Friday, 11 August 2006

Theology for beginners (1): Faith

Summary: In faith, we respond to the God who has already grasped us, and we discover that the reality of God is the meaning of our lives.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves in the situation of faith: we find that we believe. This is a very peculiar situation indeed. For faith is by no means a necessary feature of human existence. It is also possible not to believe; a person can be human without ever being a believer.

Why then do we believe? At bottom, we must admit that the reason for this lies outside ourselves. The only answer we can give is that we believe because unbelief has become impossible for us. We believe because we have been grasped by a reality outside ourselves. Or, to put it more succinctly, we believe because of God. For some reason or other, God has stepped into our world, has encountered us personally in all the astonishing power of his own sheer there-ness – and, suddenly, we have found that we believe! We have found that our entire being has cried out “Yes!” to the reality of God.

That’s what faith is all about. Faith isn’t an intellectual acceptance of certain doctrines or ideas. Nor is it merely a special psychological state. Rather, to speak of faith is to speak of the entire self in action. Faith occurs as my whole self responds to the reality of God. Faith is thus the total transformation of my existence. God addresses me; God confronts me; God calls me; God summons me into fellowship. God becomes more real to me than I am to myself, so that my whole existence is placed in a new context – in the context of God! And as I see myself in this new light, I realise that the only proper response to God is an unqualified “Yes.” So my whole self becomes a single “Yes” to God, a free and cheerful and obedient “Yes” to the God who is himself the truth of my existence, the context within which my own life becomes meaningful.

Faith awakens us to the meaning of life, since life finds its true meaning only within the context of God. Human life is a narrative or story, and like any story it must have an end in order to be meaningful. If you want to understand a detective novel, you can understand the whole narrative only when you have reached the story’s end. In the same way, if you want to understand the meaning of your personal life-story, you must first know something about the end of this story. And the end of all our stories is – God! Thus when we awaken to the reality of God, we also become aware of the true goal of our own stories, of the structure and context that gives our lives meaning. Faith, then, is oriented towards the future – it is a “Yes” to the God who is our future, to the God who is the end and goal of our life-stories.

So in faith, we find God – and at the same time, we find ourselves. And for just this reason, faith is always a gift, always a surprise. It’s never an achievement, never a possession at our disposal, never something that we can work to produce. Rather, we simply find ourselves in the situation of faith. We discover ourselves as those who have been grasped by God. We discover that we now believe – just as someone might suddenly discover that he has cancer, or that he is in love. In the exact moment of discovery, one’s whole life-story appears in a new light and a new context.

In this way, we discover faith itself as a free and surprising gift, a gift which opens our eyes to the reality of God as the meaning-giving context of our own lives. That wonderful discovery of God and of ourselves, that surprising gift – that is faith.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM, 1949), pp. 15-34.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” in Faith and Understanding, ed. Robert W. Funk (London: SCM, 1969).
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 108-117.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. Justification: The Heart of Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 236-51.
  • Küng, Hans. Does God Exist? (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978), pp. 568-76.
  • Newlands, George. God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 9-19.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 136-72.

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