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Ways People Believe
By JOHN R. MABRY
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 John R. Mabry
All rights reserved.
When Becky showed up at her spiritual guidance session, she was positively shaking. She had missed her period and was certain that she was pregnant. She and her husband, Tom, were committed Roman Catholics and, as they believed they should, practiced the rhythm method of birth control. They had three children already and were struggling to make ends meet. The moment Becky was inside the meeting room, she broke down. Diane, her spiritual guide, worked hard to create safe space for her clients, and she sat quietly until Becky was calm enough to speak.
"Why would God do this to us?" she asked. "What does God want of us? What did we do to deserve this? How are we going to survive?" Diane maintained a compassionate presence and allowed Becky's questions to come out without attempting to answer them. After sitting together in silence for a while, Diane asked Becky, "Do you really think God is punishing you?"
"It feels like it. We can't have another child. It's not fair. We can barely pay our bills now, and we're so stretched to the limit sometimes Tom and I barely see each other before we collapse into bed at night."
"What does the Church say about children?"
"It says they are a blessing. And our children have been a blessing. But another one would.... I'm scared." In her head, Becky heard the scripture verse from Genesis, "Go forth and multiply," and suddenly saw hundreds of clones of her and Tom crowding her mind's eye. She shook her head to clear it of the image.
"Have you prayed about this? Have you told God how you feel?"
"No!" Becky said, with a tone that carried an unspoken, "Of course not!"
"Why not? Don't you think God cares how you feel?"
"I'm not sure ... God's right, after all. And I'm ... I'm not being very obedient." She started to cry again.
"How could you be disobedient? Have you done anything that the Church considers a sin?"
"Yes ... no, I don't know. Isn't just being here and saying these things a rebellious spirit? I am not being an obedient daughter. I just want to be good, but it doesn't seem fair. Isn't God supposed to be fair?"
Diane let the question hang in the air and waited. "Who am I without God's love?" Becky continued, "How can I say 'no' to God? How could I live?"
Becky's crisis of faith reveals many fundamental elements of the Traditional Believer's faith style. Traditional Believers live in a universe that is highly structured. Divinity is all-powerful and in control of all things at all times. The Divine is usually imaged as male, often as a father figure, the head of a metaphorical family that extends to include each individual believer. In the above episode, Becky does not feel like an "obedient daughter" and probably understands that relationship literally.
Traditional images are often very human indeed, as those who responded to the survey make clear. Ruth, an Orthodox Jew from New Jersey, wrote of the Divine, "I suppose when I imagine him, he's the typical Judeo-Christian Rabbinic figure: long white beard, etc.—think Michelangelo's Moses." Ed, a Christian from Washington state, describes the Divine as "a male human figure (we were made in his image) that radiates light and warmth."
The Divine attribute stressed in the Traditional system is justice, and the deity holds a fine balance between judgment and mercy. For Traditional Believers this justice is maintained in that human beings have been given ample opportunity to avail themselves of grace and are usually fully aware of the consequences of rejecting the Divine plan for salvation. Thus, the Divine judges no one; people themselves choose salvation or damnation. As Ed describes it, "Although [God] loves everyone more than we can fathom (John 3:16), He stands solid on His commandments and promises to the point of eternal separation from those who do not [accept Him]. His majesty is beyond description, and when I stand before Him, although in respectful fear, I will feel His love and may someday have the courage to look up into His eyes."
Traditional Hindus believe that going against the Divine law will increase their karma, and thus delay their liberation, perhaps for hundreds of lifetimes. Becky knows the rules laid down by Roman Catholicism, and although she does not particularly like some of them—especially in her time of crisis—she is also fully aware of the judgment due her should she choose to do something else. She knows she is free to obey or disobey, and as such is a participant in the drama played out in her tradition after the fashion of Adam and Eve choosing to disobey God in the Garden of Eden.
Relationship with Divine
The cosmology of this system is hierarchical, with a clear delineation of authority in both heaven and earth. Every person in society has a proper place in this system, and life is easiest when roles are respected and embodied willingly. Family systems mirror the celestial hierarchy, with the father in charge, the mother obedient to him, and the children under the authority of both of them. Sam, a Southern Baptist deacon in Alaska, describes the relationship as being "very much like a father and child—love, faith, trust, and grace prevail."
The Divine is supremely beneficent and longs to enjoy relationship with every person. But the Divine also expects every creature to maintain its proper station. This can cause a great deal of ambivalence in believers, even the most devout. Asked to describe her relationship with the Divine, Ruth answered succinctly, "Quite literally love/hate." Yet others bear this ambivalence more easily, often as a result of hard losses. As Hal, an evangelical Christian, wrote, "After two quadruple by-pass surgeries and a light stroke, my walk is sweeter than ever. I have said many times, I wish I could have known him when I was young in the ministry with the abiding I have now—most of the time! I even pray for parking places now, and he usually gives them to me!"
Sherrie, a Conservative Jew in Miami, describes her relationship in a way that is distinctive to Traditional Judaism—as "one in which we both gain. I gain a spiritual elevation and peace of mind, and the Divine gains a partner in the ultimate redemption of the world."
Becky, in our case study, feels afraid to question God's law or His purpose—who is she to do so? She knows God loves her as a daughter, but a daughter is also expected to be submissive and obedient.
In this system meaning is found by discerning the Divine will for one's life and aligning with that will to the greatest degree possible. As Sam wrote, "God's plan and will is perfect; however, ours is not. We have the freedom to choose activities contrary to God's intent. We choose alternatives that result in events and consequences that are not in accordance with his will. God, the Father, allows us to exercise our freedom of choice for a period but has always provided choices and alternatives that allow us to return to his plan. Many events that we perceive as 'bad' are merely the consequences of our free choice and selfish goals."
Traditional systems usually have a well-developed cosmology and eschatology, so believers have a good idea of what the Big Picture is, how they fit into it, and where everything is headed. Ruth, along with most Jews, sees the Divine will and human purpose aligned for an eschatological purpose, the "repair" of the cosmos: "The Torah ... teaches that we all exist to heal and improve the world, the culmination of our efforts being the coming of Moshiach (Messiah)."
Ed's answer likewise focused on the eschatological dimension: "The world is doomed as the Bible foretold. We are now in the end times. The next Pope could very possibly become the Anti-Christ's right-hand man. The earth is telling us to beware of Christ's return soon, with threatening geological signs of all types from tsunami, earthquakes, erupting volcanos, droughts, loss of our atmospheric shelter, and melting ice caps to name a few. Cancer, AIDS, and deadly flu germs are another warning. All eyes must watch Israel, God's people, for the battle of all battles will be fought there."
Dharma, a devout Buddhist in Colorado, understands the "divine plan" as the movement of all beings toward Buddhahood, and sees meaning in putting the quest for liberation first in one's life. He writes, "My faith gives all the meaning in my life. Enlightenment is not just something that you achieve after a few years or lives, it is a quest that you must put first and foremost in your life in order to understand and achieve."
Becky, in our case study, has trouble reconciling the financial vicissitudes she and Tom are suffering with the demands of God's will. She knows she must submit, that she and Tom will do their duty, but she is scared and finds it difficult to trust that God will take care of them in the moment.
Diane serves her well by simply holding space for her to vent her feelings. Since Diane is also a Traditional Believer, she is not likely to try to change Becky's mind about anything. Even if Diane identified herself with another faith style, it would be unethical to try to convince Becky that something in her system is somehow "wrongheaded." Such spiritual arrogance has no place in spiritual guidance, and insight should be offered in ways congruent with the client's worldview.
Sources of Spiritual Wisdom
For most Traditional Believers, scripture and tradition are held in high esteem (even if not equal esteem, and even if other terms for these are used). For an evangelical Christian such as Ed, the answer is simple. He honors "the Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible," presumably in that order. Christine, writing from Anchorage, Alaska, communicates a profound certainty that is common to many Traditional Believers: "I know that the Holy Bible is divinely inspired and is the complete written word of God."
Many people who responded to the survey, however, did not find the sources of spiritual wisdom limited to these, but clearly identified scripture as the plumb line—the authority to which all other sources of wisdom must be subjected. As Sam described it, "My prayer is that I honor all sources of spiritual wisdom. I believe that the Bible is God's word and all other sources must be compared with it. God gave us the wisdom and understanding to discern his truth; however, we are sometimes influenced by many human factors and events. I believe that spiritual wisdom can sometimes be found in extremely illogical sources."
This generosity is echoed by Hal, who answered that his sources were "mostly, just biblical thought. But I believe truth is truth wherever you find it, and while the Bible is all true, all truth is not in the Bible. I use God's Word as my rule and guide for faith and practice. That doesn't mean I'm a Jerry Falwell religious politico, but that God's revelation is secure in my world."
For an Orthodox Jew, the Torah is the ultimate scriptural authority, but tradition as embodied in the Writings, the Prophets, the Talmud, and the synagogue rituals are also useful guides. Ruth adds more "human" sources to the list, honoring "Anyone who has in the past or is presently trying to live a life according to Torah from the Matriarchs to the Sages, Rebbeim, or the lovely old bubbe down the street."
Many sects will revere those sources common to their religion at large, but will also hold in equal esteem "proprietary" scriptures not honored by the larger tradition. For instance, amongst Christians, Seventh Day Adventists esteem not only the Bible, but also Ellen G. White's writings. Mormons add to the Bible the Book of Mormon, and Christian Scientists add Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
Traditional Hindu Believers will likely all honor the Vedas and the Upanishads, but only some Shivite sects will esteem the Shiva Purana. Likewise, Buddhists are guided by both scripture and oral traditions, which will vary according to the specific school of Buddhism followed. Dharma's list included sources common to all Buddhists, but adds also those esteemed only by the Vajrayana school: "Buddha's teachings, the Dharma. The teachings of masters and Buddhas such as Lord Shakyamuni Buddha, Master Padmasambhava, His Holiness The Dalai Lama (all fourteen), etc."
For a Roman Catholic like Becky, in our case study, Diane will need to appeal to sources of wisdom honored by Becky's own system—to the Bible and to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church—to assist her guidance. Likewise, anyone who companions a Traditional Believer must be careful to appeal only to those the client him- or herself believes to be authoritative. Any other wisdom sources may be helpful for insight or comparison, but must at least conform to the authority found in those accepted sources.
Traditional Believers are likely to evaluate Spiritual Growth by the extent to which one has submitted one's own will to the Divine will, and surrendered one's own understanding to the external authority of scripture and tradition. Failure to submit or surrender is seen as rebelliousness, which is inherently sinful. "Islam" is the Arabic word for "submission," and the struggle required to submit one's own will to that of Allah is what is meant by jihad—not holy war as we have been misled by extremists to believe, but an internal battle fought by each believer to achieve holiness. As Ruth wrote, she measures her own growth "by the capacity I have to do mitzvahs [good deeds or holy duties] and stop myself from doing aveiros [harmful or evil deeds]. On another level, by how much I allow things that have no worth to distract me from those things."
Respondents were quick to point out that this is often a long and arduous process. Dharma writes, "Spiritual growth is only something that you achieve through lives and lives of training and meditation. You must understand in order to achieve, and you must achieve in order to understand."
Though he would not agree that it takes many lives, Ed was likewise focused on the long-term process of spiritual growth when he wrote: "It's a day-by-day walk with the Lord. Speaking to him, and seeking his reply through prayer, the Word, and fellowship with brethren. We have to realize we are not perfect, and never will be while on earth. But we must keep trying."
Nick agrees, and adds that the evidence for such growth is manifest in our behavior: "Spiritual growth is sometimes slow, but it is guided by God through his Holy Word. When we accept Christ as our Savior, we begin to look at life differently. The more God lives in us, the more mature we become. We can measure this maturity by our walk with God. Our maturity is manifest through our love for God and others, our willingness to live for God, our charity, hope, and peace."
Among all the respondents, the number one practice for Traditional Believers is prayer (or, in some traditions, meditation). The sincerity of Ed's emotion is clear when he speaks about what prayer means to him: "To be able to speak to the Creator of the Universe and have him listen, without being shot with a bolt of lightning, is awesome."
Dharma describes a Buddhist perspective when he says his chief practices include: "Meditation—without it, we would have no insight. Prayer, because we must worship and pay homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas in order to attain enlightenment and have guidance."
The second most common response was reading scripture. Ed wrote that scripture contains God's "words of direction that were [written] through men and women he chose that were filled with his Holy Spirit. There is nothing that the Bible doesn't have an answer to. The basics of men and women never change. We've had the same needs since time began, so the Bible never becomes obsolete or outdated. Simply quoting a scripture can give one the strength to move mountains, let alone make it through the day."
Many people also mentioned worship, especially the corporate variety, which includes prayer, ritual, and song. Dharma said, "Worship is extremely important, because you can purify your karma and help other sentient beings through worship of the buddhas and bodhisattvas." Ed writes, "There are more songs about Jesus than any other human ever on earth. That alone says something."
Only one person each mentioned studying nature or activism as practices important to them. While most Traditional Believers might agree that these are important, most would agree with Sam that "meditation, nature, and activism ... have value; however, they would be secondary to worship, prayer, and scripture."
The Traditional Believer's paradigm is certainly attractive. The orderly hierarchy imposed upon the chaos of creation and the clearly stated moral requirements of the Traditional model afford believers a great rock of safety in what otherwise often feels like a very scary world.
Ed is passionate as he describes this sense of safety: "The Creator of the universe loves me. I will never loose my salvation. God is always with me, no matter where I am. When I do sin, after asking his forgiveness, his unlimited grace will forgive me, and he will remove my transgressions, as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). He has a perfect plan for me and my life and will provide for my every need. I'm told to never worry, because he knows the number of hairs on my head (Matt 10:30), who I was before time began, and would have died for me alone. I know that I'm not an accident. Through Christ I can defeat the enemy. After I die on earth, I'll be raised with resurrection power to serve him enthusiastically and continually (Rev 7:15) in unimaginable ways."
Hal concurs with this view, adding that the advantages to his faith include "peace, assurance of salvation, and a fellowship with Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit for daily needs and not just a 'crisis Christ' when I need something. He answers prayer and has preserved me and my wife in [dire] circumstances.... I can trust in something unshakable in a world that seems to be running headlong into Hell."
Excerpted from Faith Styles by JOHN R. MABRY. Copyright © 2006 John R. Mabry. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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