“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”
- Alan Watts On FAITH
This simple passage meant the world to me when I first read it nearly five years ago. Defining faith as trust was not a new idea for me, as that is how it is often conveyed within the Christian communities I took part in for most of my life. The difference between the faith I learned from the Church and the faith Alan Watts describes is not a matter of definition so much as it is about the object of one’s faith. In what (or in Whom) are we to place our trust?
In the Christian communities I was a part of, one’s faith was placed primarily in the Bible as Truth. Sure, it is God or Christ to which one is to have faith, but the Bible is the “word of God.” The Bible was that which all else is to be measured; the final authority. But this is inherently problematic, as it causes one to place their faith in a set of ideas. If one’s experience differs from that of the object of one’s faith, the object must be grasped against all adversity in order for faith to remain intact. When this happens, faith no longer feels like trust. In fact, it ends up feeling more like a burden (somebody say “Amen!”). I should say that Christianity is in no way the only religion of which dogmatic adherence to faith in ideas is commonplace. Truth be told, all religious traditions have some type of dogmatic sect.
The kind of faith of which Watts endorsed – the faith of letting go – resonates strongly with the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to discover truth – however paradoxical it may turn out to be. Anyone who holds tightly to a set of beliefs long enough is sure to notice when they no longer stand up to serious reality testing. It is for this reason, I believe, that many young would-be-Bible scholars and ministers go off to Bible college only to lose their faith (i.e. apostatize) as soon as a year or two later. One is forced to take one of three routes: adhere, adapt, or abandon. Unfortunately for some, many religious communities are not all that flexible, making choice #2 (adapt) as equally damning as making choice #3 (abandon).*
To make choice #2 or #3 is to venture out in to the unknown. This isn’t all bad. For what was known is found via one’s experience to be untrue, which means the truth has yet to be discovered and lies within the unknown. One casts off the security that is felt within the confines of dogmatism and legalism, trading bondage and safety for freedom and risk (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?). By casting one’s self in to the Void, they come to realize that they have everything to lose, with only the Truth to gain (you might recognize this as Stage Four of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). From that point on, progress on the journey toward the discovery of Truth will occur only if one is willing to fully, completely let go. You must, as Watts says, “trust yourself to the water.”
And that’s the paradox of it all - if you hold on to anything, you will sink and drown. If you surrender, you will float and live. For me, surrendering started in the form of studying the world’s great spiritual traditions from their own perspective. In doing so, I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and of Lao Tzu and took up the practice of meditation. This path is the opposite of blind faith. In blind faith, one clings tightly to their sacred ideas and shuts their eyes tightly closed, so as not to see anything that might discredit the object of their clinging. The path of surrender, of giving one’s self to the Void, is one of letting go and keeping their eyes wide open – seeing everything, clinging to nothing.
Speaking of this process as a journey or quest for Truth is a useful metaphor, but it can also be misleading. Jack Kornfield writes, “We need to remember that where we are going is here – that any practice is simply a means to open our hearts to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path an the goal.”** By opening our eyes and letting go we come to discover not some distant or hidden truth, but rather that which is ever already the case.
In conclusion, I encourage (or even challenge) each and every person who reads this to trust yourself to the water. “[B]ecome open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”
*(This certainly isn’t the case for ALL communities of faith. Marylhurst University, my alma mater, is a fine example of a truly ecumenical/inter-religious communion of enquiring minds and hearts.)
** from After the Ecstacy, The Laundry.