Faith: Moving Beyond Dogma

Faith.  It’s trust and confidence in someone or something.  It’s a conviction about something that’s not based on objective evidence.

While we usually think about faith in terms of religious beliefs or the existence of a deity, we actually have faith about a great number of things in life.  For example, in developed countries, we have faith that the water which comes out of our faucets is safe to drink.  We don’t look for evidence each time we take a drink.  Instead, we have faith.  Of course, lead in Flint, Michigan’s water and non-potable water in many communities give us reason to question our faith in water safety.  But even with growing concerns about clean water in the US, most people think:  “That’s not here in my community.  I trust our officials will do the right thing.”  In a sense, we double-down on faith in such situations.

I recently received an email from a young man struggling with his faith.  He was raised in a religious family and is known for being very devout.  But he’s finding that his faith isn’t as sure as it once was.  Is there a god? Is this god good?  Why do things happen the way they do in life?  He’s been told that to question faith is wrong, but to just believe.  He wrote that he’s tried to “work himself into it,” but his faith just isn’t what it once was.

In responding to this young man, I had difficulty not to say what I really felt:  “How wonderful for you! Questions lead to new insights!”  Instead, I held my enthusiasm and tried to connect with him in his struggle.  I am aware from my own experience that faith grows, changes, and evolves over the course of life.  Some of the best growth occurs when we question and struggle and look to gain new insight.

In the early 1980s, James Fowler, a theologian and professor of human development, published a theory of faith development.  Since its publication, this theory has been studied from many different perspectives.  I won’t summarize all the stages here, but simply say that Fowler describes a process of growth and maturation of faith moving from literal, concrete beliefs through a period of angst and questioning to a stage when faith is not about rules but internalized ways of understanding the world which is marked by compassion for self and others.

In other words, people generally begin with faith in formal beliefs, statements, and creeds.  A formal belief could be that the universe operates on the law of karma, that there is one God, or that Jesus is the savior of the world.   Then, a life experience comes along which doesn’t fit with these formal beliefs.  This causes anxiety and confusion.  One resolution is to give up faith entirely.  For many people, giving up on faith isn’t an actual solution because people are often left with very mixed feelings about the beliefs once held.  Fowler’s theory of faith development shows that one can sort through the transition and come out the other side with a more nuanced understanding of faith.  Faith becomes internalized.  In other words, a person could evolve from a belief that the universe operates on the law of karma, to beleiving in a sort of quid pro quo for each and every action, to an internalized sense of karma that it’s better to do good in the world than evil, no matter what comes my way.  The belief becomes something of a personal ethic.

In the end, I contend that the only way to have a mature, integrated sense of faith is to lose that formal, dogmatic faith which Fowler understands as characteristics of the early stages of faith development.  As with most things in life, maturity is about integration.  With faith, that means not focusing so much on the externals but learning to live in ways that can be described as faithful.


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© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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A Warm Spring of Refreshment after Tragedy

Over the weeks following Easter, Gospel stories recounting the appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples are read in Christian churches.  Of these stories, perhaps the most striking to me recounts two people and their encounter with Christ on Easter evening.  This story is commonly called, “The Road to Emmaus.”

Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to a place called Emmaus. They are bereft because of the public execution of Jesus.  A stranger joins them on their way.  Seeing they are upset, he asked what happened.  They explain, “We used to hope that Jesus was the messiah.” The stranger explains to them the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to the events which had just occurred. The stranger stays with them for dinner and, while sharing the meal, he breaks bread.  The disciples realize that the stranger is actually the risen Christ.

The story is rich in symbolism.  For instance, Emmaus is not a town that ever existed.  Instead, the word “Emmaus” means “warm springs.”  The disciples were going from the place of tragedy to a warm spring, an oasis, a place of rest and comfort.

The disciples are trying to make sense of a tragedy.  They lived in a world marked by cruelty and oppression, ruled by fickle leaders who took advantage of the people at every step.  They thought they had found someone who would save them from their plight.  Would he over throw Roman oppression much like the Maccabee brothers who led the revolt to overthrow Syrian oppression? Would his teaching lead to a new kind of realm?  They used to hope for so much, but all their hopes were crushed.  What did they have to live for?  Why go on?

In their trauma, they invited a stranger to stay with them.  In ancient stories, a stranger is a symbolic figure representing change or opportunity.  The stranger shows them that all is not lost.  They discover something that reminds them of all Jesus taught in a simple, universal act:  breaking bread and eat with others.  It was in this simple gesture that new hope was found.

During the weeks after Easter, as I drive past churches, I see many signs proclaiming things like, “He is risen!”  What does that really mean?  Was a dead body resuscitated?  Is the Easter story about a zombie?    Honestly, I don’t find much meaning in the way the Easter story has been reduced to a magical event by many Christians.

Instead, what I find very significant and extremely meaningful is conveyed in this story about the road to Emmaus.  It’s when life looks most grim, when everything has fallen apart, when we find that our dreams are dashed and that we have given up all hope that we can experience resurrection.  The story conveys that the disciples found new life, new meaning, new purpose, new energy by sharing their pain, by welcoming new opportunity (represented by the presence of the stranger), and finding something sustaining in the most ordinary thing: breaking bread and sharing a meal with others.  This encounter on the road to the desert oasis didn’t change what had occurred, but in the midst of pain and death, the disciples found new life.

For me, the most important truth of the resurrection is that in the midst of our difficulties, we can continue to find new life.  That is truly something to celebrate.


Photo credit: Ben Amstutz via / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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My Internet Troll

Sometimes, I ‘m trolled on the Internet.  In case you’re not familiar with the term, “Internet troll,” it’s slang for someone who attempts to create discord online with arguments or inflammatory posts for no other purpose than to be disagreeable.  While I occasionally am trolled, I have one gentleman who’s been trolling me regularly for over six months.  Unlike most, he’s openly admitted that he has an agenda to discredit people like me.

This very dependable, articulate gentleman who trolls me on a particular social media site has stated that his goal is to challenge Christians because of his belief that Christianity is harmful to people. He claims that I’m not really a Christian because I don’t adhere to certain teachings he believes are essential to Christianity.  He also insists that Christians can’t be involved in interfaith pursuits.  Lastly, he insists that all I’m attempting to do is make money off of people.

When he first began trolling me, I thought he was sincere and wanted to have dialogue.  It took me a while, but I realized that this was not the case.  Instead, he’s attempting to create discord online. What’s interesting to me about this man is that he’s essentially a fundamentalist.  He’s really no different from rigid believers who insist that the belief and experience of others must match their own.  If one seriously considers the history of Christianity, it’s very clear that there always been a wide diversity of belief and practice among Christians. Christians have never agreed on key elements of the religion, like baptism or communion, the meaning of salvation, or whether the world is fundamentally good or intrinsically evil. These debates aren’t new.  Instead, they cross the span of two millennia.  This same kind of diversity of belief and experience is found in every other major religion.

The term “religion” comes from the Latin word religare meaning to bind together.  Religion draws people together to share common beliefs and experiences.  Religion also binds together within a person a sense of that person’s own beliefs and experiences.  Properly, religion isn’t about dogma but about attempting to make coherent sense of experience of life. When religion becomes dogma, then it’s making someone else’s belief and experience one’s own.  In other words, dogma isn’t my experience but is someone else’s experience that’s appropriated as true.

I can only assume that the gentleman who routinely trolls me was somehow hurt very deeply by religion or perhaps by a member of the clergy.  It’s clear that he’s not able to listen and attend to the experience of others because he’s limited by his own experience and intention to pick arguments to point out what he believes are inconsistencies.  Contrary to that, I find that my best opportunities to enrich my life have been to learn from the experience and thoughts of others, including shamans and Native American elders, Hindu yogis, Buddhist roshis, Muslim imans, Jewish rabbis and people with no particular faith or tradition.  When we open our hearts to respect and receive the rich experience of others, we have the opportunity to grow in ways we would never expect.

Yes, I am a Christian.  I draw a sense of meaning and fulfillment from the teachings of Jesus and do my best to live out those teachings in daily life.  But I don’t expect that others should follow that path that’s right for me.  Further, I encourage others to follow the path that’s right for them, whether that be through another religion or belief system or no particular belief system.  That’s because I contend that people who live with integrity to what is most true within them will lead lives marked by goodness and compassion.

People whose goal is create discord and division, whether in real life or online, have not discovered what it means to live with compassion for themselves or others.  Perhaps that’s what makes the term “Internet troll” appropriate.


(Photo credit: betsythedevine via / CC BY-NC-SA)

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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