Like art, faith is not reserved for the religious, nor does any religion have a monopoly on it. To the contrary, at one level, faith is a common and important psychological coping mechanism used every moment of our lives to allow us to function as normally as possible. I am not exaggerating when I say it keeps us from going insane. We all need faith in this way — the scientist, the laymen, the atheist, the zealot — it is the mental bonding agent that allows us to hold it all together emotionally.
My faith that I will wake up each morning instead of drifting off into the underworld keeps me from going crazy the night before trying to contact people to say goodbye. My faith that I can drive to work every day without getting killed in an automobile accident keeps me from staying home all the time and getting fired. And perhaps most importantly, my faith that intolerance and ignorance will eventually give way to reason and compassion (regardless of how long it takes) keeps me from writing off every other person I meet as a waste of my time.
Unfortunately, at another level, faith is what some people treat as a type of official membership card in an imagined club God has sanctioned — “my faith has been approved by God — yours is just a cheap counterfeit”. This “exclusive” belief is an attempt to secure afterlife insurance and a defense against uncertainty whether those people are aware of it or not. When faith is held as a shield against fear in this way, it can and often does lead to a blindness that is perpetually confused with clarity. Why look around us when what we want is right there?
I might even agree with that logic if I could be sure truth was the goal of our desire instead of just security against uncertainty. But I’m not one to make that call for the rest. I can only speak for myself. I made friends with uncertainty long ago.
In the mid-1990s, when I first encountered a man who would become a good friend of mine, I was walking through the used bookstore he owned and noticed an entire section devoted to Theosophy. I was unfamiliar with the topic, but the fact that this particular section held both used and new books, as well as being situated in a prime corner of the building easily accessible for convenience, told me he regarded it with importance. I was intrigued. I introduced myself and asked him about some other titles before pretending to ask about the Theosophy section as an aside. He gave me the ten minute tour of the subject (referring to it as a “religious philosophy” more than a religion) and said he and his wife had been Theosophists for the better part of their adult lives. He spoke to me the whole time in an informative tone and without proselytizing, something I thought uncommon in a religious discussion — or even in a religious philosophy discussion, for that matter. He seemed rational enough for me to press him with a simple question:
“How do you know this stuff is true?” I asked.
His response surprised me and changed the way I would exercise my own spiritual health forever after.
“I don’t,” he said with a smile. “But even if it’s not true, it’s a good way to live.”
I found this approach to faith refreshing. It wasn’t the stagnant pool of entitlement and righteousness that has caused so much conflict in the world, but rather a view of faith that seemed to validate my decision to seek alternate roads to answers I wasn’t even sure I was capable of finding. It allowed me to indulge my pioneer spirit and understand my curiosity as a tool instead of a hindrance. And finally, it allowed me to remain open to the views of others whom I suspected were just living life the best they could under the power of their chosen wind.
But the most important thing I found from the talk with my bookstore-owner friend that day was learning the motto of the Theosophists — an inarguable statement in it’s mathematical simplicity:
“There is no religion higher than truth.”
I can find no fault in those words and have integrated them into my spiritual DNA ever since.
And this is how I view the creation of art, like faith, as something that all of us need to do to some extent to keep us sane. Whether it be painting, writing, playing an instrument, communicating with a co-worker or a friend, driving a car through busy traffic, cooking, believing in the divine, not believing in the divine — we need to live some part of our lives artfully every day, even if how we decide to do it is different from how other people might do it.
This all might not be true.
But it’s a good way to live.