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[Chalice] A Perspective on Faith [Chalice]

Presented June 7, 2009, by Christine Jach

Listen to a recording of "A Perspective on Faith"
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Today I am talking about my perspective on faith. I am sure that everyone in this room probably has different views on faith - we all come from different backgrounds with all sorts of life experiences. Some of us are very interested in religion; some of us have a more rationalistic and scientific approach. I am someone who has always been fascinated by religion. And my perspective on the topic of faith will have a Buddhist slant, since I have spent many years practicing Buddhism. So I wanted to briefly explain how it is that I became drawn to Buddhism, and how that experience taught me a great deal about faith - not only about the Buddhist faith but also about other people of different faiths. And then I would like to point out how this relates to developments in a new scientific field called "neurotheology." Finally, I plan to conclude with some thoughts on a particular Buddhist teaching that I've found inspiring in dealing with differences of opinion.

What does "faith" mean? We have all sorts of phrases that have to do with faith. "Keeping the faith," "losing faith," "blind faith," "a crisis of faith," and so forth. We hear popular songs on radio about faith, for instance that George Michael tune from the eighties - "You gotta have faith," which is actually more about sex, and conjures up images from my past of teenagers sporting poufy, asymmetrical hairdos. There's a song by Sting that goes, "if I ever lose my faith in you, there'd be nothing left for me to do," again, talking about romantic love. Maybe pop songs are not the best examples of what "faith" means, at least not in the context of this talk.

Merriam-Webster gives several possible definitions, including: 1) allegiance to duty or to a person, fidelity to one's promises, sincerity of intentions, 2) belief and trust in and loyalty to God, belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion, firm belief in something for which there is no proof, complete trust, and finally 3) something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially a system of religious beliefs.

My focus today will be mostly on faith as "something that is believed especially with strong conviction, a system of religious beliefs." There are many religious faiths in the world: the Christian faith, the Muslim faith, the Jewish faith, the Buddhist faith, and many more. Of course, within those traditions there are also many variations and differences of opinion. On an individual level, people have quite unique experiences of their spiritual faith that may not fall into a particular creed.

We sometimes talk about our Unitarian Universalist faith. Last week in his talk about a Unitarian spirituality, Rob mentioned Martin Buber, who wrote that "real faith" is open to the "unconditioned mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life." The Unitarian Universalist faith is particularly suited to this type of openness. We have a common statement of principles, but we are not limited to one creed or doctrine. We are a community of free-thinkers. For me, this has been a great place to be these past couple of years as I explore my own views on religion. I am grateful that UUs do not insist than anyone should adopt any particular system of belief. However, I do sometimes miss aspects of the structure and ritual that I had experienced in both Christianity and Buddhism.

To give you a better picture of where I am coming from, I wanted to explain to you how I got involved in Buddhism in the first place, a religion that has been in this country only for a relatively short time, and one that is theologically quite different from my Christian upbringing. To explain how this happened, I will take you to another setting far away, to the cool and misty Pacific Northwest.

It was 1996. I was living in Seattle, Washington. I had been out of college for two years and I did administrative work in an international exchange organization. My daily commute involved a ride on the "Number 2" bus from the south fringes of the liberal Capital Hill neighborhood where I lived, through the skyscrapers and corporate suits of downtown Seattle, and then up to the trendy Lower Queen Anne neighborhood where I worked. The bus ride took about forty minutes each way, and after two years I became intimately familiar with all of the streets along my route, often disembarking at different stops to go shopping or to haunt the Seattle Public Library. My apartment was not far from Broadway on Capital Hill, an enjoyable place to stroll, people-watch, and explore the abundant shops and cafes. Back then I seemed to have inexhaustible amounts of time to browse shops and check out books at the library.

Although it sounds like an ideal time of life, I was twenty four years old with an interesting job in the hip city of Seattle, a place to where it seemed all of America wanted to move (or at least, at that time, where all of California wanted to move), I was not very happy. Depression and anxiety had long been problems for me; and despite living in a bustling city, I felt alone, anxious, isolated and I was often overwhelmed by an impending sense of doom. Now I recognize that it might have been a good idea for me to see a therapist, but at the time, I turned towards religion for guidance . . . reading the bible and going to church. It didn't take long until I found myself mentally arguing with the pastor, reasoning out major flaws that I perceived in his sermon and in the Christian theology behind it. I had always felt that religion was important, but Christianity didn't quite make sense to me anymore.

It was around this time, during one of my strolls on Broadway, that I came across a flyer for meditation classes in a little shop called The Vajra. The Vajra was one of those patchouli-oil infused, import shops filled with exotic art, books, statues and incense. I took the flyer for meditation classes home and ended up going to my first meditation class a few days later.

What stands out in my mind about those early meditation classes was the nearly immediate lessening of my symptoms of anxiety and depression. I learned how to watch my breath as I inhaled and exhaled, becoming aware of wandering thoughts and repeatedly bringing back my focus to the breath. I learned how to train my attention so that one object of thought could fill my whole mental awareness. I found much-needed mental peace, and meditation sessions became mini-vacations from my usual anxiety-ridden state. Meditation helped me to gradually replace anxious, negative thoughts with peaceful, positive thoughts. The meditation classes included instruction in Buddhist psychology, usually practical topics on how to make the frustrations of life easier to deal with, such as how to recognize impermanence, how to reduce anger and how to develop compassion.

Because of the great results that I had with my meditation practice, I naturally developed a great deal of faith in Buddhism - the teachings, teachers, and the community of people who were practicing with me. Together we meditated, discussed philosophy and engaged in devotional prayer. I joined a program where we intensely studied several Buddhist texts, memorizing key points and taking exams. All of these activities reinforced my Buddhist faith. I began to feel more confident and at peace with myself, and I began to regard the world with a deep sense of meaning and vibrancy.

I remember remarking to a Christian friend that I truly only began to understand Christianity after I became a Buddhist. I began to "get" how people could be so devoted in their faith, and I finally understood why many of the Christians I knew seemed so happy. I could imagine how any person's faith could develop due to their own positive internal results from religion - prayer, meditation, and support from a religious community. In time, I came to conclude that the qualities of my Christian friends' inner experiences of faith were not much different than my own inner experiences with Buddhism, only the conventional and theological frameworks were different.

As William James asserted in his Varieties of Religious Experience (the book that our discussion group read last summer), there are some people who need to experience a type of conversion to become happy. For those of you unfamiliar with William James, he was the brother of the famous writer, Henry James. William James lived from 1842 to 1910 and was a pioneer in the field of psychology. He wrote:

"To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about."

From my own experience I agree with this. Religious conversion can unify a "self hitherto divided." My conversion to Buddhism changed my mental outlook for the better. I am not saying that everyone should be religious, or that only one religious truth is valid. But what I do hold to be true is that for certain types of people, whom William James called "sick souls," meditating, praying, contemplating, and similar spiritual activities are essential to the development of happiness and a positive mental outlook.

As it turns out, psychologists are now actually examining the effects of religion on the brain and coming up with interesting findings. I recently learned that there is a new field of psychology called "neurotheology". It involves measuring and mapping out the brains of people who have experiences of faith. What I have read about it so far seems valid to me in the light of my own subjective experiences. Imagine what William James would do with this if he were alive today! I would guess that his writings from one-hundred years ago might have influenced this new research in some way.

One article that I came across referenced the February, 2009, edition of Psychological Science. In that journal, researchers from the University of Toronto Scarborough published a study called "Neural Markers of Religious Conviction." Here is the abstract of the article:

"Are there brain differences between believers and non-believers? Here we show that religious conviction is marked by reduced reactivity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), a cortical system that is involved in the experience of anxiety and is important for self-regulation. In two studies, we recorded electroencephalographic neural reactivity in the ACC as participants completed a Stroop task. Results showed that stronger religious zeal and greater belief in God were associated with less firing of the ACC in response to error and with commission of fewer errors. These correlations remained strong even after we controlled for personality and cognitive ability. These results suggest that religious conviction provides framework for understanding and acting within one's environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error."

Another article that I read was written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty for a National Public Radio series called "The Science of Spirituality." Some of you may have heard it as it aired on the May 20, 2009, edition of All Things Considered. Hagerty reports that scientists have found the brains of people who spend untold hours in prayer and meditation to be different. Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist, says that he can't prove that anyone is communing with God, but he can look for circumstantial evidence. Using neural indicators, Newberg concluded that the brains of Buddhists engaged in meditation, Franciscan nuns praying and Sikhs chanting all looked similar, showing increased frontal lobe activity and less activity in the parietal lobes. He said "when people lose their sense of self, feel a sense of oneness, a blurring of the boundary between self and other, we have found decreases in activity in that area." Newberg explained that this would indicate that the Buddhists, Catholics and Sikhs were all feeling a similar sense of oneness with the universe, and he went on to say that when it comes to the brain, spiritual experience is spiritual experience. He remarked, "there is no Christian, there is no Jewish, there is no Muslim, it's all just one."

Personally, I object to the researchers' use of the term "God." While some Buddhists do pray in addition to meditating, they do not believe in God. When using subjects of different religious faiths, scientists should use terminology that is inclusive of those faiths, and try to eliminate any cultural bias towards monotheistic religions.

In any case, these studies seem to affirm that all faiths are equally valid in the benefits that they provide the aspirants, specifically through reduction of anxiety. But the studies also open up more questions. I would like to see researchers study the brains of people who have experiences of faith, and then subsequently lose their faith. Does a loss of faith correspond to a measurable increase of anxiety levels?

As you may have noted, the first study mentioned that faith experience reduces anxiety but also "minimizes the experience of error." Is that always a good thing? Could a failure to experience error cause someone to continue his or her destructive actions? Can intense faith cause a person to stop using their rational abilities to a greater or lesser extent? I'm sure we could all think of instances where people of faith do crazy things, for example, those strange religious cults who convinced their members to commit suicide together. There are religious extremists, like suicide bombers and killers of abortion doctors, who give the sensible people of their faith a bad name. Perhaps researchers could map the brains of religious radicals and see how they differ from people whose faith actually inspires them to help others. Yet, it seems that even more moderate types of people can use their faith in hurtful ways, for example when people campaign for unfair laws, as we saw in recent decisions to deny same-sex couples the right to civil unions.

In all of these cases, when I see that people are using religion as an excuse to bring more suffering into the world, I try to put my Buddhist education to good use. A person is not his actions. A person is not her beliefs. There is a better way to counter hatred than with more hatred. Wise individuals will take whatever actions are necessary to oppose injustice while striving to keep an inner attitude of compassion, even when hatred is being spewed their direction.

That being said, I realize how difficult it is to overcome having an "us and them" attitude, in particular when it comes to religion. We tend to associate with people who think and act more or less like ourselves, and then people belonging to another group, who or act think differently, become our opponents. It is easy to forget that the other side is dealing with the same problems as we are. Buddhist teachings remind us that the basic sufferings of humanity make us all the same. This was the first of the Four Noble Truths - you should know sufferings. The sufferings of human beings are birth, aging, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to face things that we don't like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

So in adopting an attitude of, "we are right and you are wrong," we may too easily forget the humanity of our adversary, and overlook any sense of empathy or concern for them on a very basic human level.

Buddhist psychology includes a teaching on equanimity. In a nutshell, it goes something like this. We impute a concept of "self" upon our body and mind. So anything that we perceive outside of "self" we think of as "other." Then one of three things usually happens. The first thing that can happen is that we find the "other," desirable, and this can be a person, a group of people or even an object. Based on this "desirous attachment," we feel a strong neediness to possess that desirable object, to latch on to that desirable person or to identify with that desirable group. The second thing that can happen is that we find the person or group to be repulsive and we push it away. The third thing that can happen is we have a neutral attitude and just ignore. All three of these reactions - attachment, aversion and neutrality - are said to be unbalanced attitudes. Instead, it is encouraged to strive for an attitude of equanimity. Having equanimity means that, remembering how all beings are suffering in one way or another, a person tries to try to keep a peaceful, warm and friendly attitude towards everyone. And all of this refers to what is going on internally. Depending on circumstances, it might be beneficial to take very forceful actions, but the goal is to keep a calm and peaceful mind while engaging in them.

How can there ever be peace in the world, if in the face of conflict, religious or otherwise, we are not able to keep the peace of equanimity in our own minds? Is it not contradictory to oppose the act of war, but on the inside, still harbor a war-like attitude towards others?

I'll conclude with a short quote from one of my Buddhist teachers, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso:

"If we first establish peace within our minds by training in spiritual paths, outer peace will come naturally; but if we do not, world peace will never be achieved, no matter how many people campaign for it."

©2009 Christine Jach

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Jach, Christine. 2009. A Perspective on Faith, /talks/20090607.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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