Faith for me has neither been a sure knowledge of things, nor merely a willing suspension of disbelief. Rather, I have experienced faith as, more than anything else, a paradigmatic choice: a choice to believe certain things, to do certain things, to interpret experiences in a certain way, and to respond in a certain way to those experiences. That is not to say that anybody can simply choose to have real faith in any set of beliefs at any time. The faithful paradigm is built on a hearty foundation of experience and assurance. You must have reason to believe; you must build on some kind of evidence. Thus, faith is not a mere decision to align one’s self with a particular set of beliefs--a metaphorical favoring of a particular sports team. Rather, it is like, having discovered a solid foundation, choosing to build one’s home upon it, and thenceforth living there.
In my experience, that foundational evidence has never been entirely incontrovertible for others or even for myself: I could choose to question the spiritual experiences I have had and view them as a conditioned response to specific stimuli. I could interpret the feelings of peace and assurance I have about my religion as the result of habit, familiarity, and tradition more than the result of divine approval. But, I choose to see these things through the lens of God, goodness, and grace. And that choosing is, I think, the essence, or at least the beginning, of faith.
Whether essence or beginning, though, this choosing is not all of faith. For accompanying and following our choosing is what I would call grace. Thus, the life of the faithful is not about gritting one’s teeth and choosing--darn it!--to be good. Rather, it is a conscious and continuous choice that, though sometimes made out of duty and not passion, opens doors (or at least one’s self) to wonderful happiness, meaning, and belonging. This has been my experience with faith. Although I have many spiritual uncertainties, I have certainly been uplifted and enlightened by my religious practice.
Before I began dating my girlfriend, she asked me how sure I was about my feelings and how confident I was that our relationship would work out. I replied honestly, but rather unromantically, “In all of the relationships I’ve had, including this one, I have never been entirely sure. But I am willing to take a leap of faith.” Looking back, I think I was more convinced that I admitted (to her and to myself), but in that moment, it was less about passion, and more about decision. I chose to be vulnerable, to be open to a person and to a relationship, and to be willing to love her. Ultimately, I was choosing to view her and our relationship from a particular perspective, and to act in accordance with that new perspective. That is, I think, the essence, or at least the beginning, of love.
That may sound terribly unromantic--more like falling into philosophical syllogisms and mathematical proofs than falling in love. But, as with faith, my choosing was accompanied and followed by miraculous grace. I found that, after making this decision to love, I was filled with love. This has been wonderfully surprising.
The parallels between my experience with faith and my experience with love should be obvious: Both began with a choice--in my case, a very conscious one--and were followed by unexpected grace. As with faith, I am not suggesting that one can simply choose a partner, any partner, and have the same results; this experience did not occur in other relationships. Still, I think much of it was a choice. That is not the common narrative about love in our culture. The romances told in fairy tales and in Hollywood celebrate the inevitability and irresistibility of love, not the decision to love. The noun has replaced the verb, so much so, that it sounds almost blasphemous to contemporary sensibilities that love is as much a choice of the mind as it is an inclination of the heart. I wonder, in fact, if the contemporary conceptualization of love is partially responsible for some of the infidelity that is all too common nowadays. Thinking of that, I am struck by the word “infidelity.” Isn’t it interesting that we use this word, which etymologically means “lack of faith,” to describe the failure to act appropriately in a loving, committed relationship?
I am a child of this time period and this culture, so I too recognize the appeal of the idea of irresistible love and unquestionable faith. There is something beautiful in being able to say (or sing), “I can’t help falling in love with you.” I believe that at its core, this beautiful something is grace. It’s something that we do not create, earn, or expect; it is simply given to us. And there has been grace in my experiences with both faith and love. So, while I initially chose to believe and to love, I subsequently fell deeply into both.