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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

919: This little old guy looking after the pigs had great faith.

Day 919: Wednesday, September 21, 2022

This little old guy looking after the pigs had great faith.


The late theologian Marcus Borg (1942-2015) advises us to make a distinction between “head words” and “heart words.”

In Western religion, “faith” has certainly been seen as a head word, especially since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Suddenly we had a flowering of different denominations, and we could point out that Lutherans believed in certain doctrine, whereas Methodists believed in a different collection of dogma. That sort of stuck. In the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, “faith” and “belief” are used almost synonymously throughout its 800 pages.

“Faith” as a mental exercise can also be found in Asian religions, such as some meanings of Buddhist “dharma.” But heart words are much more important in the East than head words.

There is a current trend in the direction toward heart words in the West as well. Perhaps it is more so for people who are following individual paths outside of organized religion than people preaching from the pulpits.

Increasingly when people talk about their faith, they are talking about trust or confidence. But before I become trapped and trip over my own words, it is important to understand that there have always been people all over the world whose faith consists of confidence in life. One of the most significant in the Western world has been the Danish existentialist theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who wrote,

I learned this lesson when I was 14. My teacher was not a world-famous existentialist but a very humble Catholic monk in his 80s. Brother Fidelis Schoenenberger had come over to Oregon from Switzerland to join an American abbey famous for its scholars. He was no scholar. I went to a high school seminary attached to the same abbey. The hope of a local bishop was that I would stay there through college and theological school and be ordained a priest. After three years, it became clear to me and to the faculty that this was not to be my path in life. I found the boarding school atmosphere miserable.

The top of the hill was crowned with majestic buildings which included classrooms where teachers attempted to drill dogma and church rules into me. It was an atmosphere filled with head words. One afternoon, I walked down the hill and discovered a barn with pigs and Brother Fidelis. His English was as limited as my German. But we communicated well enough for me to offer my help and for him to gratefully accept it. That is where I spent most of my afternoons for the rest of my seminary time.

Brother Fidelis communicated with me, by his actions rather than words. I recall his face and his hands once as he cared for a frightened, young pregnant sow. I could sense his compassionate heart and his confidence in life. Years later I recognized this attribute in spiritual people of both East and West who lived in the present moment — the now. This little old guy looking after the pigs had great faith.

Faith in life itself has long existed in the East. The Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn basically says faith is a trust in the living of our life. He terms life an “experiential faith.”

We know that when we practice walking mindfully, we refresh ourselves, and we feel peace and joy with every step. … This kind of faith gives us real strength…. Practicing conscious breathing, aware of each thought and each act, we are reborn, fully alive, in the present moment…. The well is within us. If we dig deeply in the present moment, the water will spring forth.

In the West there have always been people who expressed the same concept but in different terms. In medieval times, some Christian mystics made a distinction between “God” and the “Godhead”, or source of God. In the 20th Century, the eminent theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) put fresh words to the concept. He said there was a God above God, and went on to join those who felt our faith should be in “being” itself. Tillich, who was termed a “religious naturalist”, was perhaps best known for his phrase that we should have faith and confidence in “the ground of being” and our challenge was to have “the courage to be.” Personally, I found that this particular spiritual concept of faith, of East and West, blended well with the work of humanistic psychologists, most of whom would have considered themselves secularists.

By accident, I ran across the phrase from the Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa (1940-1987). Regard all dharmas as dreams. Now, there are a lot of meanings for “dharma” other than “teachings.”

But Trungpa’s words started me thinking that it would be healthier if all of these dogmas we are required to accept as carved in stone were really seen as dreams. I value dreams. I think they are openings to our inner life. But what is very nice about dreams is that their edges are soft and flexible. This is probably close to what the Catholic priest and religious reformer Hans Küng (1928 - 2021) meant when he advised that most of the items in the Catholic credos should be taken as metaphors rather than rigid literal doctrine.

All right, so when we talk about “great faith” we are not considering a list of metaphors or dreams as dogma. We are talking about a trust in living. And perhaps most often it means a great confidence in the present moment whatever that might be — joy or sorrow.

What comes to mind is the Jewish toast L’Chaim — To Life! Somehow, I think Brother Fidelis would have drunk to that.

- Brother Toby

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