Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sharon Salzberg: Stages of Faith


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I was reading an old issue of Buddhadharma the other night and came across an interview with Sharon Salzberg for her then-new book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.

What struck me about her views on this was that she was describing a stage model for faith (James Fowler has done so as well in The Stages of Faith). Salzberg's model is very specific to the form of faith, however, and how it can develop within an individual.

She offers these stages:

Blind Faith: "Has that same kind of exhilaration and feeling of having a much larger sense of possibility [as bright faith]. But blind faith implies that you can't question, you can't examine, you can't investigate. Blind faith is the end of the road, while in Buddhist teaching, bright faith is just the beginning."

Bright Faith: "Many dharma students can recall that period of bright faith, which is at first an intoxicating rush of falling in love -- falling in love with a teacher or teaching, or falling in love with a brand new sense of possibility when we had previously felt confined or unworthy. Suddenly, this inspiration can turn our lives around. It's incredibly exhilarating and wondrous. It's the first step."

Verified Faith: "Through questioning, putting things into practice and examining them, bright faith moves to the next stage, verified faith, which relies less on external sources and more on our own experience.

"Verified faith comes from our own experience of the truth. The movement from bright faith to verified faith happens through putting something into practice and not just believing what we're told. It's about not being gullible, about questioning everything. What is frightening about blind faith, then, is that there is no maturation into verified faith."

Unwavering Faith: We move into unwavering faith "through constant deepening. It's like something seeping into your bones. If you've seen the power of love enough, for example, then you know it so deeply that it becomes something that you don't need to refer to externally. You know it so very deeply."

She didn't expand on this last type of faith any more than what is here. I wish she had, because now I will have to read the book.

As I read her words, I saw blind faith and bright faith as pre-rational forms of faith, verified faith as a rational form, and unwavering faith as a post-rational form of faith. I think this is a useful model for looking at the nature of faith in the world around us. We don't see much unwavering faith.

I do think we see a lot of people mistaking blind faith or bright faith for unwavering faith, having no ability to distinguish between pre-rational and post-rational. I remember the priests talking about unwavering faith in their sermons, when what they really meant was blind faith.

We are stuck with an overabundance of blind faith operating in the world these days. When a man can be sentenced to death for converting from Islam to Christianity, or when doctors can be targeted for murder by those who oppose certain procedures they perform, or when rape victims can be denied emergency contraception by overzealous pharmacists, we are living in a world run by blind faith.

Buddhism inspires bright faith in those new to it, which quickly becomes verified faith through study and contemplation. The world would be a much better place if more traditions hadn't excised that element of their religion.

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