Faith is trusting that God is love, that love is more powerful than fear, and that love will triumph, always. Faith is believing that the decisions we make matter, that we should care about the effects our choices have on the planet and on other human beings. Faith is listening to the voice of God in the world and responding to calls for compassion.
Faith that God exists, that there is something greater than this life, that consciousness is possible without the physical body, are not palatable notions for everyone. Individuals without a religious tradition may look instead to other, more concrete sources for comfort and wisdom and meaning making to bolster their life experiences. Some find solace and inspiration nature, quiet, science, literature, or love shared with family and close friends. Those of us who cherish faith could spend hours until we are breathless arguing about these mysteries, trying to convince others about God’s nature and the evidence of the grace at hand. However, the work ahead of us will require more virtue in public life, more compassion, and more solidarity. We should spend less time shaming those with different beliefs and more energy finding common and sacred ground that honors mystery and grace, faith of all kinds and humanism at once.
While the question of the existence of God or of God’s nature can divide a room, the question of promoting goodwill in the world can unify people from all walks of life. Creating community does not require homogeneity. We should seek, rather, to create a flourishing, beloved community that holds and celebrates diversity. We should seek, first and foremost, to bring people together around shared intention and the values of love, kindness, compassion, and engagement.
We do not need to look the same or pray in the same way or study the same things to be in community with one another. However, we all, regardless of religious affiliation, must practice reverence, respect, and humility. We human beings need reminders of our limits, our smallness, our inner child, and our position in the sea of humanity or in the course of history. Acknowledgement of the vastness of the ocean, the mystery of human life, the magnificence of science, the importance of tradition, whatever the framework may be should inspire humility. From humble ground, we let go of arrogance. We are no longer obsessed with our own specialness because we can see more clearly the uniqueness and belonging of all people.
For me, the clarity that begets compassion arises from spiritual reverence. Even when it is challenging, my faith asks that I see God, love, and innocence in everyone. This week, our priest in her homily quoted this line from Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God. That is the heart of it for me. I love other people, even those I do not know personally, because they are the children of God, and I see the light in them.
Most of us can agree that a lack of humility and respect is toxic. Many psychologists, for example, have labeled the current president a narcissist. The president’s central character flaw is that he does not respect anything greater than he. He doesn’t respect science, the environment, history, tradition, or God. He is so obsessed with his own specialness that he has lost all sight of the dignity within each individual. Because his work is fundamentally about self-promotion and evasion (evading responsibility, integrity, commitment, decorum, guilt), he has learned to cultivate some of the worst emotional qualities and promotes an agenda rooted in fear.
President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but to test a man’s character, give him power.” We all need to practice humility to cultivate character. Moral fiber is what encourages us to respect other people, to do the right and hard thing, to claim responsibility, to apologize, to be brave, to be kind.
Do I believe our current president would be a better leader if he had a spiritual practice? Yes, I do, but only if the tenets of faith were practiced in earnest and with consistency. He would also be a better leader if he respected the integrity of American democracy. Religion is not the only prerequisite for lived wisdom.
There are many who claim Christianity without practicing its core tenets of love, mercy, and inclusion in practical ways and on a daily basis. Indeed, labels — Christian, Muslim, Catholic, Atheist, Jew, Evangelical, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Hindu— come off with water. What matters is the stuff underneath the labels: the bones that make up how you live your life and treat other people. A spiritual practice is only effective if it helps the individual grow in his or her emotional capacity and if it encourages compassion towards the rest of humanity.
If you treat other human beings with love, kindness, respect, and understanding, and you get there by going to church, by cultivating a deep and true relationship with God, that is wonderful and sacred and beautiful. You are walking on holy ground. If you treat other human beings with love, kindness, respect, and understanding, and you get there by studying the resilience and fragility of the human body in a hospital lab, that is equally wonderful and sacred and beautiful. I believe you are walking on holy ground, too.
Reading the terrain of the soul is challenging. Learning to live in this world that is so complex and confusing is what keeps those of us, no matter the status of our faith, with good intentions up at night. My path is walked through a reckoning with my faith: through revisiting mystery and reexamining its edges, through thinking about the facets of human life with interest, through returning to the settled truth that love is the most beautiful part of life, through celebrating we are here to connect and heal one another, through contemplating how our society can become less punitive and less divided.
We are going to need the artists, the healers, the philosophers, the priests, the scientists, the doctors, the businesspeople, and the teachers to reinstate and revise the common good, to create a more compassionate society. We could remain divided along ontological lines or we could learn to live more wholly, together. Let us all hold one another a little closer and examine the vastness and the mystery, the transmutation and the history, that surround us all with more humility and loving-kindness.