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Faith and Free Will

Absent faith, and its rules and limitations, we can justify almost anything.
Psalm 16
1  Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2  I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 3  As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 4  Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 5  The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. 7  I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 8  I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 9  Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 10  For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 11  You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
I wrote in my book, Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, that anxiety resides at the intersection of uncertainty and belief. Beliefs are choices we make based on information we have, and our thoughts about this information. When uncertainty causes us to doubt our thoughts about such information, including the very thoughts that led us to belief, we suffer. But we choose and go on. Hence, belief is fluid and always open to, and threatened by, doubt and subsequent reconsideration. To believe is an action verb, and this action either strengthens or weakens the parent of belief: faith.
I wrote that faith is a constant, closed without qualification, not open to whimsical change the way belief is. While I still believe there are strong distinctions between belief and faith, I now think faith, too, is more malleable than I once thought.
Psalm 16 certainly speaks of such faith. The verbs reveal that this faith is not a given. While the psalmists’ faith seems unshakeable, even when threatened in other psalms by the wicked and by material temptation, the grammar of this psalm exposes faith to be as flighty as belief.
In the psalm the people choose their god, and the Lord is the psalmist’s chosen portion and cup. Other verbs reveal the activity required to ensure that faith stays in place: take, hold, keep, give. Even when the psalmist sings that their body rests secure the implication remains that some other action carried out with will and choice could make them restless. And so I evolve from a stance that faith is predetermined and unmoving to one in which my doubts run deeper and my soul jumps with possibilities I hadn’t before considered. I have entered the intersection with uncertainty.
The determination of faith has yielded to the free will of doubt. I’ve come to a place where I am called upon to make a choice. In expression of these doubts, as I look back through the lens of Eastern thought onto Judeo-Christian wisdom I am constantly confronted by the debate between free will and determinism and the indeterminacy of objective truth. Is faith simply an act of free will?
I saw an interesting take on the question of free will in a YouTube video by Zen teacher Brad Warner. He spoke about the idea that free will itself is limited by a person’s knowledge and experience. You can only choose between some decision criteria, and these criteria are determined by your culture, your education and the depth of your experience. Economic and political factors must be included as well. So in some sense my doubt and the endless searching it seems to inspire may help me make better choices, or at least better informed choices. But still, the array of choices available to me as I exercise my free will seems to be limited. It’s just that for some people it’s more limited than for others.
This returns me to the idea of a chosen faith. We choose from the faiths we’re presented, the ones we’ve been exposed to, only to that level of exposure. Knowing much about a faith and doubting, and subsequently rejecting, some of the structures and dictums of that faith has become common. So has adopting a new faith when one knows almost nothing of the structure and dictums of that faith and feels under no compulsion to study them or adopt or even obey them. We always seem to end up with whatever we happen to think we need right now. I think that’s why so many disappointed westerners with surface level exposure to so many wisdom traditions, but a deeper, more learned and critical knowledge of the world Judeo-Christian beliefs have influenced, so easily throw off the faith of their fathers to adopt some part of some other tradition, or to pick and choose what they like best from among many competing traditions, and call it spirituality. It’s an adoption of an ethic of belief, but void of any complete, established faith that has weathered the changes and whims of time and may, in fact, know better.
I’ve studied with Brad Warner. He doesn’t do this. His knowledge of and training in Zen is deep, his practice is skillful, and he sticks close to the message taught to him by his teachers. Unfortunately, he is unique. So many teachers today discount the challenging, disagreeable facets of the foundational core of whatever belief system they trumpet and call it faith, exploiting the possibility that free will only allows us to choose from options to which we are exposed. But what if we’re taking what’s presented as options and arranging them to fit our lifestyle and reinforce a world view we think is superior and convenient? We’re creatures that seek pleasure and avoid suffering. We’ll leave out the hard stuff if we can. Is this sort of menu board spirituality, this deference to our desire over the hard work of practice, truly an exercise in free will or an example of determinism?
We take what’s easy. We take what makes us feel good. Doesn’t faith require of us a lot more than that? Faith is hard and tests our assumptions. The more we scrape the sharp, challenging edges off the rock of faith the less we’re left to believe in, the less we’re left to wrestle with, until belief becomes merely a choice of convenience with no reference to the rock of faith at all. Suddenly, we believe almost nothing and faith, especially faith in foundational mores that undergird us, becomes impossible.
While you can choose to believe in anything, I think faith requires a little more structure. Something more rigid. Something with tradition and maybe even ritual. Something with, God forbid, rules. For a while the faith we choose, or make up, is dependent on the limits of our knowledge, culture and experience, so that faith, definitively chosen, or made up, limits our expression of free will as it imposes on us rules not to be violated. I may want to steal, but faith traditions or the careful exercise of reason prohibit that. Traditional faith will certainly have more rules, and doesn’t always please us, but it will offer more guidance, edification and community than any faith we fabricate. In fact, while most all faiths seek to restrict our selfishness, those we construct to suit our prejudices, those that leave out the hard parts, tend to make us more selfish as we elevate ourselves to the position of the arbiter of what’s wrong and what’s right. Usually, no tested, debated and reinforced theology or philosophy underpins our experiments in acting as self-directed, self-conceived prophets.
Still, I was a long way from a systemic belief required by an ancient church. I was lost in spiritual dances with partners I’d drop as soon as they no longer fit my preconceptions, my demands, or my desires. What I believed was not set up for eternity, it was expedient. Rules of life were fine, as long as they did not ask too much of me. But this belief, these beliefs, were ultimately disappointing. They had no link to any established or disputed faith. They were independent of any definable religion. They were simply creations of mine just to make me feel better, totally dependent on my point of view and reinforcing of my rigidity. They narrowed, not expanded, my ability to express myself freely and test my opinions against some artificial ethic. They were deterministic, totally limited by my own point of view, which was of course concerned primarily with self-preservation and selfish gain.
I failed to realize that faith requires a sort of dependency. A dependency on a message, a scripture, a practice or reason; adherence to things that are pleasing and things that are not carried out in the name of compassion for others – the extinguishing of the self in love. You cannot get beyond the concept of self, or selfishness, if even the things you believe are constructs you set up to satisfy only you. You need some discipline, some sacrifice, some limiting messages. You need to discover yourself through not only experience, but guidance. Faith provides this. Absent faith, and its rules and limitations, we can justify almost anything.
Trying to figure it all out yourself, tearing down traditional structures while clinging to what you like and rejecting messages or feelings that don’t feel good, only narrows the knowledge, culture and experience within which we exercise free will. Our suffering is the result of a narrow mind, not an open one. Faith is expansive, it opens our minds, though many find it limiting in its requirements as established by morality or precepts. However, paradoxically, our faith, chosen from the backdrop of all we know, all we doubt, and all we have done, is as close to free will as we’re going to get. To have no faith, to suffer needlessly alone, is an exercise in determinism. We all suffer. That’s the way nature seems to make us behave until we discover this, find faith and find our true, liberated nature: freedom.
Freedom demands limits to define it. Faith can be limiting. But so is our free will, for once we decide we eliminate competing possibilities. Limiting, too, is our assumption of self, but not our compassion for others, and not our advocacy of life, liberty and respect. We have a foundation available in faith that we have quickly, willingly, thrown off. To get it back requires us to question uncertainty, adhere to long-tested practices of meditation or prayer, and rediscover the faith that formed us and our society. Whether the commandments of Moses and Christ, the Fourth Noble Truth of the Buddha, even the less restrictive though sure dictates of reason, the psalmist sings that such faith can show us the path of life. It isn’t our free will that sets us adrift, for it is predetermined that without traditional practices we are more likely to suffer. As Psalm 16 states, we can choose, take, hold, keep and give faith before we can rest assured that all is well. Yet it is well, if you can discover, and choose, the boundless yet restricted contradiction of faith – faith in its full expression; faith in its limitations; faith in its foundation of moral equality and its demands on behavior for positive development and common good.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis and writes the blog The Psalms Meditations Project. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

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