My topic, as you know from the program, is, “Re-Visioning the Christian Life”, and my question is, very simply, “Within the re-visioning that I am suggesting, what does the Christian life look like?” For that older conventional way of seeing Christianity that I sketched in my talk yesterday, believing was central to the Christian life. Indeed during the period of modernity, being a Christian meant, to a large extent, believing in Christianity, and Christian faith meant, to a large extent, believing. How does the Christian life look within this framework of seeing Christianity again?
I’m going to develop the response to my own question in two main parts to this lecture: In Part 1, I’m going to talk about Jesus and the Christian Life, and in Part 2, I’m going to talk about Faith and the Christian Life.
Part 1 – Jesus and the Christian Life
I’ll develop this under two main statements. And I begin with some comments about the central meaning of the Christological language of the early Christian movement, or put more simply, with what I see as the central meaning of the early church’s Christology. Let me begin with the Christological metaphors that emerged within the early Christian movement in the decades after Easter. It is that collection of exalted titles that the early movement used to speak about Jesus. It’s a very familiar list of terms, words like –
Jesus is: The Word of God, The Lamb of God, The Wisdom [Sophia] of God. Jesus is: Messiah, Son of God, One With God, Lord.
All those and more are what I mean by the Christological language of the early Christian movement. Now let me mention in passing – though it’s an important pass – that in my judgment, as well as the judgment of most mainline scholars including the Jesus Seminar, none of this language goes back to Jesus himself. We think it’s unlikely that he thought of himself as The Son of God or as The Messiah, and certainly he did not think of himself as The Light of The World, The Bread of Life, or The Way, The Truth and The Life, and so forth. Rather, all of this language, again in the judgment of the majority of mainline scholars, is the voice of the community, not the voice of Jesus. As I have sometimes remarked, I find this even more impressive as the voice of the community than if I thought of it as the voice of Jesus. It is the community that is saying, “We have found in this person the Word made flesh. We have found in this person the spirit of God embodied in a human life. We have in this person the Messiah, the Light of the World.”
All of this language initially comes from the Jewish tradition. Some of the phrases, some of the metaphors, come to have resonances associated with the Hellenistic world as well, but all of it initially comes from the Jewish tradition. Which means that Jesus, after his death, was spoken of in the most exalted language known in his own religious tradition. And that is an extraordinary testimony, both to what he was like as a historical person, as well as to the impact that he had upon his community of followers.
Where I want to get, as I remind you of the Christological language of the early Christian movement, is to a compact statement of what I see as the cumulative meaning of all of this language. It will be a somewhat abstract statement. Let me add that it’s important to keep all of the individual metaphors, because the individual metaphors each have their own rich resonances of meaning. If we ask, “What does all this language add up to? What is its cumulative meaning?” I would put it like this: “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive disclosure of God.” Or, if you prefer the word “revelation” instead of “disclosure”: “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive revelation of God.” That is what all of this language, in various ways, is affirming. More fully and precisely: “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the disclosure of a life full of God.” Obviously, Jesus does not show us God’s omniscience or God’s omnipresence, and he does not really show us God as creator, but he shows us what can be known of God in a human life. He shows us what a life full of God looks like.
I want to add that we can say: “Jesus is, for us as Christians, the decisive disclosure of God,” without saying, “He is the only one.” I’m talking, when I use the language of “decisive for us as Christians,” about what it is that makes us Christians. Christians are people who see the decisive disclosure of God in Jesus, just as Muslims are people who see the decisive disclosure of God in the Koran, and Jewish people are people who see the decisive disclosure of God in the Torah.
I want to put this early Christian affirmation and its meaning one other way, because that’s the bridge to what I’m going to say about Jesus and the Christian life. Thus, the early Church’s central Christological affirmations about Jesus mean: “Jesus is a model for the Christian life.” Jesus shows us what a life full of God looks like.
The part of the Christian tradition out of which I come, has most often hesitated saying that, or even resisted saying that. In part there’s been a fear that if we say, “Jesus is a model for the Christian life,” that it turns the Christian life into Works, and not Grace. In part, it’s because the divinity of Jesus has sometimes been emphasized to such an extent that, “How could he possibly be a model for a human life?” And in part it’s because there’s been a fear that if we say, “Jesus is a model for the Christian life,” that it turns the Christian life into just ethics. But I think all of these apprehensions are, finally, without adequate ground. I think these objections ignore that the early Christian movement was saying, “In Jesus we see what a life full of God looks like.” I also think that the apprehension that it turns following Jesus into Works or Ethics neglects the fact that taking Jesus seriously means that we would take the Spirit with utter seriousness as being at the center of Jesus’ life. And if you take the Spirit with utter seriousness, then Grace is also at the center of the Christian life.
So this leads me to part 2 of my first part. If in Jesus we see what a life full of God looks like, if we see in Jesus a model of the Christian life, what does such a life look like? What I will say builds upon the five-stroke sketch that I develop of the historical Jesus in my books. I will simply remind you, without exposition, of what that five-stroke sketch was. He was a spirit-person, or a Jewish mystic. I use those two phrases synonymously. He was a healer. He was a wisdom-teacher. He was a social prophet. And he was a movement founder.
If we take what we see in Jesus seriously, as a “disclosure of what a life full of God looks like,” what does that life look like? I will describe that life with two pairs of words, and the two pairs are spirit – wisdom on the one hand, and compassion – justice on the other hand. I begin with the first pair. It will be a life centered in spirit and wisdom, and I will now talk about spirit and wisdom separately.
When I speak about a life centered in the spirit of God, I am referring, of course, to my strong sense that Jesus, historically speaking, was a Jewish mystic. Now a mystic, very simply, is a person for whom God, or the Spirit or the sacred, are an experiential reality. Mystics are people who have vivid, and typically frequent, experiences of the sacred. I think, contrary to what some of my colleagues would say, the evidence that Jesus was a Jewish mystic is early, widespread, and persuasive. Thus for Jesus as a historical person, his relationship to the Spirit was utterly central, or foundational, to everything else he was. Jesus, I am convinced, knew the immediacy of the sacred in his own experience. He knew the reality of an unbordered relationship with God in his own experience. And, very importantly, he invited his followers into a relationship with the same Spirit that he knew in his own experience. At the risk of repeating myself, and to put it as simply as I know how, a life full of God is a life centered in the Spirit of God. If we take this seriously, it means that spirituality will be one of the two focal points of the Christian life.
The other focal point will be compassion in the world of the everyday. That’s what I’ll talk about under compassion and justice, of course, but it means that spirituality will be one of the two focal points of the Christian life. I define spirituality myself very simply as: becoming conscious of, and intentional about, a deepening relationship with God. Let me expand that briefly by commenting upon three words. Conscious. What I have in mind there is that we are all already in a relationship with God and have been from the very beginning. Spirituality is about becoming conscious of that relationship that already exists. Intentional. Intentional means paying attention to that relationship. There is nothing terribly mysterious about the relationship with God. It is analogous to human relationships. The more you pay attention to it, the more it deepens. Relationship. When I speak about the third term I want to unpack, it’s about a deepening relationship with God. Spirituality is not very much about believing, at all. You don’t have to believe a thing to begin the practice of spirituality. Some people say, “Well, don’t you have to believe in God before you can start doing this?” No! Of course you don’t. Sometimes belief precedes. Sometimes belief follows. It’s about a relationship with that Mystery (capital “M”) within which we live, and move, and have our being.
Now, if we take spirituality seriously as one of the two focal points of the Christian life, this leads immediately to a way of thinking about one of the major purposes of our life together as “church.” I say one, because I don’t want to say it’s the only one. I try to speak about one of the major purposes of our life together as ‘church’ with the twin metaphor, the double metaphor, of open hearts and thin places.
That spirituality, or the Christian life, is ultimately about the opening of the heart, the opening of the self at its deepest level, to the reality of God. To be even more metaphorical about that, Allen Jones of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, in one of his books, speaks of spirituality as for the hatching of the heart. It’s a wonderful image, because it suggests that our hearts, ourselves at the deepest level, typically have a shell around them. If the life that is within is to come into full life, that shell must open. Christianity, the spiritual life in Christian form, is about the opening of itself at the deepest level to God.
The phrase “thin place” is a metaphor that I owe to Celtic Christianity, that form of Christianity that flourished in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales beginning in the late fifth century and continuing on for a number of centuries. It’s still a strong undercurrent in those parts of the world. Within Celtic Christianity, a thin place is any place where the border or the boundary between nonmaterial reality and material reality becomes very thin, virtually transparent, porous, malleable. A thin place is any place where we experience the sacred. A thin place is a place where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold, experience, the Spirit within which we live, and move, and have our being. Within Celtic Christianity, many places can be thin places. Nature can be a thin place. Geographical locations like Iona, or places of pilgrimage like Jerusalem and Rome, can be thin places.
Also, I’m suggesting to you, the purpose of many of our Christian practices, especially worship practices, is that they are to become a thin place, where we momentarily glimpse the reality of the sacred. If you have any role in the design of worship, or the choice of music for use in congregational worship, or if you are sleeping with somebody who does, think very seriously about what would it mean for the design of our worship services if we took seriously that one of the major purposes of worship is to become a thin place where our hearts are open. It would make a lot of difference in worship design. Worship would cease being primarily about listening to talking heads. I don’t mean that sermons don’t matter. They are one of the few teaching opportunities within the church, and a good sermon can become a thin place. But when a worship service is dominated by long, spoken pastoral prayers, and long, recited in unison confessions, and readings, and all that, with maybe two or three inaccessible hymns thrown in, I mean it’s no wonder people have better things to do on Sunday morning.
So, spirituality, a relationship to the same Spirit that Jesus knew in his own experience, would be one of the centers of a life that saw Jesus as a model of the Christian life.
The second word in my first pair of words: wisdom. Taking Jesus seriously as a model of the Christian life means taking the wisdom teaching of Jesus seriously. Here Greg [Jenks], and the Jesus Seminar as a whole for that matter, and I are all on the same page. The wisdom teaching of Jesus is utterly central to who he was. So a Christian life that takes that seriously would be a life lived by the alternative wisdom of Jesus. The alternative wisdom of Jesus is a “way”. Wisdom teachers always speak about a way, which means a path. It’s a way or a path that leads beyond convention. “Convention”, of course, is another word for culture. For a culture is most taken-for-granted understandings of what is real, of what life is about, of what’s good and what’s bad, of what’s worth pursuing. Convention is what everybody knows in a particular culture. Convention is cultural consensus about how you should live your life. The wisdom of Jesus leads beyond convention.
To use another phrase for the wisdom of Jesus that I see as saying the same thing as “a way that leads beyond convention”, the way of Jesus is Robert Frost’s phrase that became the title of M. Scott Peck’s best-selling book. (which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 600 weeks! My God!): “the road less traveled”. Or to use the language that Jesus himself used, it’s the narrow way, as contrasted with the broad way of convention. Or to use a phrase I have sometimes used, it is a subversive and alternative wisdom. By subversive I mean a wisdom that undermines or subverts taken-for-granted notions. The central positive content of the alternative wisdom of Jesus is that it is a radical centering in God, and not in culture, not in tradition, not in convention. I’m convinced that in his own spiritual experience as a Jewish mystic, Jesus knew the immediacy of access to God. In his wisdom teaching, Jesus taught the immediacy of access to God – apart from convention, apart from tradition, apart from institution – a way that is as open to the marginalized as it is to the respectable, and maybe even more open to the marginalized than to the respectable, because the marginalized know that convention hasn’t gotten them anywhere.
The central symbol for the alternative way of Jesus in the New Testament as a whole (and we find it in the Gospels as well) is death and resurrection. It’s the cross as a metaphor for an internal, psychological spiritual path. It is dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being. It is dying to an old identity, that identity conferred by culture and convention, whether it’s an identity that puffs us up or burdens us down. It is being born into an identity in God, in the Spirit, or for the post-Easter community, an identity in Christ. This central symbol of death and resurrection is a metaphor for the internal, psychological spiritual path means that the born-again experience is at the very center of the Christian life.
I think it’s unfortunate that we in the moderate to liberal wings of the church have virtually let our conservative brothers and sisters have a monopoly on born-again language. One of the reasons we’ve done that, I think, is that all of us have known at least one person who was born-again as a jerk. I know that’s whimsical and light, but the element of seriousness in it is that if the born-again experience leads to an even more rigid sense of righteousness, and to an even more rigid judgmentalism, then it’s not the born-again experience. Or it has an awful lot of static in it.
To go back to the main point, dying to the world of convention – dying to those identities conferred by culture, dying to the values of culture – is utterly central to the way of Jesus.
Finally, the wisdom of Jesus, the way of Jesus, is very similar to the way of the other great wisdom teachers of the world’s religions. Except for differences of language, I can’t see any difference between the wisdom teaching of Jesus and the wisdom teaching of Lao Tsu or the wisdom teaching of the Buddha. And I could name others. I think that rather than being threatened by seeing the similarity between the way of Jesus and the way of these other great wisdom teachers, we should see the similarity as something to be celebrated and proclaimed. The Christian preoccupation with the uniqueness of Jesus, when you think about it, is just weird. If we find a commonality in the religious traditions, it seems to me, that adds to the truth and the validity of the religious traditions rather than somehow threatening the truth of our own.
I turn to my second pair of words, all still under the topic of Jesus as a disclosure of what a life full of God looks like, and therefore of Jesus as a model for the Christian life. The second pair of words is that it would be a life centered in compassion and justice. I need both of those words. I need them both because compassion without justice, especially in a culture like ours, can too easily be individualized and sentimentalized. So I need the word justice as well. But justice without compassion easily sounds only political. So I need both.
I began with a few comments about compassion. Because I’ve written a lot about this in my works on Jesus, I’ll be very brief here. I want to underline that for Jesus, compassion was the central ethical paradigm, the central ethical virtue of life with God. When Jesus sums up theology and ethics in a six-word sentence (which was not his way of doing things – he commonly spoke aphoristically in a much more perplexing kind of way), the six words in English go like this: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 and the parallel in Matthew, therefore early material from Q). The central quality of God is that God is compassionate. Therefore, you be compassionate. Here let me add that a lot of English translations let us down at this point. Many English translations of that verse use the word “mercy”, i.e., “Be merciful as God is merciful.” The New English Bible has it right. I think the Scholars Version has it right. And so I say to you, almost always, when you run into the words “mercy” or “merciful” in the Bible, you should translate “compassion”. Unless the context is manifestly a legal context, to be merciful implies a relationship of a superior to an inferior. It also presupposes a situation of wrongdoing, which is what I mean by a legal context. You’re merciful to somebody to whom you have a right to be something else. Compassion is very different from that. The meaning of compassion is suggested in part (again this will be familiar to you from my books and from other books) by its linguistic association, in both Hebrew and Aramaic, with a word for “womb”. To be compassionate is to be like a womb. For Jesus, God’s central quality is that God is womb-like. You, therefore, should be womb-like.
Metaphorically, what does that mean? There are many resonances. To be like a womb is to be life-giving, to be nourishing, possibly to be sort of encompassing. Moreover, compassion in the Hebrew Bible is associated with the feelings that a mother has for the children of her womb. What kind of feelings does a mother have for the children of her womb? I should ask a bunch of you, and if we were doing a workshop, I might do that. But, obviously, those feelings include tenderness, concern, willing their well-being. Those feelings can also be fierce, as when a mother sees the children of her womb being threatened by something, which means that compassion as a quality of God and as a quality of the Christian life is not simply a soft virtue. It can sometimes have an edge to it. Then, of course, compassion is the deeds that go with those feelings. Feeling the feelings of another at a level below your head, feeling the feelings of another in your loins. Compassion is located in the bowels for a man in the Hebrew Bible, in the womb for a woman. (The only reason it’s in the bowels for us guys is we don’t have wombs.) That means to be moved by those feelings at a very deep level of one’s being and to act in accord with them.
Finally, compassion is very different from other potential core values, or ethical paradigms, for the Christian life. A very quick example of an alternative: Suppose one thought that the Christian life was about being righteous as God is righteous, and that one understood righteousness as not being about justice (as it frequently is in the Hebrew Bible) but being about morally pure. That leads to a very different vision of the Christian life, as if the Christian life is about making sure that I am pure, rather than about being compassionate as God is compassionate.
I turn to the second word in that pair of words, justice. Here I want to point out how central justice is to the whole biblical tradition as well as to Jesus. It is, of course, central to the story of the Exodus, which is about liberation from economic and political injustice, as well as about religious liberation. It is utterly central to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and it is utterly central to the teaching and activity of Jesus. Jesus, like the great social prophets of the Hebrew Bible, was a God-intoxicated voice of religious, social protest. He, like they, protested against and did a radical critique of the domination system of his day, just as they did of the domination systems of their day. Indeed, if one wants to ask the historical question, not “Why did Jesus die?” but “Why was he killed?”, the answer is, he was killed because of his passion for justice. He was killed because of his critique of the domination system of his day. This is the political meaning of Good Friday, the passion of Jesus is about Jesus’ passion for the justice of God.
Let me immediately acknowledge that it’s very difficult to communicate this passion for justice and what justice means in our cultural climate. It’s not only that there’s resistance to it. It’s just that the word doesn’t mean what it means in the biblical tradition. I became aware of this when I was teaching that introductory biblical studies course that I mentioned yesterday. When I was an undergraduate, one of the most electrifying moments in my whole undergraduate schooling was when a political science professor, talking about political philosophy, included the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. He talked about Amos’s passion for justice. He had us read Amos in a political science course. It just blew me away. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever run into in the Bible, and probably outside of it. So when I would get to the unit on the prophets in this introductory biblical studies course, I would be up there ranting and raving about justice, and the passion for justice, and my students would be sitting there not looking excited at all, taking notes, wondering what was going to be on the exam. Finally, I stopped, and I said, “I want to see if I can figure out what’s going on here. When I say the word “justice”, what do you think of? What does that word mean to you?” There’s about thirty seconds of silence, which is fine. I don’t have problems with a class becoming a Quaker meeting. Finally, one of the students said, “Well, I think of the criminal justice system.” And I thought, of course. Think of it for a moment. Who’s the head of the Justice Department in the United States? The attorney general. Who is the Attorney General of the United States? The nation’s chief law enforcement official. If you just talk about justice, either people are not going to have a clue as to what you’re talking about, or they’re going to think you’re talking about God being passionate about criminal justice, as chief prosecutor, or something like that. So, it’s become very important for me to talk about the meaning of the word “justice”.
There is justice in the sense of the criminal justice system, and it’s important, of course, for that to be done as well as possible. Secondly, there is procedural justice. This, Robert Bella argues in his book, Habits of The Heart – a study of the central values of the American middle class – along with criminal justice is the central meaning of justice in the states. Procedural justice means the fair enforcement of the rules so that the rules are the same for everybody – impartial enforcement of the rules. It’s basically this preoccupation with procedural justice, which goes with a highly individualistic society (we are all individuals competing; the rules have got to be the same for all of us) that accounts for the revolt against affirmative action. People who are against affirmative action have lifted up procedural justice (usually without realizing it) as the primary meaning of justice.
Then there’s a third meaning of justice in addition too criminal and procedural. It’s harder to give a shorthand name for the third meaning of justice. I think the best shorthand name is substantive justice. The meaning of substantive justice, obviously, has to do with substance, something substantial. But the meaning of substantive justice is perhaps best suggested by: “It’s a justice that is discerned by its results.” It’s a results-oriented justice. Does a given system produce just results? That’s what substantive justice is about. I’ll try to illustrate it this way. It’s possible to imagine (it didn’t happen, of course, but it’s possible to imagine) that the laws of Nazi Germany would have been, could have been, enforced with absolute impartiality, with absolute fairness, with completely impeccable procedures. It’s possible to imagine that. Would we then say, “There was a just society?” Well, no. Because we also, at some level of our being, know that justice has to do with results and not just procedures.
The justice that is at the center of the biblical tradition is substantive justice. I want to say, of course, criminal justice and procedural justice are important. They’re about human rights. All of that matters. But the notion of justice that is most lacking in North American society, and in the consciousness of Christians today, is substantive justice – justice that is judged by its results. I don’t have to do a litany of that. I could start with health care. I could start with income distribution. We have a radically unjust society in many ways. Now, if we take Jesus seriously as a model for the Christian life, it means that not only will compassion be the primary ethical virtue, but also a passion for justice will be part of what discipleship means, of what taking Jesus seriously means. I think consciousness-raising within the church about this is one of the most important, even as it is one of the most difficult, tasks today. I think the way to do consciousness-raising in the church about justice is to try to get people in touch with the way in which systems effect individual lives. Within an individualistic society, it’s oftentimes hard to get people to see this, but you can get there.
You can talk about how systems of convention, and I’m thinking of conventional labeling here, negatively impact the lives of people. Think, for example of how conventional attitudes about unmarried mothers affected the lives of so many women as recently as forty or fifty years ago. In the town that I grew up in, in North Dakota, if a young woman got pregnant out of wedlock, and if the guy wouldn’t marry her, she basically had no future in that town. It’s not that she would have been tarred and feathered, but she had no future in that town. Her only chance for a life, really, would be to move to a city, to give the baby up for adoption, and to start over in a fairly anonymous kind of context. Now there is a clear example of where system, meaning here conventional attitudes, negatively affect the life of a person.
Or, take the way in which older unmarried women were regarded. Now by older, I don’t mean 80; I mean 28. Think. When I was growing up, they were called old maids! Spinsters! Now, one might say, “Well, so what? You know, names can never hurt me.” What is it like to carry around the identity of an old maid or spinster?
Beyond those examples, of course, one can talk about the way in which our present economic system negatively affects the lives of so many people. There are wonderful statistics. Wonderful? They’re horrifying! There are horrifying statistics, but they’re wonderful for making the point that it’s the structures of society that are responsible for so many people in our own culture being economically so desperately bad off — with all of the existential angst, and all of the burden of the everyday that goes with constant money worry. It’s not because the poor aren’t working as hard as the middle class or the well-to-do. How many of the working poor get to have a two-hour lunch with white wine? But to try to get people to see the way that systems affect the lives of people.
Let me conclude this point by saying, “Why is the God of the Bible so passionate about justice? Why was Jesus so passionate about justice and such a critic of the domination system?” The simple answer is this. When you think about it, the single greatest source of unnecessary human misery is systemic injustice. Can you think of anything else in human history that has caused so much unnecessary human suffering as unjust economic structures? Unjust political structures? Structures of convention that negatively impact the lives of people? The God of the Bible – the God of the Exodus, the God of the prophets, the God of Jesus – cares deeply about suffering and thus is passionately against that which is the source of unnecessary human social misery. So, a life that takes Jesus seriously is what a life full of God looks like. It would be a life filled with compassion and a passion for justice – a life growing in compassion and growing in a passion for justice.
Part 2 – Faith and the Christian Life
I move now to part two, which will not be as long as part one, even though it is also important.
Namely, I want to conclude this talk and my contribution to this event, by talking about the meaning of faith. I do this because faith, the word itself and the notion behind it, has been utterly central to Christianity, especially in its protestant forms, though not only in its protestant forms. I am going to talk not simply about the meaning of faith, but the meanings of faith. I use the plural deliberately, for in the Christian tradition, the word “faith” has had four primary meanings. They are quite different from each other, even though they can be complementary. One of these meanings has become dominant in the modern period, with distorting effects on the Christian life. The other three are all rich understandings for our time so I am going to describe these four meanings of faith. In each case, I will use a Latin term to name the meaning because it shows the antiquity of these notions within the tradition. These terms come from the middle ages. Also in each case, I will describe the meaning of faith with a short English phrase. Then I will talk about the opposite of each, for that is also illuminating.
So I begin with the first meaning of faith. The order here is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not that this is the first one to emerge, just the first one on my list. The Latin word, faith as assensus. The meaning of it is suggested by the English word that is closely connected to it, faith as assent, as mental assent. Or the short English phrase that I’ll use for this: faith as “believing that”, faith as believing that something is the case, believing that something is true, giving one’s intellectual agreement to a claim, or a statement, or a proposition, or a doctrine. This is faith as believing the central claims of the Christian tradition to be true. This understanding of faith, though it’s very old, has become dominant in the period of modernity. Indeed, I think for most people it’s the most common meaning of faith. I hear this amongst my students, even amongst my nonreligious students. There are some things they know. There are other things they can only believe. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out. And for some people, believing is what you do when knowledge contradicts something. You believe it to be true in spite of the fact that your head knows there’s a whole lot of problems with it. Although this has become dominant in the modern period, it was only with the enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century that this distorted view of faith came into use.
To see how modern this distortion is, think of what faith as assensus would have meant in the Christian middle ages in Europe. The central Christian claims, the Bible itself, were part of the conventional wisdom of the time. Nobody had to turn to faith to believe the Genesis stories of creation. Everybody thought that’s the way it happened. Faith as assensus was effortless in the Christian middle ages, for the most part. When faith as assensus becomes effortful, there is probably something weird going on. And yet, as I’ve said, this has become the dominant understanding of faith in the modern period.
The opposite of faith as assensus, of faith as “belief that”, is of course, doubt, or disbelief. If you think that what God wants from you is faith as “belief that”, then of course doubt and disbelief are experienced as falling away from God, or even as sinful. It becomes something to be avoided, something to confess, even. But this whole notion that Christian faith is about “believing that” puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It almost suggests that what God most wants from us is correct belief. Some of the fights within modern Protestantism about doctrine suggest that it is desperately important that, “We get this right!” God could care about some things, yes, but about infralapsarianism vs. superlapsarianism? That’s a trivial example, but faith as “believing the right things” is very strong in the modern period of Christianity. It’s not only that it leads to a distortion of faith, but when you think about it, faith as “belief” is really quite impotent. You can believe all the right things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. Faith as “belief” is relatively impotent.
Now, having trashed faith as assensus, let me briefly comment about its truth. The truth of faith as assensus is that, finally, I don’t think we can give our hearts to something that our heads reject. I realize that I have spent a very large part of my life trying to come up with a version of Christianity to which I can give both my heart and my head. So faith as assensus finally has a role. But when it’s emphasized as the primary meaning, or when it becomes believing in spite of all the reasons you have for thinking this is nonsense, then it’s been profoundly distorted.
I turn to the second meaning of faith. I can do the second and third more briefly. They are equally as important. The fourth will take a little more time.
Second Latin word — faith as fidelitas, like the English word, fidelity, but with an “as” at the end instead of a “y”. The close equivalence of the English word fidelity to fidelitas suggests the central meaning of this notion of faith. This is faith as “fidelity to”. And to put the same point only slightly differently, this is faith as “faithfulness to”. To what? To the relationship with God. Not faithfulness to statements about God – that’s just assent coming in through the back door – but faithfulness to the relationship with God.
And its opposites? The most obvious one, of course, is infidelity to the relationship with God. To suggest to you how central this notion is to the biblical tradition – one of the central biblical metaphors for infidelity to the relationship with God is adultery. Most of the time when the prophets of the Hebrew Bible talk about adultery, they are not talking about human sexual relationships. They are talking about infidelity to God, lack of faithfulness to God. They are talking about whoring after other Gods. And those other Gods are typically not statues. That’s a trivialization. Those other Gods are other central values, other central concerns in life. In the biblical tradition another metaphor for infidelity, like adultery, is the metaphor idolatry. Idolatry is about being centered in something other than God. Idolatry is about faithfulness to a relationship with something instead of God.
Third meaning of faith, the Latin word – faith as fiducia. Here there is no good English equivalent. “Fiduciary” is as close as we come. It really doesn’t illuminate, but it helps you to remember the spelling of fiducia. In the short English phrase, this is faith as “trusting in”, faith as radical trust in God. Again, not trust in statements about God. That’s assensus coming in through the back door once again. But faith as radical trust in God. Faith as radical trust in God, like fidelitas, is not very much concerned with beliefs at all.
We perhaps see the meaning of faith as trust most clearly when we look at its opposite. What’s the opposite of faith as trust? Of course it’s mistrust, but that doesn’t get us very far, so let me use another opposite of faith as trust. The opposite of faith as radical trust in God is anxiety. You can see this in a Q passage, found in Matthew’s sermon on the mount, and then in Luke 12. It’s that famous passage where Jesus says to his followers, “Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow. Consider the birds of the air.” Five times in that passage, he says to his hearers, “Why are you anxious, O people of little faith?” “Little faith” and anxiety go together. Jesus invites his followers in that passage to a trust in the cosmic generosity of God. Why be anxious? So the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. The barometer of how much faith as trust there is in your life is how much anxiety there is in your life. I mention that, not to give you yet one more thing with which to beat up upon yourselves, but rather to make the positive point. Think of how wonderful your life would be if there were little or no anxiety in it. The Peace of God that passes all understanding. The freedom you would have. The ability to be present that you would have. This is faith as trust.
Fourth and finally, faith as the Latin word – visio, like the English word “vision”, but without the “n”. The short English phrase is “a way of seeing”. Visio has to do with seeing, faith as a way of seeing slightly more fully, faith as a way of seeing the whole, of seeing reality – with reality being used in a comprehensive sense for what is, the sum total of what is. For my development of this point, I am indebted to the mid-twentieth century North American theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr. The last of his books, actually published after his death but based on lectures and a manuscript he was developing shortly before his death, is The Responsible Self. In this book, Niebuhr speaks about three ways that we can see the whole. By the way, he doesn’t think there are fourteen ways, and he’s going to talk about only three. He intends this as a comprehensive list of possibilities. Very importantly, and this connects to the title of his book, The Responsible Self, he argues that each of these ways of seeing reality is correlated with a way of responding to reality, or responding to life. So what’s at stake in these three ways of seeing is how we will live our lives.
The first way you can see the whole is that it is threatening and hostile. You don’t have to be paranoid to see reality this way. When you think about it, it’s going to get us all. We’re all going to die. And everybody we love is going to be swallowed up into that pit, which might be a pit of nothingness. And not only us as individuals, and those we love, but according to cosmologists, five billion years from now even the earth and the solar system itself will be vaporized in the final explosion of the dying sun. By the way, has that happened before? How do they know that’s a five billion-year interval? I mean what, when? Tomorrow? You don’t have to be paranoid to see it this way. Niebuhr comments, if you do see reality as hostile and threatening, of course what you will try to do, then, is to protect yourself as much as you can from this hostile and devouring force that’s going to get us all. You’ll build up your systems of security. Very provocatively, and Niebuhr is a Christian theologian making the next point, he says that the most common forms of Christianity basically do see reality as hostile and threatening. God is the one who’s “gonna getcha” if you don’t believe the right things, offer the right sacrifices, purify yourselves, whatever the condition might be. If you do the right things, maybe this threatening power that’s going to get everybody else will spare you and your community from the eternal fire.
The second way you can see reality: you can see it as indifferent to us. This is probably the most common secular perception of the whole. It’s not that reality is out to get us, really, but it’s indifferent to human purposes and ends. It simply goes on its way, and we’re here for a while. If you do see reality as indifferent to us, you probably won’t be quite as desperate in building up systems of security. But still the natural way to respond to life is to enjoy what you can of it, and try to protect yourself at least against the perils and dangers that can be easily warded off. Have a good pension plan, all those things that we do to take care of ourselves and those who are most important to us. It’s possible to live a more heroic kind of life within seeing reality as indifferent, but that is the typical response.
Finally, the third option is you can see reality as life-giving, as nourishing of human life. The theological term for this is: you can see reality as gracious – not as hostile, not as indifferent, but as gracious. Niebuhr obviously advocates this position, but he’s not being polly-anna here. He knows about the Holocaust. He knows about the horrible things we do to each other. He knows about the horrible things that can happen to us. He’s not denying any of that for a moment. He’s saying, even in the midst of that, if we see reality as gracious, life-giving in some ways that we do not understand, it makes possible a different response to life, a response of gratitude – but also a response of not needing to be primarily concerned about defending the self against either an indifferent or hostile universe. Not being primarily concerned about building up what little systems of security we can. It makes possible what another theologian calls “the self-forgetfulness of faith”. It makes possible what yet another thinker has called “a willingness to spend and be spent in the service of an over-arching vision”. It makes possible the kind of life that we see in Jesus, that willingness to spend and be spent. The kind of life we see in Jesus is also the kind of life we see in the saints, whether they be known or unknown. When I say “unknown”, I think there are a lot of Christians throughout the centuries whose lives aren’t known about beyond their own family, and maybe community, who have reached this place of being willing to spend and be spent in the name of this vision of reality.
Now this is faith as visio, as a way of seeing the whole. It has nothing to do with believing that in addition to reality, there’s a supernatural being out there. It has nothing to do with believing Christian doctrines to be true in some absolute sense. It has nothing to do with believing in the Bible as the infallible word of God. It has to do with a way of seeing. Finally, I think in many ways, the question of God is the question of how we see this. This connection of faith as visio – faith as a way of seeing, this connection to seeing – leads me back to a theme I announced yesterday, namely metaphorical theology – hearing the Bible as metaphor and metaphorical narrative, as well as history remembered. Because metaphor has everything to do with how we see. Metaphor means to see as.
So I conclude by returning to this theme of Christianity as a sacrament of the sacred – as a tradition that mediates the reality of God to us – and the Bible as a collection of stories that invites us to see in a particular way, to see reality in a certain way, and to see our own lives in a certain way. Ultimately this leads to a vision of the Christian life as a relationship with God as mediated through the Christian tradition as sacrament. That relationship is a transforming relationship. It will not leave us unchanged.
Let me conclude by quoting one of the nuggets of Paul, one of those passages that should be put up in needlepoint, or in neon, in the midst of a lot of dross that’s also there in Paul. I’m not a trasher of Paul, either. I don’t want to do a separate talk on that right now, but I want to conclude with this absolutely marvelous passage from II Corinthians 3:18. It’s a very mystical section of the book of II Corinthians. Here Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, from one degree of glory to another.” And then Paul concludes almost breathlessly, “And this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Let me do that whole thing again, because it’s dense. But it’s relationship. It’s mystical. It’s transformative. It’s taking Jesus seriously as what a life filled with God looks like. “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, from one degree of glory to another. And this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”