Our Infinite Choice

“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” —Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

One of the extraordinary features of religion, as one studies it, is the infinite variety of its expressions. The moment we step out of the holy place wherein we worship, and into the crowd swirling past outside, we are enveloped in a multitude of faiths, each one with a history, symbols, myths, art, language, casualties, diagnoses, and prescriptions. They pour past us as we stand transfixed in the midst of the stream.

Some might picture themselves as a rock, immovable and stalwart, dividing the waters that flow past, resisting the current, sure in their grounding in the streambed. Others, less sure than curious, join the flow to ask those at their elbows and around them where they’re going, what set them on their path, or why they continue. Still others will do their best to divert the stream into side channels, away from the swiftly-flowing current into quieter, shallower rivulets, and eventually to pools of standing water.

We will step lightly up on the riverbank now, away from the analogy, carrying with us the twin observations of the variety of religious expressions and our attitude toward them.

The sheer number of religions sparks in us wonder that God could be filtered through so many veils and still be perceived in coherent form. At the very least the history, traditions, and practices cause us to view our own thin wedge of religious history as one among many.

Ask yourself this: If you joined your religion as an adult, what was the deciding factor? If you were born into your religion, why do you continue in it?

Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.

Is a religion a vehicle to deliver us to a destination, at which point, our quest fulfilled, we will enter into a sacral bliss? Is a religion a chrysalis within which we are transformed into another creature, a new creation? Perhaps we are pilgrims traveling through a barren land, seeking a city not made with human hands. If we become disciples of Jesus we will have no place to lay our heads, even if foxes have their dens and the birds of the air their nests.

“What makes a man human,” says Abraham Heschel, “is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a level higher than himself.” Religion, despite its flaws and obsessions, and depending on its light source, can be both a mirror and a window to transcendence.

Metaphors matter, because they both reflect and shape our experience and behavior.

Machiavelli regarded religion as a paltry crutch for an individual, but he saw the value in it for creating conformity and confining the masses. Durkheim regarded it as the social glue that created community and provided fellowship between people — solidarité.

When we bow in epistemological humility before our need for evidence that will undergird our faith, it is bracing to recall the debate between W. K. Clifford and William James.

Clifford, a British mathematician and a psychologist like James, was a friend of his, but also someone with whom he was delighted to debate. Clifford’s assertion in his The Ethics of Belief begins with the idea that our hypotheses ought never to be accepted until we have solid evidence for them. We find easy comfort in that which pleases us and soothes our doubts, says Clifford. We need to resolutely turn our backs on these superficial comforts and take the manly road of ethical integrity to face the universe as it really is. As it is in science, so it ought to be in all matters of life, including religion. As James quotes Clifford: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (Emphasis supplied.)

James answered Clifford in a closely reasoned essay entitled, The Will to Believe, a title that James came to regret because so many erroneously took it to mean “believe what you will.” In fact, it is about both the right and the will to believe.

There are two ways of dealing with received opinion, says James: “Believe truth! Shun error!...by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.” Clifford, asserts James, would have us choose the latter, to remain in suspense forever as we wait for conclusive evidence in order to avoid the risk of believing lies. In the thousand ways each day that we believe and act on the thinnest of evidence, says James, even Clifford fails his own stringency. But in withholding our trust until all—how would we even know if it was “all”—the evidence is clocked, tallied, and catalogued, James says we have already made our decision. Not to decide is to decide—a forced option.

Where do we get the spark of trust in order to light the fuse of faith? Augustine writes of the faith that precedes faith in God—and intimates that God gives us that faith as well.

No trust is without risk, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. We think that the currency of trust is backed by the gold standard of the degree of risk involved. In our calculus great risk should equate to great reward. But when it comes to trusting God we often find that a step taken in clenched fear, with a breath of hope, turns out to be merely a passing shadow in the waves of joy and relief after the act.

The debate between W. K. Clifford and William James in The Will to Believe is an example of calcified certainty (Clifford) versus the right to believe (James). We cannot wait for all the evidence to be in before we make decisions; James chooses to believe with both reason and passion.

For those of us born into our religion, we must choose at some point to make it our own or to search elsewhere for transcendence. What goes into choice? Circumstance, inclination, temperament, and tradition. But also reason, coherence with our reality, conviction, and passion.

“But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people,” says Henri Nouwen in Making All Things New. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Johannes Plenio / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/node/9022

If wisdom is the right use of knowledge, then this article demonstrates it. Thank you for emphasizing God’s great gift to us in allowing us to choose.

‘But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’ (Joshua 25:15)

Throughout the Bible we find that God holds up choices to people - life or death, righteousness or sin, justice or deceit - but He continually encourages us to make the right choices. There are continual choices for all of us throughout life - indeed, every day of our lives, but then there is this major choice as to whether we will obey God. Again, I reiterate: the fact that God has given mankind a genuine choice but mankind has made the wrong one is clearly proven by the presence of evil in the world.

Henri Nouwen said about choices:
“Many in Christian leadership do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. They make choices for others instead of teaching them to make the best choices for themselves.”


That’s another take on the leadership telling people “what to think, rather than how to think”.

Religions and their denominations generally end up being about themselves, rather than the vehicle by which we form spiritual relationships. The first generation of a religious discovery is born out of freedom. Those that follow, often end up worshipping the religion instead of the message. Those born into a religion are ushered into practices meant to keep them stationary, with very little movement available within the established order - until someone breaks free and the process starts all over.

My entire life within the borders of “religion” has been a series of discovery, interrupted by periods restlessness that soon find new landscapes to explore. I can’t say it’s been good news for the established order of things. What one circles back to is either some imposed fundamental, or something even more basic. What leads one to make the initial choice is important, I think. Being born into a religion is a handicap unless you are actually permitted to make it your own. It’s usually a painful process - as was the life of Jesus.


It seems to me that God made the Hebrew faith more inflexible then NT faith? Moses spelled out the parameters, detailing practice of a circumcised believer. The results, they looked and acted alike.

Jesus spend more time on ethics rather then specific forms of practice. Yet some of His ethics that addresses “self-denial” and “sell all your have,” have not retained equal footing. NT practice of Christian faith comes from Paul, but so does the new concept of Justification by faith without depending on religious works. After 100 years almost everything Moses demanded was rejected by the Early Church. With NT reasoning.

Thus we now have a kaleidoscope of religious ideas that are very personalized. Just as nature has huge variety within it species, so has God decreed there should be a people of faith where some include prayer to the saints and others who don’t. Genuine faith, coming from the heart, can be practiced 100’s of different ways. God’s experiment with a singular faith failed. Now God’s experiment with “a multitude of faiths” has grown into billions of believers. The gospel has already gone into all the world. Hebrew faith attracts very few, whereas the cafeteria of Christian faith attracts millions, as God as intended.


Hebrew faith was specific to the Hebrew people - their temperament and their history. Christianity reaches the human heart no matter the geography. There can be no expectation of uniformity other than what’s common to us all - the need to be accepted through love. Jesus, the point of all this, never intended ritual or uniformity. He responded to Jew and gentile alike. Christian denominations are more about style than substance - although, sometimes style can determines substance. This may be why we’re told “not to judge”.



Like many Spectrum articles, including this one.

…“And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” 1 Sam 3:1

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Prov 29:18

What is the issue?

“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38

I doubt whether you’ve read Taylor’s book, which is a thoughtful and often profound examination of the reasons for this age being a secular age. Perhaps you are reacting to the word ‘secular’ as that which is entirely opposed to the ‘sacred.’ But clearly you did not understand the essay, which explicitly makes the point that we must choose for God while still in this secular world, and implicitly affirms the idea (and the practice) that when we act in faith we do have the vision to see God and to experience the sacred in many and various ways in this life.


And yet the author never disclosed his personal view of religion or where he is at?