“Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it.” Those are the words of Johannes de silentio, the pseudonymous author of Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I won’t dwell on that book for very long, though I think it’s fantastic, but Kierkegaard is essentially writing from the point of view of a man who appears to be non-religious and yet looks in wonder at the thing we call faith, particularly in the context of the Abraham and Isaac story from Genesis. Faith is hailed as a paradox, as absurd, as something impossible to comprehend, yet at the end of one of the book’s chapters it is called a marvel and a passion. How do we view faith? Is it a marvel and a passion – something amazing? Is it merely a euphemism for ignorance? Is it the logical (yet slightly Christianese) step that follows from reasonable argument? Does it really have any meaning, or is its meaning now lost in a world of a multitude of belief systems collectively referred to as ‘faiths’?
I know that many of you reading this will be familiar with the verse from Hebrews 11 that says, “Now faith is confidence in what he hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In many ways, that is a very helpful definition, especially when the discussion of faith remains between Christians, or at least, people sympathetic to Christian views. The problem is, someone determined to discredit Christianity could read that verse and say that clearly it supports their idea that faith is simply the absence of reason/logic/evidence. How can one have any sort of empirical data about something unobservable? What use is hope in the investigation and understanding of the world? As useful as it is in the right context, Hebrews 11 does not put the issue of faith to bed.
What sort of conversation can we actually have about faith if we can’t agree on what faith is? I cannot sit here and write an argument that will convince you in your droves of my opinion on what religious/Christian faith is. The main reason for this is that I believe that faith (in God) is something you can only truly grasp in some way if you actually experience it. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author, de silentio, is always looking at faith from the outside in, and cannot comprehend it, but of course it would appear absurd to him! How can the faith that it took for Abraham to take Isaac up that mountain ever look reasonable and acceptable to us now? How can the faith of Moses, refusing his position in the Egyptian royal family in favour of exodus and disgrace, look reasonable and acceptable?
To my mind, that sort of faith has to come out of a relationship with God. Faith to do those things is possible when you have the knowledge of the God that the Bible calls us to worship. Christians nowadays have knowledge that Abraham and Moses never did, that God not only had the power to become human and lay down his life for us, but that he used that power. More than that, he had the power to take that life back up again. It is this hope of the resurrection and seeing the face of the living God that Hebrews 11:1 refers to. But how can faith ever seem anything other than absurd to someone who doesn’t have that assurance?
Maybe I’m getting this all wrong. Maybe faith doesn’t look absurd from the outside, though there seem to be enough vocal people out there that I’m sure that at least some people consider it absurd. I do feel that I need to talk about this a bit more. Some Christian apologetics will say that everyone has faith, and to a degree, everyone does. Faith that the chair you’re sitting on won’t break, faith that the roof above your head won’t cave in…and so on. This is all well and good for scoring a hit against a blustering opponent who’s adamant that faith is only something for the ignorant and uneducated, but as a Christian I feel that my faith in God is more than the faith I have that a chair won’t break when I sit on it. My faith in God can’t come from something like prior experiences of the strength of chairs I’ve sat on in the past, or the knowledge that there is no good reason why the wood/metal that the frame is constructed from should not be able to take my weight. I cannot compare knowing the one God with anything else; all analogies break down and cannot ultimately take me to God.
I’m also not a big fan of the idea of reasoning all the way up to God (I used to think that was the only option, but not so much anymore). That’s not to say that there’s no reason or logic or evidence or whatever that can help, but I don’t think of my faith as something that essentially ties all the reason up with a bow and makes it pretty and Christian.
And now I find myself back at that first quote from Fear and Trembling. Faith is a marvel. I know that as I go further into this post it has become more and more subjective, because ultimately, the only faith I can really talk about with any certainty is my own. Maybe yours looks completely different from mine. But in my own life, more and more faith looks to me like a gift, and less and less it looks like something I’ve worked up to by my own reasoning. It is also something that grows the more time I spend with God; it is something inextricably bound up in my relationship with him. The final and most important piece of this increasingly personal puzzle is Jesus. In chapter 12 of Hebrews he’s called the ‘pioneer [or author] and perfecter of faith’. My faith cannot exist without Jesus. Somehow, in that amazing, wondrous mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection, the foundation was laid for my faith over 2000 years later.
But not just my faith. I once more echo Johannes de silentio in saying that ‘faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it’. And that’s just it. No matter how little we understand this thing called faith, no matter how incapable I am of knowing what it’s like for anyone other than myself to have faith in God, one thing I do know is that this thing called faith is open to all. And that sits slap bang in the middle of the gospel message. Just as in Adam all of humanity died, so in Christ can all humanity have life. And that life comes through faith that Jesus lived and died and rose again. I’ve got to say, that’s pretty awesome.