Saturday, November 3, 2007

Faith and Belief

In a post on the House of Bishop and Deputies’ website, the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter reminded us that there is a difference between faith and belief. It was good to hear that distinction made again.

Faith is what is given to us. It is a gift from God. It comes very early in life and everyone gets it whether we identify it as such or not. But faith must be developed for it to be operative, for it to serve us well. Faith is how we can accept something without having proof. We suspend our need to have all the facts before us to recognize the value of putting our trust in something. It is the water upon which we float. It is the air upon which we fly. We cannot see it or at times cannot feel it, but it is how people grow into knowing that they do not have to have all knowledge but can affirm that something is present to us without our sensate powers confirm it. Faith is a capacity, not a body of knowledge. It stems from acquaintance with the truth of the person, object, or community in which the person has faith. It is more a matter of a relationship rather than doctrine

Belief, says +Righter, is that body of knowledge or agreed upon tenets which a group claims best describes their relationship with God, or non-god. Belief can be in a body of hypotheses of science but it does not denote a relationship with the object of faith. This distinction is an important one for those of us who claim faith in Jesus Christ. Belief in Church doctrine does not mean we have faith. Assenting to a body of doctrine is no more faithful than believing in the theorems of geometry. Faith requires that we must enter into a relationship with the one in whom we have faith.

When I was a Roman Catholic it was clear that Roman Catholicism did not make much distinction between faith and belief. The Church IS the Faith, not the bearer of faith for Roman Catholics. I knew many Christians who had deep and abiding relationships with Christ, Mary, God the Father, etc. I never wish to disparage the faith of those who find faith as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. But for the average pew sitter, their Faith is what the Church taught. When I became an Episcopalian, I moved into clearer understanding of faith.

Often we Church folk often disparage those who are not churched as being without faith. T’ain’t necessarily so! Just because people do not find the conjunction between the Church and faith does not mean that a person is without faith. However we are likely to think that if a person is an Episcopalian he or she believes what the Episcopal Church teaches, or a Lutheran is a person who believes—subscribes to the body of doctrine that Lutherans profess.

Therein lies the problem. We, as Episcopalians are people who have given a wide berth to doctrine. We profess creeds in our liturgy, but we don’t sign our lives away to be doctrinally sound. We see doctrine as something that is fluid and developing like faith. It is the reason we are having the problems we are having in the Episcopal Church at present. We HAVE been fuzzy about what we believe. And I for one love that fuzziness. Those who need more structure to their belief systems find the Episcopal Church lacking. The neo-evangelicals who thump their Bibles like Baptists want the black and white of the printed page of the Bible to articulate their belief. The Roman Catholic wannabes demand a magisterium to articulate their belief structures. The interesting thing is that the Anglican Communion has been lacking in those belief structures from our inception. And as the US-based arm of that Communion, we have consistently sought not to be doctrinal.

Bishop Righter is spot on when he names Bishop Spong as one who makes us think. No, I do not believe in everything that Spong says is correct. For that matter I do not believe that the Bible is always correct. (I do believe and assent that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation! But then again, salvation is a gift from God, not something that I need to know or assent to.) We have plenty of instances where the Bible contains errors. And the Bible if taken at face value has stories that are beyond belief. But this does not lessen my faith in God, because my faith is not IN the Bible. My faith is IN God—in that relationship that happens when I trust and step out into the unknown with only God to guide me.

I do not understand those who need belief structures to have faith. I love the stories of faith. I relish the wonderful one-upmanship of Jesus when he catches the Pharisees or the Sadducees when they are trying to set a trap for him. I find the on-going faith of Hebrew Scriptures give me insights into how God effected the lives of my spiritual forbearers. But I do try to keep those stories in their setting, not bending their meaning beyond belief. Jesus told those stories to encourage faith. If anything, Jesus’ mission was to tear down the barriers that had been erected by temple authorities that kept “the unworthy” from knowing God.

I do not deny that belief structures often are what help the neophyte to come to faith. But we cannot profess a mature faith in belief structures, because ultimately creeds, covenants, doctrine are all made by us—mere mortals. Faith is what is given by God.

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