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Once, about ten years ago, I started out from Interpreters' House, where I worked, toward Asheville, North Carolina, where I was leading a workshop on faith. Driving along, I reflected on my plans for the workshop. I rehearsed a set of questions I planned for the opening session, a set of questions designed to open up some honest talk about faith in our lives. I thought about what I would ask:
- - What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?
- - What causes, dreams, goals or institutions are you pouring out your life for?
- - As you live your life, what power or powers do you fear or dread? What power or powers do you rely on and trust?
- - To what or whom are you committed in life? In death?
- - With whom or what group do you share your most sacred and private hopes for your life and for the lives of those you love?
- - What are those most sacred hopes, those most compelling goals and purposes in your life?
Not an easy set of questions. No simple game of value clarification. I congratulated myself on my cleverness in coming up with such a useful, probing workshop opener. Then it hit me. How would I answer my own questions? My sense of cleverness passed as I embraced the impact of the questions. I had to pull my car over to the shoulder and stop. For the next forty minutes, almost making myself late for the workshop, I examined the structure of values, the patterns of love and action, the shape of fear and dread and the directions of hope and friendship in my own life.
These are questions of faith. They aim to help usget in touch with the dynamic, patterned process by which we find life meaningful. They aim to help us reflect on the centers of value and power that sustain our lives. The persons, causes and institutions we really love and trust, the images of good and evil, of possibility and probability to which we are committed--these form the pattern of our faith.
Faith is not always religious in its content or context. To ask these questions seriously of oneself or others does not necessarily mean to elicit answers about religious commitment or belief. Faith is a person's or group's way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person's way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.
Even our nearest relatives in the animal world are endowed with far more set and specific instinctive guidance systems than are we. Matters such as mating, building dens or lairs, searching for food and knowing how to care for their young are far more programmed even in the chimpanzee than they are in us. But as far as we know none of these other creatures bears the glory and burden we carry of asking what life is about. They do not struggle under the self-consciousness of shaping their lives through the commitments they make or of searching for images of meaning by which to give sense to things. Homo poeta Ernest Becker calls us, man the meaning maker. We do not live by bread alone, sex alone, success alone, and certainly not by instinct alone. We require meaning. We need purpose and priorities; we must have some grasp on the big picture.
In the 1950s Paul Tillich published a small book that became a classic. Dynamics of Faith struck a fresh note of honesty about the ways we order our lives and the hungers we have. Pushing aside a too easy identification of faith with religion or belief, Tillich challenges his readers to ask themselves what values have centering power in their lives. The "god values" in our lives are those things that concern us ultimately. Our real worship, our true devotion directs itself toward the objects of our ultimate concern. That ultimate concern may center finally in our own ego or its extensions--work, prestige and recognition, power and influence, wealth. One's ultimate concern may be invested in family, university, nation, or church. Love, sex and a loved partner might be the passionate center of one's ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is a much more powerful matter than claimed belief in a creed or a set of doctrinal propositions. Faith as a state of being ultimately concerned may or may not find its expression in institutional or cultic religious forms. Faith so understood is very serious business. It involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties.
About the same time Tillich was writing, another theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, worked out a similar approach to faith. In an unpublished manuscript (I suspect because publishers in 1957 really found that portion of the book too far ahead of its time) Niebuhr carries out a searching description of what I want to call human faith. He sees faith taking form in our earliest relationships with those who provide care for us in infancy. He sees faith growing through our experience of trust and fidelity--and of mistrust and betrayal--with those closest to us. He sees faith in the shared visions and values that hold human groups together. And he sees faith, at all these levels, in the search for an overarching, integrating and grounding trust in a center of value and power sufficiently worthy to give our lives unity and meaning.
Faith, so Niebuhr and Tillich tell us, is a universal human concern. Prior to our being religious or irreligious, before we come to think of ourselves as Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Muslims, we are already engaged with issues of faith. Whether we become nonbelievers, agnostics or atheists, we are concerned with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being. Stages of Faith. Copyright � by James W. Fowler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.