“Faith” – a much-abused word… (Part 1)

If ever there was a word which could truthfully lay claim to be the greatest of Christian clichés, that word (in my opinion) would have to be:

FAITH.

Various sorts of Bible-believing Christians have been known to beat others (inside and outside their given communities) over the head with all sorts of both biblically-based and seemingly-biblically-based sentiments and notions regarding the need for real and true faith – without which, God cannot be pleased with us. And Hebrews 11:6 is unsurprisingly employed to this end. But the fact is that in these post-postmodern times (yes, that is not a typo – we have now moved beyond postmodernity to something even less clearly defined) it has never been harder to explain what faith actually is.

What’s for sure is that these days, what appears to pass for ‘faith’ on the part of Christians has the inspirational power of a dead gnat as far as many secular people are concerned. These are not the days of early Christian persecution where the very willingness of so many Christians to die rather than recant literally sparked off an entire cultural revolution – as in, one that transcended the boundaries of mere religious community. These days, religion (including Christianity) is frequently presented as a ‘ready-to-wear’ item in a veritable shopping mall of lifestyle choices. Christians are no longer likely to be expected to uphold a moral and ethical stance in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount. They are just as likely to ride buses and trams without buying a ticket; fiddle their tax returns; lie to save their skins in the workplace; judge people by their material worth rather than by their character; politicise for personal gain – including in church hierarchies; have sex outside of marriage – and suffer from addictions.

Oh, and they moan and whine just as much as anyone else – about the same sorts of things.

This so-called ‘faith’ in the so-called ‘good news’ of the so-called ‘gospel’ does not appear to have improved the quality of life for many Christians. So, what precisely has this ‘faith’ done for them?

‘Faith’ is a word with both broad and specific connotations and denotations across the biblical, theological and philosophical realms. It is not actually synonymous with ‘hope.’ Neither is it the exact same thing as ‘belief.’ It is frequently reduced to being caricatured as an act of emotive will, thereby opening it up to pejorative epithets such as ‘blind faith.’ A story is told of a schoolmaster in an English public (as in high-achieving private) all-boys school who once asked his class to define faith. The first hand up gave the following: “believing what you know isn’t true.

That young man may have been ahead of the game as a young English skeptic, but he failed to tell us anything on that occasion. Think about it: if you already ‘know’ something, is ‘faith’ required?

But there is another question: is actual faith actually possible where there is NO knowledge whatsoever?

There are two Greek words for ‘knowledge’ and one of them is the root of the word ‘epistemology’ – the sub-discipline of philosophy that seeks to study the nature and scope of human knowledge. Philosophers working in this field ask questions such as, “what does it mean to know something?” and “how do we know that we know something (anything)?’ as well as “what is it to actually know something?”

How do we know that the Bible is trustworthy?

How do we know that God exists?

How do we know that the truth can actually be known? (Maybe all truth is relative to each person/context/culture/landscape/lingua franca...)

How do we know that God hears our prayers?

How do we trust a being that we cannot see, hear or touch – but who has that much power? How can God be that powerful and yet that loving? How do we know that He might not have a bad day at the Office of Running the Entire Universe and in a hissy fit decide to send a plague of cancer upon a person who will not stop beating their wife?

But if He has that kind of power, given that He did nothing to stop Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini (and there are more contemporary examples), then either He didn’t care for those people, or He doesn’t really have the omnipotence that Christians say He has – and that the Bible says He has…?

When I hear most Christians talk about faith, I feel many tortured emotions. The author of Hebrews really is not kidding when he tells us that ‘without faith, it is impossible to please God.’ The problems start with the first verse of Hebrews 11, but that needs a fully-fledged post of its own. Here’s where I want to go in this post: there is a world of difference between faith that is based on understanding (which provides intellectual security) and faith which exists despite things not being understood perfectly (or even at all – Isaiah 55:8-9 holds a clue to this).

For most Christians, God has been reduced to an object of knowledge – when we have no capacity to exist at all (never mind possess cognitive functionality) apart from God. This was partly the reason why the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once wrote, “God is not in the world. The world is in God.”

So when God behaves in a manner that we can manage and understand, we enjoy ‘having faith.’ We pray, and get a ‘yes’ answer and we give a testimony and people say ‘Amen!’ We are also reinforcing their stereotype of God. So when we pray and don’t get the desired outcome, rather than saying that God may have said ‘no’ or ‘wait’ – we say, “God did not answer my prayer.”

This is grotesque. You’re telling me that God can only answer if He says ‘yes?’ What kind of human relationship would it be if one party refused to acknowledge the other if they disagreed with something they said or were going to say ‘no’ to them for whatever reason?

This is precisely what I have been referring to when I speak of what I have called ‘glorified acceptance’ as opposed to real, genuine, biblical faith. It has become far too easy for us to baptise people into churches who claim to believe. In early Christianity, one had to undergo a public examination of faith before the elders of a church community would agree to accept you into the church through baptism. That examination was stiff.

Now, I am not saying that every single new believer needs to pass a heavy-duty theology examination before being accepted into the church family.

But I AM saying that our teaching and preaching and discipling has failed to produce a strong body of believers with the kind of intellectually robust, spiritually grounded and devotionally-real faith that can actually move mountains. Instead, we have weak, sickly believers who distract themselves from their ongoing disappointment with God for not coming through for them as often as He seems to do for others by shopping, eating, watching TV and other things best speculated about. We wave our Bibles in the air and pontificate about all manner of things and judge all those who do not see eye to eye with us without giving book, chapter and verse as to why we have problems with them. We spend our time waiting for God to act, followed by the church officials. We blame anyone but ourselves for our unhappiness and disenchantment with the way our Christian lives are panning out and the results include the fact that no-one comes to us and begs us for the reason for our hope (although Peter has told us to be ready with an answer for when they do!).

This is not faith. Not biblical faith. This is glorified acceptance and it is part of the reason why some people will find themselves at judgement asking God how come He is saying that He does not know them even though they spent seventy years living in His Name. And He will tell them to depart – as workers of iniquity!

This is not an amazingly positive place to stop, but this post is now long enough. So in Part 2, we will continue this journey. Until then, God bless you!

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