Having been raised atheist, I have had to learn about the deeper meaning and contexts of faith, and how it applies to my life, for myself and by myself. Noone ever told me what to think, so I was forced to find that light in the dark on my own.
One of the biggest influences on my perception of the concept of faith was the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. In typical Irving fashion, Christianity, spirituality and faith are key themes running through the novel and shaping central character development.
I don’t think that it’s possible to develop any character (fictional or real) without some exploration of faith and what it means to your life. It is so important to examine what you believe in, and why, and to know the difference between the stories you’ve been told, the stories you tell yourself, and what you believe to be good and right and true.
Reading the novel was a huge turning point in my life because it demonstrates (via Irving’s deliciously descriptive dark humour, vivid imagery, and twisted characters) how we can actually have faith without religion!
Now this seems so obvious, but at the time it was huge for me because before then, I always thought that the notion of faith was purely a religious reference: either you believe in ‘God’ or you don’t, and that is your ‘faith’. The term is so often associated with organized religion that it wasn’t until reading the novel that I understood completely that the concept did not need to hold any religious significance. We can actually believe as deeply in ourselves as we can ascribe that kind of belief to an external being or organization or scripture!
At the same time, the way in which it does have significance for a religious person is not that different from the way in which non-religious people do. The faith that people refer to in terms of a ‘God’ is also connected to a feeling, or a knowing ‘in your heart.’ It doesn’t matter if the ‘knowing’ is connected to a sense that god does or doesn’t ‘exist’, it’s just that knowing that is the faith. So this is a key theme that runs through all forms of spirituality.
The notion of faith is very similar no matter which story you are telling. To me it means that the heart or soul knows something that can’t really be explained. It may develop from a belief, experience, or feeling but it’s just something that you know.
The part that many organized (Western) religions miss, though, or maybe don’t focus on enough is the concept of looking inward first, having faith in self first, and then looking outward to ‘god.’ They place more emphasis on specific external ‘things’ to define their faith, rather than coming at it from the heart, and that is where problems arise.
The thing that some religions do negatively (in my opinion) is that they sometimes associate the idea of a faith with heaviness, with darkness. Faith should be about believing in light. Faith is not about burdens, or darkness, or guilt, or fear. It is the opposite of fear.
I still find myself stumbling around sometimes, searching for the light within, and some days the fire burns stronger than others. But then I try to remember that living a great life requires taking leaps of faith, leaps that won’t happen without unwavering faith in yourself.