What is Faith?

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 4 September 2005

Reading: Hebrews 11:1-16 [message]

Faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Today I want to talk about faith – to ask the questions, ‘what is faith?’ and ‘how are we to live a life of faith?’

I take as my starting point this classic text from the book of Hebrews, which goes on for several pages more, telling of the deeds of the ancient heroes of faith from the Hebrew Bible. From this passage, I derive a definition of faith as ‘vision in action’. The writer to the Hebrews makes the point again and again, that those who are declared faithful could see something that others could not. And, in the confidence in the truth of  their inner vision, they acted in ways that made no sense in the context of ordinary reality, but total sense in the context of the vision God placed in their hearts.

What we can physically see, this text asserts, is not the full truth of what is, because the reality of the world is not just its material existence. God, who is unseen, called this world into being, and continues to shape it in ways that cannot be perceived by those whose minds are focused only on the material. The descriptions of the faithful servants – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah…these are descriptions of people who were in touch with a reality beyond the horizons of what is normal. Noah was warned about ‘events as yet unseen’, and built his ark, despite ridicule from his neighbours. Abraham, was called to set out for a place, and he did so, not knowing where he was going.

They all lived and died as people looking towards another reality, another homeland, than the one recognised by ‘the world’, because they saw the promises from a distance. Faith, therefore, is having one’s vision, one’s sight, shaped by the reality of God, and then having enough conviction toward that vision to decide and act and live out of it, even when it doesn’t match up to the messages that the world gives us about what makes a successful, significant, worthwhile life.

Jesus said in John 8:  ‘You’re tied down to the mundane. I’m in touch with what’s beyond your horizons. You live in terms of what you see and touch. I’m living on other terms.’  Most of the time, if I’m honest, I am faithless. I’m tied down to the mundane. I live in ways shaped and dictated to me by my anxieties, by a vision of the world shaped not by Christ but by the things I see and touch every day: advertising, or the movies, or the persuasive worldview of family and society.

When I think of faith it is as the complete renewal and re-shaping of my perspective, my vision, my imagination, my sense of what is valuable and possible. And then living in a way consistent with that vision. It is abundantly clear from the whole witness of the Bible that faith and action are two sides of the same coin. One without the other is meaningless. Because what does it mean to say ‘I imagine a world where every person has value as a child of God’, and then to treat others as less important than myself, whether in my interpersonal interactions, or my willingness to let others suffer when it is in my power to do something? Or, what does it mean to say ‘I trust God to provide what I need’, and then spend my time worrying about money and security, and doing things to ensure I have more than enough of both?

Faith does not consist of the things I believe. To be able to tick doctrinal boxes and say – yes, I assent to the truth of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, heaven and hell, or whatever, this is not faith. Faith, in many contexts, has been reduced to this – do you agree with us about this list of facts? This is simply mental and verbal conformity, not faith.

However, faith relies on belief. Faith without action is meaningless. But faith without belief is impoverished. Faith needs to be nourished by the alternative world described in the beliefs of our religion…belief rescues us from the prison of the smallness of our own individual minds, and gives us shared content for a re-imagined vision, and a community to support us along the way. Christian belief tells us of a creator, a personal heart to the universe, of salvation from the smallness and waywardness of our lives, and of rescue from our exile from the deepest realities of life. Christian belief tells us we can live as children of God through the One who was called Son of God, and who was the first to be resurrected into eternal life.

Recently I’ve been reading this very good book by Fenton Johnson called ‘Keeping Faith: a skeptic’s journey.’ I’ve been inspired. Here are some of the things that he has to say, towards the end of his story:

‘Faith…is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go…

But…in revisiting my childhood beliefs I became aware of the role belief plays as a means to the end of faith [italics mine]. Usually expressed in metaphor…belief challenges the imagination to conceive and embrace a universe larger than what we immediately perceive. It engages a people in a collective imaginative act, one of the most powerful ways of binding us into a true community.

…like love, faith withers in the abstract. I cannot love an idea; I cannot have faith in nothingness. Faith, it turns out, is built on belief…and then preserved and cultivated through action. Doctrine and dogma can serve as means to faith – they introduced me to a world larger than my own perceptions and needs – but to mistake them for faith is to confuse the map with the journey. At the same time, to believe in nothing but the literal evidence of the senses is to be faithless, to lapse into…cynicism. To accept this truth – that generosity undertaken with no apparent reward ultimately benefits the generous – requires the greatest act of faith, that must be sustained by some system of belief, whether religious, scientific, philosophical, artistic, or some combination of these.

…Imagination lies at the heart of faith because to imagine anything better than the given is to make an effort where none is required and no immediate payoff presents itself – to imagine, for example, a world with less violence and more love.
…And so my challenge becomes this: find the courage to live in doubt; find the courage to believe.’

End of Fenton Johnson quote.

One of the (many) things that grabbed me about what Johnson says here, is that he opposes faith and cynicism. I have heard several formulations setting out the opposite to faith. Some think that the opposite of faith is doubt, but I would say that most of us here have rejected that. Others think that the opposite of faith is certainty. But that still places faith on an axis of knowledge, or belief. To say that the opposite of faith is cynicism, however, is to understand faith as vision in action, located in our heart and our hope. Because cynicism accepts the givens of this world as just that – given. Reality. Why fight it? Let’s just mock it, or acquiesce to it. Let’s not be so naive as to think we can change it. The extent to which we feel embarrassed in grown up company when we talk about love, mercy, hope, forgiveness, and kindness as making a difference in the world, is the extent to which we are faithless. Faith removes the ironic quotation marks around Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, his parables, his reversals, and his challenges to radical discipleship.

So, what does this mean in practice? How should we then live?
I think that basically, we need to be no longer conformed to this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds [Romans 12]. We need to ask God to shape in us God’s vision of this world. I see four aspects to this.

Firstly, we are renewed in our vision to the extent that we are engaged in prayer…and next week I’ll be talking a bit more about that.

Secondly, we are renewed in our vision as we engage, or re-engage with the essence of the teachings of the Christian faith…to sustain our courage to believe, and so then to find the courage to step from belief to the openness of faith, but faith with real content. It may be that joining a small study group, or doing some reading or theological study is an appropriate step for some of us.  Throughout October it’s my plan to do some sermons on the book of Luke to ask the question ‘what vision for the world is expressed through Jesus’ life and teaching?’

Thirdly, we are both enabled and supported in our attempts to see with the eyes of faith when we invest in relationships with others in a community of shared faith…asking each other ‘what do you see, what do you imagine, what do you hope for…’ and then ‘how are you putting this into practice? What help and support do you need?’ This can happen on very practical levels – such as hearing from each other our hopes around creating a home and a family, and sharing what we do in the midst of the challenges of life to fulfil that vision. I like the idea of us at Cityside being a community of vision, rather than one of negation. Rather than our shared story being about those things that we have rejected, how can our shared story be one of what we hope for and work towards together?

And finally, faith needs to find its way from our minds and hearts into our world. Life’s decisions about money, time, relationships, service, home, and work need to be consistent with the vision of the world that Jesus is in touch with, the world beyond our horizons. How imaginative are we being with regard to how we live and serve others? Do we have strategies for checking out how our life choices correspond to our faith? I have some friends who aren’t Christians, but who hold to strong values and goals about what they want their lives to stand for. Around New Year they sit down together and review the year, and do a bit of a ‘life audit’, asking how the way they’re currently living fits with their larger goals. Sometimes this results in big changes. How many Christians would go through such a process, with such integrity?

So: prayer, being familiar with the message of the gospel, developing intimate and accountable relationships in community, and lifestyle decisions. These are some of the things that are necessary for the renewal and sustenance of our faith…faith that is vision in action, a vision of, and whole of life devotion toward Jesus Christ, and the new life and new world that he came to make possible for us and for all people.