“The art of faith is the expression of a deep rooted knowledge that permeates every facet of our lives. The artist is not only the ‘believer,’ but anyone who lives a genuinely creative life as a result of his faith.”
- G. Boyd, “Faith as Art”
I’ve been thinking a lot about faith lately, particularly systems of faith. In fact, it’s literally all I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so, and has been pretty prominent in my mind for the past year and a half. The ways that people live creatively, both individually and corporately, is just fascinating to me, and I can’t seem to get away from it.
All this thinking and studying and comparing faith to other art forms has led me to see some patterns that have changed the way I understand faith and religion. I plan on sharing these discoveries over the course of the next few months, and any respectful feedback and critique would be much appreciated.
So, without further ado, here is the first of the tidbits.
The Three Approaches
I’ve found that there are three primary ways to approach faith in our lives, with each particular faith movement focusing on one of these, and we as individuals either choosing faith systems or creating personal faith systems based on an affinity for one of these approaches.
First, we may approach faith with a focus on the system of faith itself. The idea here is to experience the religion (broadly defined) simply for the sake of experiencing it with as much accuracy as possible.
We may also approach faith with a particular success in mind. With this approach one concentrates the entirety of his efforts in overcoming a struggle or achieving some specific thing within the context of the faith, having a very real possibility of failing to overcome the challenge.
Finally, we may approach faith with a focus on our response to central issues of the faith. Here we take an active role in continuing the mythology, making statements with every choice we make, and crafting a narrative with our very lives.
This final approach is the subject of this Thought. We’ll first look at the response-centric approach in greater detail, then I’ll give some examples of how this approach is being played out in modern culture.
Let me make it clear from the start that what I am not saying is that response-centric individuals or movements do not have successes in mind or do not try to experience religion accurately. What I am saying, however, is that these approaches create very different practical experiences and that tensions always arise when people approach the same faith with different agendas.
Those with a focus on response in their faith are okay with pushing aside accuracy of the faith system and clear successes in order to embark on the adventure which is life. This mythopoetic bent is about focusing on a central conflict, question, or premise and living life in response to it. It is about exploring the possibilities of a situation and making a statement in response.
Though almost every faith system has a narrative backdrop which frames the faith, it is only through a this response-centric approach that one is able to live as an active, creative participant in the direct continuation of the mythology as opposed to just tagging along for the ride or creating a story incidentally to going after a goal. The adherent sees potential resolutions to the central conflicts of the faith which haven’t been fully explored, whether personally or in the faith as a whole, and then commits fully to exploring the possible resolutions to the situations.
Though these conflicts of the faith are expected to have resolutions, any clear, definite resolution is shied away from when the conflict arises, as that would dampen the sense of adventure and prematurely end the drama of living through the response to the conflict. Life becomes a series of climactic moments, with no one knowing fully what will happen on the other side of the decisions made in these times.
Above all, one must personally put oneself on the line and truly identify with the mythos to take this approach to faith. It requires true belief in the story of the faith while one is addressing issues through it, and unless one emotionally commits to this approach, it is impossible to appreciate its impact. This response-centric approach to faith is an extremely vulnerable way of living, but it evokes the fantastic experience of being an active part of something greater than life itself.
“You were made by God and for God and until you understand that, life will never make sense.
“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
The most clear example of this approach to faith in popular religion (at least in America) is in the Christian Evangelical movement. Evangelical believers identify strongly and personally with the story of Jesus Christ, specifically his death and resurrection. All branches of this movement place utmost importance on the experience of salvation through Jesus Christ, after which one’s life becomes a process of discovering God’s will and living it out.
As there is no predefined, standard response to Jesus’ death and resurrection within this movement, there are many variations of Evangelicalism. However, all branches share a focus on this very premise, with adherents centering their lives on the response to it, and this bond unites all Evangelicals even when their differences seem irreconcilable.
As an interesting side note, because a personal, emotional response is required from every Evangelical believer, leaders in this movement who share this approach will typically downplay their own importance. They see themselves not as arbiters of God’s will, but as co-authors with their congregations, responding to the faith movements of the laypeople while guiding them to climactic, emotional decisions, fully expecting those in their churches to personally rely on God and therefore take charge of their own decisions.
“Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not so much present us with a moral code and tell us, ‘Live up to this,’ nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, ‘Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’”
- Eugene Peterson, “Living into God’s Story”
“I’ve been thinking about why I’m the one to discover Quetzalcoatl… the real Quetzalcoatl.”
- Ben Villars, “Tezcatlipoca? | Plants Have Consciousness”
One of the most prominent examples of this response-centric approach to personal faith that I have found recently is that of Ben Villars. Ben (known as Guitaoist throughout the Internet) primarily views the world through a syncretic form of astrology, a view which I had always assumed would eliminate the feeling of actually making choices, since everything is “written in the stars.” Though many people may actually approach astrology like I just described, Ben for the most part doesn’t try to make specific predictions of events that have to occur. Instead, he tends to live through events and, in looking back on them, finds meaning in them through astrological interpretations.
As interesting as this is by itself, his astrological worldview typically only produces or addresses minor life conflicts. The most powerfully addressed issue in Ben’s life by far is not a direct result of astrological thinking (though significance is given to it astrologically); it is his contention that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was the return of Zarathustra/Jesus of Nazareth/Quetzalcoatl and therefore a direct fulfillment of several messianic prophecies (particularly William Miller’s “Great Disappointment” of 1844). Through his YouTube videos and essays you can see the development of his life story, especially as he addresses his claim of Nietzsche’s status as Messiah, continuously progressing as he shares new conflicts which arise as a result of his beliefs and contentions and which call for new responses on his part (and indirectly on the part of everyone who chooses to integrate aspects of his faith into their own).
If you take the time to watch his videos and/or read his essays (which I would recommend if you are at all interested in faith studies), you should note how much he has struggled to craft his world view, often being visibly exhausted by the weight of his own thoughts. You see, the thing about personal systems of faith is that they require an intense amount of creativity in order to make them coherent in the slightest, and Ben has managed to essentially piece together an entire, mostly-coherent mythos on his own. This is not an easy task by any means. The level of artfulness and creativity which he instills into every aspect of his life is simply amazing to me.
“I primarily wanted to introduce the simple notion that even though [Nietzsche] did not know that he cured William Miller’s ‘Great Disappointment’ as being the ‘return of the messiah,’ of which the preacher William was only a mere WEEK off from Friedrich’s October 15 birthday, October 22, 1844, HE STILL FULFILLED HIS DESTINY WITH HIS WORKS AND LIFE.”
- Ben Villars, “Nietzsche As AntiChrist”
Living the Mythos
I hope this has helped shed some light on an approach to faith with which I was raised and which continues to be the approach I most often use to this day.
As I mentioned before, I’ll be explaining the other approaches to faith as well as other patterns in faith and religion I’ve found within the next couple of months. Until then, though, I’d appreciate any questions, comments, or critiques for my explanation of this approach.
I’ll see you in the comments!