Family arguments make me uncomfortable. Here we were, well into our third meeting about organizing an effort to assist immigrants. We’d already had heated arguments over practical issues about how to get the job done. Heated, but not divisive. Then, we got stuck on how to describe ourselves in the opening line of our statement of purpose.
Were we “neighbors of diverse backgrounds and faiths”? At the previous meeting I had advised against the suggestion that we were an “interfaith” group. I knew that not everyone adhered to some religious faith. This new wording struck me as innocuous, but the person I had been thinking of before objected now to signing on to any statement that included the word “faith.”
We are a mixed group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, with me as the closet Buddhist. (“Closet” because there hasn’t been any occasion to announce my leanings and, frankly, because I’m having problems with that label given what so-called Buddhists are doing to the Rohingya in Burma.) We are meeting in an Anglican church. Our de facto leader, the author of the proposed statement, is an active member of that church. The woman who suggested that we were an “interfaith” group is our original convenor.
When my friend objected to the word “faiths,” the author and others explained that they thought that the immigrant community would be reassured that they were dealing with people of faith, as many of them are. When my friend still objected, I suggested substituting the word “beliefs.” He still found that troublesome, and the church-goers did not want to let go of their “faith.” The author suggested that we just add the word “beliefs” to the sentence. No go.
It then occurred to me why my friend was being so obstinate about the word “faith.” It went back to George W. Bush and his Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. I said that the word had been corrupted by partisan politics. I said that as much as the word “faiths” might appeal to the people we’re trying to help, the word could turn away secularists whom we might want to recruit to help out.
My friend said, “Yes. Bush. That’s exactly why I’m bothered.” No one said anything, but the nonplussed looks on the faces of the church-goers said it all. How could anyone have a problem with faith? It’s what gives us comfort. We want to use it to comfort others.
Being a family, we backed off from the argument … until the next draft statement of purpose.
Thinking about this exchange later, I could see that the word “faith” has become a dog-whistle. For my church-going friends, it signals the strength and warmth of a community. For my secularist friends, it signals fundamentalist obscurantism. Faith-based versus evidence-based. In modern English, at least, “faith” is fundamentally ambiguous. Orthodoxy or community. Doctrine or mutual trust. I could see these tensions in our disagreement.
Personally, I lean towards the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna, who wrote “No doctrine whatsoever was ever taught by the Buddha to anyone.” The phrase “orthodox Buddhism” has always seemed to me to be an oxymoron.
Right after Laura died I read an article by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, which I’ve mentioned before. Her description of how to move through life captured how I was feeling at the time.
Hanging off a rock is an exaggerated experience of facing the unknown. It is exhilarating, scary, and completely vibrant. When we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness— the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points. If we have the wherewithal to relax, we find our way. If we don’t, we sometimes panic. … No one really knows what will happen from one moment to the next: who will we be, what will we face, and how will we respond to what we encounter? We don’t know, but there’s a good chance we will encounter some rough, unwanted experiences, some surprises beyond our imaginings, and some expected things, too. And we can decide to stay present for all of it.
Later that year I did an online retreat with her. Not surprisingly, she presented a very open view of faith in her retreat. She spoke of faith as being open to not knowing, as opening to uncertainty, very much like the “open stillness” she described in her article.
As she wrote in an exchange with one of the participants:
We use the word ‘faith’ in so many ways. It is not only a term used in spirituality. Faith as a term implies that we don’t know (otherwise we wouldn’t need faith) and yet it is not just ‘not-knowing’…it has to do with finding a resting place – that we find an ease in not knowing – or something we can’t even put to words at times. Faith implies to me that we can have wonderment about life…we can respect the fullness of life…that we have humbleness in the face of this amazing universe.
This is not the dominant understanding of “faith” in Western theology from Aquinas to Newman (speaking of Anglicans), where it’s an alternative way of knowing, an alternative approach to certain knowledge. In John Henry Newman’s terms, faith is assent that provides certitude. While I like Mattis-Namgyel’s approach of opening to not knowing, to uncertainty, the English word “faith” does not convey that sense and just provides the opportunity to shut the door against heresy and heterodoxy. If only Western theologians were more like the mystics, who take the via negativa to God through what God is not.
I prefer to talk in terms of “trust,” which has more to do with community than certainty. The original sense of the Pali word saddhā, which is often rendered as “faith” in translations of the Buddha’s suttas, is that of trust or confidence in another person. I think that was the spirit in which my church-going comrades wanted to use the word “faith.” My secularist friend wanted nothing to do with doctrinal orthodoxy. They were both right.