It seems to me that understanding what we really mean by “faith” is one of the most important exercises in being a Christian. It also seems that for most Christians faith is defined in terms of assent to specific theological ideas. Said more bluntly, our predominant contemporary approach to faith is the practice of proclaiming and otherwise acting as if particular doctrines about God and Jesus are facts, no matter what we truly think and feel. We can call this dogmatic faith, because it is doctrinaire in its attitudes and also because it is largely an attempt to have faith in the doctrines rather than in our personal relationships with God. As a central part of dogmatic faith, many of us have been trained to resist, conceal, and deny what we truly think and feel, especially if it includes any disagreement, doubt, or uncertainty about doctrine. The self-conflict that naturally results from such a practice is sometimes even touted as praiseworthy internal warfare against demonic deception. In effect, we’re taught that faith means an active distrust of our own hearts and minds. Is this what Jesus and his earliest followers intended? Is this what God wants? I have strong faith that the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.” In an effort to loosen some of the chains of dogmatic faith, this post looks carefully at the meaning of faith in early Christianity, shows how it connects with mysticism, and explores some implications for our religious life.
When we look at the ancient Hebrew and Greek words for faith, we find not only a greater breadth of meaning than dogmatism but also a very different emphasis. In the Tanakh, a key Hebrew word translated into English as “faith” is emunah, which more specifically connotes an active trust and confidence in someone or something. In the New Testament, the words relating to faith and belief are the Greek pistis (noun) or pisteuo (verb), which similarly connote trust, fidelity, and reliance. Among other places, pistis appears in what may be the most commonly cited Christian scripture to define faith, Hebrews 11:1:
“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” NLT
This little statement is a concise yet penetrating revelation about the intimate relationship of faith and hope. Hope is the anticipation of something we desire, and as such it has both emotional and intellectual components. The intellectual aspect is an idea of what we want to happen, and the emotional aspect is a positive feeling that it will happen. Faith is therefore specifically identified as the root, source, or power behind that positive feeling in hope. With faith as a prerequisite, hope cannot be contingent upon what a person should feel or think. No matter how clear a vision might be for what we think we should hope, if the personal emotional conviction is not also there, then there is no real faith behind it, and thus there is no real hope. Pretended hope is faithless, and thus isn’t hope at all. Hope is a deeply personal experience that isn’t a matter of choosing one option over others because someone else encourages it; that is merely consent at best. Hope can certainly be influenced by others, and even shared in common with others, but each person’s hope must be her or his own, driven by his or her own faith.
Along those lines, note that this verse doesn’t say faith is confidence specifically in church doctrine, in what we hear from the pulpit, or even in scripture. In fact, the second clause clearly specifies that faith is about unseen things. Doctrines, preachers, and scriptures can all point toward things that we cannot see, but they themselves are seen, and thus they are not the ultimate objects of our faith, our greatest trust, confidence, or reliance. This observation is supported by taking the full context of Hebrews 11, in which all the examples cited for great faith – including Able, Enoch, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses – are credited for acting upon their own very personal and immediate experiences of God’s call, for acting upon their hope in serving the Divine, and not for their submission to religious authorities and doctrines. Some of these examples further reveal that faith cannot be equated with the positive emotional aspect of hope. With Noah, for example, while his faith in the purpose of the ark may have been positive, his faith in the coming deluge would have been sorrowful.
In this view, we can see that faith is deep trust and powerful conviction connected to one’s personal awareness of God. It is not a particular feeling, not just a function of emotion, but instead the presence of something else that stirs emotional responses in us. It is not a matter of choice, not merely a derivative of conscious reasoning, but rather a power that rises up from the spirit within us to direct our reasoning and choices. If faith isn’t simply the product of conscious processes like thinking and feeling, it must come from some other place. In psychological terms, we would say that faith rises up from the unconscious, perhaps intuitively or even instinctively, and as such it bears a striking resemblance to what we mean by the word will. In terms of Christian spirituality, the New Testament consistently says faith is a gift from God. Some Christians understand this to mean that one either has faith or does not, depending on Divine intervention. On the other hand, some of us believe that all people have received faith from God, but for one reason or another not everyone experiences it as consciously directed toward God. It might instead be directed toward science, nature, humanity, love, happiness, peace, power, life itself, or any number of other things. My experience suggests that everyone has a deep compelling conviction that something is most worthy of their trust and allegiance, and faith is therefore an inherent guiding function in human beings. Again, this is not unlike how we speak of the will.
Faith and Authenticity
Each of us has our own faith, just as each of us has our own sensations. We can no more give our faith to someone else, or take someone else’s faith into ourselves, than we can see through each others eyes, hear through each others ears, or smell through each others noses. We can describe those experiences to each other, we can describe how we have been affected by them, and we can even lead each other into situations that will produce very similar experiences, but the experiences themselves are nontransferable. Faith is like this in that the conviction that something or someone is trustworthy happens internally, as do the thoughts and feelings connected with that conviction. In effect, we cannot simply adopt someone else’s beliefs as our own. Even if we trust someone else’s ideas and conclusions more than our own, we must first have faith in our own ability to make that judgment, and our own faith in the other person is still our own faith. It is therefore inescapable that all decisions start with faith in one’s own ability to make those decisions, even if it seems to mean turning all ensuing decisions over to someone else. Every acceptance of someone else’s choice is thus a response to our own faith. The really important questions are therefore about the degree to which we are responding authentically to our faith, acknowledging and honoring the fact that its source and presence is within ourselves.
Let’s ask some of those questions in the context of three very basic ideas we Christians share about God:
1. God is the source of all truth and love.
2. God’s supreme will is for truth and love to reign above all.
3. Our love for God should be done with all that we are.
If this is all true, and my faith tells me it is, then which better honors God – fully accepting our responsibility for what we think and feel, or trying to pretend it can be turned over to someone else, or to a church or a book? Is it even possible for us to genuinely believe that God expects us to lie to ourselves about what we really think and feel? Can we come to any reasonable conclusion that our salvation is determined by trying to force ourselves to believe, or pretend to believe, a particular set of theological notions? And if that is indeed the way one defines a faith necessary for salvation, then how is that not actually a path of works to try earning God’s unmerited grace?
I suspect that somewhere in each of us is the very natural hope, and thus the faith, that God really does want us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, just as Jesus said. To me, this must mean that God wants our complete authenticity, including our doubts and uncertainties, and definitely not our disingenuous conformity to doctrine or tradition. I suspect that denying what we truly think and feel is therefore more about fear of human judgment and punishment than it is about pleasing God, although the religious training many of us have received can make it difficult to know the difference.
Faith and Scripture
While faith itself may be innate, the mind driven by faith must focus that energy upon something. Yet the mind makes mistakes for all sorts of reasons, including poor information and faulty logic. The mind stimulated by faith therefore benefits from having reference points and guidelines that have been tested by time. Likewise, we benefit from guidelines on how to manage the very powerful feelings stimulated by faith. These are the purposes of the Bible in Christianity. Even though there was no New Testament as we know it for many generations of early Christians, and it has only been in the last few hundred years that most Christians have been able to read the Bible for themselves, it has become central to making Christianity the unique religion that it is. Yet the Bible is neither the religion itself nor the supreme object of our faith, and it is certainly not a manual for an inauthentic “fake it ’til you make it” imitation of faith.
If we rely upon the Bible as a central aid in loving God with all our heart and mind, we have a responsibility to develop the deepest and clearest possible understanding of its meanings. For many of us, dogmatic faith has insisted that understanding the Bible is simply a matter of regarding it as a perfectly complete, plainspoken, and inerrant dictation from God. For others of us, this approach requires far too much confidence in the human beings who wrote, edited, compiled, and translated the works in the Bible, no matter how inspired they were. When we look at the history of the Bible, we clearly see it has been and still is subject to the same human shortcomings and follies as other literature. We therefore cannot claim to know exactly what Jesus said, what was and was not put into his mouth by the writers of the gospels. Supposing we did know that much, we still couldn’t honestly be so certain of precisely what he or they meant that we could exclude all other possibilities; there are just too many complicating factors. Very few of us are qualified to know how translation into our own native language skews the meanings we gather from the Bible, and those who are qualified can and do come to stalemates where one possibility is as valid as another. The greatest Biblical scholars cannot say with complete certainty when Jesus was and wasn’t speaking in some degree of metaphor, and they cannot avoid being confronted with passages that conflict with each other in different ways. Even the attempt to read something as literally as possible sometimes leads to radically different understandings. With all of these observations, it is quite reasonable to conclude that we are all actually interpreting everything in the Bible, whether we realize it or not. Furthermore, when faced with various passages that seem to conflict with each other, making decisions about which ones are closer to the truth as we understand it automatically makes everyone a “cafeteria Christian” to some extent.
But with all the different possible directions to look for meanings, how do we know which ones to pursue? This is where faith always steps in for each of us. The nourishment we select from the buffet of possibilities is determined by our faith, how each of our hearts and minds are moved by our own trust and conviction in what is true. Referring back to Hebrews 11:1, we can see that paying attention to our hopes is an important part of the process. Being honest with ourselves about what we hope a scripture means can help us look more directly into what our faith is telling us about the truth of ourselves and our relationships with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we won’t misunderstand and make mistakes, but it does mean that they will at least be honest misunderstandings and mistakes. That’s not only as it should be, it’s the only way it can be if we are going to be as authentic as possible, and thus it would seem that God would expect as much. Furthermore, we don’t need to have answers for everything but we should admit (at least to ourselves) when there are some things that we simply do not believe. Some people say that in such cases we must suspend our own disbelief and place our trust in doctrine. But we should ask how it honors the God of Truth to try filling the gap of doubt with someone else’s thoughts, especially when the “still small voice” in one’s heart is speaking otherwise. It seems to me that sometimes faith requires us to wrestle with the angels.
Conclusion: Mystical Faith
Referring back to “Faith Defined,” we once again consider the figures cited as examples of faith, and especially what the Bible says about their relationships with God. We consistently find that they communed directly with God: They heard God, they spoke with God, they walked with God, and they even argued with God. In the end, they all served what they best understood to be God’s will no matter what anyone else thought, said, or did. Their immediate personal relationships with God are emphasized as central to their faith, and not their relationships with scriptures, doctrines, religious institutions, or any other mediating entities. Those secondary things certainly played important roles at various times, but none were ever more important to our exemplars than the voice of the Spirit speaking through their own trust in God, their confidence in their personal relationships with God, and their convictions about what would best serve God. In short, their faith was exceptionally authentic, and it was also exceptionally mystical.
What made their faith mystical is that it was unmediated. Because mystics are concerned with the fullest possible realization of unity with God, we seek to commune directly with God. The mystical way is as literal as it can be in reading and responding to the call to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We turn inward to open the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s immediate presence in our own beings, and we do so trusting that God wants our authentic love more than anything else. So it is that we strive to quietly lay our hearts and minds bare before God, respectfully avoiding, at least before God, the pretense of beliefs we do not actually hold. We are confident that the hopes arising in and from these moments are evidence of our faith being formed by God’s infinite wisdom and love. Yet, because turning inward also makes us more profoundly aware of our humanity, we understand that we can err in the thinking, the management of emotions, and the actions driven by the energy of our faith. We understand that there are consequences for such errors, but we trust that the loss of Divine Grace will never be one of them. We also hope to learn through those consequences, and thus follow our faith into greater experiences and expressions of love.
With this deep awareness and acceptance of our own humanity, we realize that faith, the voice of the Spirit, can lead individuals and groups in somewhat different directions. It is therefore easier for us to welcome and love others with beliefs different from our own, and especially in matters of theological doctrine. In fact, our faith leads us to open our arms wider to embrace and celebrate the differences, not only the similarities, arising from all people’s relationships with The One who is Truth, Life, and Love Itself, and thus evolve together into greater fulfillment of the prayer, “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”