Printed in the Fall 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Goldsberry, Clare, "Unbelief on the Path to Enlightenment" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 105-106
By Clare Goldsberry
The New Testament tells of a father who approached Jesus out of a crowd, begging him to cure his afflicted son. The young man suffered from fits that often caused him to fall on the ground, gnash his teeth, and foam at the mouth.
Jesus asked the man how long his son had suffered from them. “Since he was a child,” the man replied, begging Jesus to have compassion on him and his son.
Jesus then said to the man, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”
Then the father replied, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:21–24). At this point his son was cured.
The interesting thing about this comment is that the father didn’t stop with his statement of belief—“Lord, I believe . . .”—but that he went on to request help with his “unbelief.” This might indicate that a person’s unbelief might be as beneficial to the path of enlightenment as a person’s belief. Perhaps even more so!
Belief often indicates a rigid structure, such as the term “belief system,” which often designates a person’s religious affiliation. Belief is often taken to indicate whether or not one is a true member of a specific religious group. Religious organizations often require a statement of faith or profession of belief from individuals as an indicator of commitment before admitting them as full-fledged members.
People seek certainty and security in the blind acceptance of belief systems. However, from a Theosophical standpoint, belief is something that is fluid, moving, living, breathing, and can change as one moves through life, experiencing various paths that lead us on our journey. Indeed, critical to the quest for Self (the Higher Self) and for God or the Divine within is the ability to allow our beliefs to be flexible enough to lead us into new ways of being and seeing the world.
It is critical to our spiritual progress to be able to ask the questions—to put our beliefs in suspended animation long enough to look at something in a different light—in the light of our learning or a new experience. Enlightenment can never become a reality if we are trapped in the darkness of a rigid belief system, unable or unwilling to ask the questions that can lead us forward into the light. Even the Buddha encouraged his sangha (community) not to believe something “just because I, the Buddha, said it.” He encouraged the quest and questioning. He recognized that belief adopted from the words of a supposed authority can often lead down a path of attachment. Therefore he told his disciples to put his teachings into practice, to try them and experience the results; only then, if they proved beneficial, should they adopt them.
Many religious belief systems discourage the quest, telling their followers that questioning can destroy belief. Yet often just the opposite happens. Questioning can open up new doors, new avenues to self-discovery. Of course, it may also lead one out of the particular organization to which one belongs, which religious leaders fear might happen if they encourage questioning and questing. It might lead one to a different organization or to no organization.
In his book The Soul’s Religion, Thomas Moore notes that people often use their belief systems as a basis for their faith. Yet, he says, “what they call faith looks like its opposite. Like those who whistle in the dark, some seem to parade their beliefs precisely so they don’t have to face the anxiety of not knowing the answers to the basic issues in life.”
Moore agrees that belief should be fluid and flexible. When it is rigid and inflexible, he writes, “there is no room for movement and no motive for reflection. When belief is rigid, it is infinitely more dangerous than unbelief.”
As my own journey led me beyond the belief system of my childhood religious upbringing, I found tremendous resistance from my family. In one outburst of rage, my brother accused me of not knowing what I believed. My brother can recite his beliefs word for word, as if out of a book. His chosen path lies in an organized religion that provides him with structure and certainty, but discourages members from asking questions or taking on a quest of their own. Perhaps his anger grows out of a fear that outside the structure of the organization, one becomes lost in a sea of unbelief. Protective walls come down, and one is left standing alone in the darkness.
In actuality the opposite often happens. When the walls of rigid belief systems come down, the light begins pouring in, and one becomes free to seek enlightenment by asking the questions and embracing the answers—answers which, by the way, might be in the form of more questions that propel one still further along the path. Becoming comfortable with this process takes confidence in one’s path, rather than in the belief system, in order to gain an understanding of one’s personal truth. Within the shadows of unbelief lies the openness to receive the light of spiritual possibilities; within the fertile soil of unbelief lies the seeds of new faith that can grow into knowledge and enlightenment. It led ultimately to the healing of the son of the man who asked Jesus to “help” his “unbelief.”
On the other hand, many in the esoteric community distain belief and all that it implies as being dogmatic strictures of the church. They think that somehow belief precludes one’s ability to be a seeker of truth. That is not the case. As Larry Witham says in his book By Design: Science and the Search for God, “One must believe in something in order to proceed to the next thing.”
Belief is indeed only the beginning. Christianity has long acknowledged that it is the first step toward understanding, as the father of the sick child knew. As St. Anselm, the medieval logician, said, “I believe so that I may understand.” As one moves from belief through the twilight of unbelief, one is ultimately led to the light of knowing, to enlightenment. Unbelief is not something to be avoided, but embraced as one seeks enlightenment and Self-knowledge.
Clare Goldsberry is a professional freelance writer and volunteer teacher with RISE, a continuing education program for older adults, on Eastern philosophies, the Ageless Wisdom, Gnosticism, and Kabbalah. Her latest book, The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth, can be found on Amazon. She is a member of the Theosophical Society’s Phoenix Study Center.