Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crisis of Faith

I’ve been away for a bit, first on vacation, then last week with my father’s funeral, which has a point.

While I was away on vacation, I received a New York Times article via email on the pitfalls of a spiritual path as a means of escapism. I like this because it doesn’t diminish the power of the spiritual tradition. It refers to both human experience and spiritual experience. It tries to not take the silver bullet of a spiritual practice and make it a cure-all of all of one’s ills in life. This was a wonderful read for me. The article can be read below.

The New York Times MAGAZINE | April 26, 2009
Enlightenment Therapy
How a Zen master found the light (again) on the analyst's couch.

I myself was brought up Catholic, then born-again Christian, then I drifted. I’ve practiced as an initiate of the Himalayan tradition under a guru and am practicing and studying Vodou today.

The problem as I see it, is the crisis that remains after the loss of one’s religious tradition, if something doesn’t come to fill that void. So many of our beliefs of life and death are tied up in the dogmatic belief system we inherit when we’re raised. What happens to an individual, say like my father, when one dies? In Catholicism, he goes off to heaven. In born-again systems, he may wait for the day of judgment. In Hinduism, he may be reborn in the cycle of reincarnation. In Vodou, his spirit returns to the waters and perhaps venerated in remembrance, distilling down to a beautiful essence. As you can see, religion does have a wonderful and beautiful place explaining some of life’s difficult dilemmas. (Death being only one of them.)

With the absence of those systems, terrible doubt comes in, not just about one’s Self, but also about life, the universe and everything. What does anything mean? Should one have any morals at all? Is hedonism a valid way to exist, or is there a harmony in life itself? Is that harmony part of a larger context? Or simply, is this it?

I myself faced these difficult questions parting from born-again Christianity and then having two belief systems behind me. It leaves a lot of conflict with you when you shed the skin of the beliefs you were raised with. Once you doubt one thing, you see how it’s all woven and everything seems to come into question.

Now the spiritual practices I found in my initiation under my guru and the way it is taught (on one hand) as a philosophical system v. (on the other hand) a religious one, gives me some freedom, or leeway to start to pick up the pieces/cards and rebuild, using all of my past, present and future religious and spiritual beliefs to build myself a new house. (I’ll remodel later with the future ones.) I can use my meditation to better understand my Vodou. I can take my Catholic upbringing and cross-reference born-again and Vodou and see the new common threads, build a new framework, one that works for me. Nothing is wasted, all the best parts are reused.

I guess where I’m going with this, is in the tearing down of one’s belief system, something has to come and fulfill the void. One may start with the counseling that was present in the article. I think that the counseling may be a way of rectifying these crisis of faith and helping someone through to the other side, where the crisis may become something, maybe stability, maybe metamorphosis. In that regard, I loved the article. The problem I have is where this leads you afterwards. Zen may be an extreme case by itself, leading to this end by itself, but any shedding of belief, including Zen, will have its consequences.

The annihilation of Self is what generally disturbs me. I do believe without proper guidance that this can be particularly harmful. Tearing down one’s belief system is traumatic. It can lead to depression, fear and other difficult emotions. I do believe, however, that one must doubt to truly understand. I’m sure there must be another road, but I don’t know that path. I need to doubt, to question, to stare at myself in the mirror to truly believe what I do. It’s my way of understanding. I’m not a blind follower.

Which brings me back to my father. I recently placed him in the ground. I threw dirt on the box containing his ashes. Later that night, I went to the river. I threw flowers (from the funeral) and vodka into the Mississippi. It’s a river he, and I, loved. I river that contained so much of our lives and time together. I said a prayer for him. I said goodbye. It felt right for me. The religion was a comfort, a blessing. The practice felt right. I believe in what I did; but it was a long road getting there.


  1. I'm sorry to hear about your father. I recently lost both my grandparents on my mom's side.

    Agreed - something must fill the void. It is remarkable to me the gulf between the experience of "drifting" in groundless uncertainty and what I experience as a kind of grounded agnosticism. It may sound strange, but I find agnosticism to be the most solid foundation for me. I dunno it just seems to be the most honest and intellectually-defensible position to admit what I don't know, and whatever beliefs I adopt are always a work in progress. I like to go by the principle of Pyrrhonism: in the absence of compelling evidence for or against a proposition, the rational thing to do is carry on in the spirity of inquiry.

    - Brandon

  2. Brandon,

    I think agnosticism is one of the best things for people to have. I believe only in questioning can one start to understand. My agnosticism made me who I am today -- for me that's Vodou, for others it might be atheism. Whatever it is the questioning makes it stronger.

    I completely understand and respect where you're coming from. It's a great place to be in.

    Is it strange that I say this?