Reflection on Faith

faith (n.) mid-13th-century; "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," from Latin fides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from Proto-Indo-European root bheidh (source also of Greek pistis). Theological sense is from late 14th-century; religions called faiths since circa 1300.
-from Online Etymoligical Dictionary
Some us have a warm, fuzzy response to the word “faith.” Others of us have a cold, prickly reaction to the word. I understand the cold, prickly reaction. Far from its original sense of “fidelity; fulfillment of duties with which one has been entrusted,” “faith” today has sometimes seemed to mean “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” If that’s what “faith” means, it’s no wonder that many Unitarian Universalists would rather have nothing to do with it.

If we are to have fidelity to the truth, we understand that we must always be willing to change our belief in light of new evidence. To define “faith” as “refusal to modify beliefs, whatever the evidence” is to make faith into the opposite of the fidelity that “faith” originally indicated!

The Greek word was pistis. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the goddess Pistis personified trust and reliability. In Roman mythology, her name was Fides (hence, fidelity). The Greeks often spoke of Pistis together with Elpis (hope), Sophrosyne (prudence), and the Charites (a.k.a. Graces, which variously included such minor goddesses as charm, beauty, fertility, creativity, splendor, mirth, and good cheer – all attributes generally associated with harmony among people.) When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians that “faith, hope, and love abide,” he was clearly evoking this Greek background.

For the Greeks, Pistis evolved to include persuasion. In the Greek understanding of rhetoric, pistis are the elements to induce true judgment. So the idea of fidelity to duty morphed to refer especially to fidelity to the truth, and the logical means of persuasion of the truth.

In the hands of the writers and the interpretive community of readers of the Christian ("New") Testament, the Greek pistis evolved further from “persuasion” to “conviction.”

The Christian Testament was originally written in Greek, and pistis (uniformly translated to English as “faith”) appears many times. Below is a sampling. As you look over these passages, I invite you to consider what difference it makes if you read faith as “fidelity to an entrusted duty” or as “conviction of belief.”
  • “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
  • "So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)
  • “Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Rom 3:30)
  • “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
  • “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Rom 4:13)
  • “For through the spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. . . . Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5)
  • “for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col 1:4)
  • “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess 5:8)
  • “When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one[a] in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matt 8:10)
  • “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” (Matt 9:2)
  • “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’” (Matt 9:22)
  • “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” (Matt 9:29)
  • “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matt 15:28)
  • “He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matt 17:20)
  • “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done.’” (Matt 21:21)
  • “’Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.’” (Matt 23:23)
  • “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40)
  • “Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God.’” (Mark 11:21-22)
  • “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)
  • “And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:24-25)
  • “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
  • “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
  • “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:32)
  • “Peter…addressed the people, ‘…And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.’” (Acts 3:16)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
All these meanings – fidelity, persuasion, and conviction – echo through our conception of faith today. What is at the core, unifying these disparate meanings?

Jumping from the ancient Greeks and the Christian Testament writers to today: recent reflections on the nature of faith provide important avenues for getting at the core of faith while discarding the association of faith with willful disregard of evidence and reason. Let’s take a look at three contemporary approaches.

1. Wieman

The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) provides helpful guidance on the nature of faith. Wieman’s view, as described by Virginia Knowles:
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” (1992)
We all have egos, and our egos desire recognizable achievement -- socially, financially, physically, professionally, politically, or artistically. Our egos motivate us to do some good work, but Weiman identifies excessive devotion to the ego’s desires as evil. We may be saved from that evil, suggests Weiman, through commitment to grow and change in ways that make us increasingly better able to avoid the evil of overly focusing on the ego’s desires, increasingly oriented toward humble service of enduring values rather than ego desires and inconspicuous harmony with life and our world rather than recognition of achievement.

Wieman’s understanding of faith captures what has been most central and important about faith in Western religious traditions. The outcome of faith – personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires -- is precisely the outcome that the traditional Western religions have seen as the product of a faithful life. Wieman has showed us a way to embrace this valuable function of faith without the unfortunate notion that faith requires irrational conviction that flies in the face of evidence. Try reading the above samples from the Bible with Wieman’s understanding of faith in mind. Does it work?

2. Salzberg

For American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg (b. 1952), faith is
"the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."
Rather than believing without evidence, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown often does feel like leaping -- hence the phrase, "leap of faith."

At the same time, Salzberg is drawing upon the tradition that faith stands in distinction from reason and evidence. After all, reason and evidence tell us about what we can know. Making our peace with unknowability is also a crucial part of a whole life.

While Weiman draws attention to the ego’s focus on achievement, Salzberg’s formulation points to another trick of the ego. The ego pretends to know more than it actually does know about what's going to happen next and about where your life is headed. Ego loves its illusion of being in control. Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery.

Following Salzberg, we can see that faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in life. It means the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith is the overcoming of the fear that could cause us to withdraw and stand safely on the sidelines. Faith is jumping in -- there's the leap again -- into all that life has to offer, the joy and the triumph and the grief and the loss. Faith is stepping, jumping, skipping, leaping, somersaulting right into the middle of possibilities for how we might evolve and for what goodness might burst forth. Faith's opposite, then, is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.

This understanding leads to seeing faith as also awareness of an interconnected universe. We are not alone no matter how alone we sometimes feel. What happens to us and from us is part of the larger fabric of life, always rippling out through threads of connection.

If we read the above Bible samples with Salzberg’s understanding of faith in mind, do they may more sense? Less?

3. Fowler

James Fowler (b. 1940, Prof of Theology and Human Development at Emory and a United Methodist minister) defined faith as:
“a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.”
A “religion,” then, for Fowler, is “a community’s way of giving expression to faith relationships held in common.”

Fowler’s definition preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths (or, more specifically, are names of communities that give expression to faith relationships held in common among the community’s members). Each offers a certain way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.

The idea that it’s a good thing to have convictions that are entirely unshakeable regardless of the evidence is a bad mistake. That idea does nevertheless convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence is not the same thing as meaning, and evidence alone does not suffice. The way we understand the world is more than just evidence. Fowler’s definition preserves that nugget of insight about faith: that evidence alone doesn’t offer much guidance. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, fit into an overall context, made sense of.

There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is, for Fowler, a faith. We all have faith – it’s unavoidable – since we all interpret and make sense of existence. To have “little faith,” then, would be to have a rather haphazard and often incoherent way “knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” To have a lot of faith would be to know, construe, and interpret existence in a way that coherently makes sense of a vast range of data. How does it work to read the above Bible verses with Fowler’s definition in mind?

Weiman, Salzberg, and Fowler each offer us an active conception of faith. It’s the act by which we commit (Weiman), the act of opening (Salzberg), and a way of doing something, namely, interpreting existence (Fowler). Faith is best understood not so much as something we have, but as something we do – or, sometimes, fail to do.

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