"To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic." —J. S. Mill
Recently an Asian friend of mine was reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (which is an excellent book by the way, and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Religious Experience), and he expressed considerable astonishment over how much faith in Christianity Western people used to have. One of the more extreme examples in the book is the case of Heinrich Suso, a 14th-century Catholic monk and mystic who, largely out of unquestioning medieval faith in his religion, essentially tortured himself half to death over the course of many years. Among other various and gruesome practices, he never touched his own body, except for his hands; and for a while he wore an iron cross studded with needle-sharp points hung across his back under his clothing. When he first had it made he feared the sharp points on the thing and blunted them with a rock; but then, overcome with shame at his own cowardice, he sharpened them up again, so that blood flowed from the open sores on his back whenever anything, including his clothes, pressed on the cross he bore. He had spiked underwear also, with the needles pointing inwards. Furthermore, like the much more famous St. Francis of Assisi, he didn't wash his clothes, so that his clothing, and his bedding, and his body, swarmed with lice. But the Blessed Heinrich was not just some lunatic on the fringe of society: he was a highly respected scholar, and his book The Clock of Wisdom was very popular, possibly only St. Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ being a more widely read religious book, aside from the Bible itself, in medieval Europe.
Our conversation inspired me to read a little on medieval Christianity, and I came upon some information on one Marie of Oignies, a person I had never heard of before. She lived in what is now Belgium during the early 13th century, and was a founder of the beguines, a movement of unordained lay sisters in the Catholic Church. She was married, although she persuaded her husband not only to be celibate and to live in voluntary poverty with her, but to nurse lepers with her as well. (She may have led her mate to the gates of Heaven,…but still I can't help but feel kind of sorry for the guy.) She had what might be called an obsession with the passion of Christ, and would often weep uncontrollably for days upon contemplating it. Out of profound faith in Jesus she tried to imitate the sufferings he experienced before and during his crucifixion. She ate no meat—not out of consideration for health or the ethics of killing animals, but out of a felt need to avoid any sensual pleasure—and once when a doctor ordered her to eat some meat when she was very ill, she ate it…but after her recovery, by way of compensation, she cut off an equivalent amount of flesh from her own body. With a knife. She ate a trivial amount of food once a day, and preferred bread so coarse and hard that it caused the inside of her mouth to bleed. She actually liked it when her mouth bled like this, as it reminded her of the blood of Christ. Her father confessor, although technically her spiritual director, nevertheless considered Marie to be his own spiritual teacher, despite the fact that she wasn't even an ordained nun—which reminds me of Ammachi in India, who, although as far as I know is not ordained into any spiritual order, often has Brahmin sadhus sitting at her feet. He considered her to be in a state of constant prayer, day and night, no matter what she was doing. Marie died in a state of extreme emaciation; and although she was never canonized as a saint, she is reported to have been able to perform miracles, and was beatified by the Vatican.
These are just two little examples of the profound faith-induced fervor of medieval Christianity. There were literally millions of people whose religious practices of self-denial and self-mortification would be considered freakishly morbid or insane by modern standards. They behaved this way largely out of absolute, unquestioning faith in the religion their culture bestowed upon them, i.e., Roman Catholicism; they were taught that this life is our only chance for salvation, and that if we blow it we will roast in torment in Hell forever and ever, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Having no doubts at all, none whatsoever, about such an idea presumably fired people up pretty easily with zeal for spiritual practice.
I may as well mention that similar zeal could be found in India during the Buddha's time. Ascetics were torturing themselves, sometimes literally to death, there also. According to tradition, the Buddha himself experimented with this before his Enlightenment. One of the most memorable stories in the Dhammapada commentary involves a fellow who went to the Ajīvakas, one of the most ascetic sects in India at the time, in order to join their sangha. One of the first things they did was to hold the fellow down, put some boards crosswise over him, with some of the heavier Ajīvaka monks sitting on the boards to keep him down, and then rip out his hair and beard with a special comb which gripped the hair—and this excruciating procedure was before he even joined up! It was just to get him ready! As a general rule, people willing to go to such extremes for the sake of salvation or liberation must have stainless steel faith in what they are doing.
On the other hand, such people probably would not be very much fun to converse with. The medieval Catholics in particular believed their religion with such unquestioning certainty largely because they were products of an ideological monoculture (a "culture monoculture"), and had virtually no exposure to any conflicting point of view, other than perhaps an occasional Jew or witch—who tended not to make edifying examples, since they were prone to being burned at the stake, or otherwise lynched by howling mobs.
So historically, the people who have had such absolute faith that they were willing to sacrifice their life for the sake of Salvation have tended to be pretty damn narrow-minded. We modern Westerners, with exposure to many different points of view, could hardly manifest such intense religious faith as all that. We can't help it; our culture just isn't set up for that kind of thing, and we are products of it. It's hardly likely that any American Christian nowadays has sufficient faith, like St. Francis, to spontaneously develop the stigmata (that is, the five wounds Jesus received during his crucifixion, on his hands, feet, and side). Many of them, although considering themselves Christians, might consider such a thing to be impossible, and nothing more than a legend. For that matter, they might have a similar opinion about the faith-based miracles of Jesus himself—O yea of little faith.
On the other hand (I think we're up to three hands now), we modern Westerners, plus westernized Easterners, also have a kind of unquestioning, absolute faith—but it is of a very different kind. It could still fairly be called "religious," though. Our faith is in scientific materialism, which, so long as it is not strictly hypothetical, as science is supposed to be, may be called the religion of Scientism. It is our modern creed, or at least a major part of it. And it may be that, much as Christian faith reportedly can move mountains, or at least a mulberry bush, so our profound Scientistic faith can hold us firmly in a material world devoid of such deviations from intellectual law and order.
Thus we have faith, maybe even absolute, unquestioning faith, but in a spiritually destitute religion which prevents us from escaping, or transcending, the phenomenal world and its scientist-determined laws. It reinforces the system. It is a religion of Samsara, of Māya—or, using medieval Catholic jargon, of the flesh, the world, and the devil.
The modern religion of the West isn't even a very good "this-worldly" religion, as it places almost no emphasis even on the fundamentals of virtue, except for a kind of humanism-flavored political correctness. We recycle our bottles and cans and don't say the word "nigger," but truly open-hearted generosity and compassion are usually beyond us. We're too locked into a system that is not oriented toward that kind of thing. We may work on it a little as a hobby, but the main thrust of our faith is in a different direction, sometimes almost the opposite direction. But it is very difficult not to believe in our own ideological monoculture, the monoculture of materialism or Scientism which pervades the educational system, the mass media, the world's governments, the minds of our friends and neighbors, and the world in general.
The thing is, we just can't decide to have absolute, unquestioning faith in something else, like Dharma. We're stuck being lukewarm and mediocre and politically correct and "nice." We can't be narrow-minded enough whole-heartedly to adopt medieval Christianity, or an ancient Indian tradition either.
So it may be that our best hope for a way of salvation or liberation is in the opposite direction, away from faith. Instead of profound belief in a traditional system, perhaps we could develop no faith in anything, including the spiritually destitute system that has become the new religious monoculture. If we can't have sufficient faith in virtue, love, mystical union, etc., maybe we can simply relinquish faith in whatever contradicts them, such as scientific materialism and political correctness hysteria.
This may not be as silly or far-fetched as it sounds, as this renunciation of faith in anything is apparently one of the earliest and most advanced paths in Buddhist Dharma. For example the Aṭṭhakavagga, considered by many scholars (and by me also) to be one of the earliest Buddhist texts in existence, teaches again and again that a monk should have no perception, no idea, no belief about anything—in other words, he should have no specific faith. This was with regard to religious and philosophical systems especially, but it could work even better with regard to worldly scientific materialism and the fashions of political correctness.
There can still be some kind of faith, however; or perhaps it would be better to call it by some other word that doesn't smack so much of the Christian religion we have rejected; so let's call it "trust," unless we're talking about Christianity in particular. Still we can have some kind of trust, so long as it's not conceptual belief.
St. John of the Cross, for instance, spoke of dark faith, with involved no thought. In fact it had a lot of overlap with what a Buddhist would call jhāna. It was, or is, assuming that anyone still experiences it, a direct, nonverbal, non-symbolic experience of Divinity, or Reality. So it isn't really necessary actually to believe in something. And although this state is usually limited to very advanced Dharma practice, everyone has it to some degree. If we didn't have it at all, we would be robots or vampires, dead.
At a more elementary, practical level we may still trust that Dharma is good for us. Not that philosophical ideas in Dharma books are good for us, but that Waking Up is. There is a restlessness, an urgency, an intuitive feeling of "It's time to wake up," and an intuitive appreciation of anything that helps in that, anything that opens our mind and heart and spirit, anything that causes fewer desires, greater clarity and peace, greater contentment, greater love. We experience, very deeply, that it is good.
As a teenager I had this kind of experience when I started reading books by Ram Dass. At the time I had rejected the standard social system with a fair amount of contempt, and was experimenting with replacing it with partying, drugs, and general anarchy. Neither was liberating, though, and neither felt really satisfactory. But when I would read something by Ram Dass, who had a kind of contagious enthusiasm like most great teachers have, I could feel, "This feels right. I want this," even though I didn't understand it intellectually very well at all, since it was so different from anything I had been exposed to before, and didn't integrate easily. There was simply a depth, and a welcoming light shining in that direction, that was absent in conformity or in rebellion. I still have that feeling to some degree, thank gawd.
If adopting Buddhist meditation merely as a way of relieving stress or enhancing one's self esteem takes one at least a step or two towards transcendence, toward the ability to let go of the whole samsaric mess, then that's better than nothing; but so long as we believe in this or any other world, we're still stuck. Belief is Samsara. The old way reduced beliefs to a straight and narrow path which then, in the case of adepts, was transcended through advanced practices like extreme self-denial; but of course almost none of us can do that nowadays, so we'd do well to hold our beliefs in as loose a grip as possible, so that we may easily drop them and leave them behind.
And it may be, paradoxically, that zero faith, or belief, comes full circle and equals absolute, infinite Faith. Zero and Infinity are both formless, without beginning or end, and both absolute. In a way they are the same. In which case, there may still be some spiritual hope for us unreligious modern Western(ized) humans. And it's high time to wake up. And it can be done.
We Westerners just can't manage this any more