A question dominated my thinking in my high school years and college. During those years, I was torn between faith and reason, and the facts of who I was versus who I wanted to be. My problems–and I had already been diagnosed with Major Depression in the 7th Grade in Middle School–all seemed to crystalize around the question: What does it take to attain salvation? I was puzzled by this question because I had read books that explained about Original Sin in a way that was unhelpful, and because my religious Grandma explained her version of Christianity in a way even more unhelpful. To Grandma “The Just shall be saved by Faith alone,” meant “If you believe you will be saved by works, you will go straight to hell.” I was told that no amount of good works mattered, but only faith. Of Mother Teresa herself my Grandma said, “I hope she does not believe her works will get her into Heaven.” (I have come to believe that the Good Mother of Calcutta’s love of the leper’s comes from a sincere love of God, but that is an unrelated matter.)
At the time there were two questions I wondered that I think many people can identify with who have doubts about their religion but do not really want to believe there is “no one out there,” either:
1. If only one faith saves, just what does that mean about all those millions, perhaps billions, of people in other religions?
2. If nothing but faith is necessary to win salvation than perhaps even a very bad person can convert without truly changing and yet people will judge him “saved.” I remember that there was a Christian rock band said that Jeffry Dahmer, who converted to Christianity in prison, was going to Heaven. Yet would it make sense to say Jeffry Dahmer, who was a murderer, was in Heaven whereas Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, who are “great souls” to their peoples do not make the cut?
I also had the emotional problems (I would later be diagnosed with Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder) that, perversely, I find St. Paul had before he became a Christian. My self-doubt and lack of faith in my ability to be the person I wanted to be was extreme. I have found since then that to become good, a person has to believe in their ability to be the person they want to be. Even that by itself may not be enough: it takes hard work to recover your true soul. Yet I could have related to these words in my morass of self-hate and self-pity:
Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
Yet the accuracy of this description of my Christian faith is why I lost faith in it. I could not seem to grasp a hold of that elusive reality that would make me whole. I could not really believe that if I simply had “more faith” I would be healed. And every single Christian friend I had in college seemed to believe what I lacked was “faith,” that my desire to believe in reasons for beliefs and actually doing things in practical ways was heretical. They did seem happier than me in a way, but it seemed that their joy was reflected in the fact that they had no mental illness and had no questions they thought needed answers.
I lost faith. For only a few days I had such a relief of feeling that I did not know how to explain it. Why would losing faith in God feel good? There is no describing it. Yet than I felt a deep despair, like the Medieval Church taught some priests had when the wrestled with the devil in the form of unbelief. I would sit in the library or in the lounge, and I would luxuriate in my misery.
Yet then I found the book that helped me in my hour of need. It was Benedict Spinoza’s Ethics. I found in his psychology reasons for my sorrow and answers to my problems. He believed that good was “pleasure with the idea of an outside cause” and evil “pain with the idea of an outside cause” and goodness “enlightened self-interest” for “Man is to man a God.” I saw in this a partial answer: to do good for oneself without hurting others was a part of virtue. I also saw this: that there was another layer of virtue, imperfectly realized by Spinoza: the social virtues, the desire to form friendships. I however found that there was a limit to the healing I found in Spinoza: I wanted to believe that true virtue involved a form of charity or giving which transcended mere self-interest.
I found a similar projection in his ideas about God. I admired his idea that God and Nature was One, both because of his profound faith and because of his deep thinking about it. Yet I had two problems. One, to Spinoza God is eternal and is the Universe. To me it seemed more likely God was the Creator rather than the Universe itself. Then Spinoza said–for he held the Love of God is the Holiest expression of one’s humanity–held that “if a person loves God truly he will not expect God to love him back.” Yet I found in myself that, selfish though it might sound, I could not love a Being which had no feelings for me in return. So I formed a kind of Deistic faith, and hoped to go to a Unitarian Church at some point. Yet I never did.
I spoke to a teacher at Kansas Newman about my beliefs. She asked if it was for a paper for my Grad School Entrance Paper or “just because you are trying to answer the troubles you have when you can’t sleep at night.” I think I thought it was both. I explained among other things that Judaism was an “ethnic religion” and she said that “No, that is not true. Even though Jews don’t seek out converts, when people come to them they are accepted. Judaism is a universal faith.” I found myself believing, though I had my doubts whether I would become Orthodox. I had been Orthodox in one religion and it hadn’t worked out too well.
For a long time, though I still have troubles coordinating reason and faith at times, I believed that works are “acts of faith,” which would not be done without the faith but which are themselves the sole reason a person is blessed or cursed. Now I have swung the other way. I believe that though works are important, so too is faith. I do not know if I have an exact formulation in my head, but I believe a good person should believe in God. I also believe a good person should do good works, however small. I had a rabbi who said that a Jew who never gave to charity suffered “a lack,” and I believe it. I don’t want to be accused of bragging about those good works I have done, but I believe a part of my doing is them is the knowledge of God’s approval. I do not know that I do them entirely for God, but I believe he approves of the work I did at the Breakthrough Club (for the mentally ill) and Pro Kansas Recycling Center.
Shakespeare says, “the evil that men do lives after them, while the good oft lies interred with their bones” but I believe this is not so. We receive part of our recompense for our good deeds in this life, and part of it in the World-to-Come. I really believe that even in life wicked deeds lead to misery on the part of the doer (despite Donald Trump’s apparently slipping through the noose of the Law), and good deeds lead to joy. To those who point to the murder of a Martin Luther King or a Mahatma Gandhi I say, “Yes, but they have us to remember them. So long as their shadows do good in the world, their spirit’s smile on us from Heaven.”