primordial level of awareness. To question or deny beliefs that all the adults around you hold as sacred is to risk social ostracism — which for a young child, is tantamount to Hell itself. Growing up in a secular, liberal humanist family for which church was a mere formality, more often honored in the breach than the observance, I was spared this brainwashing — yet I know many perfectly intelligent, thoughtful people who are still devout Christians — almost as if their religious beliefs occupy some compartment of their mind hermetically sealed from critical inquiry.

To such people, I can only say, “Fine. Whatever beliefs make you happy and comfortable with yourself and with God — however you conceive Him, you are welcome to those beliefs. I ask you only to grant me the same favor.”

At the root of the issue, I feel, is a fundamental confusion, in all the Abrahamic Religions but especially Christianity and Islam, between “faith” and “belief.” For most adherents of these traditions, the two terms are synonymous — if you don’t “believe” you have no “faith.” This is why Muslims call all the rest of us “infidels” — that is, people without faith. Because we don’t believe what they do — that the Qur’an is the final, authoritative Word of God.

But what if Faith and Belief are different? Well — they are. For Buddhists, Faith has nothing to do with beliefs — it is synonymous with confidence. Confidence in what? In the efficacy of the Buddhist teachings for liberating us from the inner suffering that arises from our deluded notions that we have “selves” that are separate from others, and from the rest of life. That, and the suffering that comes from wishing things were other than they are. But the Buddha never demanded that we “believe” anything he said — his injunction was rather to test his teachings in practice, to satisfy ourselves that they are effective — his final teaching was to “be a light unto yourself.” In other words, you don’t have to “believe” anything at all in order to practice the Dharma. You simply practice — breathe, observe, let go — and see if it works. And as you come to trust that it does indeed work, therein lies faith. It is purely scientific — testing hypotheses to see if they hold true, and building upon that knowledge. Only the “knowledge” here is not of the outer world — it is of how our own consciousness works.

So confidence in the teachings of the wise ones of all traditions is one meaning of faith. Another is the completely irrational, but entirely trustworthy, inclination to keep on keepin’ on — something that I have in common with elephants, salamanders, chickadees, and redwood trees. It is how I interpret the essential mantra that Jesus, (whom we honor as a Buddha — an awakened being) left for his followers: “Thy will be done.”
I am on the same page as Christians, that is, when they define Faith as trust in God (which was the actual meaning of the Greek word “pistis,” usually mistranslated as “belief.”) A belief is nothing but the intellectual assent to someone else’s verbal construct about the Sacred; faith is intuitive embrace of the Sacred itself, without any need for words. “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” And that life-giving spirit, as affirmed by every authentic wisdom tradition on the planet, is the coalescence of wisdom and compassion or, as Jesus said, “Love God…and love your neighbor as yourself.” ALL neighbors, that is, regardless of what they might “believe.”



I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.

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Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.