Monday, November 25, 2013

What Makes Faith Legitimate?

One of my favorite courses in my undergraduate career (or ever, frankly) was Sociology of Religion, taught by a professor at the Jesuit school of theology at the Graduate Theological Union, which had partnerships with UC Berkeley. The first lecture was a discussion emphasizing the challenges of creating a universally-applicable definition of religion. (As I'm writing this, I realize it was one of the most memorable lectures I've had.) Suffice it to say, the definition is challenging. The 1972 definition by anthropologist Clifford Geertz we learned is dense, but remarkable. And I still use it to this day (I cited it in my dissertation and will be using it in an introduction to spirituality and mental health treatment cultural competency training I'm developing).

What I appreciate about the definition is it is functional, rather than focusing on specific elements of belief. Too often, people get caught up in these concrete elements (i.e. Is there God? Is there a congregation? Are there rituals? Is there Scripture?). And then this emphasis leads to dismissal of beliefs as legitimate religion, essentially invalidating the individuals' experiences of meaning-making.

Whether or not we agree with a set of beliefs doesn't give us the right to dismiss those beliefs as not a real religion or faith, in my opinion. In many ways, that is what some people are arguing from the tradition of Jediism. Yes, as in Jedi. As in Star Wars Jedi. I read a fascinating, pretty objective, descriptive article exploring the Church of the Jedi. And frankly, I believe it meets all the criteria of a bona fide religion from a sociological perspective.

Just because we agree or disagree with a belief system doesn't mean that followers of a perspective don't have the right to do so and be considered a religion. There's plenty of religions that people consider completely absurd while also not questioning whether those set of beliefs would qualify for the label of religion. Frankly, one of the best ways to help a religion grow is by persecuting and discriminating against its followers. Look at some of the biggest growth time for Christianity, for instance. So by removing rights from a group, we may ironically be giving them more moral support.

In reading the article, it also made me realize as Christians, we need to be humble about our origins, especially as others see us. One line that really struck me was, "So it's based on a movie. Christianity is based on a book." While most Christians would argue the Bible is more than a book, many hard core Wars fans consider the series more than a movie. And frankly, the parallels are striking.

Unsurprisingly, it comes down to faith. Faith that there is meaning and Truth in our system of beliefs. And experiences that make it all "seem uniquely realistic." That's why I'm a Christian and don't follow another faith. But I can't necessarily prove it beyond someone else's shadow of a doubt either. And that's okay.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Emotion and the Faith Experience

A few weeks back, CNN Belief Blog featured a post by a Christian, Brant Hansen, with Asperger's disorder that I had to read. First, the title referenced Star Trek: Mr. Spock goes to church. Secondly, the subtitle was "How one Christian copes with Asperger's syndrome," so my interest was further piqued with the intersection of psychology and faith. And the article exceeded my expectations.

This was a beautiful, honest exploration of one's very personal faith journey, struggles and all. While Hansen's emotional experiences in his faith were influenced by his diagnosis, he was not aware of the disorder until much later. And how much pain and judgment did he face because he didn't have the particular emotional reactions expected by our communities?

What I loved was that Hansen found he could have a strong faith outside of consistent transcendent emotional experiences. While many Christians won't have trouble accepting that because of the Asperger's label he has, I think there's something he can teach all of us: Stop making expectations of what other's faith journeys and experiences should be.

Life is complex. Emotions are incredibly complex. So are cognitions. Faith is infinitely complex, in my opinion. Put all of these together, and there are no formulas. Let's keep our eyes on the ultimate goals of faith. If we or our community is sincerely striving to follow Christ and be transformed by Him, then let's give latitude to the Holy Spirit to craft and shape our journey, even if it's quite different from the journey of anyone else we know...

Monday, November 11, 2013

College Crisis of Faith

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm particularly interested in elements of doubt and faith, such as the dark night of the soul. I firmly believe these experiences actually help us develop, deepen, and strengthen our faith. But if we aren't told that they can do that, the experiences can be terrifying.

I've also said in various venues that I'm not liking the trend of discussions about college focusing on careers and profitability. That's not the purpose of most higher education, especially from the liberal arts tradition (which dominates almost all Amercian higher education systems, for the good, I believe). The purpose is really education. Learning about yourself and the world. The critical thinking skills and exposure to the amazing world definitely gives us excellent job skills, but this is quite different than a technical school, which has the purpose of giving you a set of specific skills to implement. The college experience is meant to be an experience that shapes our identities and worldviews, hopefully with the purpose of improving the world around us.

So Andrew Knapp's article on why he thinks it's a good thing for Christian college students to have a crisis of faith is spot on, I think. His points fit precisely within the philosophy of a liberal arts education and the core values of higher education. And we need to remember that it was usually Christians who supported this perspective. If we're confident in our faith, then we also shouldn't be afraid of our students having a crisis of faith.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).