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A Breathing Faith of My Own
by John Tibbetts

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The person whose faith is alive “breathes”— absorbing and expelling, believing and doubting.

I was raised in a rural Catholic family of the 1950s. In the orchard-rich east bay town of Mission San Jose—one of the original California missions—I was taught by the nuns from age five on. When high school came along, I commuted by bus to San Jose to be instructed by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. By age seventeen I had applied for, and was accepted into, this Catholic religious order.

contemplating JerusalemThe experience would unmake my traditional Catholicism.

To their great credit, Jesuits strongly believe in the transformative power of a thoroughgoing education in philosophy, theology, and an individual’s preferred course of study—in my case, electrical engineering. The result of the Jesuit formation is not easy to predict. It can lead some individuals back to traditional religious practices; others to radically progressive practices; still others to leaving the Jesuit order, Catholicism, or belief systems entirely. I myself left the order several years before final ordination to the priesthood, but not until I had a transformative experience—one that eventually led to my becoming a Jew by Choice.

On a sunny afternoon in 1967, I was at St. Louis University sitting in my room reading Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith for a philosophy of religion course. At the time I believed that faith was one and the same thing as belief; that is, a person of faith believes what is taught. In high school we were always warned against secular universities where we would acquire new beliefs and “lose our faith.” This isn’t just a Catholic assumption; it’s deeply ingrained into our language. To “have faith” in something is to believe in it even in the face of evidence to the contrary. For me, being a person of faith meant hanging onto the quite specific belief system with which I grew up.

Paul Tillich, a prominent Lutheran theologian, had quite another view. Faith, he said, is not so much about believing things as it is about being concerned about things, specifically about issues that are beyond our day-to-day crises and joys. Faith means that we make the effort, at least sometimes, to extend our horizon and look further out for meaning. And here was the revelation for me: Tillich said that the way we exercise faith is through both belief and doubt . The person of faith—that person scanning the horizon—learns from experience. As we learn more, we may come to believe some things we used to doubt and doubt some things we used to believe. Otherwise, we’re not really experiencing the world. To Paul Tillich, a person of unwavering belief would no more qualify as a person of faith than would a nihilist who doubts all.

This came as a stunning insight: Tillich’s form of religious faith worked the same way that my engineering thinking did. When confronted with a challenge, such as the design of a circuit, I pushed to examine, question, research, and test until I could identify what seemed to me true and useful, and what seemed misleading and discardable.

For many years I reflected on Tillich’s insight. In time I added a metaphor that helped me to internalize it further. In early languages such as Latin ( anima ) and Greek ( pneuma )—and, I’ve since learned, in Hebrew ( ruach )—the root of the word “soul” or “spirit” also means “breath” and “wind.” Perhaps it’s not totally surprising—“breath” is a kind of wind. And both breath and wind are invisible things that can be felt—hence their association with spirit.

Applying the Tillich lesson, I came to believe that faith is to the life of the soul as breathing is to the life of the body: it’s the animating principle. Believing is like inhaling—taking sustenance into ourselves. Doubting is like exhaling—letting go of the material that’s no longer useful and is, quite literally, exhausted. The person whose faith is alive “breathes”—absorbing and expelling, believing and doubting. No one can only inhale and survive. No one can only exhale and survive. And no one can simply stop breathing.

On its own, this insight didn’t bring me to Judaism. It did, however, free me to go a-wandering. I reflected on it as I left the Jesuits to explore the wider world. I reflected on it again when I entered a marriage, and again when that marriage ended, in great pain, fifteen years later. And it was firmly implanted when I finally encountered Judaism.

* * *

Twenty years ago, at a small dinner party where she had been invited to “keep the conversation going,” I met Barbara. We rapidly fell in love and subsequently married.

I had fallen in love with a Jew. At least in part what I was loving was her Jewishness, though, not having known many Jews, I didn’t realize it yet. Barbara was mentally acute, challenging, aggressive, and funny—sometimes to the point of irreverence. Yet she had a devout, even sentimental streak when it came to prayer and to God’s power. Her terrific, almost-four-year-old daughter, Rachel, was being raised in that spirit.

In Barbara’s company I started meeting lots of Jews: her family, her friends, her near-legendary childhood rabbi. And once Barbara, Rachel, and I were a family, we became part of a havurah group, and eventually of a larger temple community.

The people at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, I discovered, had many of the same qualities I loved in Barbara. They were educated, canny, funny, blunt, aggressive, challenging, devoted to family, and struggling with ritual.

And Judaism, at least the Reform Judaism I came to know, allowed me to “breathe” spiritually. Belief? Fine. Doubt? Fine. For Reform Jews, faith equals concern, and life requires the continual evaluation of one’s relationship to God and to one another.

I liked the fact that Judaism invites interpretation. Take the famous scene in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestles the angel. Is it a good angel, a bad angel, maybe Esau’s guardian angel? The Torah explains none of this. In just six Hebrew words the Torah says, roughly: “And Jacob remained alone and a man wrestled with him until the coming of dawn.” No angel, just ish —man. And the word “wrestle” can alternatively be translated as “roll in the dust with,” “get in a dust-up with,” or “embrace.” There are plenty of blanks to fill in here.

Similarly, much about the Torah appears indistinct, shadowy, elliptical, suggestive—as if specificity itself is an idol to be shunned. Of course, the ultimate example of ellipsis in Judaism is the very name of God. Even though our human consciousness craves specifics, the Torah tells us: God’s name is not for hearing, and God’s face is not for seeing.

Would a religion that forbids concrete representations of spiritual beings require concrete professions of specific beliefs? Wouldn’t it instead tolerate—in fact require—that our collective beliefs and practices be vague, to be filled in only by the living of our individual lives. Judaism requires spiritual breathing—a life of faith that includes belief sometimes, doubts sometimes, and learning always.

* * *

While my path to Judaism was perhaps unusual, I still think of myself as a rather typical kind of convert. Like many others, somehow I found I’d settled into a community I recognized and that recognized me; a community I appreciated, shared values with, and could raise children with; a community that allowed me to grow spiritually.

John Tibbetts, a software architect, is a member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

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