What is faith? Is it a synonym for religion, an element of spirituality, or something separate altogether? Does it require a belief in God or a higher power? Is it beneficial or destructive? Permanent or transient? What role does it play in people’s lives?
A phenomenological interpretation was undertaken to reflect upon the universal experience of faith in human beings’ lives. Phenomenology is a method of qualitative research which collects stories as its chief form of data. Through people’s personal accounts of lived experience, the essence of a particular human phenomenon can be unearthed. The following description attempts to capture the universal, human essence of “faith” that links all people’s faith stories to one another, despite our diverse religious or spiritual affiliations.
Faith as an intimate attachment bond
“At age 9, I turned to God with my fear and my pain, and he became a Father to me. I pretended I was a princess who was kidnapped and being held prisoner by an evil man, but my real father was still watching and protecting me. One day, my Father would come and set me free. My dad tried to destroy me piece by piece. But luckily, I began to have a loving relationship with an Invisible Father which felt very real to me.” – “Father”
The word is derived from the Latin verb fido, which means to trust, put confidence in, or rely upon. This definition coincides with the manner in which eight research participants across diverse religious and spiritual affiliations experienced the role of faith in their lives. These participants described faith as an intimate attachment bond which provided a deep trust that there is someone there for them, such that they are not alone. Faith provided them with confidence that an attachment figure exists as their rock, their anchor, offering everlasting protection and community. Faith provided certainty that this attachment figure would always be there to look after them from birth unto death and beyond. Having trust in this bond helped participants survive the tumultuous tides of human existence—be it bereavement, life-threatening illnesses, traumatic relationships, or everyday loneliness and insecurities.
“Since I wasn’t with my parents, praying gave me a sense of not being alone. Family always represented religion, so why couldn’t religion represent family for me right now?” – “Comfort”
Participants described faith becoming more pertinent as they separated from parents, whether due to traumatic circumstances like abuse or death, or more organically as they moved away to college. Parents often initially play the role of the primary attachment figure upon whom human beings confer faith that there are benevolent forces in life to protect us. Yet upon being separated from parents, participants described filling their existential need for attachment via religion and spirituality, which emerged to reassure them that they are not alone. Be it God, Jesus, Allah, Brahman, the Universe, a Higher Power, The Interconnectedness of Life, or local religious communities, the attachment bond of faith helped participants feel connected, accepted, and protected so that they could remain resilient amidst life’s circumstances.
Faith as a personal reckoning
“I was raised to pray five times a day, to fast, and to avoid socializing with boys, with the message that if I didn’t do these things, I’d be sent to hell. But you really had to believe in the religion to pray five times a day. To wake up at 5AM, wash up when it’s cold and pray. It takes up your entire day. I mean, I could not do that. When I was 14, I pushed away my religion and declared myself an Atheist. But then later, I’d be like, maybe I’m not an atheist because I think I do believe in God. So I’d begin praying again.” – “Modesty”
All participants described first being exposed to “faith” through their families. As children, they described learning religious rituals, languages, and stories passed down from their parents. Through religion, lessons the meaning of life, death, and humanity, as well as the existence of God and an afterlife, were gifted to them by primary attachment figures to soothe uncertainties and offer a blueprint for life. Some participants described faith as an inheritance, a tried-and-true meaning system passed down by ancestors to help the next generation make sense of the chaotic, finite world. Most participants acknowledged the powerful bond that faith can create in families and communities who share the same value system.
Yet most participants also described being faced with a time of personal reckoning as they transitioned out of childhood. They felt the need to judge the merits of faith for themselves: “Does the religion within which I am raised truly provide a source of comfort, protection, and support? Do I really trust that God exists, or does such a notion fail to resonate with me?” This personal reckoning determined whether to adopt faith as “mine” or “not mine”.
“Ultimately I broke up with my girlfriend because I realized we could never marry. When you marry someone, you marry into their family. And I was never going to be accepted by that family. So when I think about faith, the word that comes to mind is arbitrary. It’s so arbitrary, the idea that I am born into a certain faith. And because I’m born into that faith, I’m supposed to believe x, y, and z straight from birth.” – “Arbitrary”
Some participants described coming to the painful realization that faith has failed to protect and support them. Their life experiences showed faith to be nothing but oppressive. This was often because they experienced an institutionalized form of religion behaving as too rigid an authority on how to live a moral life, condemning human experiences such as divorce and sexuality, and interfering with significant relationships. As a result, some participants feel persecuted, ostracized, and let down by faith. One participant described a decision to opt out of faith altogether—though he could perceive it as positive for some people, it brought nothing to his own life but pain and sadness.
Faith as a transcendent intimate encounter
“One night, I found myself sitting on my bed sobbing and begging to not be alone anymore. When I opened my eyes, sitting at the end of my bed was Jesus. He said nothing. He put his arms around me. And he hugged me. Then I was filled with this incredible light, like the sun. It was this unbelievable warmth that was calming and reassuring, and it was sending me a non-verbal message.” – “Love”
For other participants, their time of personal reckoning intensified their commitment to faith. This was especially true if they experienced an actual encounter with God, Jesus, Allah, the Universe, or any other form of Higher Power. Some participants described encountering faith on an intimate, visceral level, as if their body was conversing with a sacred presence. One participant described her body’s boundaries feeling permeable and spacious, as energy flowed in and out. Another participant described his body being pulled into another realm, connected with something much larger than his singular self. Still another described her body feeling embraced by a bright, warm light, as radiant as the sun. These participants described their bodies as being literally touched by faith. This felt presence, reverberating through senses of touch and sound, evoked a certainty in participants about the existence of a Higher Power. For these participants, their profound feelings of serenity, love, and gratitude transcended any rational debate about faith, religion, and the existence of God.
“The entire time, I wouldn’t stop talking about God, my relationship with God, and who I thought Jesus was. I kept telling friends and doctors: “Oh it’s cool because God is this and God is that…”. It just naturally poured out of me… That moment was a culmination of my experience in New York: an apex of shedding my religion but crystallizing my spirituality.” – “Stronghold”
Participants who emerged from such encounters described a renewed attachment to faith. These encounters helped them form a life-long, intimate, one-to-one relationship with God. After solidifying this bond, some participants described feeling free to reshape their relationship to faith to fit their personal needs, rather than struggling to fit their faith inside the box of an institutionalized religion. Participants who personalized faith in this way, beyond their inherited religious ideologies, described a newfound spiritual sensibility entering their lives. They described a desire to liberate themselves from the regulations and identity labels set forth by institutionalized religions, yet simultaneously accessing a greater sense of spirituality. Their experiences suggest that one does not need to be affiliated with a particular religion to experience a deep attachment bond to God.
Faith as relational ambivalence
“There has been an inner conflict between my dual identity as a Muslim and an American, where I feel tugged in two different directions. It has been a struggle, trying to reconcile the two. I want to live more faithfully as a Muslim, and adhere to my traditions and rituals. But also, I love my American way of life… I do not pray five times a day. I drink alcohol. I’ve never had a Muslim partner. But I know I am a Muslim. It’s something I carry in my heart, and it’s something really deep.” – “Dichotomy”
Participants who adopted faith as their own—be it through spirituality and/or organized religion—often experienced a push-pull relationship with faith throughout their lives. In times of turmoil, they described their bond with God or their religious community as offering much-needed comfort, protection, identity, and belonging. At other times, faith was experienced as restrictive, persecutory and rejecting, due to punitive religious norms or tragedies for which one held God responsible. For participants who experienced both polarities—faith as both supportive and oppressive—it became difficult to pin down their fixed position to faith. They described their faith-relationship as continuously fluctuating between push-and-pull, presence-and-absence, trust-and-mistrust, certainty-and-uncertainty. Faith was given the cold shoulder or embraced, depending on its role as healer or destroyer at any given moment in their lives.
This coincides with the difficulty for human beings to navigate ambivalence in any intimate relationship. Participants’ faith stories demonstrate how challenging it can be to reconcile the faith relationship as both oppressive and healing. Many human beings spend a lifetime trying to reconcile the bad and good within their attachment figures. The faith-relationship appears to be no different. But then again, faith means “to trust.” Just like any intimate relationship, the decision to trust must be made again and again after inevitable relational failures. Throughout the rest of their lives, perhaps participants will continue to ask themselves, “Do I still have faith? Or will faith let me down again?” Indeed, it requires a “leap of faith” to trust again amidst the inevitable fallibility of relationship. Nevertheless, most participants described retaining certitude that a sense of faith resides deep within them, and that they can always return to it.
“It has been seven years since my dad’s death. Since then, my religious beliefs have softened in my mind. I’ve started questioning if I truly believe in reincarnation. If there really is such a thing as heaven. But my faith has never wavered.” – Acceptance
Please feel free to contribute your own insights about the role and function of the phenomenon of “faith” in human beings’ lives. You can post your reflections in the ‘Comments’ section below.