Sunday, January 24, 2010

Faith as Belief vs. Faith as Practice - Karen Armstrong

This post will contrast the understanding of faith as belief, which is the understanding held by many present-day Christians, and the understanding of faith as practice, which is the understanding held by other religions. I will draw on Karen Armstrong's insights from her second memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, which chronicles Karen's life in the world after seven years of convent life as a nun, and her most recent book, The Case For God. Karen examines the Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist view of faith as practice rather than belief.

In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong describes her surprise at learning that other religions do not subscribe to a set of beliefs. Karen first learned this during a lunch-time conversation with her Jewish friend Hyam Maccoby. Hyam explained to Karen that Jesus, a practicing Jew of his time, may have belonged to the school of Rabbi Hillel, a leading Pharisee, who summarized the whole of Jewish teaching in this way: " 'Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you' " (page 235).

Karen couldn't quite understand how the whole of Jewish teaching would not include at least some specific beliefs. So she asked Hyam, " 'What about faith? What about believing in God? What were those pagans supposed to believe?' " (page 235).

Karen reports Hyam's reply: " 'Easy to see that you were brought up Christian.' Hyam didn't have a high opinion of Christianity, I noticed. 'Theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds to which everybody must subscribe. No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason, you can believe what you like' " (page 235).

Karen describes how stunned she felt at this: " 'No official theology?' I repeated stupidly. 'None at all? How can you be religious without a set of ideas--about God, salvation, and so on--as a basis?' " (page 236).

And here is Hyam's answer: " 'We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy,' Hyam replied calmly, wiping his mouth and brushing a few crumbs off the table. ' "Right practice" rather than "right belief." That's all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it's not important in the way you think. It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead' " (page 236).

Karen Armstrong found this same emphasis on faith as practice in Islam. In The Spiral Staircase, she says of Islam, "Muslims had to cultivate within themselves a caring, generous spirit that made them want to give graciously to all, just as God himself did. By concrete acts of compassion, performed so regularly that they became engrained, Muslims would find that both they and their society would be transformed" (page 280). Karen also says, "Repeated actions would lead to the cultivation of a new awareness. The point is that this was not a belief system, but a process. The religious life designed by Muhammad made people act in ways that were supposed to change them forever" (page 281).

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong recounts a story told of the Buddha. The Buddha insisted that his monks practice a complete program of yoga that emphasized acts of compassion, and he refused to discuss questions of belief with them. One monk, however, simply couldn't pull his mind away from cosmic questions. Karen says, "One of his monks was a philosopher manque and, instead of getting on with his yoga, constantly pestered the Buddha about metaphysical questions: Was there a god? Had the world been created in time or had it always existed?" (page 23).

The Buddha refused to discuss this. As Karen reports, "What difference would it make to discover that a god had created the world? Pain, hatred, grief, and sorrow would still exist. These issues were fascinating, but the Buddha refused to discuss them because they were irrelevant: 'My disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness; they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nirvana' " (page 23).

Karen explains further about Nirvana and the role of acts of compassion in attaining Nirvana: "Nirvana was the natural result of a life lived according to the Buddha's doctrine of anatta ('no self'), which was not simply a metaphysical principle but, like all his teachings, a program of action. Anatta required Buddhists to behave day by day, hour by hour, as though the self did not exist" (page 24). Further, Karen explains, "By far the best way of achieving anatta was compassion, the ability to feel with the other, which required that one dethrone the self from the center of one's world and put another there. Compassion would become the central practice of the religious quest" (page 24).

This post has shown how Karen Armstrong came to understand faith as practice rather than belief, as she studied Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. My next post will examine how Christians became so fixated on faith as belief.

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