On Faith

What do people mean by ‘faith’? The question came home to me over the past few days, overhearing (‘over-reading’?) conversations online, reading the Bible, thinking about church life and what we do about it. I thought of some rough, schematic answers; they betray my intellectual ancestry, since they correspond closely to what George Lindbeck wrote about in The Nature of Doctrine. That doesn’t make me feel bad, since I don’t imagine myself to be as great a theologian as Lindbeck (who lived just a few houses down from my grandmother — and across from Aunt Isabel — on Autumn St).
Allowing lots and lots of room for enhancement (and again, figuratively footnoting Lindbeck) — I jotted down in my notebook three complexions of faith. The first identifies faith with certainty about a set of assertions about the nature of things, the existence and character of God, the role of Jesus Christ, and our relation to all of the above. This way of thinking about faith brings the advantage of clarity and force, though it brings also the uncomfortable drawback that almost anything a Christian can think of to affirm about God is non-demonstrable at best and outright outlandishly unlikely most of the time. (By ‘unlikely’, I simply mean that if these assertions were made about any other being, or any other state of affairs, most of us would probably say ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!’) This interpretation of faith (related to Lindbeck’s description of ‘doctrine’ as propositional) puts people in the position of determining that they know things to be true on the basis of equivocal evidence, evidence that doesn’t convince a very great proportion of those who consider it. It clearly connects firmly with common-sense understandings of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’, although it seems somewhat oddly disconsonant with New Testament characterisations of faith as counter-intuitive. Does one’s faith assert the requisite stuff about God because one has sufficient appropriate epistemological warrants? If so, why don’t more people (even more Christians) do the same? The more special one makes knowledge of Christian truth to distinguish Christian faith from faith in mathematical equations or scientific explanations, the less it holds up in company with its more robust would-be companions. Eventually, one is no longer talking about ‘knowing’ or ‘truth’ in their ordinary senses at all; but the common-sensical affirmations of theological truth constitute one of knowledge-faith’s great discursive strengths.
Second, people use ‘faith’ in the sense of an arational visceral certainty of something: a feeling of certain confidence that something is true, without regard to the plausibility of the truth-claim at all (Lindbeck labels the comparable doctrinal position as ‘experiential-expressive’). ‘I know in my heart’, one might say, or one might claim an uninterrogated special mystical knowledge. Faith, in this sense, is certainty in the face of facts and logic. This feeling is requisite for salvation, and if one feels something other (something less) than warm-hearted loving elation about God, Jesus, and various doctrinal points, one’s faith is imperilled. This way of thinking about faith rightly declines to categorise ‘faith’ as congruent with other sorts of knowledge — ‘things that cannot be otherwise’ — but locates [the feeling of] faith problematically as independent of and superior to any sort of deliberative or factual knowledge. And if one encounters challenges to the outlook that this brand of faith promotes, or if one experiences depression, has “faith” itself been impaired, or lost?
When I consider ‘faith’ as part of my ministries of teaching and priesthood, and as part of my daily life, I mean something rather different (and I’m not quite sure that Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ category works well here). ‘Faith’, so far as I can see, entails a lived pattern of testimony in word and deed, an orientation, that points toward a telos which renders this way intelligible. It’s a virtue (in the theological sense), a habituated disposition. Faith involves knowledge inasmuch as it is not just any way; it points not toward the latest fad in ‘what the church must be right at this minute to fill it with lots of people whose identities are bound up in just-this-minute behaviour’ nor toward the most recent issue of Nature, nor toward the Guardian nor the Daily Mail (nor the New York Times nor Fox News). The telos of this way can’t be defined by a homogenised “religion’ of all bien-pensant people, but entails a recognisable relation to a particular discourse, a particular practice. This approach involves feelings and intuitions, but they’re checked by traditions, decrees, the logics of doctrinal thinking and convincing rhetoric. They’re tested by the witness of millennia of fellow-travellers, some of whom have shown themselves to be expert navigators of this terrain.
While I have no hesitation in relying on the trustworthiness of typical Christian doctrinal and creedal claims, I don’t think it right to stipulate that they must be affirmed in the same way that I affirm that a body near the earth’s surface falling in a vacuum accelerates at 9.8 meters per second per second, or that I went to church this morning, or that I am a fountain pen appreciator. As I said above, most of the teachings to which the Church calls attention are pretty improbable; if I had to compare Galileo’s cosmology or Newton’s mechanics to the Virgin Birth on the terms of ‘how credible these claims are’, I’d put my money on Galileo and Newton every time. That is, after all, at least a part of the point of the Virgin Birth narrative: the church doesn’t bother affirming highly probable things about Jesus, because so few people would bother to doubt them in the first place. But the notion of forcing people to demonstrate their ‘faith’ by pretending that improbabilities don’t exist, or that un-predetermined deliberation partakes of opposition to the truth, seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with loving and serving God, and a great deal to do with organising and imposing human power over others.
And I don’t by any means discount feelings as an element of the picture; on the whole, theological affect means a lot to me. I count ‘beauty’ as one of the notes of theological wisdom, and beauty has profound non-cognitive effects on us. Wesley was not wrong to pick up the clue phone at Aldersgate, but he would have been misguided to make his cardiac temperature the sole determinant of theological affirmation (which he didn’t). We can be moved and wrong-headed at the same time, just as we can be certain and wrong at the same time.
So when church people start derogating theological teaching, as though all anyone really needs to know about the church and its outworkings was a pocketful of aphorisms about welcoming strangers, being generally nice to others, how woeful sinners are, what the precise words are the utterance of which will launch one from the pit to the pearly gates, or (maybe worst of all) it doesn’t really matter what you believe — when people start suggesting that anyone with no particular understanding of the church’s history, its roots in Scripture, or the complex interlocking balance of theological affirmations, inferences, consequences, and renunciations, should be entrusted with leadership, that’s a bad sign to me. When someone suggests that the church leave off its teaching ministry, that’s a bad sign to me. When someone suggests that the church obscure its particularity in the name of being able to assimilate people who might object to being part of — you know — a Christian body, that’s a bad sign.
Let the churches teach, gently but honestly, thoroughly and humbly. Let the churches acknowledge that although some are well-suited to exercise leadership regardless of their theological attainments, it would be unwise to suppose that the general condition of church leadership could be separated from understanding of the subtle, intricate historic way of life that millions have discovered, learned, deepened, refined, and passed along. Let the churches always remember that abstract knowledge about details must be tested against the living activity of the whole Body. Let the (modern) churches restrain the self-despite that tempts them to renounce their own heritage, the wisdom of their forebears. Let us all learn from one another, mull over what is good, and exercise patience and humility in our claims. In faith, for faith.

3 thoughts on “On Faith

  1. Just for myself, I went through a radical rethinking of the meaning of “faith” upon reading Daniel DeSilva’s commentary on Hebrews where he suggests that in the first century world the term denoted a type of relationship, specifically between a patron and a client. Faith is the marker of the appropriate sort of relationship one has towards someone else to whom one owes a great debt. Thus is becomes a closer synonym to “faithful”.

    I’m, sure that your first meaning is also present in the NT as well. I’ve discovered that your second meaning is something that is commonly held as a characterization of christian faith by modern non-Christians. I have some suspicion that 20th century apologetic methods and C S Lewis have something to do with that.

  2. In general, Paul, I tend to agree that the sense of pisteuw corresponds more to words like ‘trust’ and ‘rely [on]’ than ‘believe’. Our history of controversies about the mechanics of soteriology and the conditions of proper, acceptable orientation toward God tend to obscure the rhetoric of narratives and letters than don’t anticipate these controversies.

  3. ‘Trust’ is the key thing, isn’t it? Belief *in* rather than belief *that*. It involves an affective dimension, to be sure, (love, loyalty), but also a strong cognitive and even empirical dimension. That’s to say that one trusts the written record of the good news because one has faith in the person through whom the good news comes, and believes what that person tells us about the ground of that message – God. A further ground of trust is what you rightly call ‘the witness of millennia of fellow-travellers’, and the evidence of lives transformed by living out the implications of the good news. Too much damage has been done to the cause of Christianity by the churches’ insistence that we subscribe to propositional statements which are, at best, unverifiable, and, at worst, plain wrong.

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