Thursday, October 23, 2008

Faith (in God)

A certain brother asked the abbot Pimenion saying, 'What is faith?' And the old man said, 'To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one's neighbour.' [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, Ann Arbor: Univ of Michigan Press, 1957, p149]
Wisdom indeed. In one simple sentence, the wise abba brings together the concise practice of the theology of faith. Faith is working out one's belief in holy action to God and fellow men. The trouble with theological students is that sometimes we become so absorbed into the concept of faith, that we unwittingly tumble into the rabbit's hole of analysis till paralysis. We use the latest archaeological findings to prove that data exists to verify the foundational facts of our faith. We use technological tools to prove that biblical information is not only highly reliable but hardy through the ages. We grapple with philosophies of each period to prove that there is a God who is worth believing. We engage the world using apologetics to sway the undecided to make a decision to believe. We press home our arguments to challenge both the agnostic and the atheistic. We use many different testimonies of the living and the dead to try to convince the skeptics that Christianity is worth believing. Yet, after the many engaging debates and intellectual tussles, it is beneficial to re-look at the question: "What is faith?"

John Wesley states:
"It is a divine "evidence and conviction of things not seen;" of things which are not seen now, whether they are visible or invisible in their own nature. Particularly, it is a divine evidence and conviction of God, and of the things of God. [John Wesley, 'Sermon 106 - On Faith' in The Sermons of John Wesley]"
Faith is invisible. We cannot really pin it down to any one image. The moment we do so, we risk creating a faith like that of a golden calf. Someone once said to me to be careful not to have faith in 'faith.' Useful advice. Our faith must rest in God. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. The key is the object of our faith. Interestingly, when Jesus healed the ten leprous men and one of them returned to thank him, he commented:
And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
The sick men then were not even aware that they were practicing faith. Yet, it was Jesus who declares that their faith has made them well. Ironical.

Faith has more to do with a humble 'not' rather than any affirmative stance of certainty. Anne Lamott puts it succinctly:
that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk. (Anne Lamott, Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith, New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, p256-7)
I think Lamott's astute observations is quite close to the mark. The Eastern Orthodox Church differs in part from the West for a form of theology called the Apophatic theology. In apophatic theology, God is described indirectly. The popular use is via negation, approaching God in terms of 'he is NOT this and he is NOT that.' Like the Israelites of old who chooses NOT to see God directly for fear of the blinding holiness of God that can destroy them. For example, take the statement about God.
  • Western: God is good; [Eastern - God is not evil]
  • Western: God is ..... ; [Eastern - God is NOT .......]
Lamott's observation of faith is a necessary one in our present society. When we think we know something, that we are certain about a particular train of thought, where then is that need for faith? The writer in Hebrews 11:1 says:
NASB:Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

NIV: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

MSG: The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

NLT: Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.
It is important to capture the essence of what is the object of our faith. It is clear that we are not to have faith in 'faith' but to have faith in God. Our hope is in God. God is invisible. If there be any certainty, it is that hope in God that is given by the grace of God. We have no handle except what God gives us. As beggars on this earth, we may be promised a land of milk and honey, but until then, we are still beggars. No beggar goes around boasting that he is certain that he is rich especially when he is in rags. He can only hope. He can only believe and trust. He can only exercise faith in the best way possible: Living the present and be thankful. Faith is not only hoping for the future but being thankful for the present, and grateful for the past.

Herbert McCabe explains it brilliantly in his sermons on the faith chapter of Hebrews. He made two observations of inadequate understanding of faith. Firstly, he questions the use of faith as a form of 'testing.' Such a faith is like:
If we were humble enough to accept things we couldn’t understand, then we would eventually be rewarded for our devotion. The great enemy was always a thing called ‘spiritual pride’, which made you always want to understand everything.

That is one way of looking at faith. I don’t think it’s a very good way, but it’s one way.
[Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us, New York: Continuum, 2005, p1-3]
Rather than declaring that one 'knows' the kind of journey one is going to take, faith is essentially NOT KNOWING what kind of passage lies ahead of us. We can only hope. We can only trust. We can only cling on to God. THAT IS FAITH.

The second critique he has on conventional understanding of faith is that 'faith' is used like a badge of membership, just like in Galatians 6:10's 'household of faith.' Instead, McCabe argues that such a 'membership-like' thought is an inadequate expression of true faith. Instead, faith is something that WE DO NOT YET POSSESS. It is like Abraham, who is given the vision of a Promise Land, but he has not possessed it yet. He journeys into the unknown without any knowledge of how the Promise looks like. I think such an attitude is helpful for it prevents us from making the Promised Land into an idol for worship. Such a thought about faith as entering an unknown journey, using unknown resources, and entering an unknown place keeps us more focused and more desiring of God. In fact, faith is that anything that causes us to cling harder and walk closer to God. Like a deer that pants for the waters, so our souls should pant after God. Israel was called to live their faith by leaving the known comforts of Egypt to the unknown wilderness of Sinai.
Faith is about what is beyond the horizon of the humanly possible. Faith is exploring into what people could never achieve by themselves. Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where we could surely never go. Faith, in fact, is about what we call God. Faith is the inking that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitless of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. It is the crucified and risen Christ gathering us toward himself. Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed. It is the Spirit of Christ bringing us to what we are meant for: the eternal love which is the Father. [McCabe, p5]
Faith can be a very slippery concept. We cannot grab it. Instead, it can only be received and lived. Lamott's understanding of faith ties us back to the desert fathers quoted early in this article.
She said that faith is not about how we feel; it is about how we live. And Anne lived her own eulogy, gardening, praising God, fighting the great good fight for justice, loving Dwight, playing piano..... [Anne Lamott, Plan B, p213]
This is faith. A faith in God that leads to humble action. It is a kind of faith that is alive. It is a faith that progresses knowingly (confidence in God) into the unknown (places, circumstances and so forth). In summary, faith is NOT a matter of possessing something in the present. It is NOT merely a badge of membership in the society of Christendom. It is also NOT a faith in faith. It is NOT an act of belief in ourselves or our sense of religiosity but a trust in God. It is hoping in God. A faith that is exemplified by love.

Mother Teresa once said: "Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." The humble lady also said: "the fruit of prayer is faith, and the fruit of faith is love."

Believe in a living God, and we will grow inside us a living faith. Faith in a loving God will grow in us a loving person. Personalize that love in a mighty God, and we will be called the children of God.


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