The Progressive Stages of Belief

by Hazrat Inayat Khan

When belief culminates it turns into faith, but before that happens there are different stages through which belief develops, and when a person says that he has no belief this does not mean that he is not capable of believing. Belief is something with which a person is born; it is something which one acquires when coming on earth. There is a saying of the Prophet Mohammed that every person is born a believer and only becomes an unbeliever when on earth. For instance, when a child begins to learn to speak, the mother says, "This is called water," so the child repeats, "Yes, that is water." The mother says, "This is light," so the child says, "Yes, that is light," Every word the mother teaches, the child learns; it never refuses to learn. But when a person is grown-up, then be has preconceived ideas; he has learned something by reason, logic, or experience. And if he meets someone who has more knowledge, and he cannot reach him through his own way of looking at things, he says, "I do not believe it." This means that although he was born with belief, he has now arrived at a point where he cannot believe, because his belief clashes with that reason which he has made for himself.

To believe in God is easier for some than others, but at the same time it is a natural thing. If he had not believed, Columbus could not have discovered America. Every soul is born with the tendency to believe. It is by believing that a child learns to speak; it is only afterward that disbelief conies as a reaction. Man need not believe in God because it is a virtue; he should believe in God because it is of his seeking. He may not know it, yet his perfect satisfaction lies only in the God ideal. Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, gives a very beautiful example of this. In describing a mill with which women grind the corn, he says, "The grains which take refuge in the center of this mill are saved."
Once when I was sailing in a boat, a sailor gave me some interesting advice. I asked him if he knew any remedy against seasickness, and he said, "No, they have tried for a long time to find something, but nothing is any good. You must fix your eyes on the horizon, that will keep you from being seasick." I was greatly benefited by that advice, and it was a stimulus to my imagination, showing that the wider the outlook, the less are our troubles in life. If we fix our eyes on the horizon, as far as we can see, then we are saved from the little things which make our life unhappy. God is the horizon, as far as we can see and even farther, for we can neither touch the horizon nor can we touch God.

Kinds of Belief

Some people say, "I do not believe in a soul, I have always heard about it but I have never seen it." All that touches his senses a man can believe by touching, feeling, or seeing it; but with something he cannot touch, feel, or see, he says, "It is not within my reach. What is not intelligible does not exist for me." In other words man acquires his own knowledge first and all that comes afterward he wants to fit in with his own knowledge. Often, when people have asked my opinion about something and have noticed that it was different from what they thought, it was as if immediately a wall was raised, for it is the nature of man to hold on to his knowledge. His knowledge may be of false or of true experiences. He may believe that on such and such a mountain a fairy descended on a certain night, that beautiful colors appeared and that one should go there in order to become illuminated, or he may believe that in the heart of Tibet, in remote places, people sit with closed eyes perhaps for a hundred years, and that when a person goes there he will be exalted. He may have heard that near Persia is a country where there are martyrs' tombs and that is the best place in which to become illumined. It is only what he believes; whether higher or lower, it is belief all the same, and if a person has formed a certain belief in himself he cannot easily change it.

There are many others who are bigoted in regard to their own belief. They stand on a certain belief, and instead of keeping it in their head they keep it under their feet. They stand there; their belief has nailed them to a certain spot, and they cannot progress because of that belief.
Belief is like a staircase; it is made in order to go upward, but if one remains standing on one step then there is no progress. One belief after another comes to a person as he goes further on the path of spiritual progress, each one greater or higher than the last, and therefore the wise, the illuminated ones, go from one belief to another until they reach the ultimate belief. The further a person goes on the path of belief the more tolerant and compassionate he becomes. The one who says "I am advanced; I cannot believe in your limited belief; it is too narrow," in that way prevents his own progress. He does not know that belief does not depend on saying that one has a greater or a higher belief, but that it depends on realizing and living that belief.
Very often people dispute over their beliefs, and generally none of them are convinced. Each has his own point of view and they dispute in vain. Besides, a person does not always argue because he knows; more often the reason is that he does not know. If a person knows, he does not need to dispute; he can hear a hundred things said against his belief and yet remain convinced and happy.

The Four Stages

There are four stages of belief. The first stage is the belief of the follower. This belief reminds one of sheep: Where one goes, all the others follow, and that is the belief of most people. If a person stays in the middle of the street looking at the sky, in ten minutes' time a hundred people are also looking at the sky. Four people will attract four hundred, and four hundred will attract four thousand. That is why the number of believers at this stage is so great; there is no limit to it. Whether it is a right or a wrong belief, they are only attracted by someone else and they all follow.
The second stage of belief is faith in authority. A person believes because it is written in such and such a book, or said by such and such a person. This is a slightly better belief, because if a man of this kind is not sure of himself, he is at any rate sure of some personality, of a certain sacred book or scripture. It is a more intelligent belief, and the one who refuses to believe in this way makes a great mistake, for it is the second step on the path of belief. If one cannot believe in someone who is better acquainted with certain things one will never learn anything. No doubt, belief in a person is greater than belief in a book. Very often a man says, "How wonderful! I have read it in a book so I believe it." He believes it to such a degree that even if someone else says that it is not so, he will still remain convinced that what is written in the book is true.

The third belief is that of reasoning, which means that everything one believes one reasons out within oneself. This is a still greater belief, but how few there are who reason it out! There are also many who begin to reason before arriving at this third stage, and then they cannot progress as they should because two stages are left out. Some begin to reason in childhood, and if they have no proper guidance reason will lead them astray. It is a great problem today how to bring up children. Parents think nowadays that by giving the children the belief that has been held in the family they may make them narrow, yet at the same time they have no substitute, no other belief to give them in its place. In this way children grow up without belief and to believe later on is very difficult.
During my travels in Europe and elsewhere I have seen the great difficulty of this question, for there are many who say, "We were not taught any particular belief, we have not been taken to church, we have not got any direction in that line; and now we begin to feel a longing to have some belief, but we do not know how to believe. We are too old now to take to a belief."
Belief should be sown in the heart of childhood. It is just like a person who only starts playing the violin at thirty years of age. If he bad begun at five years of age, in twelve years' time he would perhaps have developed the faculty of music, whereas now it is too late.
When a person has reached the age of thirty or forty and has already made an ego for himself, when he has learning and knowledge and has become centered on material thought, it is too late to begin to believe in something. By that time he should have gone from one belief to another in order to arrive at a high belief. No doubt, for a person who really wants to seek for truth it is never too late; yet loss of time is a great loss; no other loss can be compared with it. Life is an opportunity, and if this opportunity is lost, it is a great pity.

Now the difficulty with the belief of a reasoning person is this that if reason leads and belief follows, belief will never have a chance to take root. Reason will always crush it. But if belief leads and reason follows, then the belief will be purified and carried very far because reason supports it. Thus reason can either crush belief or support it, and if reason supports belief it becomes a great belief; no one can change it. But if reason crushes it then .belief cannot exist. This is why it is the custom among the Arabs to give belief to a child even before it knows how to speak. Then later reason springs up and crushes undesirable elements in the belief and raises it to a higher grade of knowledge.
But there is another stage of belief, the fourth stage, in which one's belief may be called conviction. It cannot be changed when it has culminated in conviction. Where does this belief come from? It comes from the divine element in man known both as love and as intelligence. It is known in these two different aspects but in reality they are one in their essence. If there is no intelligence there is no love; if there is no love there is no intelligence. Love springs from intelligence and intelligence lives in love, and thus they are two aspects of the same thing. Unbelief comes from lack of intelligence and lack of love. A person has belief in accordance with the extent to which he shows these two aspects.
A sympathetic person is inclined to believe what one says and to trust; an unsympathetic person is inclined to disbelieve and distrust. In order to trust there must be sympathy. It may be that a person is sympathetic and not intelligent, but intelligence will be there just the same, although it may be hidden by what one sees, because in reality these two things are one.

The Rationale of Belief

Taking these four stages of belief: The man who has the first kind of belief like the sheep will say, "Yes, I believe in a soul because they say there is a soul; I believe in God, and I believe in a hereafter because people say that when they die they will go on living somewhere."
The man who has the second kind of belief will say, "I believe in a soul because it is written in the book; I believe in a hereafter because the Master has said that there is a hereafter; I believe in God because the Prophet has taught us to worship and to pray to the Father in heaven."
When the third person is asked, "How can you believe in the soul?" he says, "Nothing comes out of nothing. There must be something for something to emerge. If my individuality is only a body, then where has it sprung from, where is its source? Do not sense, intelligence, consciousness, all show that I am not only an earthly being but that I am something different, something larger, greater, and higher than matter? I have been told of a being which is unseen, which is called the soul. Just as the eyes cannot see themselves but others can see them, so it is with the soul. The soul cannot see itself as the eyes can see everything but themselves, so the soul sees all things but not itself." And if one asks him, "But do you believe in the hereafter?" he will say, "I cannot have been nonexistent before coming on earth. It is only the existent which can exist. As I have existed before, then afterward too I shall exist. This is only a phase, a phase we call life. An individual is known by a certain name when in a certain form, a form in which he has perhaps followed some profession. But at the same time I must have existed before; I cannot be born only for a certain time, and cease to exist when I die. That is why I think there is a life in the hereafter." And if a person asks him, "Do you believe in God?" he says, "Certainly. There are different parts of one's being: hands, feet, and head. They each function, yet they are all called myself; it is one being. If this is true, then the whole universe is nothing but particles of God's life and the Absolute is one Being. God therefore is all, and all is God. All comes from God and all returns to God, who is the source and goal of all things. God is the ideal toward which I direct my concentration. I am trying to reach perfection by means of that perfect ideal which I call God."

But when we come to the man who has reached the fourth belief, which is faith and conviction, not everyone can understand his language. If one asks, "Have you a soul?" he says, "I am the soul. God is only my cover." If one asks, "Do you believe in a hereafter?" he says, "The hereafter I see here; it is not afterward. I see the past, present, and future all at the same moment."
That man lives in eternity. His language cannot be understood by everyone; reason cannot perceive it, because it is beyond reason. The past is for those who cannot see it. But the one who lives in eternity -- when he looks back he looks forward. The future to him is another past, a past which is eternal. And if one asks him, "Do you believe in God?" he will answer, "Do not ask me about my conception of God. I live in God, I am in God, and more than that I cannot say."


Source: 'The Power of Faith'
a Mananam Publication Series,
Vol. XIII; Number 1

Mananam is published quarterly by
Chinmaya Mission (West), Piercy, California, USA