Saturday, April 30, 2016
How’s life, NIP?
Mine’s been spectacular as of late. The last few months have been a lot of fun for Erin and me: we celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary just over a month ago, I was extended an offer for the newer version of the job I am currently working a few weeks ago, and Erin had her birthday this past Tuesday and we’ve been enjoying a long weekend to honor her special day. Lots of other events have transpired since the beginning of the year, and one of them in particular has had me thinking a great deal about faith.
After a decade long hiatus, one of my all-time favorite hip-hop groups, Blackalicious, finally released a new album titled Imani Vol. 1, which happens to be the Swahili word for “faith.” Having spent the better part of the last six months reflecting on faith since I began writing letters again once a month, it was interesting that the first track on the disc is “Faith.” It’s really only an intro of sorts to the entire album, but faith is a theme that runs throughout the songs, a thread the binds together the entire tapestry of lyrics and beats. Here are the lyrics to the intro (click here if you want to hear it):
Never let life’s troubles block your flow
Have faith and get where you’re trying to go
Like a winding river in search of the ocean
You must keep your faith in motion
Never let doubt block faith’s flow
If you want to get where you’re trying to go
Up and down or spinning around
You gotta keep faith flowing if you want to be around
Crying and whining won’t get you through
Your greatest power in all you see, say, and do
Is deep, deep faith
I have deep, deep faith. Faith in what, you might ask, NIP? Faith in L.U.G. I realize that what I am about to say may be considered blasphemous by some, but this is my “satya,” my truth. It certainly explains my core principles and convictions at this point in life now that I’m 40 years old and have spent at least the last half of this incredible gift contemplating L.U.G., which is the acronym for that which really has no name from my personal perspective—LIFE/UNIVERSE/GOD. I am deeply reverent of L.U.G., and while those who know me well might consider me “non-religious” at this point in my life, I firmly believe that I am more religious than most. After all, to be religious from an etymological point of view is to be tied to something, whether a community of people who share similar beliefs, perform similar practices, or some version of the idea of the sacred. Typically it comes in the guise of an amalgamation of all of these elements but, either way, in my heart-of-hearts, I know that I am deeply religious, even if that religiosity doesn’t conform to most social norms as we currently understand the cultural phenomenon.
The other day when I was shopping for Erin’s birthday present, I was approached and proselytized by an older gentleman. I typically enjoy these exchanges because I feel that—if the person is a willing participant in an engaging and authentic dialogue—we both walk away having gained something from the talk. He began by asking me if I was a Christian, to which I replied “sort of”; this left him perplexed and he then followed up with “how can you ‘sort of’ be a Christian?” I told him how I was raised in the Catholic Church and very much respected and admired many aspects of my original tradition, but that I also happened to be a Religious Studies major during my time studying at the university and that it had profoundly altered and shaped my subsequent views on religion, most importantly on a personal level. I then went on to tell him how Jesus is a personal hero and spiritual sage to me, but that I have a difficult time accepting most, if not nearly all, of the claims put forth by the organized religion as it changed and grew over the last two millennia. I understand that they arose in a particular historic and cultural context, and to divorce the religion of that is to do it a disservice and lessen one’s comprehension of it. Though I didn’t wade into those depths with him in the moment, I kept our conversation pleasant and informative. I appreciated and thanked him for his time, and shook hands as we parted.
For me, the biggest reason I can’t profess a single religion has to do with feeling at home among them all. As a Religious Studies major, I have visited nearly all variations of houses of worship, have had profound and friendly discussions with adherents from numerous traditions, and learned something about the specific tradition in question from all of these encounters. I can’t say that any of them are right, but I recognize that within a certain set of parameters the traditions are right for those who belong to them. But for me, that’s far too limiting. I’ve learned equally from the history of human progress, scientific understanding, and just experiential relationships that I have had with many family members and friends along the way. To deny these learning experiences over others, or to assert prominence of one belief over another is to create an unnecessary hierarchy when, in my mind at least, there is none.
At this point in my journey, all I can say that's there for sure is L.U.G. Not one for labels and considering myself a mystic who has transcended traditional labels and boundaries, I have a deep and abiding faith in L.U.G. I don’t need to believe in L.U.G., because it is everywhere I look, with me in everything I do; ultimately, I am part of L.U.G. as well. Labels only limit (and often do psychological harm) and I have no use for them; L.U.G., then, is nothing more than a shorthand abstraction for all that I feel in my heart and mind that I could never express with words. Personally, I think that it is something much more than what we understand when it comes to any of the individual words that comprise the acronym itself (Life/Universe/God). It is clearly responsible for me being here, but not in some neat, linear causal line. Without it, I wouldn’t exist, or at least I can’t discern otherwise. And this is precisely why my faith runs so deeply…
If you noticed, NIP, I keep coming back to the word faith, not belief. I believe in a lot of things, many of which are ideals that I strive to live out. I believe, for instance, that it is necessary for me to continuously cultivate love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience in my life so that I may be the best person I can be for myself and others in equal measure. Others may disagree. That’s the nature of belief. I can accept an idea without needing proof of said claim. As I used to tell my students in Philosophy Honors, the dictionary definition of belief is “the subjective mental acceptance of a claim.” Just because I believe those aforementioned virtues are central to my life and should be emulated by all people doesn’t mean that you have to believe that. For all I know you could believe the exact opposite and want to create sheer anomie in the world, but I somehow doubt that. The most important thing to realize is that beliefs are ideas, nothing more. I can’t deny that beliefs have a pragmatic value and can help you live your life as you best see it, but in the end they are just positions we take as we build our personal worldviews.
Faith is not a belief, though these two are often intertwined. Faith, in its simplest form, is trust. Therefore when I say that I have faith in L.U.G., I mean that in a way that I trust it to take care of me. Up to this point, it certainly has. I haven’t wanted air and not had it, or water, or any number of other necessities that sustain life as we know it. If belief is a mental proposition, faith is a gut-feeling. It’s intuitive. I can’t prove anything with faith, yet nor would I attempt to. For the same reason that I refuse to employ labels because what I feel is truly ineffable, I can’t really define faith other than a complete surrender to that which is far greater than I. I am but the tiniest of specks in an ocean of L.U.G., and all I can feel for being a part of it is gratitude and humility. In retrospect, I have done so little to bring me to where I am today; it has been the work of millions of untold, unknown others who have helped me get to where I am and shaped me into who I have become, and all of these are a part of L.U.G., too, whether they realize it or not. Even in my worst moments during the journey, I always trusted that everything would turn out okay, that better days were ahead. And that faith always carried me through.
No matter where you are in the journey, NIP, faith in L.U.G. can and will sustain you, whether you consciously acknowledge it or otherwise feel it in your bones. There’s nothing that I can say in this letter that will convince you, because only you can accept L.U.G.’s guiding influence. But what I have come to discover in the first half of my life is that when you are willing to put your best out there in every aspect of your life, L.U.G. repays the favor multiple times over. All this “is-ness” that is L.U.G., seen and unseen, known and unknown, all feeds into this amazing system of which we are all apart. We all have a critical role to play in this giant sea of symbiosis, and the choices we make each and every day are small ripples in that sea. It has been my experience that the more I let go and let L.U.G., to borrow a common yet slightly modified phrase, the more amazing the sojourn has become. I can’t explain it, and even if I could I don’t think I’d want to. Like a Zen master who has achieved satori, I at least have learned that L.U.G. most fully emerges when we stop doing and start being. In some of my quietest, stillest moments I have found the deepest connection to L.U.G. when my thoughts cease and all I feel is my breath and all I hear is my heartbeat. And it is in those moments when I feel my faith runs deepest…
Keep the faith, NIP.