What to Call Faith

From the outside, I’m not sure that people would have thought of my home, growing up, as “religious.” For one thing, the word “religious” itself seems to have a rather negative connotation for us enlightened modern people. We know better now. People often seem to think of “Religious” as Puritanism or Evangelism. One’s from growing up and having to wear silly hats in kindergarten and the other is from watching too much media “news” and infomercials. And in my (parents’) house, we don’t have crosses/crucifixes on every wall, or whatever else religion in the home is supposed to look like. One of the cars did have an ichthys (“Jesus fish”) though. And we always had plenty of Bibles.

At any rate, I was raised in the Christian faith. To believe in God, however you chose to worship. My brother is Baptist. My aunt and uncle are Catholic. Like my mom, I am Presbyterian. At least I think I am. It’s hard to be “religious” (read “believe”) in this current culture. Christianity is seen as the province of the crazy conservative Rightists. Or maybe my mind is making it up. Or maybe, to a certain extent it’s the college atmosphere. Or maybe it’s because I personally have had trouble finding my faith. After leaving home to go to community college in Southern CA (my home county didn’t have a community college) I pretty much stopped attending church. So there might be some lingering guilt. There are lots of distractions in modern life. It’s easy to form idols: out of celebrities, money, grades. Science. Believing is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

So when Perry Garfinkel, in Buddha or Bust, tried to convince the head priest of Rinsoin (a Zen Buddhist temple) Hoitsu Suzuki that Americans have imbedded what he called “Judeo-Christian” traditions in their/our culture as thoroughly as Japan has Buddhism because

“Yes, we look to God,” I said. “God is there even in our casual language. We say, ‘God bless you,’ when you sneeze. We say, ‘Thank God that truck didn’t run me over.’ We say ‘God damn it’ when we stub our toe when Matsui strikes out.”

And when Suzuki-roshi responds “‘Who is this God you keep talking about?’” Garfinkel sees it as a revelation. He sees that “Belief in God is perpetuated suffering.” He is enlightened.

I really want to quote the whole thing now. And this section wouldn’t irritate me so much if it wasn’t couched in such universal terms. It’s evident that Garfinkel doesn’t have a strong personal belief to defend. For instance, his use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” traditions. He has said that he was raised in a Jewish household, although I don’t think he mentioned how strongly traditional they were. However, you can’t compare “Judeo-Christian” traditions to a single religion like Buddhism. In a high school history class, when asked what was the largest religion, “Christianity” without the “Judeo-” attached, couldn’t be the answer. It included too many religions to be considered one religion.

I think what Garfinkel is enlightened to is his own lack of belief. And perhaps when he discusses his (personal) enlightenment in universal terms, it’s simply habit because he is a journalist. At the very least, I suspect Suzuki-roshi was certainly responding to Garfinkel’s lack of personal faith. Garfinkel (in one of the more problematic sections, for me) writes “That in itself may be the reason we invent God, because it is easier to point the finger than to take the blame,” which is certainly not why I choose to believe, and he then calls his own comments in his conversation a “pointless game of intellectual masturbation.”

The way he’s been talking? Yes, it is. Suzuki-roshi notices. It’s a careless argument. Garfinkel, up to this point, doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t believe. His “faith” and the faith on the part of our culture that he tries to evidentiate through empty phrases like “God bless you,” are not real. They’re habits. Left over from people who grew up around religion but never found “it” themselves. That’s how language works.

It’s not how faith works. And I think Garfinkel was fortunate that someone finally pointed out the difference to him.

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