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Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Faith" (various contributors)

TITLE: Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists
AUTHOR: Various contributors (edited by Victoria Zackheim)
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Atria Books, 2014, (288 pages).

What is faith? Is it possible not to have faith? Is faith some kind of a mysterious force or a misplaced belief? What is the meaning of faith for both believers as well as non-believers of any religion? In a remarkable book that brings together believers, agnostics, and atheists, two questions were plainly asked of 24 contributors of different religious or non-religious inclinations:
  1. What do you feel?
  2. What do you believe?
Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American author writes about a "secular mystic" who believes that this world is more meaning than material, with individual parts all connecting up to one big whole. Growing up in a religious environment, he base his own living on doing good and reasoning well. Most of all, when we help one another, we do what it takes to be human. Anne Perry, a New York Times bestselling author based in Los Angeles tackles the question of faith from major influences on her life: her grandfather, father, and mother. It was the death of her mum that haunted her most. Believing in the power of faith, especially in the potential of goodness for humanity to love one another, she holds firmly that at the end of it all, one needs to be still and know that there is God. David Corbett in "Love and Insomnia" writes about his difficult childhood, his battle against insomnia, and his early exposure to Catholicism and belief in God. His views on faith are shaped more by his therapist training in two ways. The first is that perfection is the enemy of the good, which is a learning not to let the drive for perfection destroy one's faith in imperfect humanity. The second is unconditional love. Corbett was also deeply shaken when his wife who was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer die within four months. Instead of faith in God, he found faith in a Buddhist teaching of impermanence: the wisdom of letting go while not caring less. Accomplished author Beverly Donofrio finds her own sense of faith shaken down after being raped by a serial rapist in Mexico. With steely calm, she was still able to pray a "Hail Mary" which freaked out her assailant. She constantly reflects on the Virgin Mary, finding comfort in the words "Do not be afraid" during moments of light as well as darkness. For Amy Ferris in "Ah. Yes," her light-bulb moment comes when she realizes faith in the eyes of love, of being herself rather than doing all kinds of good outside. Love is not selfish but deep awakening of who she truly is. Sylvie Simmons wonders if there was a "viagra for faith" describing her need for a personal God in spite of feeling distant from Him. Pam Houston, an educator in creative writing hates holidays.  wonders about faith from both an agnostic and atheistic angles.

Three writers, Barbara Graham, Susana Franck, Frank Dabba Smith deal with personal traumas from a spiritualist, theistic, and humanistic angles respectively. Others deal with personal losses and reflect on how their faith was impacted. After her husband's death, Aviva Layton felt pulled by different expressions of faith: Communism, Judaism, even Google!  Christine Kehl O'Hagan struggles with the loss of her son Jamie, and instead of jumping in the bandwagon of questioning "Where is God?" opts to trust God is always there.  David Misch, a comedian finds faith linked to humor, and prefers a stance of measured skepticism rather than belief.

Faith matters are also encountered in one's struggles with philosophies between good and evil. Barbara Abercrombie describes how cancer has tormented her loved ones, including herself, and after toggling from various positions of faith and doubt, settles on a love-hate posture of acceptance of mystery and its role in shaping faith. Carrie Kabak in "Razor-Edged Abyss" battles with the threat of punishment in hell and reward inheaven through her childhood. Even though she has grown less fearful of "Catholic guilt," she admits the wealth of material she can write about faith and God. Caroline Leavitt, an author and book critic deals with faith in a rather counter-cultural manner. In a world which seems to pit science against matters of faith, she finds Quantum Physics ushering her into the realm of faith.

Then there are those who meet faith along the way but chose to be atheist. Like Benita Garvin who grew up with a worldview that divided people into Jews and Gentiles but considered herself an atheist. Or Malachy McCourt who ranted that America would be better off by banning religion altogether. The late Lee Chamberlin while consulting oncologists about her deteriorating health finds ontology a valid approach to faith.

For some who tried to avoid faith stuff, their rendezvous with faith eventually arrives up close and personal. Jacquelyn Mitchard who calls herself a "God-fearing atheist" had to deal with the loss of her husband and often questioned the reality of death and pondered on the question of suffering and pain. Mara Purl grew up with eclectic exposure to Christianity, Buddhism, Shintoism, Christian Science, and others before settling on faith as a journey from the finite to the infinite. Dianne Rinehart looks at the place of faith by intersecting robotic routines with human love, with questions about reality per se.  Amanda Enayati who writes from a Bahai background believes that faith is about balance.

So What?

Who says faith is only in the domain of religions? Everyone has faith simply because everyone believes in something. On reading the various sharing and testimonies, I am even more convinced that we all are people of faith. The question is what or who we believe in. Atheists believe there is no such thing as God. Agnostics are open to the existence or possibility of a Divine Being. Theists have various expressions of their understanding of God. Let me give three thoughts. First, faith matters are often magnified during times of suffering and loss. Many of the contributors have shared about something deep and personal, of losing someone they loved. Whether it is the loss of loved ones, or a personal brush with death or dying, their sensitivity toward life, death, and meaning gets sharpened exponentially. It is through these moments that point out the more important things we cherish.

Second, faith is often shaped by people encounters. Whether it is for the better or for worse, faith is not strictly something that can be done objectively. Many of the authors have shared honestly and deeply, about how their views of faith had changed due to some personal encounters. Some turned into staunch atheists while others held on to their theistic backgrounds. Still, several preferred to stay in the middle ground, remaining somewhat open that there is a Divine God somewhere up above. This is one reason why it is right to say people often let the messengers shape their view of faith rather than the "message" per say. For instance, I find people often reject Christianity not because of Jesus Christ, but because of bad examples through people who call themselves Christians. Just like Gandhi's famous words, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Third, one should read this book with an open mind to understand rather than to criticize. In fact, we will come out a lot more enriched with the different reasons why people choose what they believe. This is the primary purpose of a book of this nature: To educate and to enlighten the minds of people to appreciate the different expressions of faith. There is not much of a triumphalistic tone so common in self-help books. There is also not a lot of deterministic strategies to help us achieve a particular goal or target. Instead, what we have in this book are stories of real people experiencing the ups and downs of what it means to live on this earth. That said, I encourage Christians to read this book, not as a way to convert people, but as an opportunity to make meaningful conversations of life and living, death and dying, and perhaps a healthy and respectful engagement with faith. For we all believe. The difference in how, what, and who we believe. We will learn that we have a lot more in common in our shared humanity.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Atria Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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