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Faith column: Believe and receive?

November 20, 2010

Latest faith column. This one on a ridiculously overanalyzed (by me) Hallmark pillow.

And full text:

A message on a holiday pillow prompts the question: Do our beliefs matter?

‘If you don’t believe, you can’t receive.” Those were the words embroidered on a decorative pillow in a display window at the Hallmark Store. I was killing time at the mall, trying to distract my toddler while my husband picked out new eyeglasses. Amid the Christmas ornaments, the Santa statues and the stuffed reindeer, the pillow caught my eye.

At first I dismissed it as a schmaltzy holiday sentiment, an admonition parents might give children who were beginning to question the existence of Santa Claus. But at the time, I was preparing a talk for the Atheist Community of Austin that Sunday and for a panel discussion on the value of religion the following weekend. So religious belief — or lack thereof — was on my mind. And the more I thought about the pillow, the more troubling, even threatening, the message seemed.

Did the statement reflect the entrenched view in this country that people should have religious faith? That it’s best to believe in the Christian story but that certainly some religion was better than none? Just what exactly would believers receive anyway? Happiness? Salvation? And what are you risking if you don’t believe?

Part of me knew I was reading way too much into a piece of holiday merchandise that would probably wind up in a clearance bin in a couple of months. But I felt compelled to explore the idea further.

In the religious world, one would think belief is paramount, but I have covered atheists who keep Jewish traditions and Christians who aren’t so sure about God but think it’s a good idea to follow the teachings of Jesus. And plenty of others who are content to see their religion as metaphor and symbolism. For them, it’s what you do, not what you believe that matters.

I imagined this would be true in Buddhism, too, so I asked Colin Gipson, a priest at the Austin Zen Center. In his tradition, he said, belief can actually be a stumbling block.

“Our minds want so badly to have something concrete to lean on,” he explained, “that just about anything will do, including beliefs and ideas. If we believe in something, it’s easy to become beholden to it, and cease to remain open to other possibilities. If we don’t cling to ideas or beliefs, we can remain flexible, ready to meet whatever presents itself.”

I imagined a Zen version of the Hallmark pillow that read: “If you don’t believe, you will receive.”

Belief is a curious thing. It can feel like solid rock. It can be as slippery as water. And no matter how we try, we cannot force it on ourselves or others.

Consider the poor ministers featured recently on an ABC News segment. Two conservative evangelical pastors — speaking anonymously — said they felt trapped and scared because they no longer believed in God. Admitting it, they said, would cost them their careers, friends, possibly even their marriages.

Doubt can strike anyone, even the holiest among us.

Some argue that in the absence of belief, you persist with the work you once did in the name of God, that eventually your faith will return.

But for many Protestants, belief carries high stakes. Faith in Jesus remains crucial for salvation. In that case, if you don’t believe, you can’t receive eternal life.

I asked other sources. A Methodist pastor said his religious belief is action, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. A Muslim said beliefs and actions reinforce each other — good actions breed good beliefs and vice versa. A Baha’i quoted scripture: “Let deeds not words be your adorning.”

The message on the pillow was wrong, I concluded. Belief isn’t essential. Our actions matter more. The pillow manufacturer would have been better served by quoting St. Francis of Assisi: “It is in giving that we receive.”

But just as I was about to do the Zen thing and let go of my fixation on the pillow, a minister on last month’s religion panel shared his experience. Years ago, while he was attending a Christian college, a mentor learned that he harbored deep anger toward his brother. The brother had been abusive when they were growing up, and the young man didn’t speak to him, refused to forgive him. The mentor told him it was his choice, but he couldn’t be a Christian and hate his brother.

Because he believed in the teachings of Jesus, the minister said, he chose to forgive. If he hadn’t held those Christian beliefs, he stressed, he would not have felt obligated to give his brother another chance. Now, he said, he and his brother are close friends.

I thought about his story for days afterward. The pillow message had gone from schmaltzy to threatening to inspiring. And now I’m letting it go.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 1:32 am

    A rewarding and enjoyable read.

    For me, belief and faith are opposites, perhaps even mutually exclusive. Belief, in my very subjective view, is for those who prefer the simplicity and reassurance of a well established narrative over faith at its most powerful – an intentional life lived in the conscious absence of belief.

    Or to put it more simply, the stronger your beliefs, the less need, or even room, there is for faith.

  2. eeflynn permalink*
    November 21, 2010 10:23 am

    Thanks for your comment, Brad. This is a great distinction to be made. You’re right that belief and faith are not necessarily synonymous. More good stuff to think about!

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