What is faith? With campaign season in full swing, one cannot avoid the word. It’s constantly tossed around with all the impact of a Nerf football. What is it? When someone asks about your faith, does the name of your denomination come to mind? How about the more generic answer that your faith is Christian? Is it something you belong to as in, I belong to the Catholic Church? Is it something you possess as in, I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior?
It seems to me that faith has come to mean a set of beliefs associated with a particular way of thinking or talking about God. Creeds, confessions, manifestos, lists of fundamentals, strict adherence to a doctrine of atonement are all not just signs of faith but have become the very stuff of faith itself, at least in the way we often use the word and hear it being used. For the slightly more intellectual, and possibly seminary trained, faith may be articulated through the lens of what Luther, Calvin or Wesley wrote. We Anglicans might say the same about Hooker, but most of us have never read him. Then, of course, there are those who have stitched together a personal faith that mutates with every new spiritual fad.
What is faith? It’s none of the above, I’m quite sure about that. Considering the faith of the patriarchs and matriarchs in every age, I believe that faith is trust. Abraham did not have a religious faith. Whatever religion was in his past had been rejected. There was no religion associated with the God with whom he spoke. What he had was trust in God, a very robust and flexible trust. A trust that ran deep enough to lead him on unknown paths, for honest conversation, even for doubt and argument. That kind of Abrahamic faith is the model for everyone else who has demonstrated trust in God above what we normally call religious faith. Can you think of one for whom this is not true? You cannot.
On the other hand, we also have the record of those for whom faith had become identified with religious practice and ideology, perhaps most obviously the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. What about the religious ideologues of our own day? When I am confronted by their proclamations, I do not hear about trust in God for the blaring noise of faith as an ideology about God.
Don’t get me wrong. As an Episcopalian steeped in the Anglican tradition, I treasure our ways of worship. I am a trinitarian of the Nicene variety. The Eucharist is important to me. I have no doubt that Christ is truly present in it. I can tolerate a lousy sermon, even one of my own, for the gift of Eucharist. The Book of Common Prayer, the rhythm of the liturgical year, the candles, vestments and music all speak to my soul. But all of it, every bit of it, would be worthless. if it did not lead toward, and open the door to, deeper trust in God, and trust in God is what faith is.