What faith are you? What faith community do you belong to? Do you have a faith?
They are common questions about faith, but what does the word faith mean? I’m not asking for a word study of its origins in the Greek or Hebrew texts. I’m asking what it means in the ordinary sense of the word as we use it today. As for me, I think it has two distinct meanings that work in parallel with each other, or should.
There is faith as belief, and there is faith as trust. Faith as belief is what we proclaim in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. Faith as belief is what some of us, if old enough, were supposed to memorize from the catechism. Faith as belief is what is argued in the records of synods councils, and tomes of systematic theology. I think that is what most people mean when they ask about someone’s faith; What are the doctrines that define what you believe about God? Perhaps there was a time when saying that we were Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic was a shorthand, but well understood, way to explain what we believed. I’m not sure. That’s certainly not the case today. Today it means little more than that we like something at church A better than church B without the slightest understanding or care of how they differ in doctrine.
Faith as trust is quite different. Consider Abraham for instance. He had no faith as belief, only as trust. He had no doctrine of God, no creed to guide him, no catechism to teach him, no church to attend, and no pastor to turn to. Whatever faith as belief he had was in the gods of Mesopotamia, and he had left them behind. What he did have was faith as trust in the invisible God who spoke to him, calling him to journey forth, and promising that he would be the ancestor of nations. It is also what the Epiphany stories of Matthew’s gospel are about. Joseph could not possibly have had faith as belief to guide him as he took Mary to be his wife. He could only trust in the words of the angelic messenger. The wise men, by tradition, were foreigners to the Jewish faith as belief. They could only trust in whatever it was that drew them to Bethlehem and led them home by a different way.
My suspicion is that we need more of both in today’s world. Most Christian are, I think, woefully ignorant about why they believe what they believe about God and humanity, and what they believe is sketchy at best, no matter how firmly it is held. It leads to superstitious, magical, shallow, vapid kinds of faith as belief, bearing only the name and faint coloring of Christ. Moreover, I have my doubts about faith as trust. A good many of the folks I know who have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and who believe that God, who is, they say, in absolute control of everything, has a plan for them, are loathe to follow God in Christ without the assurance of their firearms and prudent qualms about their neighbors. Like Luther before he discovered faith (as trust) through grace, they live in an untrustworthy world of demons and a wrathful god.
I’m a theologian. Not a very good one, but a theologian nevertheless. My passion is adult Christian education. Faith as belief is important to me. But on That Day, I believe I will be standing behind those who, like Abraham and Joseph, have walked in the way of faith as trust. This Epiphany season maybe I’ll work on having more courage to walk into the unknown darkness trusting in the flickering light of a baby.