Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ugly and Scary and Stubborn

In his book, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious ExperienceRichard Beck uses Sigmund Freud’s assertions about religious belief in Future of an Illusion and William James’ observations in The Varieties of Religious Experience as the framework for analyzing religious experience.  He utilizes James' "healthy-mind" and "sick-soul" worldviews throughout the book as he explores and tests various dynamics of faith.  While James includes multiple religions in his work, Beck chooses to focus on how these descriptions apply to the Christian faith.  There is no way that in a single blog post I can do justice to the full content of The Authenticity of Faith and all the details, data, and insight it provides; I will, however, attempt to delve into how reading this book has given me a deeper understand of my own religious experience.

For the sake of expedience and context, I'll quickly explain that according to James, healthy-mind believers are able to find meaning in their lives by focusing on good and their faith is comforting to them because they believe it can overcome evil and suffering.  They embrace their faith wholeheartedly and rarely, if ever, entertain thoughts that it could be misplaced.  When bad things happen in the present, they seek consolation in their beliefs and in the promise of a joyous afterlife.

In contrast to the healthy-mind worldview, the sick-soul believers are those for whom their faith does not create a constant sense of well-being and for whom the promise of a wonderful afterlife is not a consolation in the face of existential discomfort.  Beck describes the sick-souls as those who "exist in the murky middle between belief and disbelief, between faith and unfaith."  These are believers who, despite doubts and uncertainty, continue to choose the realm of faith.  Beck goes on to explain:
I think the sick soul is willing to live in between faith and unfaith, belief and disbelief, because this is the only way they can remain truthful to their lived experience. The pieces of life and the life of faith are not so easily fit together. There are gaps, there are missing pieces... life is experienced as broken glass. Life is experienced as shattered... And as we handle the pieces, we are often cut and wounded. Life resists our attempts at putting the pieces together, intellectually and emotionally.  As a result the sick soul lingers, perhaps for a lifetime, in this ambiguous location, holding onto pieces, God among them, that don't quite fit together.
I've been trying for days to work out how to explain what this has shown me about my own experience.  I am still new enough to the study of both theology and psychology that I have no delusions I fully understand everything Beck explains or everything about the sick soul; I also know that reading one book on a subject does not made me an expert.  However, it is compelling to me to know that the sick-soul is something that has been identified and studied by people who do have a lot of experience in theology and psychology.  Again, I'm not an expert, but based on what I know so far I can say that I identify very much with the sick-soul experience of faith.

Growing up in an environment where it seemed, at least to me, that behaving in a healthy-minded way was the measure of a healthy faith, I always felt like something was wrong with me. I would hear people talking about their own experiences with God and feel like an outsider.  It has been a somewhat emotional experience to read about the sick-soul and realize that is how I experience my faith.  I have spent years trying and trying and trying and trytrytrying to figure out and explain why I simply do not identify with much of what other people have told me about their faith.  It is the oddest sense of relief to learn that someone has studied and can explain my experience based on real studies and data.  It also helps me justify how I can feel the way I do about my faith without abandoning it.

I've certainly considered giving up my faith, but that choice has never been right for me.  On some level, I feel in my bones and in my soul that God IS, even if I'm not completely convinced that my religion has it one-hundred percent right in what we say about God.  I know that there is something to my faith that is real, something intangible I can't deny, even though that knowledge is not necessarily comforting to me. I am also not consoled in the here and now by the thought of heaven or some better future existence.  I never experience or hear of a real-life horror and think "Yes, that's awful now, but it's going to be okay because someday we will all be in heaven" in the way that healthy-minded faith has a tendency to do.  I have learned to embrace my faith this way, despite all the sharp pieces that don't completely make sense or fit together.

I know this post is getting extremely long and perhaps I haven't explained enough of the background for this to make sense to anyone else, but I’ve tried to include the main points that have been rattling around in my head and heart for days now.  I don't want to give the impression that being a sick-soul is a negative thing, because Beck argues the opposite and discusses several of its virtues; I simply haven't highlighted them here because I know that I often fall far, far short of those virtues.  I'm not trying to present myself as an example of an ideal sick soul, I'm merely attempting to explain how identifying with that faith lens has given me hope. Imperfect as I am, knowing the potential virtues of the sick soul gives me something to aspire to.

As I've been evaluating all that I've learned about the healthy mind and sick soul faith experiences, I've frequently gone back and re-read entire sections of the book.  I'm still trying to wrap my thoughts around the various aspects of both worldviews and I have been thinking a lot about what is truth in my faith.  There are multiple verses in the Bible that give examples of either the healthy-mind or the sick-soul, but I keep coming back to Micah 6:8, which could really apply to either: "The LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

I may be a misfit in some religious circles and faith discussions. I may still be working all of this out in my head.  I may still wish at times I could be a healthy minded person because that would solve many of my struggles, but my mind doesn't work that way.  I may be a sick soul, but my faith is still real to me.  It may be a murky faith, even ugly and scary to some people, but I refuse to pretend it is anything else.  For me, my faith looks like caring about justice, it looks like loving mercy, and it looks like walking with God in the most humble way I can – as imperfectly as I may be managing any of those things right now. 

And my faith also looks like love – murky, flawed, imperfect, broken, stubborn love that perseveres despite all my doubts.

Note: I apologize that I have woefully oversimplified some of Richard Beck's very thorough analysis of religious experience and highly suggest that if you are interested at all in theology or psychology, you read his book. 

No comments:

Post a Comment