Heschel: “Faith in the sense of being involved in the mystery of God and [humanity] is not the same as acceptance of definitive formulations of articles of belief. Even [one] who merely strives for faith in the living God is on the threshold of faith. The test is honesty and stillness.
“Our error is in the failure to understand that creed without faith is like a body without a heart. Just as faith may become blind, cruel, and fierce, creed may become shoddy, sterile, and deaf. Let us insist that alienation from dogma does not necessarily mean the loss of faith.”
I know that there are many more like me, for whom the traditional doctrines are not only uninteresting but irrelevant; not only unrelated to our daily lives but frequently offensive to our intelligence and ethical sensibilities. I know because I’ve met them, many thousands of them along the way. There are millions more all around the planet.
Doctrines – including the Big Ones, called dogmas – are derived from myths, sacred stories of gods and heroes, saviors and saints, revelations and miracles. The myths, in turn, are dramatic narratives that take place against a backdrop of cultural assumptions called a worldview. Such stories may explain how this world came into being or where it’s all going. As long as they are compatible with our mental model of the universe they can be said to make sense.
For millenniums religion was the official storyteller of culture. Ancient myths oriented human life in a universe conducted by hidden agencies whose intentions weren’t altogether apparent, and often required ritual supplication or appeasement in order to move in our favor. To the degree that human action was maintained in accordance with these hidden powers, the cultural order was preserved.
At some point, the objective of religious observance shifted from world maintenance to individual salvation – gaining escape from time and the body and living forever with God, who had by this time withdrawn from the world (escaped his own body) into a separate realm of pure spirit.
This “recession of God” from the world coincided with a growing human fascination over the composition and mechanics of the universe – giving birth to science. Without a fall-back explanation that invoked supernatural agencies making and moving the universe, science began telling very different stories. It also had its priests (researchers) and storytellers (theorists), its rituals (the experimental method) and temples (laboratories).
For a while, the older mental model would have to be periodically modified to accommodate the new discoveries. But eventually the three-story floor plan had to be abandoned. Then the division in history between an age of revelation and “these last days” had to be scrapped. And now the dualism of God and world, soul and body, “us” (the saved) and “them” (the lost) is becoming meaningless – except when a raving prophet or raging politician succeeds in agitating the insecurity of our freedom. Strangely, but perhaps not surprisingly, we can be suddenly willing to throw our support behind “whatever it takes” to feel secure again.
How is a person of today supposed to “hold faith” in a religion whose worldview is obsolete? If a god “up there” has relinquished the earth to human industry and its toxic by-products; if a soul “in here” has pulled attention and care away from our bodies and the physical environment; and if a preoccupation with a life after this one has justified our indifference to the pressing concerns of today – what are we to do?
When a cultural worldview, its mythology, and the dogmatic beliefs that have anchored it in our minds and hearts no longer “work” to orient us meaningfully in the universe, are we forced to believe it anyway (fundamentalism) or else scrap the whole business?
Heschel reminds us that faith – an existential stance of basic trust in life – is not reducible to the orthodoxy of any generation. Our task is to find creative and relevant ways of cultivating faith for today. We live in the same mystery as did those before us. There has always been, and will forever be, a holy presence at the heart of reality.