Faith & Fear Part III: Mystery
Updated: Apr 28
Faith sees and holds the paradoxes and mystery of reality, seeing through the facades of certainty that cut us off from hope and love.
Drawn to doubt
Growing up, there was a powerful drive towards knowing. We believed we knew the Truth and I have to say I was proud of knowing it. Such pride forced me define in increasingly narrow ways who was us, the holders of truth, and who was other, those who were misinformed, led astray or, perhaps, evil.
Not surprisingly, we were part of a subculture, and I was quickly confronted with the fact that many around me did not hold my truths. I remember the bewildering moment when I first discovered that a friend fundamentally disagreed with me. I remember the anxiety this caused, along with the distrust that suddenly fell into my being towards that person, towards the other, a distrust I, regrettably, held in many of my friendships and relationships throughout childhood. Were they evil? Being led astray? Should I interact with them? However, I also had beliefs, steeped in Modernism, to help me navigate this tension between needing my truth to be true and wanting to think well of my friends: if they just reasoned enough, or had all the facts, they too would agree.
Perhaps this is what drew me to philosophy: the desire to prove to others (or, perhaps, myself) that my truth was trustworthy. However, I soon realised that philosophy gave good reasons to doubt and even feel resentful towards my truth. Within the first term, what I thought was a ‘strong’ faith was exposed as incredibly fragile. Fragile faith always demands a narrow reality. It’s always bulwarked with defences that, at some point inevitably, unstoppably, fall down under scrutiny.
This left me flawed. I remember being hollowed out with fear at the core of my body, of my soul. What then do I hold to? What then do I cast my life upon? Have I been deceived all this time? What can I trust? This was the fear I had avoided since my first encounter with otherness. It is the fear and confusion of uncertainty and the fundamental limitedness of our knowledge.
However, this was the most poignant moment in which my faith grew. I needed to doubt. I needed to be stripped of my old stages and scripts of fear that separated me. I felt naked and exposed to the raw power, nothingness and incomprehensibility of it all. Yet, I kept finding myself inevitably returning here, desperate yet knowing this was somehow the place I had to be. The roots of my faith knew I could trust it.
Stages of Fear
In Part I (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-i-stories-of-fear-and-stories-of-faith ), I imagined our lives as being acted upon a stage. This stage gives us the core beliefs that structure our lives and make sense of them; upon these, the scripts that define our storylines are built. These are often scripts and stories of fear: insignificance, unlovability and powerlessness.
In Part II (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-ii-death), we saw that many stages cover up the fact of our death which confronts us with the fundamental fear: am I worth anything? Prematurely answering this question with the verdict, ‘Insignificant’, drives stereotypical masculine and femenine scripts. In approaching the reality of our death, we can start to step into and live within a new reality, a story that faith hears or perhaps remembers, one of inherent value, possibility and belonging.
A further fundamental fear behind our stages, covered up by them, is paradox and mystery. The world is a wild and contrary place. Our planet and life is experienced as beautiful, bountiful, boundless, hope-inspiring, deeply consoling and wonderfully nourishing, as well as indifferent, threateningly fragile, limited and even callous. People, too, we know to be loving, precious, generous, good, as well as grievously hateful, selfish and destructive. Even within ourselves, we find incredible freedom, imagination and power. Yet we also discover this potential is for both good and evil, life and death, and, more, that we are vitally limited, dependent, and powerless. And so, we experience within ambivalence, contradictory emotions and longings: sadness and joy, fear and love, jealousy and joy, to approach and to avoid, to attack and to defend. And that is merely our perception of it all: there is a whole world beyond the visible, audible and touchable range that leaves us in mystery.
If death is the limit of our time, this is the threatening limit of our understanding. And all this is terrifying. What then is true? What then is real? What can I trust? So we crave certainty. We demand it. The world feels safer if we know what we should do, what should happen and what we should think about it all.
So, we have made pedestals on our stages of fear. Pedestals of authority, value and truth. We push people up, proclaiming this is a grand position and privilege (whilst often, in the end, demanding that they tell us the ‘truth’ we already believe, the ‘truth’ that is most convenient). This is perhaps a defining feature of patriarchy’s view of masculinity*: you have authority as the protector of the truth and have the right to enforce this.
Fear leads us to colonialism and powerlessness
We see this script playing out in politics. Uncertainty is deemed as weakness, ineffectiveness, being an inferior and untrustworthy leader. There is little scope for appreciating contradictions and complexity. And so we’ve seen the demise of real political and moral debate about the good or the true, where contradictions and mystery lurk. We need you to know what to do, and will throw you off the pedestal if you don’t.
This need for certainty forces us into colonialism: the belief that we have the right to do what needs to be done to protect the truth and enforce it when faced with the other. Certainty also forces us to not only make reality knowable, but also split it into good and bad, right and wrong. There is little scope for grey. These two drives entail that we define us (those with the truth) as the good, beautiful, holy, right and true (or educated and rational) and the other as bad, ugly, profane, wrong and false (or uneducated and irrational). And thus we justify colonising the other by dehumanising them.
We have seen this historically. We have colonised by force and violence, seen in the Crusades and historical missionary movements, based on Traditionalist beliefs that we received the truth from an ultimate Authority. Today, such Traditionalist beliefs play out in the multiplicity of ways we shame: the now more morally acceptable way to convert or cast out. In Part III (https://www.thomasrowlandcounsellingservices.com/post/faith-and-fear-part-iii-our-inner-reality), I discussed shaming and how it leads to self-betrayal**, and how faith reconnects us with our inner knowledge.
We can also colonise by rationality or argument, based on Modernist beliefs that arose as Traditionalist certainty became increasingly dubious: whilst we may not already know the truth, we can discover it through reason and science. Thus, we - the enlightened western civilisations or rational men - are the self-appointed heirs and discoverers of truth, and the other are the uneducated and irrational who we need to convince, rather than convert.
Today, this plays out in the rhetoric of “smart” politics. Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit charts the rise of the word “smart” in politics and how it obscures deeper, messier political debate about the common good and privilege, for it presents a reality in which if everyone had the facts and the right education, they’d agree: certainty is possible through education and good will; paradox and mystery with regards the good fall away as we focus on what’s the smart thing to do.
We can finally colonise upon the pedestal of tolerance and equality, based on the work of feminism and Postmodern beliefs: there is no Truth, but everyone has a truth that is equal and we must be tolerant. This fight to combat colonialism, however, also obscures real debate and engagement about powerful questions and forces in our society, avoiding the need to wrestle with the paradoxes and mysteries of the good and the true. I suspect we have socially been left confused and crippled with the undermining values of being nice and not offending.
The various ways of colonising push us into maintaining ‘thin’ stories*** - in our political and cultural, as well as family and personal lives. Such stories do not allow for much difference. They give little space for other perspectives and true dialogue.
We might have built up our own understanding of what is going on, what everybody else is thinking, who we have to be to fit in with a family or any group. This story about what is going on can be oppressive and hurtful: ‘They don't understand’, ‘They won’t want me if I don’t bring in the bacon.’, ‘They think I’m stupid.’ ‘I must look after everyone.’ 'They don't really care about me.' 'They won't be able to manage it if I'm honest or vulnerable', ‘They think I’m bad because I’m a man’.
These thin stories limit us as they often lead us into storylines they do not provide the resources to negotiate. We end up down dead ends, lost, powerless and often feeling alone. And so, all of our personal and social strategies for avoiding the fundamental contradictions and mystery of reality deny us and our relationships (and our societies) the possibilities that different stories, even contradictory ones, offer us. They make us susceptible to getting stuck down dark alleys without hope.
Faith faces the abyss of not-knowing
When we get stuck in our thin stories’ dark alleys, we may start to question them. When we are confronted with the colonising, the shaming and the othering we’ve participated in, we may begin to doubt our pedestals of authority. But to doubt forces us to look behind our stages of fear, where we’ve found a place to be and belong, and stare into terrifying uncertainty behind.
But in this moment, doubt and scepticism can reach their fullest potency.
For me, drawn irresistibly to this place, I learned to listen into the stillness of what I call real faith, even if that is in a crevice of perturbed confusion. This, I believe, is the silence of a Voice that will not be contained by our comprehension, nor will it colonise another. I learned that the darkness, the uncertainty, even the contradictions, could be trusted, that in this stripping away, the emptiness can become the space for something far more trustworthy to emerge. Only in that place did I start to be freed from being bound to the stage of my upbringing and its colonialist scripts which left me hell-ing others as I ran scared of being wrong and led astray.
I believe this place is like a gestation period in the darkness and emptiness of the womb, waiting for life to begin. Monk Kidd, in When the Heart Waits, compares it to the transformative time of a caterpillar in their chrysalis. Here, the trick is not how to get out, but how to stay there long enough for it to do its work. Faith trusts that the difficult questions that we personally and socially do not want to ask, find impossible to answer, give the spaces for new life to emerge.
So what is faith?
This new life, this new faith, is wide enough to hold some of the paradoxes and mysteries of reality. We could call it dualistic. We could call it being happy with not-knowing. We could call it humility. I just think this is faith: a groundedness that transcends comprehension. This is a faith that can dialogue, rather than having to live in monologue, for it’s a faith that trusts the otherness of the other - for it sees the wisdom and beauty and good in them. We know that they enlarge our own faith, our own story, by their otherness, and so offer us new possibilities, freedom and hope.
But faith has also always been to do with the heart, with what we give our lives to. And so, stripped of our pedestals, our ways of splitting up reality into good and bad, holy and profane, we can feel compassion again. We can identify with the othered and shamed and touch them with humanness. We can feel the anger that wants to fight for the preciousness of all things, lament humanity’s capacity and tendency towards sacrilege. We can celebrate the diversity and multiplicity of life, beauty and even the sacred wherever it is found.
And so, real faith is the prerequisite of love: for ourselves, our world, our neighbours.
*See Bell Hooks, The Will to Change.
**We might be tempted to see self-betrayal as a femenine script, and the other side of the masculine script described here. I have two thoughts on this. Firstly, whilst this may be true in the experience of many women, I do not want to speak for them as a man - that’s happened enough in history. Second, I believe shame and self-betrayal are the mechanisms by which patriarchy pushes people up pedestals of authority and leads them into colonialism; the means by which men keep themselves and are kept in such scripts of authority and colonising. To go against these scripts, particularly around other men, we must first undo our shame and feel our self-betrayal.
***Thin stories is a phrase from Narrative Therapy, part of the lineage of family therapy. Read more here: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/