In common parlance, some people are people of faith and others are not. Of course, it is true that in reality, all people are people of faith. We all live by assumptions of shared worldviews that shape the way we see reality. In this article, I’m not going to try to prove the fact that we all believe something, whether we’re atheists, agnostics, or religious believers. I want to look at the meaning of the word “faith,” not etymologically but conceptually and functionally. If we can’t retrieve a meaningful meaning for the word faith for our post-Christian Western society that addresses the questions of today, Christianity will become meaningless.
I will first outline two approaches to faith and explain why I believe they don’t work any longer. Then I will present a possible alternative for a new Christianity and expound on it a bit.
Faith As Credulity (Regarding Truth)
When the words faith or belief are used they are typically applied to what is considered to be “religious” as opposed to “non-religious” people. The underlying assumption here is that religious people believe in invisible things/entities and non-religious people don’t (the latter group being smart of course). The dichotomy of religious vs non-religious is a relic from the Enlightenment separation of the natural from the supernatural. The latter was the domain of religion, the former is where we all live together in the real world.
The use of these categories is not only beholden to those who are “non-religious,” Conservative Christians just went crazy with the distinction and still do. In order to stem the tide of Enlightenment criticism of the Christian religion and its historical claims and the new discoveries of the sciences, 19th-century conservatives doubled down on all historical claims of Scripture and aggravated this with a literal reading of the text. The battle lines were drawn and henceforth faith was about believing these things to be true and defending them.
Thus faith became associated with affirming the existence of angels, demons, fairies, elves, heavens and hells, and all the rest of it. What was part of the premodern imagination of the world now became externalized as a genuine supernatural world the truth of which determined the viability of the Christian faith.
The great theologian Barth, though making a genuine headway to a solution, still lingered in this mode of thinking even though he denied the ability to know the reality of God. Precisely in his affirmation of the nonobjectivity of God and his dialectical searching for a multifaceted affirmation of this God, for Barth, the theological task effectively continued to function on the plain of the cognitive. Bonhoeffer correctly critiques Barth’s theology is still operative of the level of what he calls credulity (Glaublichkeit) which in many ways is still modernist to the core.
This approach to faith as credulity is no longer credible. It has become incredulous.
Faith As Trust (In The Promise)
A much better understanding of faith is faith as trust. As many on the inside of Christianity will say, faith is about trusting God for the forgiveness of sin in Jesus Christ. This can be taken in a sort of limited way as exclusively pertaining to salvation. It can also be set against a wider horizon of the hope that God will, in the end, make all things new. Luther Seminary, St. Paul, where I did my PhD, used to have as its slogan “Moved By The Promise.” Though we may not understand the suffering we see happening around us, we have the promise that God will establish a new earth and a new heaven.
The problem with trust is that the God who gives hundreds of promises in Scripture rarely ever actually delivers on them. In whichever form this understanding of faith is being promoted, it is always done with the assumption that God, as an entity related to the world, is going to make it happen. If we look at the suffering that’s going on in the world, however, that assumption becomes untenable. God does, in fact, not help people. Yes, some people come through their struggle stronger and wiser, but for every victory, there are three defeats: people giving in to resignation and bitterness, people dying from sickness, people committing suicide, women being trafficked, children being abused. And it does not stop! This is the lie we need to stop telling ourselves.
If God does not stop all this suffering, to what extent is faith as a promise warranted? That is the hard question we need to ask ourselves. I think it forces us to think differently about the nature of faith inasmuch it forces us to rethink the God who Jesus came to represent. I suggest that insofar God is there, God simply suffers the world. God suffers the world into being and, hopefully, into fulfillment. Jesus Christ makes this suffering of God visible on the cross. Jesus is the embodiment of the co-miseration, the commiseration, the co-suffering of God. In this Jesus is the final and ultimate exemplar of what God is in God’s very being.
However, if God is so deeply immersed in the world, where do we look for God? Do we lift up our eyes to the mountains, like the psalmist, or do we look to the earth? I am increasingly led to believe that to find God, you need to embrace embodied reality, look into the eyes of those who suffer, and share your life with others. It is there that we will find God, rather than up in the sky. Any concept of faith that requires an orientation away from the world is ultimately fateful. We miss our destiny and lose sight of God.
One thing is still valuable in the concept of faith as trust. Such a concept takes away our certainty, our self-proclaimed existential foundation, and admits that we are truly delivered over into an abyss of nothingness. We cannot provide ourselves with certain answers about where we come from, what truth is, or a description of the meaning of life. We do all this figuring in a great dependency on the great otherness of the nothing that we trust to hold and carry us as we live our lives here on earth. This, ultimately is, what Paul Tillich aptly called, the Protestant Principle.
Faith As Commitment (To Love and Hope)
I’d like to suggest a new way to think about faith. What about faith as commitment? More precisely faith as commitment to the other, or, more generally, faith as a committed orientation toward otherness? In this orientation, the distinction between the vertical (God above) and horizontal (the neighbor) collapses into a widening horizon. God is not erased; God is encountered in the other.
This does not imply pantheism because God and the world are distinct; God has brought forth the world and brings it to completion. God is found in the other, more specifically in the giving of oneself to the other. God is in the act of love.
Insofar God is constructed (and our images of God are, at the very least constructed therefore our God is), this new approach helps us to see via the incarnation that to construct well we need to locate God in the otherness of creation. From an ontological perspective, we could say that in the encounter with Christ a different kind of being comes to manifest itself. Instead of a centripetal ontology (being that sucks up reality into a solipsistic self), we receive the being that has an outward orientation to the other. God wants to be found, related to, glorified, and acknowledged in and through the other.
Am I robbing faith of its content? Am I simply turning this into a works righteousness thing? Am I just replacing salvation with ethics? I can already hear the objections. No and no and no!
Faith as commitment means discarding the question of the whatness and thatness of God to which the stance of faith would have to be to affirm that all sorts of unverifiable and fantastical things about God are true (including God’s existence). Faith as commitment erases the boundary between those who believe x about y and those who reject the belief in x about y. It never was about whether we believe that God (y) exists (x) or that Jesus (x) truly is the Son of God (y) or the only savior. That is what people made of it to create an artificial gate and to put up a fence. That language simply belonged to a world that could only speak religiously.
Especially during modernity, it was believed that making faith about a checklist was going to save the Christian faith. But faith didn’t need saving, people did and do. What then is the object of faith? Is it doctrine? No! The creed? No! The Word? No! None of these are irrelevant, but faith’s object is the way of Jesus Christ into the world. Follow in that track and come to maturity in faith.
Faith as commitment brings faith back to the plane of relationality, engagement, and action. If God saves then salvation brings us into relation with God. And if God is to be found in the world, salvation restores our relationship with nature and humanity. Faith then means engagement with the other in a manner that is patterned after Christ. Faith is then action. If salvation is free, this doesn’t mean that faith is passive as some would have it. The gift of salvation may be the free gift of the restoration into communion with God, but this restoration requires us to take our place in the fabric of reality that we call world. Today we find a world in anguish, engulfed in violence, and suffering the consequences of ecological destruction.
Faith as commitment honors the Protestant Principle (Paul Tillich) which affirms our thrown-ness into the dark abyss of reality while being conscious of it. Sin is the attempt to ignore that and to overcome our uncertainty by way of empires, wealth, and religion. Salvation is to fully acknowledge our dependency on being kept alive in spite of the void of meaninglessness. That is what grace is!
Thus the orientation of faith is changed from a passive, receptive, and vertical stance to an active, reciprocal, and horizontal one. Instead of gazing upward away from the world, faith brings us back to this world in order to recognize it as our true home where our embodied reality invites us to explore our capacity for loving community. This horizontal orientation has two aspects: (a) it has a concentric ever-widening movement to increasingly include more in its community of grace and love until the whole creation is enveloped in its embrace. It also proceeds along a linearity of hope toward the future of the full revelation of God in creation. As the apostle Paul said a long time ago, these three abide, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. This is not a collapsing of faith into social justice but grafting social justice back into faith where it always belonged (even though its place has consistently been denied).
Faith as commitment follows the direction of the incarnation. If Jesus is the way of God into the world, we should realize that where Jesus went is what God is most concerned about. We thus find God persistently in places of suffering and poverty. We find God where people are oppressed and discriminated against. God’s way to the world is a way to the margin, away from empire, away from political power, away from financial security. Faith is embracing the wretched of the earth. Faith is standing in the shadow of the cross.
And this leads to my last point about using the term faith. I’m using faith as part of a self- involving network of concepts that have long functioned in a cohesive and coherent whole to explain what it is that makes a human being a Christian. It’s a Wittgensteinian language game that makes sense for those who participate. But what the participants did not realize is that the game was rigged at a certain point and stood in tension with the real world. Instead of facilitating the life-giving work of the Spirit, it stifled, controlled, and domesticated the Christian God for power and supremacy. The game that was supposed to be a dance for the healing of creation became a secret sign language. This need to stop. By tinkering with the meaning of faith, no doubt an affront to many people, we are beginning to change the rules of the game.
This is the first post/article in which I explore major concepts of the Christian faith in an attempt to reconstruct them for a Christianity of the future, beyond the dichotomy of conservative versus liberal. Three things underlie this mini-project that is itself part of the large project of reimagining the Christian faith: (1) We construct our gods and as we do, we attempt to absolutize them and then domesticate them. This, at least, is what has happened with Western Christianity. For the sake of this faith tradition, we must realize this and act upon it. (2) We are living in a time in which questions dominate for which the old time religion cannot function as an answer. Many of us realize that as far as truth is concerned, love trumps doctrine, ethics trumps claims concerning the whatness of God, embodied community trumps metaphysics and the supernatural. (3) The message of Jesus is at heart disruptive and deconstructive of systems and lead to the emphases under point 2. Just as Jesus disrupted the pharisaic religion and the political perversion of the religious leaders of his time, we must, following him, disrupt the gods of Western civilization.