In response to the post "Wounded Faith", I would like to refer to the work of Marcus Borg, who writes of how faith can be described in four different ways, the first of which, faith as belief, has become dominant in the Modern Period and has significantly distorted the meaning of faith and the Christian life. The other three, he argues, are all relational understandings of faith with rich meanings for the present time.
Faith as Assensus
Borg uses the Latin word, assensus, to describe faith as belief. That is, as believing that something is the case, as believing something to be true. This is faith as giving one's mental ascent to a proposition to a claim or a statement. Hence, this is often called a propositional understanding of faith.
It is this meaning that has become the dominant meaning over the last couple of centuries, both within the church and outside of it. But this notion that Christian faith is primarily about assensus, about belief, is recent and primarily Protestant. It is modern, the product of the last 400 years, perhaps especially the last hundred years.
Two developments account for this understanding of faith becoming dominant. The first is the Reformation itself, which produced a number of new denominations, each defining itself by what they believed. Calvinists distinguish themselves from Lutherans by coming up with doctrinal statements, confessions, and so forth. The Roman Catholics soon followed, distinguishing themselves by what they believed compared to what Protestants believed.
The second development that accounts for the dominance of faith as assensus in the Modern Period is the Enlightenment--that period of Western cultural history that began in the Seventeenth Century and continues to this day. It is marked by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing. One of the effects of the enlightenment is that Truth became identified with factuality. What is true is that which is factual and what is verifiable factuality. The enlightenment also called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible, and, for that matter, of many traditional Christian teachings.
Thus faith, increasingly, was understood as believing--namely, believing things that had become questionable. When the underpinnings of your religion are called into question, you believe them to be true in spite of reasons to think otherwise.
Borg argues that this has also become the dominant meaning of faith or belief in modern popular usage. Belief is typically contrasted to knowing. When, for example, Borg asks his undergraduates, "What do you think of when I say the word believe? After stumbling around for a little while, it emerges that there are some things you can know, and other things you can only believe. So that believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out, or believing is what you turn to when there's a conflict between knowledge and what your religion says”.
That is, faith as assensus in the Modern Period, is what you need when beliefs and knowledge conflict. Faith is believing in spite of difficulty.
The opposite of faith as belief or faith as assensus is doubt, and in stronger form, disbelief. If you have doubts, you don't have much faith within this understanding of faith. If you grow up in a tradition which emphasizes that you are "saved by faith," as Borg did as a Lutheran, then you also are likely to experience your doubts as sinful, as something that you need to repent for. This understanding of faith is very widespread, and so pervasive that it's hard for many people to see that faith could mean anything else.
Faith as Fidelitas
The second meaning of faith, is the Latin word fidelitas. Faith as fidelity. Faith as faithfulness to a relationship. Think of what fidelity means in a human relationship: whether you think of it in the context of a marriage--faith is faithfulness to that relationship; or whether you think of it in the context of parent and children--faith as faithfulness to that relationship to your child. In a religious context, it means faith as faithfulness to God. Faithfulness to your relationship with God has very little to do with beliefs but has to do with something much deeper.
The Bible has some very vivid terms for describing the opposite to “faith as fidelity”. One of the most common terms in the Bible for describing the opposite of faith as faithfulness is adultery. When the prophets, and for that matter, Jesus, speak about adultery, most often they're not talking about human sexual behaviour. They're talking about unfaithfulness to God. Infidelity is one of the central metaphors in the Bible for speaking of that.
An even harsher term in the Bible for unfaithfulness to God is idolatry. Idolatry is centering on something other than God. Idolatry is not being faithful to the relationship to God, but being primarily faithful to something else.
Faith as Fiducia
The third meaning of faith is faith as fiducia. This is faith as trust, and specifically, faith as trusting in God, even more specifically, faith as radical trust in God. Once again, this is not very much concerned with beliefs at all. It's not about trusting in beliefs in God, just as fidelity is not about being faithful to beliefs in God. It's about trust in God. We see the meaning of this understanding of faith most clearly by turning immediately to its opposite.
The opposite of faith as trust is, of course, mistrust. But, even more provocatively, the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. This can be seen in with great clarity in the teachings of Jesus. In a very well known passage in the Sermon on the Mount,
“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them…
Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these”.
There's an invitation in those extended metaphors to see reality as characterized by a cosmic generosity, and five times in that passage Jesus also says to those who are listening to him: "Why are you anxious, oh, people of little faith?" Little faith and anxiety go together. It's the opposite of faith as trust.
Deepening trust in our relationship with God transforms ones life by making one less and less anxious, enabling one to be present to what is right in front of your face instead of being distracted, instead of being preoccupied? That's faith as trust.
Faith as Visio
The fourth meaning of faith is faith as visio. This is faith as a way of seeing, more specifically, a way of seeing the whole--a way of seeing the whole of what is or simply a way of seeing what is.
Borg cites the American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr for his exposition of faith as vision. Neibuhr speaks of three ways of seeing the whole, the whole of what is. He argues that each way of seeing the whole shapes our response to life. How we will respond to life, again, depends upon how we see the whole. Neibuhr describes three ways of seeing the whole and the response to life that each generates.
The first way you can see the whole is to see it as hostile and threatening. If you see life as hostile and threatening you're going to respond in a very self-protective way. You will try to do what you can to protect those whom you love from this hostile and threatening world and this hostile and threatening universe in which we live. Neibuhr, a Christian theologian, points out that this is the most common and widespread way Christianity basically sees the whole. Apocalyptic Christianity is a classic example of seeing the whole as hostile and threatening and God as the One who will rescue a few but destroy everybody else. This first way you can see the whole exists in both secular and religious form.
The second way you can see the whole is as indifferent to us. It's not "out to get us" in particular. It simply is, and it's vastly indifferent to human life. It may be full of wonder, but ultimately the cosmos is indifferent to us. This is probably the most common secular way of seeing the whole that's emerged in the last 300 years in Western Culture--that vision of the universe as ultimately made up of the space time world of matter and energy, where swirling masses of atoms are interacting with each other. It's brought us forth, but it's basically indifferent to human ends.
If you see the whole this way, how will you respond to life? Probably in not quite as threatened a fashion as the first way of responding to life, but you're likely to respond to life by enjoying what you can while you're here and building up at least modest systems of security in the face of an indifferent universe--taking the precautions that any prudent person would take-- financial security, gated communities, etc.
Thirdly, you can see the whole as life-giving and nourishing, as bringing us forth in a quite spectacular way. It really is remarkable that we are here. Not only as life-giving, but also as nourishing. The theological word for this is to see the whole as “gracious”. This is the view that Neibuhr is advocating.
Borg points out that Neibuhr is not being a naïve optimist when he speaks about seeing the whole as life-giving, nourishing and gracious. He knows about the Holocaust. He knows about all the brutal and horrible things we are capable of doing to each other. He knows about all the random accidents and premature terminal illnesses that happen to people. But his case is that it makes an enormous difference how we see this reality within which we live. Faith, according to Neibuhr, is seeing the whole as gracious, perhaps in ways that we can't even understand.
The response that seeing the whole as gracious generates is very different from the first two responses. It frees us from anxiety. It can free us from self-preoccupation and the concern with the security of the self. It can lead to "the self-forgetfulness of faith" and all of the freedom that goes with that including, the freedom to love and to be compassionate. It leads to a willingness to spend and be spent (Borg notes how he loves the use of both the active and passive voice there.) for the sake of an over-arching vision. Borg concludes that it leads to “the kind of life that we see in Jesus, in the Buddha and in the saints known and unknown. Not just the famous saints, but those local saints that nobody ever hears about beyond their own communities. It leads to that kind of life described by St. Paul with the word freedom, joy, peace and love”
Thus, faith as visio is seeing reality as gracious, and its opposite, unfaith, is seeing reality as hostile, threatening or indifferent. Even if that hostility and threatening character is couched in Christian terms, it is still unfaith, in the sense of faith as seeing the whole as gracious.
These last three understandings of faith are all relational understandings. They have very little to do with beliefs. Christians over the centuries have believed in an extraordinary variety of things. Beliefs are quite relative. What really matters is faith as faithfulness to the relationship with God--faith as a deepening trust in God, flowing out of that deepening relationship. Faith as a way of seeing the whole that shapes our relationship to what is.
“The Heart of Christianity – Rediscovering a life of Faith” (2003) Marcus Borg ISBN0-06-052676-9
A sermon on “Faith, not belief” can be found in audio and text form here.
Posted by Ray