Yet how much do we understand? What is faith? The following meditation is an attempt to understand the mystery of faith, to give the word clearer meaning and power.
First Comes Faith
In I Corinthians 13, the great "Hymn of Love," the closing verse says, "Faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is Love." True, the greatest is Love. But we should note and remember, that first comes faith!
The Necessity of Faith
We don't often recognize the importance of faith, even the necessity of faith.
I would claim that the quality that the New Testament calls faith is basic to all of our living, that it comes before even hope or love! And notice that I am not saying that faith should come first, I am saying that faith does come first. It's built into the very fabric and texture of our existence, the law of creation.
Wherever there is life, there is faith; since the origin of humankind faith has made it possible for us to live, and the main characteristics of faith are everywhere and always the same ...
Every answer of faith gives infinite meaning to our finite existence; meaning that is not destroyed by suffering deprivation, and death.
... If we live, then we must have faith in something. If we understand the illusory nature of the finite, then we must believe in the infinite. Without faith, it is impossible to live. (Leo Tolstoy, Confession, IX)
This may sound like an extreme, even a ridiculous statement. Most of us look upon religion, upon "faith," as an optional part of living, quite unnecessary to life or happiness-- in fact, quite possibly a sign of old age or psychological weakness.
Yet I would seriously and strenuously claim that what the New Testament means by faith, that is trust, is basic to our living. If we are to get along with others, if we are to understand what life is about, if we are to understand ourselves, the extent of our being and the purpose of our living, faith is a necessity.
Religion, in the formal sense, is optional. But faith as trust is necessary to all our living.
In our common everyday living, faith is necessary from moment to moment. We have faith or trust in others. We gather without weapons, having faith that those around us won't attack us. We have a certain trust in the functioning of our social order -- that the mailman and the milkman will come and the garbage will be picked up on time, that the cook in the restaurant will be careful not to serve tainted food,
that the doctor will have the honest intention of healing us rather than killing us.
And we could not live without having faith in the ordinary faithful functioning of nature. Oh there are occasions when nature erupts with earthquake or flood. But generally, we can trust that the earth is not going to open at our feet and the sun will rise and set on schedule.
Faith is not just important, it is necessary. It is not just that faith should come first, it is that faith does come first.
All of it begins (and this is a point that Polanyi makes very strongly) not with scepticism or doubt as Descartes does, that is a secondary part of the business. The primary part is opening one's mind to reality, opening one's mind to the tradition. One cannot begin to learn without faith, faith in the evidence of our senses, faith in the teaching of our parents, faith in the tradition that is embodied in the best books that we study at school. All of this is that foundation from which we begin to learn.
And so Polanyi says, "So far from faith being a second rate substitute for knowledge, it is, as Augustine says, the foundation of knowledge. Credo ut intelligam. I believe in order to understand, and there is no understanding without belief." (Lesslie Newbigin, "What Is The Culture?")
In fact, isn't faith in God an extension of this faith we have in our ordinary lives. Isn't what the New Testament calls "faith" basically a trust that the "Ground of our being" is a loving God, trust that the Creator cares, the Redeemer forgives and seeks to make whole, that the Spirit sustains and strengthens in righteousness and truth.
To "live by faith" is then to believe that at the very centre of life there beats of the heart of the One whom Jesus called Abba, which means a loving father, and to live with a sense of the Presence of that caring Spirit, in the confidence of God's Love.
Yes, I know there are earthquakes, and terrorists, and sin and sickness and many forms of insanity and oppression. This is not the place to deal with the question of evil, excepting to say that perhaps
the most relevant symbol of Christian faith is the cross, the sign that the reality of evil and death are not denied but rather comprehended.
Faith is personal
Faith then equals trust -- and this is personal, relational. It is to say that God is Person, and our relation with God can be a personal relationship, an "I-Thou" relationship.
Faith, as the New Testament speaks of faith, is not so much acceptance of doctrine, dogma or creed, but a trust in the righteousness of life itself, not an intellectual opinion as a way of life. It is the confidence that life is finally good, that chaos and death are not triumphant in the end, that at the center of our existence there beats the heart of a loving Father.
God is Person. Not philosophical premise or mechanical power, but Person, the Person, of whom our personhood is but a dim reflection.
In the fullest sense, faith is the consciousness of a gracious Presence, a loving Spirit, a living relationship with the One whom Jesus called Abba. It is the confidence that, even in the worst that life can bring, we are loved and held and cherished. It is not so much belief in a statement as it is trust in a Friend.
Faith is relational
Faith then is our part of this relationship. It means for us being faithful, being responsible to the relationship.
If someone tells us something, we may believe it because it seems to be true, or because we trust the person who tells it to us. As Paul writes, "I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that He is able to keep that which I've committed to Him" (II Timothy 1:12).
But we don't trust someone unless we know her (or him), have been together and worked together and talked together. Faith is relational, a personal thing. It doesn't come wrapped in fancy paper
and fine ribbons like a present on one's birthday -- and all we have to do is break the ribbon and tear off the paper! It's not like buying a new car -- shopping around until you decide what model you want, then going in and making a deal, paying the money down, and driving away.
This faith of which I speak is a quiet thing. For most of us, it has a quiet beginning. It grows through the years, often imperceptibly from day to day and week to week. We can't create faith, or command it. It is the gift of God. But we can receive it, and nurture it. And if we don't, it withers and dies.
Some of us enjoy gardening -- digging in the earth and cultivating, planting and watering and fertilizing and weeding. We give our gardens every care.
Faith is rather like that. Nothing we can do will make a seed come to life and grow. Only God can do that. But if we don't tend that seed which God's Word has planted in our hearts, if we don't care for
it and nurture it, it's not going to amount to much. If we let the weeds get ahead of us, or if we neglect to nourish and water regularly, then the plant which is our faith will wither and perhaps will die. And when we need it and turn to it, as we all do sooner or later, we find that there is nothing there.
Our need of faith in testing times
It is true of course that there are certain times in the life of each of us when we become very conscious of our need of faith. "There are no atheists in foxholes," we say. Perhaps you've seen the sign
saying "Every life needs and altar and faith for testing times." And it's important that we be prepared for these times.
In summer, when the weather is warm and the nights are mild, it's relatively simple to get along without some sort of protecting shelter. But in the winter, it's important to have a roof over our heads and four solid walls around us to protect us from the elements. Even so, during the summery periods of our lives, when we are young and strong, and troubles and worries are relatively few, faith may not seem so very important. But when we are overtaken by life's difficulties and uncertainties, by suffering and despair and death, then we so earnestly and so urgently desire the strength and confidence which faith alone can give.
The tragedy, of course, is that while most of us realize the necessity of being prepared for winter, we neglect to build our house of faith until the cold winds of life begin to blow and the desolating storms of life's bitterest experiences begin to sweep around us. Then we begin to cry, pitifully, some almost-forgotten verse of scripture taught us as a child, or to mutter the Lord's Prayer as though it was some sort of magic spell -- like a man trying to knock a couple of old boards together in the middle of a howling blizzard because he neglected to build himself a shelter when the weather was fine and warm.
Sooner or later in life, for almost any person, faith, our religion, our relationship with God, our trust in the ultimate goodness and righteousness of life (what ever you wish to call it) will become important to us, more important than any thing else in our lives.
This is the tragedy which ministers see again and again. People think they have faith, perhaps once they did have faith. But they have neglected it, let it wither and die. Then the testing time comes, and what they thought was there is no longer there. And they are left doubly bereft.
If you are young and have never run into one of these experiences which really test your metal, please, please, don't allow yourself to be oblivious to them. They will come. And you'll need courage, and
strength, and endurance. But most of all you'll need faith! You'll need it desperately. But if you wait until then, you won't know where to turn, how to find it! And if you once had faith but tucked it away in a corner of your life and neglected it, you'll find that it has seeped away, and where it was is only an empty space!
Faith is life-giving, not life-denying.
But it's not just a matter of "walking with God in the sunshine so that God will walk with you in the storm." The occasional times in our lives when we are desperately aware of our need of faith simply
point us to a need that is constantly there.
For this living and walking with a sense of God's gracious Presence is not a grim and onerous burden we assume against the day of disaster. Faith, rightly understood, not only makes the bad times
better, but it also makes the good times better still.
Too long have we looked on Christian faith as a negative, life-denying force. "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean, and the world has grown grey from Thy breath!" (Algernon Swinburne, "Hymn to Proserpine"). Rather, Jesus said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it abundantly."
Faith means holding and developing that attitude to life and relationship with God (and with one another) which will fill out the dimensions of our own lives and give us a fuller measure of living, the full flavour of this sweet-and-sour experience we call life. Faith is not a denial of the fullness of life. It is not a negative but a positive.
And if our religious faith is not giving freedom and wholeness to our lives, then there is something wrong with our religious faith! Faith is not just something we need in testing times. It should give an additional flavour to our lives in the ordinary course of our living and in our happiest moments.
As I gain experience in life, I am more and more convinced by a fact which I can't document but of which I'm increasingly convinced. There are many good and fine people, I know, who show no evidence in their lives of anything we might call faith. There are some I suppose in church every Sunday who are not very fine or good or courageous people. But I'm impressed, more and more impressed as I grow older,
that there seems to be something in the lives of these good but "faithless" people which seems to run out over the generations.
My first pastoral charge as a young minister was in a rural area of southern New Brunswick which had been settled by Irish Protestants some one hundred years before at the time of one of the "potato famines" in Ireland. And the church record went back one hundred years to those earlier times.
Studying those records, I became aware that there was a certain correlation between the names and characters of people who lived back then and the names and characters of the people living there then, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren., one hundred years later. If you told me someone's name, I could tell you, eight or nine times out of ten, what kind of person he or she would be. Because the person living then, some hundred years later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those early settlers, were so often like the ancestor in character and quality of personality. And the kind of person the ancestor was depended on their own religious faith as evidenced in those old church records.
Always remember, the kind of person you are, and the quality of your own faith, may influence the kind of persons your children and grandchildren are, even to three and four generations!
First comes faith!
In the short haul, it may seem that faith is something we can do well enough without. But in the long haul, in order to preserve all that which is most deeply human within us and within our society, to get the most out of life and to preserve all those things which we most deeply cherish, faith is a necessity. It must come before all else, and form the very foundation of all we call good.
There are, you remember, the three great Christian virtues -- faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love. But first comes faith!