Posts Tagged 'Faith'

Belief & Faith

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

When speaking of belief and faith, I find our common understanding of these words has become impoverished, lacking vitality as compared to their older meanings found in the Christian New Testament. The words belief and faith carry an importance we ought to appreciate as Christians, if we are to come to a deeper understanding of our own sacred texts, so that we may taste the richness of scriptural language.

What do you imagine most people now mean when they speak of belief? Of faith?

In the vernacular of contemporary American English, belief and faith are closely related. Their primary difference is one of color, taste, or degree. In my experience belief holds wider use in secular (nonreligious) language and faith is more common to religious language. Also, so far as I am concerned, faith runs deeper than belief.

In its secular use, belief may identify a difference in degree of certainty: to say I believe the capital of Alaska is Juneau, means I am not 100% certain that is factual; if I tell someone I believe them, I am assuring them I assume they are telling me the truth (as they perceive it, of course). As Marcus Borg observes, “…knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.” [1]

In the religious context, belief carries a different connotation: affirming as true, that which one would otherwise not hold to be true, e.g. virgin birth (based upon a mistranslation and misreading of Isaiah 7:14 [2]), or that the earth was literally created in six days.

The assertion of a literal six-day creation also demonstrates a logical fallacy, in that one must willfully ignore that within the cosmogany [3] of Genesis itself, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day [4], and our measure of a day is dependent upon the earth’s rotation relative to the sun; thus, even within it’s own logical construct, Genesis cannot be understood literally. As with all mythology, it’s meaning runs far deeper than assertions concerning empirically demonstrable facts. Failing to appreciate the vitality of mythology is another impoverishment many (most?) in the modern age suffer.

Saying, “I believe you” does not carry the same conviction as saying, “I have faith in you.” Belief is directed toward an estimate of accuracy in data ―the known vs. the unknown― whereas faith is an estimation of a person’s intrinsic character or qualities.

Faith may also be understood as choosing to believe something as being true, which cannot be demonstrated to be true; or even choosing to believe a thing as being true, despite empirical evidence it is not true. One may choose to believe life has meaning beyond the physical; one may choose to believe there is a God; one may choose to believe Jesus was the son of God; one may choose to believe one is saved or redeemed. But none of these assertions may be empirically proved or disproved. This is why believing them requires a demonstration of faith.

Significant error creeps into our thinking when one confuses empirically demonstrable facts with claims of truth and perceptions of what one deems to be true. Simply put, facts and truth are not always the same things; many truths are imbued with an ineffable quality, or display a quality richer than that which may be measured.

For those interested in the topic of the meaning of Christian words, and how they have changed over the centuries, I commend to you Marcus Borg’s book “Speaking Christian.” I find Borg to be both an intelligent and caring person, able to convey refined details of theology from a scholars perspective, without losing touch with the heart of Christianity, which is love.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using faith

Faith, carries several simultaneous connotations: assensus, fidelitas, fiducia (Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament). [5]

Assensus, we may translate as assent; however, until we appreciate the depth of meaning in the remaining terms, we miss the mark if assuming this simply means to believe things that a rational person cannot. But let us first visit fidelitas and fiducia, then return to assensus.

Fidelitas, means faith as faithfulness; fidelity. To help us better understand this kind of faith, Borg uses the example of fidelity in marriage, as one being faithful to the relationship with one’s spouse; not faithful to a set of logical statements concerning one’s spouse.

In the same way, fidelity to God is not about believing dogma or church traditions or even scripture; fidelity to God is being faithful to one’s relationship with God; intentionally and mindfully enriching our sense of relationship with that transcendent More, which Christians identify as God or Father.

One aspect of this, is deliberately, consciously living in the presence of the divine throughout our daily life, as best we are able. How do we do this? We start by being aware of each moment as it passes. We open ourselves to the possibility of feeling a Presence at any time. We look for opportunities to relate to others directly, with compassion, and to help them when we are able.

Why? Because “God” is not up in heaven somewhere, and “God” is not “out there” somewhere. Quite the opposite: it is we who are “in God” because we are immersed in the sacred More all the time, as is a fish in water. Sometimes we are aware of this; other times we forget or become distracted.

Fiducia, is faith as trust. Radical –as in fundamental, foundational– trust in one’s relationship with God; this is not trust in statements, or affirmations, or assertions about God. The root lies not in logical constructs, but in experiential relationship. Thus, the heart of faith as fiducia, is rooted in personal experience of the divine.

Sensing our personal experience of the divine, by the way, is one way to define mysticism. Fiducia is related to fidelitas (fidelity), because fidelity is expressed through our concern for others, daily moving through our life mindful of the possibility of encountering the divine, and specifically of encountering the divine in those we meet. Thus, faith as fidelity is rooted in experiencing life, as is fiducia, faith as trust in relationship.

And let us remember, our daily life is where we must “meet God” because that is where we find ourselves. It is like the old joke, everywhere you go, there you are. But so too, “God” the transcendent and immanent More in which we swim, and have our very be-ing-ness, is there with us.

Returning to assensus –“faith as believing something is true” [6]– I agree with Borg, that first and foremost, we are (as William James defined the Sacred) affirming there is a mysterious More which permeates the cosmos. And for me as a Christian, Jesus is the “decisive disclosure of the More,” [7] that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thus, as Christians we seek theosis [8] of the Christ living in, and through, us.

What the Christian New Testament attempts to convey when using belief

Belief, one may best read as beloved [9]. As used in the New Testament, the heart of its meaning is love; not assertion, nor affirmation, and certainly not as acknowledging empirically derived facts. Once one shifts one’s understanding of the word belief, to beloved, many passages in the New Testament take on a new life and vitality.

This brings to mind what for me is the most central aspect of the teaching of Jesus ― the Greatest Commandment:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [Deut. 6:5] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Speaking practically, what might one do to help encourage some experience of the divine, of “God” in one’s life?

Mindful, intentional, loving, engagement is the path many mystics cite when asked how one might draw oneself nearer an experience of the divine in one’s life. There are a number of ways one might begin one’s journey along this path. Among them are regularly praying and/or meditating, studying and/or contemplating scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Why pray? Why study scripture? Why attend Mass?

Each of these embeds one in the Mind of Christ, to some degree; to what depth changes with each person. Some respond more to prayer, some by immersing themselves in scripture, and others by partaking of Holy Communion. But in each case, the objective is to find a means of immersing oneself in maturing spiritual thought and maturing spiritual emotion.

I would make the point that both thought and emotion play important roles in acquiring the skill leading to one’s spiritual maturity. Each provides a measure of balance to the other. Without emotion one may become dry, empty husks merely spouting facts and figures which have been memorized. Where is the Spirit in this? Without thought, one is lost, awash in emotional turmoil, seething and reacting, but without guidance, lacking long-term goals and unable to direct one’s spiritual development. Where is the Spirit in this?

One prays, studies scripture, and partakes of Holy Communion because the more one does so, the more one embeds oneself in the process of forming in oneself the Mind of Christ. As one dwells more frequently in this mode of thought and experience, one more frequently views one’s view daily interactions and internal dialogue through this spiritual lens. One becomes more mindful of one’s presence, that of others, and ultimately of the More, to which we all aspire.

All of these are means of transforming oneself into the type of person one wishes to become. As one increasingly finds one dwells in this state of mind, one increasingly has an effect upon others. Thus transformation of self, overflows into transformation of community, which over time creates a feedback, in which one is more spiritually nourished by one’s community; and as one better nourishes other members of one’s community, the cycle of spiritual generation continues. Where the Heart and Mind leads, the body will follow.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world…

With all the above in mind, I wish to offer two translations of John 3:16 for your consideration. The first is the King Jame’s Version, and the second a translation done by Marcus Borg. I invite you to compare these versions of John 3:16 and ask yourself which version better promotes the mature psychological and spiritual thinking of Unity Consciousness; that of putting on the Mind of Christ.

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
[John 3:16 KJV]

For God so loved the world that God gave the only beloved Son of God
that whosoever beloves him shall not perish
but experience the life of the age to come in the here and now.
[John 3:16 translation by Marcus Borg][10]

As you come to the end of this essay, I encourage you to read Marcus Borg’s short sermon, “What is Faith?” upon which this essay is based. I find his thoughts on this topic insightful, and I believe you will as well:

Marcus Borg’s Lenten Homily http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

May the Lord bless and keep you,
Erik+

Footnotes:

[1] Marcus J. Borg, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored” (New York: HarperCollins, 2011) 116.

[2] Isaiah 7:14 is typically taken out of context when quoted by Christians in the defense of Jesus’ virgin birth; few who read it are aware the Hebrew word used is Almah, which carries a range of meanings: girl; maid; maiden; young woman, and virgin. Almah is indeed translated as virgin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (from which the author of Matthew drew their reference). However, this is obviously a mistaken interpretation when read in context; read Isaiah 7:10-17 for yourself: “Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel”… 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman [Greek, the virgin] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us]. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (NRSV) Basically, this passage is a prophecy that the current siege shall be lifted after the young woman gives birth, and that king Ahaz will not be defeated by these two kings, as he fears. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ virgin birth (although in the ancient literature of many cultures, accounts of virgin births are mythic/legendary elements often employed to raise the status of those to whom they are directed: Krishna (India); Horus (Egypt); Lao-Tsze (China); even Plato (Athens); as well as, Dionysus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and of course Jesus). This is not to imply that virgin births are not important, but they are not to be understood literally either.

[3]Cosmogany: a theory or story of the origin and development of the universe, the solar system, or the earth-moon system (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Cosmogony).

[4] Genesis 1:14-19. The fourth day.

[5] Marcus J. Borg, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: Lenten Homily, 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

[6] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[7] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[8] “Theosis literally means to become gods by Grace. The Biblical words that are synonymous and descriptive of Theosis are: adoption, redemption, inheritance, glorification, holiness and perfection. Theosis is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, whereby through Grace one becomes a participant in the Kingdom of God. Theosis is an act of the uncreated and infinite love of God. It begins here in time and space, but it is not static or complete, and is an open-ended progression uninterrupted through all eternity.” Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) page 86.

[9] Borg, “What is Faith?”

[10] Borg, “What is Faith?”

Resources:

Books:

Borg, Marcus J.:

“The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power ― And How They Can Be Restored”

Ehrman, Bart D.: “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”

James, William : “Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature”

Online:

Borg, Marcus J.: Lenten Homily, “What is Faith?” (Memphis, TN: 2001) http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.16.01.html

Archimandrite George, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Gregorios, Mount Athos “Theosis: The True Purpose of Human Life” (Mount Athos, Greece: 2006) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis.aspx (http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/theosis-english.pdf)