Dave Sim's blogandmail #286 (June 24th, 2007)
Sunday June 24 –
THE NATIONAL POST has been running a series of reader-written articles on "Faith: Lost and Found" about people documenting their own experiences with religious faith. It's a peculiar series in that one of the ground rules is that it can't advocate any particular religion or faith, just faith in a general sense. Of course the result is a lot of "Well, I thought I felt SOMETHING" and "it seems to me that even rocks can be God if you think about them the right way" kind of articles. Most of them (no big surprise) written by women. One of them asked for answers, so here's an hour-and-a-half out of my life that I'll never get back and which – if she's been living in Canada longer than two weeks -- I would imagine hit the old circular file before she had finished the first page.
TO THE EDITOR: Since Sheila Luck requested answers, I was wondering if you could forward this to her in some way? I'm afraid that I don't have e-mail. I don't imagine it qualifies for "Faith: Lost and Found" since it actually (HORRORS!) mentions Judaism, Christianity and Islam by name. If you want to run it as such, feel free. Thanks for running my letter on Canada Post a week or so ago.
30 May 07
Re: Can you will belief into your heart? Sheila Luck, 30 May
"I am an artist and it is only sometimes when painting that I feel totally sure of my place in the world, that I am doing what God made me for. I know that I am ignorant and that it is humility that opens my heart and eyes to the wisdom of others. I know that life can be over in an instant without any possibility of negotiating a different ending. Like the day my father's aorta ruptured.
"Notwithstanding the premise of this series, I haven't `lost' or `found' faith. I've examined in, but from the outside, like some fox happening upon a turtle. I have stared at it, and rolled it over, and poked at it. Curious: How does one get inside? Does the Holy Ghost appear one day and grab you by the shirt collar and convert you? Can you will belief into your heart? Do you earn it? Or pray for it? Or is it a gift?
"Send me your answers. I really want to know."
In my opinion, all you can get will be opinions. Anyone in this world who says that he or she can provide you with definitive answers is lying. The only being who could give you definitive answers is God. But, for what it's worth—writing as someone who holds Judaism, Christianity and Islam in equal regard and who believes that rabbis, priests and imams have no greater claim to definitive knowledge than do any other human beings—here are my own best opinions on your questions.
To use the frame of your own Aesop-like reference: you aren't the turtle. You're the fox. A fox can no more get "inside" the nature of being a turtle than a turtle can get "inside" the nature of being a fox. Accept that you are a fox and aspire to being the best fox that you can be. Know the difference between who you are and what and who others are.
"Does the Holy Ghost appear one day and grab you by the shirt collar and convert you?" In my opinion, no, since from my understanding (possibly misapprehended) that would constitute interference with free will. Unless, of course, you have been using your free will—either consciously or unconsciously or both—to earnestly and devoutly plead with God to send the Holy Ghost to take you by the shirt collar and grab you and convert you in which case that might be the agent and agency through which He would respond. But I think the response would be to your own pre-existent, on-going free will choice which you would have already made to "convert" to faith.
In my opinion, God acts through many different agents and agencies. To cite an exalted example from the Age of Prophets, Angel Gabriel who came to Prophet Muhammad, constricting him painfully and demanding, "Recite!" would come the closest to the scenario you envision and I would suppose that that was in response to Muhammad's own supremely earnest pursuit of a revelation from God.
My best guess as someone who believes—as most Muslims do—that the Age of Prophets ended in 632 AD with the death of Muhammad would be that God would find a less melodramatic way to respond, commensurate with your own level of interest. If you are consciously desirous of "conversion" but unconsciously resistant—loathe to abandon secular pleasures, vices and vanities, as an example—well, God is by definition omniscient so I would doubt that He would ignore your greater underlying reservations ("You'll have to pry my bottle of dry white wine from my cold, dead fingers") and take your cosmetic histrionics ("Please, God, give me faith!") at face value if the former outweighed the latter. My best guess would be that His attitude would be "Come back anytime you want to be serious about this."
The definition of Islam is "submission to the Will of God" and of Muslims as "Those Who Submit". In my own experience, all you have to do is recognize that and recognize that everything you think of as real is just a temporary illusion—"vibrating electrons flying in loose formation"—that your relationship with God is all that you actually possess, all that will survive your own physical demise and for you to acknowledge that in your own personal covenant with Him (reiterated through prayers on a daily—or five-times-daily—basis) and God will take care of the rest.
As an example, God, as an omniscient being, knows you in a way that your sons never will and God knows your sons in a way you never will: that what your sons know of you is purely cosmetic and what you know of your sons is purely cosmetic when compared to the actual depths (or, more to the point, Actual Depths) to which God knows every human being. Which leads to my opinions on the answers to the rest of your questions:
"Can you will belief into your heart?"
Well, in my opinion, no. I don't think faith in God is like a `New Age Self-Help" book or an "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar/Triumph of the Psychobabble Will" fad. In my experience you have to decide to use the free will He gave you to decide to submit to His will (as opposed to trying to understand His will or to have His will explained to you by someone who only has the same uninformed opinions about His will that you do: that is everyone) and show Him that you submit to His will by making Him pre-eminent in your life. If, as an example, you decide on an 8 pm prayer time and miss your prayer time four times in the first week because of a meeting at work or a dinner date with a friend or a glass of white wine or you decide to "bump" your 8 pm prayer every Tuesday night because of a favourite television show then I don't think it takes an omniscient being to see that you aren't really serious about faith and you are still enmeshed in and foolishly adhering to the world of "vibrating electrons flying in loose formation". All those electrons started as dust and all of them will ultimately return to dust, so adhering to them is inherently foolish.
"Do you earn it?" Well, yes, but not in a way that some earthly authority can appoint it to you like a job promotion or a blue ribbon or air miles such that you can decide that you are now entitled to Divine Revelation because you prayed for three weeks straight without missing a day and you've cut down to nine glasses of white wine a week. In my experience you nurture faith with prayer and through your making God uppermost in your life—superseding your love for your own sons to illustrate the perception change required—and God reveals your new life to you as you go along. You "earn" rewards that come unexpectedly because you aren't doing it to earn rewards. You're doing it because it's the only sensible choice in a world where everything you think is there is just a magician's illusion of "vibrating electrons flying in loose formation".
"Or pray for it?" In my experience, it's a bad idea to pray FOR anything because that presupposes that you know what you need which I don't think any of us do. Despite yours or my or anyone else's best and most sincere efforts we are completely clueless about what it is that we need. Submit yourself to the Will of God and allow Him, through (primarily) His Grace and (secondarily) your free will acceptance of the nature of reality (your relationship with Him is all that actually exists – everything else is just "vibrating electrons flying in loose formation") to show you what it is that you need by showing you who you are. Pray in an attitude of submission rather than in an attitude of a labour negotiator trying to strike the best deal you can with God or a child trying to "get around" a parent with transparent artifice (to an omniscient being, all artifice is transparent). There isn't anything of yours that God needs or wants. All that is in the heavens and the earth are His because he created them.
"Or is it a gift?" Yes. I can only speak from personal experience, but praying five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, observing a Sabbath alone, reading the Torah and the Gospels and the Koran, fasting four days out of every three weeks—my own best effort at submission to God's will—nurtured my own faith and now my life abounds, not in a single gift but in gifts (plural) without number and beyond my ability to put into words.
As I say, these aren't answers, but opinions formed from experience. My best advice for anyone is to turn to God and let Him give you the answers. I'm just a human being like you. I don't have any answers.
Dave Sim, Kitchener, Ontario
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