What is faith?
What I really want to emphasize…are the four meanings that faith has come to have in the Christian tradition. The first of these four is, I am convinced, a modern distortion, even as it is probably the most common meaning on the popular level. The other three are ancient and traditional and wonderfully complementary. You can have them all, but let me begin with the modern distortion.
The modern distortion of faith is the one I think I learned growing up around the middle of this century. Faith as believing. Faith as believing the doctrines of the Christian tradition, faith as believing that there is a God, faith as believing that Jesus is divine, faith as believing that Jesus died for your sins, faith as believing that…and then fill it with almost anything. Faith as believing certain statements to be true.
There are a number of reasons why I say that’s a modern distortion. First of all, try to imagine what faith was like before the Enlightenment, that great period of Western history that began in the 17th or 18th centuries. Prior to the Enlightenment, in Christian culture of the Reformation or the Middle Ages and so forth, nobody had any trouble believing that the Bible came from God, that the Genesis stories of creation were true, that Jesus walked on the water and so forth. It didn’t take faith to believe any of that, that was simply part of the taken-for-granted understandings of people living in western Christendom. It’s only when those things started to be questioned that suddenly faith came to mean believing what otherwise doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. And faith came to mean what Bishop Robinson called some 35 years ago, believing 49 impossible things before breakfast.
Now, I don’t want simply to knock that, because for many people, that’s been a way of holding on to the meaningfulness of the Christian tradition when it seems to have been radically questioned. But I also want to say that faith as believing the right things is not only a modern distortion, but in many ways it is absolutely impotent in our lives. You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. Faith as believing, that is believing with our head, is really pretty impotent. So let me turn to the three more ancient and authentic meanings of faith.
In each case, I’m going to speak about the meaning of the word faith, but also about its opposite, because I think that sometimes we get clarity about the meaning of a word by considering what its opposite is. With the first meaning of faith I spoke about, the opposite of faith as belief is, of course, doubt or disbelief. I can recall as an adolescent finding my embryonic doubts that were moving toward disbelief. I thought they were sinful because I thought it was the opposite of what God wanted from me and so forth.
To turn now to the other three, the first of these three has a Latin name. I’m going to use the Latin name both to suggest the antiquity of the notion, but also because I think it’s a way of understanding what faith means in this case. The first of these last three is faith as fiducia. We get the word fiduciary from it, and this is basically faith as trust. Faith as radical trust in God, which can go with great uncertainty about beliefs and so forth. The opposite of faith as trust is not doubt. The opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. You can measure the amount of faith as trust in your life by the amount of anxiety you have in your life. I mention that not as another way of giving you one other thing to beat yourself up with, but to suggest that perfect faith as trust casts out anxiety. Think of how wonderful it would be to live your life without anxiety. The journey of faith which leads to greater trust can cast anxiety out and free us from that self- preoccupying force of anxiety.
The second of the ancient and authentic meanings of faith is fidelitos in Latin. The English, of course, is fidelity. Faith as fidelity to a relationship. Fidelity to the relationship with God, this is a faith as faithfulness. Again, it has very little to do with what we believe with our heads; it’s faithfulness to that relationship. And the opposite of faith as fidelity is not, once again, doubt, of course. It is, to say the obvious, infidelity. Unfaithfulness. In the biblical tradition, this frequently [was referred to] as adultery. When the prophets rail against adultery, they’re not talking about sexual behavior. They’re using a sexual metaphor as a way of talking about unfaithfulness to God. And yet another word for infidelity in the biblical tradition is idolatry. Namely, to be faithful to something else rather than being faithful to God.
The third and final of these more ancient and authentic ways of understanding faith (I don’t have a Latin word here.) is faith as a way of seeing, and, in particular, faith as a way of seeing the whole. The whole of that in which we live and move and have our being. I’m going to exposit this briefly in language that we owe to the great American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr, who points out that there are three different attitudes we can take towards the whole—three different ways we can see the whole.
One way we can see the whole of what is, is as hostile toward us, threatening towards us in severe form. Of course, this is paranoia. But there are much milder forms of this; indeed popular-level Christianity might even see things this way. [This view perceives] God as the one who is going to get us unless we offer the right sacrifice or have the right beliefs or whatever. But even apart from a religious context, if you see reality as threatening or hostile, and it’s easy to see it that way—the bottom line is, it is going to get us all; we’re all going to die—but if you see it that way, then your response is likely to be one of self-protection in various ways. Trying to find security against the devouring power which will consume us all.
A second way one can see the whole is as indifferent toward human existence and as indifferent toward us. This is the understanding that emerges within the modern world view where what is is seen as a meaningless collocation of atoms and interactions with each other. If one sees reality as indifferent to us, again the appropriate and most likely response is to try to build systems of security that will give us some meaning in the face of this radical insecurity. But again, the attention focuses upon the self and its well-being.
The third and final way that Neibuhr says we can see reality is to see the whole as gracious, as nourishing, as supportive of life, to see reality as that which has given existence, brought us into existence, nourishes us. There is nothing Pollyannish about this. This attitude is still very much aware that the flower fades, the grass withers, that we all die. But to see reality as supportive, gracious and nourishing creates the possibility of responding to life in a posture of trust and gratitude. And we’re back to faith as trust.
Faith is thus about setting out on a journey like Abraham’s in a posture of trust and seeking to be faithful to that relationship that we are called into. We are invited to make that journey, that journey of faith, in which we learn to trust our relationship to God and learn to be faithful to that relationship, and learn to see in a new way. We will be led in that journey into an evermore wondrous and compassionate understanding of our lives with God. Indeed, if this is not what life is about, namely, growth and wonder and compassion, then I don’t know what life is about.
Copyright ©1999 Marcus Borg
Excerpted from the sermon "Faith: A Journey of Trust"
Read the sermon in its entirety