The wonder of not knowing: Faith and Skepticism
I was a born skeptic. I sometimes wonder if my first word was, “why?”
Along with that inquisitive and often skeptical nature, I have also been a seeker of truth ever since I can remember. To this very day, I cannot just accept truth claims without analyzing them from different angles. The one thing I know for sure is that no one really knows anything for sure.
I often say, “I am a skeptic, but I am not a cynic.” As a skeptic, I question and might even doubt certain positions that are easy for others to accept as true. However, I am not a cynic, because I do not seek fault in the claims or beliefs of others.
In fact, I recognize that when people make a truth claim, this truth claim is true for them and in many cases, these truths are foundational for them, providing them with a sense of stability and security in the world.
What questions can I ask?
I wonder if being a part of the queer community doesn’t naturally lead to some skepticism around faith and religion.
For me, I love conversations about faith but am often less interested in a person’s claims themselves. I am interested in the “why” behind a person’s beliefs. Are they a participant in an elaborate philosophical or theological telephone game? Are their claims a result of an experience that they have had? In my mind, these are far more interesting questions.
Being a queer person in a deeply religious family forced me to ask tough questions and to go deeper into my faith journey. It was a path filled with challenges and revelations that shaped my understanding of faith, spirituality, and identity. As a queer individual, I navigated the complexities of reconciling my faith with my identity, often finding myself at the intersection of skepticism and spiritual longing.
I believe every human being is doing the best that they can with the information, understanding, awareness, and level of consciousness that they have.
While I do not claim identification with any specific religion, I find myself drawn to some of the Vedantic ideas regarding an ongoing evolution consciousness. I would say that this has even inspired a belief that every soul is a part of a vast unfolding journey with a singular destination. As Ram Das once said, “We are all just walking each other home.”
With this core belief, I have no desire to change people’s minds regarding their beliefs. I genuinely enjoy hearing about the diverse ways people view spirituality, the world, and reality. With one caveat. If I meet people who hold beliefs that harm themselves or others, I actively look for a thread to pull that might unravel such beliefs.
Revisiting the meaning of “faith”
After receiving the position for Program Coordinator at Folx with Faith, I revisited my thoughts on faith. I mean, “faith” is in the name, so I was motivated to revisit this concept.
I believe faith can be a significant part of the human experience. It can nurture the abilities we have as humans to expand our capacity for things like love, compassion, joy, and serenity. It can contribute to our sense of meaning and influence how we show up in the world. It inspires me to support queer-centric discussion groups about faith.
Faith is defined in many ways. Oxford dictionary gives two main definitions: ” complete trust or confidence in someone or something” and “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” In the second instance, that might include faith as accepting specific truth claims without critical analysis. It is a belief in something without needing proof of its existence.
In the Western world, faith is often directly associated with a religious framework and can be related to a person’s or system’s theology, religious sacraments, dogma, doctrine, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy.
For me, I would define faith a bit differently. My personal viewpoint on faith does come from my religious history and the process of deconstructing my religious past. I value the concept of faith that can be found in the four canonized gospels of Jesus Christ found in the Christian Scriptures. (I use the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, NRSVue, for my reference.)
Faith in the New Testament
Jesus mentions faith multiple times. First, it is important to contextualize these stories and understand that Jesus was a religious Jew. The gospels make it clear that Jesus was born, lived, and taught from a Jewish perspective and worldview.
The oldest written canonized gospel record of Jesus’ story is the Gospel of Mark. In all the gospel’s the concept of faith is regularly associated with healing stories. The first mention of faith is when Jesus heals a paralytic person in Mark 2:5. It says: “When Jesus saw their faith…” and then proceeded to heal the paralytic. The next mention was a story about the disciples fearing for their lives and he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
There were two additional occurrences where the faith of people other than Jesus is the catalyst to miracles in this book. This thread of the faith of others being tied to miraculous experiences are also true in the other three gospel accounts, Matthew, Luke, and John.
I find the story of the Centurion — found in the gospel records of Matthew and Luke — to be the most intriguing when it comes to the concept of faith.
Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servanta] is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” 8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servantb] will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no onec] in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will take their places at the banquet with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servantd] was healed in that hour. (Matthew 8:5-13 NRSVue)
In this story, Jesus extols the faith of a Centurion saying, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
Here is the thing: this story does not tie the Centurion’s faith with a specific religious architecture, but instead, he understood that Jesus had a unique quality that could heal others.
Roman religious practices were deeply intertwined with social order. The Centurion’s core theological basis would have been both contractual and polytheistic. It would also have included a variety of gods and goddesses. Neither Jesus nor the Centurion mentions a religious framework related to this healing. The Centurion mentions that he understands how authority works and recognized Jesus’ authority.
Jesus then goes on to say that this Gentile (non-Jewish person) had more faith than the people he had encountered that shared his belief system. What we draw from this story is that people with the “correct theological framework” had little faith and someone that deviated from Jesus’ religion had great faith.
In addition, this story that is specific to the queer community. Language in the passage suggests that the Centurion may have been asking Jesus to heal his lover. Not only did Jesus provide healing to someone with a contradictory belief system, but he provided healing to someone in a same-sex relationship.
Love, faith and skepticism, intertwined
Within the gospel narratives, Jesus also uses the term “your faith has healed you.” Indicating that it was not Jesus’ power, per se, that created the miracles. Instead, it was a shift in consciousness — faith — within the individual that caused a change.
Jesus loved people, and this love shifted their consciousness, producing faith. In my experience, the action of love carries a vibration, an energy that has the potential to resolve any challenge. Love is the healing force on the planet, as stated in 1 John 4:8 “God is love.” And yes, as a natural skeptic, this belief is something I was initially unsure about. Yet love has proven itself again and again in my life.
I volunteer with the unsheltered population. Many workers hope to change people’s circumstances. I notice this often leads to burn out or frustration. Have you ever tried to change anyone? Most people even find it difficult to change themselves, yet they live their lives trying to change their parents, children, lovers, friends, etc.
Some people even have the idea that they can change the world, which sounds stressful to me. I do not believe I can change anyone. But love transforms and changes. When I volunteer, I work with and through love. When they are ready, people change themselves. This was a wonderful revelation, because we love is in infinite supply. It often begins with learning to love ourselves.
Knowing what I don’t know
So, clearly as a skeptic I don’t lack belief. So how can a skeptic have faith? Like in the examples in the gospels, I no longer equate my faith to a specific religious or theological belief system. However, I don’t necessarily recommend people lose their religion. Many people find solace and stability in their religious community and beliefs, which is wonderful. As a skeptic, I still have beliefs, most of them are informed by my own personal experiences.
When it comes to theological questions, I often maintain that I simply do not know.
Years ago, I was working for a Christian ministry and a person asked me, “Do you believe that Mary was a virgin?” I knew this person was deeply religious. They were also on the board of the church, and I realized my answer could potentially impact my employment. Like most people, I could not honestly say “yes, Mary was a virgin.” After all, I was not in attendance when Jesus was conceived! The only response that came was: “If you’ve read through all of the gospels and the most pressing question on your mind is whether or not Mary was a virgin, you might want to read the gospels again.”
The good in it all
Recently in a book discussion, we had questions to contemplate for the week, then reconvene to discuss. One question was “What is God?” All week I thought about it, about the different descriptions I’ve read from theologians and spiritual teachers. I considered my own experiences. After that week of contemplation, the only thing I could say was, “I have no idea. Whatever God is, I know that it’s good.”
At this stage of my life, I have become comfortable with “not-knowing.” I mean, we are talking about things that are ineffable! It boggles my mind when people speak so definitively about something unknowable.
I do believe that there are things we can know:
- I know that faith is good.
- I know that I cannot be separated from faith.
- I know that faith empowers, especially when my attention is focused on it.
So, how can a skeptic have faith?
It’s because my faith doesn’t require me to hold beliefs that are beyond what is believable. My faith goes deeper than my beliefs. It’s about the love, joy, and peace that is infinite and always available to me.
Even those humans who know the most about how life works understand: we’ve only scratched the surface. The one constant I’ve observed? So much of what we experience is a mystery. My faith is in that mystery. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is good.
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James Masters (he/him) is based out of Unity of Springfield, where he supports the community through community service and technology. He is a contributing author for the bestselling anthologies, The Courageous Heart, Enduring Wisdom, & The Grateful Soul.
He is a personal coach focusing on spiritual and relational development. He is also deeply passionate about providing shelter, food, and clothing to the vulnerable population within our local community.
His knowledge of technology and compassion for others is a significant contribution to our community.