Faith vs. Youth

Porter Clements

WRITING this now, I am 22 years old. I think for many people my age, ‘faith’ is something of an enigma. The word seems to carry with it an implicit anachronism. It calls to mind irrationality, superstition; ‘faith’ in what?

People often don’t want to believe in something they can’t verify, which is, I think, partly why the idea of faith might scare some people away. An aspect of this reluctance is the stigma that comes with it. To believe in something intangible is to risk coming across as naïve. This, I suggest, can help explain why for myself and so many people of my demographic—young, educated, sceptical—faith might not seem like something worth seriously considering. At first glance, it goes against the values we use to define ourselves as young people: where we are open-minded, faith connotes close-mindedness.

So if this is the case, how do I explain the fact that I identify as a Buddhist, a person of faith?

LIKE so many other people I know my age, I grew up going to church without really thinking about it. My dad would drag me out of bed early every Sunday, and grumpily, I would sit through it. Church was something I had to do, like doing the dishes or brushing your teeth before bed. And so getting to the age at which I could decide for myself what to do with my Sundays, I was happy to be able to abstain from this commitment. Much better, I felt as a teenager, to spend this precious weekend-time catching up on sleep, or otherwise just doing nothing.

But then my upbringing had set the ground for something. Attending church so regularly from such a young age meant that I had, unwittingly, absorbed some of the core concerns of Protestant Christianity; it had undeniably coloured my worldview. I did not believe in God. However, I did believe that I didn’t know otherwise either. And this was something that I noticed distinguished me from my friends who had no faith-background; they didn’t seem concerned in the first place, and it was obvious to them that the Bible was a fairy-tale.

I had no such confidence. At the very least, I saw the Bible as something which had the potential to profoundly help people, as I had seen every week in my childhood; it was to my mind an undeniably potent source of wisdom. But more importantly to me at the time, I knew that I cared. While I wasn’t then convinced of the existence of ‘God’ in the specific way that, for example, some of the women at my church who taught Sunday School were, this question was nonetheless one of life’s most intriguing mysteries. I couldn’t understand how my peers could so simply brush away the question of why that so persistently pervaded the world around me.

BUT ‘faith’ would become a much more practical matter for me when I left the country, at the age of 18, to go study for my bachelor’s in Scotland. It was then that I began to understand faith not only as something external, one’s personal answer to the question of why and how the world around us came to be as it is (in regard to which I saw myself as agnostic, my answer being something along the lines of ‘I have no idea but good question let’s talk about it’), but also as something internal.

All of a sudden, I had been cast out (by myself, in fairness), from the comfortable suburb in which I had lived in the same house for my whole life thus far, into a world in which I didn’t know anybody, in which everything was unfamiliar. In that environment, I was being compelled to do things I’d never done before, to manage my academics to a higher standard than I was familiar with, to venture out into places I’d never been, all without a ‘map’, so to speak. Internally, all of this culminated in the sensation that I was being asked to be a different person from whom I had ever known myself to be.

It was in this moment that I learned that faith could be something that one might require internally, as well. In order to thrive in this unfamiliar setting, I realised that I needed to hold faith that I could be someone who I didn’t yet see in myself. It felt sort of like when I was learning to ride a bike as a kid, when my dad was running with me as I was pedalling, until all of a sudden letting go – it’s that distinct feeling of not knowing, but going forth anyway, remembering that while failure is a real possibility, success is as well.

Buddhism, for me, was something I could use to articulate this experience to myself as I was going through it. I can clearly remember being 18, terrified, and reading for the first time the cryptic words of Shunryu Suzuki, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few … What we call “I” is just a swinging door that moves as we inhale and when we exhale.’[1] Although I didn’t feel at the time as though I fully comprehended these words, I could clearly discern that they would bear great significance in my life, and it somehow felt as though these words had been directed to me, specifically, to help me through this moment in my life, despite their having been uttered over 30 years before I was born by a man who lived halfway across the world.

FAITH, I came to believe over time, is something internal as well as external. It is the ground upon which we walk when there is no ground beneath us. And this, I believe, is something that all of us will have to come to terms with at some point in our lives. It is on this basis that I, as a Buddhist, enter into dialogue with people of other faiths, because it is a challenge for which I believe each faith tradition has a strong concern and to which each brings unique ways of thinking.

To return back to the question we started with, that of youth vs. faith, I proposed before that faith is something against which many people my age in today’s world have turned their backs on, that they think of as having little personal relevance. I would like to suggest that, to the contrary, faith is perhaps something that for us, as a generation, could be particularly cogent. As defined by us, faith can be something we use to empower ourselves as we meet a world ever fuller with uncertainties. Faith, and faith traditions, can provide us with systems for growing to meet this uncertainty head-on, and finding beauty in what we do not understand. Faith, understood as such, is something of an inheritance, and it is upon us to imagine how to utilise it actively and creatively. This process starts when we engage wholeheartedly with what is available to us. How might the faith traditions of yesterday work for who we are, today? I think a brighter tomorrow could emerge through the exploration of this question, and from sharing with each other the answers we find.

[1] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Shambhala Publications, 1970.

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