Disclaimer: This was an article I wrote 10 years ago on faith and spirituality. I understand that not everyone who reads this will be of the same faith or even believe in God at all…I have no problem with that and you shouldn’t feel like any of this is meant to convert or sway you toward my personal beliefs. Frankly, I don’t care if you believe in what I believe in. I’m not one who thinks I have all the answers or am “right” about my faith just because I believe in it. In fact, one of my greatest interests in life is hearing the stories of those who believe in different things than I do and trying to reach an understanding of what led them to those beliefs. In that light, understand that this article is more about appreciating differences and truly owning whatever religious faith or beliefs we might have, and to me that include atheism (not believing in a god is a belief system, after all…and perfectly valid, in my opinion). Anyway, I still prescribe to the theories outlines in this article and thought it was interesting, so I wanted to share. 🙂
I have been a practicing Catholic my entire life, but I feel like I have only just recently reached that confusing stage of spiritual adolescence. It’s not quite like having your voice crack, or battling incessant pimples, but it does come with certain challenges. When I was a child, weekly mass was a time to repress my five-year-old urges to yell and scream and play and dance and throw things, like hymnals and chair dividers, at other parishioners. Needless to say, I was not very good at this kind of repression. I would typically spend most of my church hour exerting every crumb of energy I could muster by enthusiastically exclaiming my faith through emission of loud animal-like noises–that is, of course, only when I ran out of books to throw at parishioners.
Church started to become more significant to me as I began to receive the different sacraments and learn about my faith and growth as a Catholic. However, I was still only following the formula of faith-practice that others had conditioned me to follow. My faith was based solely from a template designed by others who had made the journey before me. It made things easy, because it meant I didn’t have to search for the next life-step. Unfortunately, maturation cannot take place in this manner alone if it expects to endure. For example, you can lay an array of plastic footprints upon a wooden dance floor in such a pattern that indicates some intricate dance and then ask someone who has never danced to follow the pattern. That person may be able to step the right steps and in the correct order, but that does not mean he or she will be able to mimic the dance successfully. Everything was wonderful when the steps were mapped out for me, but I came to realize I wasn’t truly dancing.
Attending a small college rooted in Roman Catholicism, I was faced with the next chapter of my spiritual growth. Yet this growth was not always realized through the vantages of the spiritual activities that were provided by the college. Much of my spiritual growth came from listening to others. I listened to those who were deeply entrenched in their own perspectives and understandings of what spirituality and religion meant. I listened to those who did not claim any religion at all. I even listened to those who were scornful of the very concept of religion. From this, I realized that the topic of spirituality delves far past the topic of religious differences. Since spirituality is a type of life journey, it made sense to me that the questions surrounding it should focus on questions regarding all aspects of life and not be restricted to questions about religious life. Realizing this point has changed my outlook on faith interaction and community. I now believe that a community without diversity makes for a stale culture with little room for maturation. The secret is that respecting others’ beliefs isn’t enough—we much also appreciate the differences of those beliefs.
I started to pay attention to others’ stories, focusing on why people believe what they believe, thereby digging beyond the rigid shells of their viewpoints. This experiment has led me to the conclusion that arguing with another person about faith is often pointless, since argumentation is typically centered on changing another’s position. Faith and spirituality, however, are birthed and developed from our personal experiences. For example, try explaining what the color red is to a person who has been blind since birth (remember that it does little good to tell him or her what color red is most similar to). It is impossible, because the blind person has never seen or experienced color. We cannot fully explain our own experiences to others, which is what makes them experiences. Understanding this, we cannot therefore fully explain our spirituality and religious beliefs to others who do not share our experiences. Two people of the same religion may not even agree on why they believe what they believe, because their experiences dictate their outlook. In other words, two individuals can witness the exact same bank robbery but have very different accounts of the event.
All that being said, this idea of a unique, experience-based spirituality is what makes faith so wonderful, because it means that it is yours and yours alone. No matter how much you struggle with it–and I think we all need that struggle–your faith is your own. It is the intimate relationship between you and whatever you call God, or whatever invisible credence you turn to when you’re in need of security or comfort.
A couple years ago, I took a wonderful English course that focused on Romanticism. Reading several works by Percy Bysshe Shelley stirred a class discussion about whether or not Shelley was true to his claim that he did not believe in God. In many of his poems, one student pointed out that Shelley alludes to God when he credits an unknown force that causes everything to exist and function. The student’s argument was that, though Shelley may not have believed in that time’s societal definitions of God, he did acknowledge the existence and significance of an ultimate power. Too often, we constrict God’s prominence by attempting to tag Him, Her, It (or what have you) with a definition. Too often, we try to control God. I can truthfully say that I believe in and love God. However, I cannot in all truth explain exactly what that means…and I think that’s okay. Faith is a journey and not a prototype to be followed. The mystery of God and of humanity nourishes each individual’s spirituality. Not knowing the next step can be a scary thing, but it can also be an exciting adventure.