“Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it.” These words by Richard Rohr seem to me to be profoundly insightful about the way in which we have faith — a word which really means “trust” rather than “belief”. And we see this insight most clearly, I think, when we consider those moments in life which are difficult and painful, those moments when we would say that something bad has happened to us.
Because human beings are creatures of meaning, and we want life to be meaningful, we rarely leave an event uninterpreted. When something happens to us, we usually want to understand why it has happened and what it means. Consider, for example, that one receives an unexpected diagnosis of a dread disease. This is the kind of thing that throws us for a loop, for it comes to us unexpectedly, it activates the fear that most of us carry somewhere inside us that such a thing could happen at some point, and it threatens our earthly life. I have rarely known anyone, finding themselves pulled suddenly into this difficult reality, who does not at some point wonder about it, and try to make sense out of it. And since most people I have encountered at these times are people of faith, there is the almost inevitable question of how God fits into the equation.
And it is at this point, where we find ourselves grappling with the relationship between God and this terrible thing that has happened to us, that any of a whole host of theologies will be drawn upon to make things meaningful. I have been asked this question — “Why did God give me cancer? — on more than one occasion. I have heard a variety of theological speculations about the secret purposes of God that might be at work in these moments. I have heard resignation in the words, “God’s ways are mysterious.” And I have encountered sometimes faith-shattering anger that God would allow such a thing to intrude into one’s life. Each of these responses is an attempt to do theology. Each is an effort to make a difficult and painful situation meaningful in a way that makes sense. And, for me, each of these responses falls short, and leads us — as all theological solutions must — into difficult and dangerous alleys, and frequently alleys in which God comes off appearing to be either cruel or indifferent.
What Rohr’s statement about faith points us toward is a change to our usual spiritual practice of needing to impose meaning on a situation, even when the imposition of that meaning enhances our own suffering in some way (for how can the thought of God giving one cancer not add to one’s suffering at a psychic/spiritual level?). Instead, Rohr suggests that we change course, and simply embrace the reality that is before us. To continue with the example I have been using, this alternative practice would mean simply acknowledging the fact that one has cancer, acknowledging all the pain, fear, and other feelings that this fact engenders in us, and living for a while in the midst of all of those feelings and their attendant uncertainties. In other words, it is to make a deliberate effort not to make this thing that has happened to us readily meaningful, but rather to live squarely in the reality of it, allowing any meaning that may be there to emerge rather than imposing something preconceived.
This is, in Rohr’s words, to “trust the real”. And, the added component is, as we trust the real, to also trust that God is somehow found within it, even — and perhaps especially — when God’s “within-it-ness” seems hard or impossible to discern.
This approach transforms faith from a set of answers set up in the form of belief statements to a deep engagement with the real stuff of human life, in all its complexity, messiness, and contradiction, trusting that living in the tension of this deep engagement will lead us to a deeper knowledge and experience of ourselves and of the God who can only really be found within the sometimes all too real-ness of human existence.