FAITH: SECURITY & RISK


Chapter 2: The Meaning of Faith

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. . .
If it lays claim to ultimacy it demands total surrender of him
who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment.
             ( Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith)

Those brought up with a more traditional Christian outlook on faith may have been surprised a bit by Frankl's description of faith as "trust in ultimate meaning," just as many may feel somewhat uneasy with theologian Paul Tillich's interpretation of faith as "ultimate concern." This uneasiness is understandable. No doubt any faith worth consideration will begin with such concern, but hadn't there ought to be much more to it than that? Doesn't Frankl's "trust" even imply more? I agree. But before we can really delve into the matter further, we have to arrive at some common understanding or working definition of the word "faith."

For example, in a recent Gallup poll, taken at the request of the Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada (see The Gallup Organization, Inc., The Development of the Adult Life Cycle, Module 1), some 1,042 people were asked, among other things, to choose between four different "definitions" of faith. A full fifty-one percent of those who answered felt that "a relationship with God" best described what they meant by faith. Twenty percent thought of faith as "finding a meaning in life." Another nineteen percent understood faith to mean "a set of beliefs," but only four percent associated faith as necessarily involving "membership in a church or synagogue." (Of the remainder, five percent had no answer to the question and a slim one percent declared that faith was not meaningful as far as they were concerned.)

Given these various ideas about what faith means to people today, it seems only logical to try to trace the reason 'or such a wide variety of opinions. To do this, I'm going to turn briefly to the work of a modern Catholic theologian, Avery Dulles, S.J.

Models of Faith

In his essay, "The Changing Forms of Faith" (see A. Dulles, The Survival of Dogma, pp. 17-31) Dulles gives us what amounts to seven variations in the understanding of he word faith down through history.

(1) 'Emunah in the Hebrew scriptural sense denotes that we generally think of as faithfulness or "loyalty" or "steadfastness" today. This faith, however, has to be understood primarily in the context of God's faithfulness to his covenant or promises to his chosen people-thus their fidelity to God in return.

(2) Pistis in the New Testament, in view of its background in the Hebrew scriptures, includes this same idea of God's faithfulness to his promises and our faithfulness in return. But now this faithfulness has a new focus, and particularly in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the term pistis or "faith" means a loving trust in God's power working through Jesus. There is, however, a further development in a doctrinal direction in the various other New Testament writings, particularly the later Pauline 'pastoral" epistles.

(3) Early Christian faith emphasized the enlightenment of humanity that was made possible through the revelation in Christ. In a sense, this early Christian understanding of faith was a continuation and expansion of the idea of faith already found in the gospel of John where Jesus is depicted as the "truth" and the "light of the world." This emphasis on “enlightenment” was highlighted by the then common reference to baptism as "illumination" and could be best understood in St. Anselm's famous phrase "I believe so that I may understand."

(4) Medieval faith continued the early Christian tradition, but with an increased emphasis on the body of doctrine or so-called "deposit of faith" that did not so much enlighten or expand the possibilities of human knowledge, but entirely surpasses it. Yet paradoxically, the scholastic theologians also subjected this doctrine to the scrutiny of human logic to a degree unheard of before and scarcely rivaled since. It was almost as if they were trying to turn Augustine's saying upside down or inside out and make every belief fully explainable by human reason.

(5) Reformation (Protestant) faith represents a strong reaction to the excesses of the later medieval scholars. The reformers, especially Luther, stressed faith as being primarily a complete trust in the saving grace earned by Christ on the cross. For this, Luther relied primarily on St. Paul's epistle to the Romans (as well as the epistle to the Galatians) where Paul reacts strongly against the Pharisees' notion of faith as mostly a matter of a painstaking keeping of the ancient law. To various degrees, all the reformation churches adopted Luther's motto of "Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone."

(6) The Catholic counter-reformation stressed faith as the adherence to the "deposit of faith" (as understood by medieval theology) but with the old emphasis on understanding replaced by a new emphasis on acceptance of the church's teaching authority (not just that of the Bible alone), along with the performance of good works (against reliance on "grace alone"). This same approach was stressed again, but with renewed emphasis on the "reasonableness" of faith, at the First Vatican Council in 1870 to combat the rise of the modern sciences and the growing "modernist" ideas that faith is an irrational human "sentiment" or expression of a "religious impulse." But the earlier counter-reform emphasis on authority expressed at the Council of Trent still comes out on top even in the Vatican I statement used as the model of our old catechism definition:

Faith is that supernatural virtue by which , through the help of God and through the assistance of His Grace, we believe what He has revealed to be true, not [on account of] the intrinsic truth perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, the Revealer, who can neither deceive or be deceived
(Session 3, Chapter 3).

(7) Existential faith, much discussed in our time, stresses the "leap of faith" or act of trust in God. It is not unlike Luther's idea of faith, but without his certainty in the infallibility of the Bible and with a strong emphasis on a commitment to human betterment that is not so evident from complete reliance on "grace alone."

Since the time of World War II, the lived experience of faith, even for Catholics, has shifted more and more in this existentialist" direction. Vatican II, although endorsing the definition of faith given at Vatican I, has taken a more favorable view of the non-rational "fideism" that Vatican I so feared. This "religious sense" or impulse has, to some ex- tent, been recognized and re-understood more positively by the theologians and bishops of Vatican II as being at the core of the human quest. This quest is, even in the atheistic dreams of a materialistic paradise, a testimony to the unseen work of the Holy Spirit drawing the human soul to God (see The Church in the Modern World," especially sections 10 and 22). If such existential longings are not "faith" in any actual sense of the word, they are the soil in which the seeds of faith can be planted, take root, and grow. To the precisely nuanced definition of Vatican I, the fathers of Vatican II an additional emphasis, not so much on an obedience to the teaching of the church, but on an obedience to the impulse or grace of faith itself, "the obedience of faith . . . by which a man commits his whole self freely to God" (Vatican II, "Constitution on Divine Revelation," Section 5).

Before passing on from this historical overview of the various meanings of faith, I think we should also have a look at the one spot in the New Testament where something of a definition of faith is given. "Faith," says the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews (11:1), "is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, the conviction about things we do not see" (The New American Bible translation). The New Jerusalem Bible, on the other hand, translates this passage as: "Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that remain unseen. "

If the basic meaning of these two versions may seem close, the precise translation of the key words, hypostasis and elegchos, are the subject of much debate. If some, like The Jerusalem Bible translators, see them better translated as "guarantee" and "proof," others, as in the New American translation, understand them in less objective terms and more descriptive of the believer's state of mind. In terms of the models of faith given above, what we have here is a clash between what seems to be a Catholic emphasis on objective content (what is believed) and a Protestant emphasis on confidence (or how we believe). Yet both are Catholic translations of the Bible. But given the general context of the rest of the chapter (the ancient Hebrew patriarchs as examples of faith) it is clear that the author sees faith and hope as a single piece unfolding in time: past promise as leading to future fulfillment, faith as the ground of hope. (See Myles M. Bourke on "The Epistle to the Hebrews" in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 61:62.)

It is obvious from all the above that the term "faith" can mean a multitude of things to many different people. If you doubt this, just look up the word in a modern dictionary. But part of the confusion also comes from the similar uses of another word, "belief." Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his scholarly study Faith and Belief, has shown how the original English meaning of the word "believe" meant to "give one's love" to someone or something, particularly in the sense of pledging one's allegiance to the object of that love. This original meaning of "believe" can be traced to a common Germanic root word from which the modern German lieb or "love" takes its same origin. So in English, at least, "believe" should mean something very sacred and powerful. Unfortunately, the modern use of the word often means just the opposite, and we often end up using the word to describe any opinion regarding any matter that suits our fancy, even going so far as to say which team we "believe" will win the next world series.

As a practical note, I should say at this point that in this book I will try to restrict my use of the word "belief" to the contents or convictions that we hold in faith, even while occasionally using the verb "believe" to describe the act of faith, hoping that some of the ancient power of this word will sink in with its emphasis on a loving trust in and faithfulness to God. But on the whole, I think the time has come to try to gather in all these approaches to the meaning of faith into one basic understanding that takes in all these points of view. To do so would help us to arrive at a dynamic understanding of faith.

The Anatomy of Faith            

Looking at the dictionary definitions as well as the various understandings of faith down through history, and even recent opinion polls, it is possible to see three basic meanings.

First, faith can mean commitment, fidelity, or allegiance; this is what the polls indicate that most people today mean by "faith." This meaning centers on the act of believing or having faith. Dulles calls this the "subjective" aspect or pole of faith, the personal element that we as responsible, deciding individuals bring into this relationship with God and ultimate truth.

Second, faith can also mean the contents or the system of beliefs that we speak of as a "religion." Dulles calls this the "objective" aspect or the pole that centers on what we believe. This is the part that Catholics and other Christians who lay great stress on doctrine sometimes speak of as "the faith." I will generally call this aspect the conviction of faith or "faith convictions" — that is, the things that we are convinced are the ultimate truth.

Finally, by "faith" people also mean a certain quality in their lives that involves a sense of optimism, or trust, or, if I may use a word based on the Latin word for faith ( fides) , a certain kind of confidence. It is also the meaning that has caused the greatest amount of confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of faith.

But I think I see something else. Recall the diagram that we saw in the last chapter, the one based on Viktor Frankl's. There we saw an upside down right-angled triangle with the agent-self at the bottom, and at the top-left corner, where the right-angle is formed, "meaning." Then off to the right side, "happiness" or "fulfillment." But we also learned, from elsewhere in Frankl's writings, that "religion is the search for ultimate meaning" and that "faith is trust in ultimate meaning."

Now, if we think of "ultimate meaning" as referring to the objective aspect of faith (which I prefer to call " conviction"), while the "search" part refers to our subjective "commitment" to truth, then I think we can take Frankl's description of faith as "trust" (or as I would term it, "confidence"), fit it into the third slot, and come up with this picture:


Figure 2

FIGURE 2

Just from comparing this diagram with the earlier one in the previous chapter, I think it is obvious why there is so much confusion about "faith" and why this third understanding of the word as "trust" or "confidence" has caused so many problems. As soon as we think of faith in terms of trust or confidence (the upper right of the diagram) we must also be led to the conclusion that this type of "faith" cannot be directly sought or achieved, or produced on command. It is, like "happiness" or "fulfillment" in Frankl's basic scheme, something that cannot be successfully "pursued" but can only "ensue"— it can only result as the by-product of the willing commitment of self to the ultimate meaning or truth.

This is why Frankl wrote in the new preface to his book, The Unconscious God, that faith, in the sense of a "will to believe," cannot be produced. Frankl is very clear about this. As he tells us, ` `there are certain activities that simply cannot be commanded," among them "the triad, faith, hope and love."

Why did he say this? It should be obvious if the emphasis is put on the "trust" in his definition of faith as "trust in ultimate meaning."  If "religion is the search for ultimate meaning" (parallel to his "will to meaning" in the first diagram) then the present happiness or fulfillment of faith which is experienced as "confidence"— which I prefer to think of as the "security" of faith — can only come as a by- product of the search for greater or "ultimate" meaning.

From this we must conclude that the search for confidence or security for its own sake in the guise of religious faith is no less selfish than any other search for pleasure, power for its (or our) own sake nor any less futile than the quest for pleasure, happiness or fulfillment. It can't come to us this way. To attempt it is to defy the psychological laws of nature. Thought of in terms of baseball (but in this case involving a triangle rather than a "diamond"), we simply cannot get from home-base (self) and back (with the prize of happiness or fulfillment) without passing through first base first-a "meaning" greater than self. The confident security of faith (second base) can only "ensue." It can't be "pursued" directly, or if we do, we will commit a major error. If so, the result will turn out to be something less than faith in God. Faith, especially in this sense of "confidence," is always a gift, or, in biblical terms, a grace or "charism."

Faith, Hope, and Love

If faith is, in biblical and especially gospel terms, a loving trust, it is also a demanding one. If union with the God who is love is the only true "object" of our faith, it is only through the love of God, as God has first loved us, that faith in God or hope for ourselves is possible. As Cardinal Newman once put it: "It is love that makes faith, not faith love."

Newman's remark, I suggest, should prompt us to rethink the relationship between faith, hope, and love on the basis of the threefold understanding of faith as we have adapted it to Frankl's scheme. Personally, I've always found it particularly difficult to distinguish between faith and hope. As a "definition," the description of faith given in the epistle to the Hebrews as "confident assurance of things hoped for . . . " does not seem to clarify matters much. Nowadays it has often been said that in the face of uncertainty, hope has replaced faith as the major expression of religious consciousness. This may very well be true. But is it an adequate replacement?

I do not believe so, for if we were take hope simply as our future expectations, we must ask what our present grounds are for such hope. The only answer can be the conviction we have that because something is already the case (for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ) , that what is not yet (in this example, our own "resurrection" to eternal life) is surely to come about. In other words, only the contents of faith, or faith understood from the viewpoint of "conviction," can bring about that "assurance of things hoped for" that we think of as the confidence of faith.

On the other hand, if we follow Newman's theological insight that love alone can account for faith, then we have to conclude that not only does God's love alone make faith possible, but also that our own commitment as an act of love is the psychological starting point of faith. Without this loving commitment and the risk it entails, no faith convictions are possible, nor can the security it promises possibly come about.

Start at the other end of the process, and everything comes out just the reverse. Confidence or security pursued for its own sake will fabricate contents to suit its own whims — which is the essence of idolatry — and this in turn will reinforce an egotistic self-love.

In basic human terms, there is no better analogy for dynamics of faith (and hope and love as well) than its parallel in marriage. The biblical prophets knew this well — for them idolatry was the same as "adultery." Fundamentally, the commitment that marriage entails is always fraught with risk. True, if a person marries for money or for prestige, for security, or any other self-gratifying reason we may think of, there is risk as well, but when such marriages turn out to be a disaster or loveless at best, we all know why and condemn such persons for their foolishness. We may (or may not) feel sorry for them, but we are hardly surprised at the result. Only commitment "for better or for worse," to the other person "for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health" (in other words, not for one's money, not for one's looks) , irrevocably "until death do them part" will do. Anything less than this commitment is not only a formula for disaster, but is "invalid" from the start.

So too with the commitment of faith, except for one big difference. God as the "other" in this partnership is the person or partner who will never fail. Thus we need never worry about our ultimate security. Our confidence, granted the sincerity of our commitment, is guaranteed. But the question remains: If faith (and hope) are produced by love, still how does love come to be?

If Frankl, from the psychological point of view, spoke of "faith, hope and love" as all being equally incapable of being produced on command, there are even deeper theological reasons for doing so. I think many will recognize this "triad" as being the three "theological virtues" as described by St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). They have been termed such in Christian tradition because not only their final goal, but their origin as well, is in God-as distinguished from the four "cardinal" or pivotal moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, which have our own moral perfection as their primary aim.

So this means that when it comes to love-just as with faith and hope-although our ability to love is partly a matter of our own openness to love, we in no way can produce the results, as it were, by "pulling on our own boot straps." The same goes for our search for meaning. True, we can prepare ourselves by searching for that ultimate truth or meaning that we call "God." But if this committed search for meaning depends, to a large extent, on ourselves, theologians have long argued that even this beginning is an effect of God 's grace working in us. So if arriving at that ultimate meaning or truth is what we mean by "believing," neither can this be successfully produced on command.

On the other hand, if it is true, as St. Augustine said, that "no one can be forced to believe," then I would add that not even God can force us to believe, nor for that matter can anyone force himself or herself to believe. At best we can only put ourselves at the disposal of God 's grace.

So what all this comes down to is to say (with Newman) that the beginning of faith is the effect of a twofold love: first, God's love for us, and, second, our love for God. True, that love that we express for God at this beginning stage will be largely incoherent if not outright confused, since we do not yet "know" God. At best, it may be only a firm commitment to seek the truth over all else-but even that is enough to explain why Vatican II commends even those atheists who commit themselves to the betterment of this world as instruments of God's will. On the other hand, those who claim to know God and yet refuse to share in the works of God's redemptive love-can we really say they have "faith" in any meaningful sense? It would hardly seem so.

So what about the object or goal of faith? This is where the theological impact of Frankl's psychological truth is even more evident. Not only is it a case of where the security provided by faith cannot be successfully pursued as the goal of faith , but neither can the convictions or contents of faith be the object as well. This is why, in my second diagram, the "conviction" or "ultimate meaning" (upper left-hand corner of the triangle) really points (using a double arrow) beyond the triangle toward God. Our convictions or beliefs that form the intellectual contents of our faith, our "creeds" as we term them, are, in the end, "symbols"— they are attempts, in human language, to describe a reality that far exceeds our limited grasp. The closer we come to God in love the more inadequate these words become. The easily recited but often puzzling formulas of faith veil an ever deeper mystery. We must never imagine that we have "defined" (which is "to set limits to") God.

So too the same warning must be said about hope; it simply can't be produced by joining some ecclesiastical equivalent of the "Optimists' Club." The theological virtue of hope is, in some aspects, simply that part of faith that we call "confidence" and, as such, is that part of faith which least of all can be produced by us upon command. It can only come to us through that faith which is born from love. Any attempt to manufacture this hope through purely human means is bound to fail. Frankl (following St. Paul) may have spoken of the "triad" of "faith, hope and love" in that order-with love alone remaining when all is said and done-but the fact is that in terms of our ability or empowerment to have faith and hope, we must begin with love.

So, in a way, it all begins and ends in love. But it is here that the major problem with faith (and hope and love) begins-in our love of whom or what?

Self-love may be the psychological pre-condition (if not the theological limit) of our love for others; at the very least we must "love our neighbor as ourselves." For how can we love unless we first feel loved? Yet no such stipulation is set for our love of God. Instead, we are told that we must love God "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," and that is "the first and the greatest of the commandments" (see Mt 22:37, also Dt 6:5 and Lev 19:18). So, theologically speaking, all love (even love for neighbor) ultimately must be included in and transformed by the love of God. As St. Augustine, who certainly knew his share of human loves, once said: "Our hearts were made for you, Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in you." This is certainly true of any self-love, however necessary that self love be.

Thus Frankl's warning against the attempt to command faith, hope and love is warning against what is an expression of a "manipulative approach" in which the activities would become an end in themselves, and, in so doing, lose sight of their main objective. Faith, hope, and love are " `intentional' acts or activities" — that is to say that they in-tend or "tend to" their own proper objective, which is God (see Frankl, The Unconscious God, p. 14).

But why would a person attempt to manipulate or conjure up faith or hope or love in such a manner? Obviously because he or she hopes to get something out of it. So what we see is a subtle-or sometimes not so subtle-enthronement of our own personal needs as the real motivation for our believing, our hoping or our loving. Instead of being "theological virtues" in the full sense of being theo-centric or "God-centered," what we would have would be really an ego-centric striving posing as the quest for God. The so-called "theological virtues" are such not merely because they are a grace or gift of God, or because their only proper object or goal is God, but also because when truly possessed by a human being, the principal motivation is "for" or "for the sake of" God.

Thus faith cannot be simply a "belief in faith" as something good for us; rather it has to be a belief in God as the ultimate good that transcends us. In the same way hope cannot be authentic unless it is something more than just a hope "for hope's sake"-that is to say, for our own security's sake. Only love can be for love's sake, and this is only because ultimately (according to the apostle John) "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8 and 16).

Is such love or such faith possible? Perhaps not all at once. Here we might turn back to our comparison with married love. Both our commitment to God as well as our commitment to another person must be a growing relationship. One reason for this is that our perception of the "other," to some extent, will inevitably change. And along with this changing perception, the relationship itself will change.

Very often, in our youth, the other person is perceived as a reflection of ourselves or, more exactly, as the ideal counterpart of what we aspire to be. This is natural, and not without profound implications. But we must be careful, for that "other" is also a person in his or her own right. To try to force that person to conform to our own expectations is a violation of that person's integrity or "otherness." The maturity of the relationship must not only involve a growing unity, but a growing individualization as well. It has been said that "true unity differentiates." Although a certain similarity is a foundation for unity, its perfection is to be found in complementarity, not in uniformity or sameness.

The same goes for our relationship with God. Just as with married love, which usually begins in the attraction of "eros" and blossoms into the love of friendship — unless the erotic element is unrestrained — so too love of God will often begin on a strong note of "what's in it for me?" But just as a marriage that involves a true mutuality will regularly demand real self-sacrifice, so too the attraction to God that has ripened into a true friendship will also demand that "he must grow greater, I must grow less" (Jn 3:30).

For such love the New Testament has a special word; it is agape, the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that is celebrated in the famous thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Such love, it is true, transcends merely human capabilities. It is, above all, a gift-which is why agape is often translated as "charity" (from the Greek charis for "gift" or "grace"), But this uniqueness must not stand as an excuse or reason for evasion of our call to respond to it. Instead it is a demand that we move beyond the limits of our own self-concern and self-love. Instead of expecting God to cater to our own wants, faith demands that we set aside all idols and that we "let God be God."

The life of faith, like the love from which it issues and in which it ends, must be gradually deepened and transformed. Confident trust will more and more be tested by a renewed demand for a loving commitment to the works of faith. As in a marriage, mere words or signs of affection , as nice and as reassuring as they may be, are not enough. As Margaret Farley, in her excellent book Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing, makes clear, commitments are neither mere predictions of the future nor simple resolutions made in behalf of one 's self. On the contrary, commitment involves a "giving of one's word" or a promise that lays a claim on us over our future. Mere good intentions and enthusiasm are not enough. "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 7:21).

Nor is self-determination enough either. Just as faith and hope require love for their beginning, and that even this love is something that depends on God who has first loved us (1 Jn 4:10), it should be obvious that in the end, when the life of faith has reached its zenith, the measure of our faith will be the purity and sincerity of our love (see 1 Cor 13:1-13). What I have to say in the chapters that follow will attempt to show what this means for us at each stage of life.


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. What has been your own understanding or "definition" of faith?
  Were you satisfied with it? Why or why not?

2. How does your understanding of faith fit into Frankl's scheme (see the diagram
 in this chapter) , and what does this tell you about any difficulties you've had with  faith?

3. How is faith undercut by the search for absolute certainty or security? Give some  examples of  "manipulative" religion.

4. Reflect on your own experience with "faith, hope and love" in life.
  How does human experience in these matters throw light on the theological   insight (or the other way around)?


Proceed to next chapter.

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