Jan 8, 2008

A Matter of Faith

Recently, my wife has been doing some recreational reading during her vacation.
Is she reading a trashy romance novel? Nope.
Is she reading about the various virtues of Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy? Not quite.
Elana has been reading a book written by a 20th century rabbi that examines the nature of faith. Jewish faith.

This topic is one that apparently comes up surprisingly little during the years of rabbinic school. While she has experienced some classroom situations in which faith has been included in the discussion, she went into rabbinical school thinking that the topic would be much more central to the curriculum. I guess they expect you to have faith coming in and going out, but from what I can tell, there are various points in the 5-year journey through rabbinical school that test, stretch or mold one's faith.

Anyways, Elana often discusses her reading with me when it is more of a philosophical nature. She has described how there are two main views of God that some Jewish theologians have:

An Immanent God- This view of God is the traditional one where God has an active role in everyone's lives, answers your prayer (maybe), holds you close and may even bring in a plague to wipe out your enemies.

A Transcendental God- This view is more intangible in that God may be a being, but is so far removed that the world around us is not directly controlled by Him. Prayers of thanks and praise would make sense to this God, but a prayer asking for healing someone, a healthy child or passing a mid-term would be a nearly worthless gestures since the transcendental God is not going to reach out and answer.

My point in bringing all this up is that she and I had a conversation last night about faith. We started talking about her faith and I will not go into detail about that since that is personal to her. Afterwards, I came up with a couple of analogies to try and explain my faith.

I believe in a transcendental God. One that will not answer prayers. This does not mean that I feel that prayer is useless, but that prayers of request have little meaning.

When I was a kid, I never asked the question of myself, "Where will I go when I die?" or "How was the universe started?" I always felt a lot of these existential questions to be meaningless. I understood much of religion to be focused on answering questions of this nature and I simply did not feel the need to answer those questions. Where will I go when I die? I guess I'll find out then.

I tried to explain to Elana that this does not mean I have no faith. I just don't focus on the same kinds of questions. I tried to use the following analogy:

3 people go on a train.

One has to know the way the mechanics work and the map of the tracks and the science behind the train. He has no room for faith; he must see and understand and know.
The second, is amazed at the size and the beauty of the train. She wanted to explore the cars and maybe get a chance to meet the conductor. She has faith and awe, but does not feel the need to see all the gears in order to feel comfortable that the train will take her to her destination.
The third, gets on the train and reads a book or looks out the window or stares at the people or eats his lunch....but doesn't give much thought to the science or the magic of the train that will take him hundreds of miles.
Does the second person have more or less faith than the third? I think that faith and awe are not necessarily the same. One can have faith by NOT asking questions. I don't necessarily think that the third person is better or worse, just that he too has faith even if it seems that he is not paying attention. He is simply trusting that he doesn't need to know things for them to work.

As you can probably tell, I was trying to paint myself as the third passenger. I am not always that way, but I don't live my life in awe every minute and I still think that I have faith.

The second analogy is for explaining how praying to a transcendental God can still give you strength.

You are on a path through a forest. You are lost in that you don't know where you are. There is a windy and twisty path that you have found that you are always struggling to stay on. You believe that the path leads to a sanctuary at the foot of a mountain. You have never been to the mountain or the sanctuary, but if you don't believe that there is one, then you may lose hope and your way in the forest. The trudging through the forest is tiring and you often want to sit down and forget about moving. Every so often, you pick your head up and look out through the trees. You can see the mountain. You have no proof that is not a figment of your imagination. You see it and by seeing it, you gain strength from inside to go a little further. The mountain gives you strength by its very existence because you derive hope from it's promise. I think of prayer to a transcendental God in the same way. Each heartfelt prayer is the same as the action of raising your head up to look at the reminder of your goal. So a prayer of request for inner strength can in fact be answered by a distant mountain that will never reach out to touch you.

I'm not sure exactly why, but I wanted to write out these two analogies once I articulated them. The second one explains why I pray more and get more strength from prayer when I am in a time of crisis, even though I believe that God will not be reaching out to change things in my favor.

Thank you for reading this.

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