It seems that there are (at least) three dimensions to faith. People place different emphases on these elements and this can lead to some talking at cross-purposes.
Firstly, we have our personal encounter with our God that results in an inner transformation – turning our back on the past and starting a new kind of life – and the commitment to a continuing relationship of love, trust and faithfulness. The very fact that this is a personal experience means that it is as unique as we are as individuals. For a few it may have the intensity of a call from a burning bush, for others it might be a sudden heart-warming experience, but it is more likely to be a still, small voice than a dramatic event.
This encounter is not a one-off event; it is a journeying together with God in a developing relationship. As is the case with journeys and with relationships, we go through highs and lows and we gain different perspectives as we find ourselves in new situations. We change and our relationships change as well. If our relationship is firmly based, it will deepen and broaden as it is tested by the challenges we go through in his presence.
Secondly, there is the way we live out our faith and show on a day to day basis how we have been changed by that encounter with God. That is evident in the kind of people we are in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our neighbourhoods and how we respond to community and world needs. It is all the ways in which we make our love of God and of our fellow human beings and our commitment to mission into a practical reality by caring for others and campaigning for justice. It is our response to the call to discipleship, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and to participate actively in God’s work in the world. As Albert Schweitzer put it, “The essential element in Christianity as it was preached by Jesus … is this, that it is only through love that we can attain to communion with God.“
Thirdly, we have the words with which we try to describe our experience of God. These descriptions are often given to us by preachers or church elders, or are enshrined in creeds. We clearly need such descriptions so that we can think and talk about our faith and pass it on to others; but we need to know the limits of such words and descriptions. God is far too complex for us to know him fully. So all our attempts to describe God or the way God interacts with humanity and the wider creation are inadequate; they are our best efforts with the concepts and the language we have available. Inevitably we resort to metaphors and picture language and talk as if God thought and acted like a human being. But too often people forget that this is what we are doing. Metaphors become confused with historical truth and are then proclaimed as essential beliefs. So what started as a wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness, and of giving of oneself becomes a matter of doctrine and of the eternal rewards we are promised for holding the right beliefs.
So much emphasis has been placed on this third aspect, that many think that faith is all about believing the “right” things. Yet, when asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with the two great love commandments – which are active ways of relating and of giving of oneself. He didn’t say, “Above all, you must believe every point of the Nicene Creed.” Because we are so hung up on how people articulate their faith, we tend to judge people by whether they express their spiritual experiences in the language we expect and in terms of the beliefs we hold rather than valuing people for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. We exclude people who are valuable to the kingdom of God by telling them that, if they cannot express their experience of God as a belief in x or y, they don’t belong. Meanwhile we can find people within the church who believe all the “right” things but have not yet grasped that loving and forgiving have to be lived out and not just sung about in hymns or recited as part of a liturgy.
The church tends to discourage questions, because they reveal doubt, and this is castigated as the enemy of faith. Yet questioning is an integral part of a developing and progressive faith andwe are called to love God with all our mind as well as with all our heart and soul and strength.If God is Spirit and has to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, we are never going to encapsulate him in a catechism or creed. If our relationship with God is a dynamic, developing and deepening one, it is bound to change over the years and we may well choose to use different images and language to describe it, as our understanding develops. [We may consider time as further dimension] We are continually learning more about the world and the cosmos and how life has developed. If we only allow traditional images of the Christian faith and we shackle ourselves to what leading Christians believed in the 18th century, there will continue to be a huge gulf between the teaching and language used within the church and the way those brought up outside the church talk about the world and relationships and things that really matter to them.
If we can re-build an understanding of faith that emphasises the dimensions of personal relationship with God and of living out faith through mission, and be much more relaxed about whether people explain their faith in traditional terms or seek to find expressions for it that seem more appropriate to them in 21st century Western Europe, we will allow scope for the church and its individual members to grow in faith.
After all, those early Christians who had a strong enough faith to die in the Coliseum had never heard of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed and many were illiterate and never read any of the books that would later be included in the bible. But their trusting relationship with God and their loving compassion, not only within their own fellowship but to all those in need, showed that they had a faith worth having.
© Philip Sudworth 2009