Last night a rather worthy – and not entirely unpleasant – TV program dealt with the run-up to Christmas from the point of view of three different “faith traditions”. My question, therefore, is: “what’s one of them?” The fact that the three concerned were Christianity, Judaism, and a very open-minded, friendly version of Islam did not bring me much clarity. I had an uneasy feeling that the term is being used to sweep diverging beliefs into a dark corner where we need not talk about them, as if they were a mad cousin who has been shipped off to the mental home.
I do, certainly, realise that “faith” should be about something much more than mere “belief”; reducing somebody’s faith to a mere belief, or set of beliefs, might be useful in primary school, but it does not encourage insight into any mature kind of spirituality.
I find, however, it hard to accept that these “faiths” do not also imply certain specific, possibly conflicting, beliefs. What seems to happen in my own mind, and I suspect that this is what the use of the phrase “faith tradition” tends to do, is to reduce “faith” again, but in a different way. Rather than reducing it to a mere set of beliefs, “faith tradition” tends to reduce it to a set of traditional observances. My picture of the follower of a “faith tradition” (and I know I use brackets too often, but I can’t help also but wonder how many people think of themselves in those terms) is of someone who perhaps has some beliefs at the back of their mind, but these beliefs are held for reasons that have as much, or more, to do with tradition as with intellectual rigour. Once the reduction has been done – I would like to say “emasculation”, but I’m not sure if that word still has the right connotations – we can go on to say:
“Look, this lot light candles around Christmas time, that lot light candles to celebrate Hanukkah, and the other lot light candles at the time of Ramadan: ergo it’s all jolly nice and jolly similar and we can all be jolly friendly.”
Well, of course, being jolly friendly to one another would be a wonderful thing, and there ought to be more of it, and I applaud the points the programme was overtly making. Thoroughly. But I can’t help but feel that talk of “faith traditions” is selling real spirituality down the river.
OBC (Obligatory Buddhist Content): many Buddhists light candles at the time of the full moon in May.