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.

27 Comments:

Sivin Kit said...

"Why then do we believe? At bottom, we must admit that the reason for this lies outside ourselves."

This is enough to keep me glued :-)

dan said...

This perspective on faith reminds me of Wittgenstein's discussion of "willing."

Willing, Wittgenstein argues, "comes when it comes, and I cannot bring it about... it makes no sense to speak of willing willing... in the sense in which I cannot fail to will, I cannot try to will either (I.611-618).

Anyway, I just finished reading that section of the Philosophical Investigations and I thought it was an interesting point of comparison.

Peter Aschoff said...

Great job. I like the bit about the stories of life. Sometimes I wish that on the experiential level the transformation was more obvious or complete...

Obviously these texts need to be short, but as you are writing for beginners: Do not all human beings believe in (or rely on) something - an in what sense is faith as defined in the New Testament different from inhabiting another story, or worshipping idols instead of the one true God? It is surely possible not to believe - but is it possible to believe nothing?

Isaac said...

I'm teaching my first class this fall, Theo 101. please keep these "theology for beginners" posts coming regularly! Very helpful.

D.W. Congdon said...

As another admirer of Eberhard Jüngel, this first post warms my heart in many ways. You've captured the notion of "discovery" very well, and emphasis on God as the "trut of life" is also fantastic. Thanks for this post, and I am excited to read the ones to come.

GoobyNelly said...

Excellent, Ben. I appreciate your emphasis on the whole person being caught up in faith, rather than just the intellect or the psyche. I would want to add some additional holism by mentioning that faith is a communal reality, not just an individual one. Thus, our particular life-story is shared by others who are caught up in the same reality. Of course, this falls more under ecclesiology.

Jackson said...

I appreciate the suggested reading as much as the content of your article. I think it's time to go book shopping.

TheBlueRaja said...

Wonderful, Ben. I can't wait for the next one.

Renee said...

Ben,
Thanks for such a wonderful post. I too was grabbed by the idea of faith grabbing us. It's an experience we find ourselves in -- how beautiful! This reminds us that God the primary actor but at the same time, invites us in our fullness to be actors and participators as well.

Keep it coming!

Tarwater said...

Does human freedom have a place in the process of salvation? This looks very nearly like monergism.

Doesn't Christian Faith have a twofold structure? An act and a content? The 'holding as true' and the 'held as true'? Isn't the content just as important as the act? Or was the whole history of the ferocious attacks against orthodoxy, and the heroic defense by the orthodox, unnecessary and trite? Do Arians have Christian Faith, do Gnostics, do Monophysites, Donatists, Albigensians, etc.?

If we define faith primarily in terms of 'holding as true' do we not ipso facto slide over into a sort of neo-gnosticism? Into a Faith that in the end has no authority to delineate between heresy and Christian Faith?

Until you give the proper place to 'content' in the nature of faith have you really defined Christian Faith?

Michael F. Bird said...

Good stuff Ben, esp. the idea of "unbelief has become impossible for us". I look forward to your studies on election!

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these comments.

Tarwater: you're right, of course, that faith has a "content". And I'll have plenty to say about this -- this first post was about "faith" as a human phenomenon; the next 20 posts will be all about the "content" of faith!

Tarwater said...

You wrote: "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."

By laying such a foundation do you not leave out any meaningful part for us in this act of the drama of our redemption? It all just willy-nilly 'happens' to us!

Where is a theory of vision? I am called upon to 'see' to 'perceive', not merely to check and see if I have cancer today or not. Yes?

Luther's Stein said...

Ben,

Many thanks for this post. I appreciate the emphasis on faith as a "context for life" since faith cannot help but change the theory of everything. And always, the emphasis on divine sovereignty is welcomed.

Anonymous said...

An excellent opening post - I found some fresh new insights to think about on the nature of faith

Rodney Neill

Patrick C. said...

Excellent post, but it makes one wonder why so many do not have faith? Have not all received it? That would raise troublesome questions about election. Have they received the gift but not recognized/acknowledged it? But they can't always be blamed for that. Just musing...

Tripp said...

thanks for the work you put in. looking forward to the next bit.

gracie said...

Lovely.... I like the 'story' aspect too... as a nurse/chaplain who spends much time with the aged and dying, listening to their stories and hearing the grace and faith in them... yes.. the end of all our stories is God! Thank you, Ben.

CraigS said...

Thanks for that Ben. I've written something of a response on my blog - Click here

Simon said...

hello Ben,

some other commentators have pointed out that faith being such a passive thing makes for strange consequences - e.g. you can't blame the "unfaithful" for being so.

Another thing you have: You talk about god's reality. Yet your notion of faith seems to work perfectly well even if God has no reality and something else has caused your faith. Sort of like when you fall in love with someone who is not at all like your concept of her or him. Then, too, that illusionary person may become more real to me than I myself, or so I may feel, my whole existence is placed in a new context etc. Of course, my being in love with someone does not make sense if that someone doesnt't really exist - but such a state of affairs is very much possible.

Now go and tell me that I don't understand because I don't have faith - I'll agree. :-)

Tshaka said...

good post. reminds me of some of the things i read in William James' "The Varities of Religious Experience."

Bells1158 said...

I like this post because you speak of how exact our connection is to God once we determine that we have faith. It also helps believers to understand that the most significant defining moments are at the beginning and end. This leaves a period of time that is undefined in a sense but more precisely defined by our actions.

Martin said...

You say it is possible not to believe; I say it is impossible not to believe. Of course you are talking about belief in Christ, and I am talking about belief in much more fundamental things such as gravity, but it amounts to the same thing in the end. Every single person holds to and lives by their beliefs on a daily basis, whether they realize it/like it or not. And many change their belief systems several times throughout their lifetime as they grow in knowledge, understanding and general experience.

Because of your belief that it is possible not to believe, coupled with the notion that faith is an all-encompassing yes, nowhere can you include in your thinking the biblical warning about shrinking back – altering or failing to live up to those things which one may have once held dearly; the idea of being faithless as opposed to faithful. If faith is a gift, what is that - theft, or “squander-ment”? Have you ever reneged on a commitment – it’s the same idea.

It is perfectly possible to believe and go to hell. The ruler of that dominion is the point in case. The question is not whether one can give mental, physical, whole-self assent to the idea of God and His call on our lives, but what we do about that thereafter. Do you think Satanus, who once served God fully, questioned the reality of God’s call on his obedience; of course not. He questioned the efficacy, usefulness etc. of it and thus chose to turn his back. Many a faithless has raised similar questions that have caused them to do the same.

Biblical faith is not making a commitment to God with your whole self; it’s holding to that commitment. Without the hold-to it isn’t faith, it’s a mix of intellectual, emotional, psychological (etc.) reactions we experience when finally we allow God’s pursuit of us to win the day. Faith is therefore the action that supports the “person” (whole self or otherwise) after the whole person has made the leap into faith (your use of the word).

Your notions about faith suggest that you should re-title your post “A Beginners Theology of Calvinism” in order to be more truthful to the reader. That faith is no more a gift than lungs and life itself is too great a subject for this response. But what manner of God would command all men everywhere to believe yet not “give” them the necessary attributes with which to do so?

desertflower said...

While faith and belief are very important topics, I tend to wonder why we spend so much time on them when the greatest command is not to have faith or belief in, but to love God...and that love helps to create a love for our fellow man.

Life-changes too seldom seen in faith and belief

Burk Braun said...

"We believe because we have been grasped by a reality outside ourselves."

If this is true, then why the need to indoctrinate, evangelize, proselytize, etc.? One gets the distinct impression that what you are talking about here is not reality at all, but fantasy- one variant of which is relentlessly inculcated through childhood, as per the local superstitions and theologies.

For actual realities like gravity and light, there is no need to indoctrinate or evangelize about their existence, since they do exist. Deities, on the other hand, are not there at all, which is delicately termed their "hidden-ness".

Martin said...

Context, context, context... perhaps the primary flaw in most modern wisdom (nay even throughout history).

Hi desertflower. Of course you are right. Love exceeds all else. But faith is love. "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and your fellow man as yourself" is mere sentiment unless you stick to it and do something in the light of it. That's faith. It's not just mental consent. It is walking out one's convictions. The whole of history was changed by faith. Hebrews 11 holds an amazing account of this - and faith is the key here, and there's not one mention of love (it's implicit).

I can love my wife.. but if a "better" woman comes along that tickles my fancy just at a moment of internal strife in my household, what do I do? I can love my neighbour until he drives me to distraction once too often - then what? I can believe for good even though all the signs are flashing danger at me - so how?

Faith is the backbone that makes love a reality. If you want to see what love looks like you have to look at acts of faithfulness for that picture. Yes. You are right. Love is top. Faith is love in action.

Burk... I love a thinker... but why did you stop there?

1 - you state "if" this is true, and then go on to presume that it is.
2 - you seem not to have asked the question "how then did we become "grasped" by that reality? I was grasped by someone else's very gentle and inoffensive act of evangelism (they bought me a bible) - and Moses was gripped by a visible expression of the invisible... which leads to...
3 - gravity is as invisible as God. You can only see the effect of it. Open your eyes my friend, and you can see all around you the effect of the invisible God - as well as the effect of His absence.

Mine is not an attempt to proselytize you but, as with desterflower, to encourage you to extend your contextual scope so that you include all relevant data for your decision making processes, not just those parts you can personally deal with.

Truly not wishing to offend...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog Ben!

A very rich resource indeed.

~ d.e.v. ~

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