Faith – Putting its Different Dimentions into Perspective

Faith is all too often presented as a matter of religious beliefs, of accepting ideas about God that cannot be proved except in one’s own experience. Yet faith in its original meaning is much more active than this; it is about making a loving commitment, trusting and being faithful. If we explore the different dimensions of faith, we see that faith is so much more than an intellectual assent to religious propositions; it is more a spiritual adventure than a state of mind; a vision and a way of life rather than a creed. Faith is not static; just as we progress intellectually and emotionally, we develop spiritually.

Our induction into faith is often at an early age through family, school or festivals. Children may be involved in family prayers or the Sabbath meal or be taken to religious worship. They may learn the Christmas story through acting in a nativity play. They are told, “As Catholics we believe …”; “We do this because we are Jewish.” Belonging to a religion becomes a mark of identity that includes them within the group and sets the group apart from others. It may become a focus for social as well as spiritual activity. At this level faith is a matter of form, of tradition and of socialization.

Faith moves beyond a cultural context or measure of self-identity to become part of what we are as individuals through a personal religious experience, an encounter with God (or the Creative Spirit). This leads to our individual experience of adventuring with God and results in an inner transformation – turning our back on the past and starting a new kind of life – and the commitment to a continuing relationship of love, trust and faithfulness. It is this dimension of faith that causes a Muslim to speak of sensing Allah closer than breath itself, makes a Christian talk of having Jesus in his heart, and brings a Buddhist to feel at one with the universe. This personal experience is as unique as we are as individuals. It may have the intensity of a call from a burning bush or be a sudden heart-warming experience, but it might equally be a gradual awakening. Such an encounter is not a one-off event; it is a journeying together with God in a developing relationship. As is the case with journeys and with relationships, we go through highs and lows and we gain different perspectives as we find ourselves in new situations. We change and our relationships change as well. If our relationship is firmly based, it will deepen and broaden as it is tested by the challenges we go through in his presence.

The nature of our faith is most clearly revealed in how we make it into a practical reality in our lives. It is evident in the kind of people we are at home, at work and in our neighbourhoods and how we respond to community and world needs. This dimension is our response to the call to discipleship and to participate actively in God’s work in the world. The golden rule at the heart of each religion on how to treat others is essentially the same, and provides a vision of a world community based on love. “People will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The true people of faith in each religion are those who commit themselves to living by this principle, however orthodox or unorthodox they may be. Although their religious traditions may be very different from each other, these people are very close to each other in their understanding of faith. As Albert Schweitzer put it, “All living knowledge of God rests upon this foundation: that we experience Him in our lives as Will-to-Love.”1

The dimension of faith that pre-occupies many religious people is beliefs – the words with which we try to describe our experience of God in order to make sense of it and to share it with others. These descriptions may be given to us by religious leaders. It is clearly important to have the language to discuss our spirituality but we need to know the limits of such descriptions. Humans are too complex for us to know even ourselves fully, so how can we comprehend the creative force that formed the billions of people and innumerable other life forms on this small planet which orbits one of trillions of stars in a 131/2-billion-year-old universe that is still expanding and would take us 43 million years to cross at the speed of light? All our attempts to describe God or the way God interacts with humanity are inadequate; they are our best efforts with the concepts and the language we have available. Inevitably we resort to metaphors and picture language and talk as if God thought and acted like a human being. But too often people forget that this is what we are doing. Despite St Augustine’s warning, “If you understand, then it isn’t God,”2 we find church leaders speaking of God as ineffable but at the same time telling us exactly what we must believe about him. Metaphors become confused with historical truth and are then proclaimed as essential beliefs. There are even attempts to scientise religion and claim it is about hard facts, leading to unnecessary clashes with science. So what started as a wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness, and of giving of oneself becomes a matter of doctrine and of the eternal rewards we are promised for holding the right beliefs.

One result of this emphasis on how we articulate our faith is a tendency to judge people by whether they express their spiritual experiences in the language we expect and in terms of our beliefs rather than valuing people for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. Yet, when asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with the two great love commandments – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ These are active ways of relating and of giving of oneself. He pointed out that it was not the pious but those who actually carried out God’s will, who would be recognized by God. He sought to bring freedom from the legalistic religious practices of his day and encouraging people to have a direct relationship with God.

The stress on beliefs can make religion equally as divisive and exclusive as the purity laws of Jesus’ time. People are seen as either believers or non-believers (and our beliefs are the only standard); they are saved or lost eternally; they are with us or against us. It leads to seeing other religions as peddling a false message, as directing people away from the one truth which we hold. This assumption that two different ways of expressing a relationship with God must be in conflict with one another is a failure of the imagination and an inability to see beneath the literal surface level of images to the impact that their faith is having on how people respond to God and to other people. Its consequence is a fractured approach to issues on which all faiths would agree, and evil flourishes in many areas for lack of a concerted effort against it by people of faith who are too busy maintaining the walls of their own religious fortresses. In the concern about which doctrines lead to salvation and a place in Heaven, many have lost sight of the emphasis in the first three gospels on bringing in the kingdom of God on earth and on eternal life – life in all its fullness – commencing in the here and now.

Faith must also be seen through the dimension of time. Traditionalists contend that the Christian faith was “delivered once and for all” and is thus immutable. This denies the clear evidence of how faith changes over time. A living faith will, like all living things, grow and develop, adapt to its environment and evolve. We can see a progression from Abraham’s relationship with the God of the mountains, through the jealous tribal God of Moses, and the one universal God of Isaiah to the Father God Jesus taught to his disciples. We can also see Christianity developing from the pre-Nicaea years, through the mediaeval church and the Reformation to the Evangelical Revival. (If the 2,000 years of Christianity were to be compressed into one day, then as late as five pm people were being burnt at the stake by the church authorities for reading the bible in their own language.) The movement from inter-denominational rivalry and bitterness to ecumenical co-operation has occurred within my lifetime. The inter-faith movement is still in its infancy. Rather than having the final revelation from God, Christianity is still in a process of development – and so are the other religions.

We might expect that descriptions of God and his actions would in 21st century Britain reflect our current understanding of the cosmos and the natural sciences, of biblical scholarship and of psychology and sociology – without detracting from our respect for the way faith was expressed in earlier times. Yet the emphasis on traditional beliefs, rather than on relationships and on compassion, makes it difficult for churches to adapt to the knowledge explosion of the past 250 years. They are slow to respond to changes in language and culture and appear to be locked into first century thinking. This makes them seem irrelevant to everyday life.

While Christianity is expanding rapidly in some African and Asian countries, due in no small measure to adaptation to local culture, churches in Western Europe have a communication problem, resulting in falls in attendances, and a loss of credibility and of social influence. Church-speak, such as “lamb on the throne”, is meaningless today to those without a church background. Many hymns and much liturgy still imply a God enthroned in a kind of celestial control room. Preachers struggle to balance a God of love and reconciliation and healing with one whose demand for justice must be satisfied and a price paid. The belief that all humans are corrupt and that those who don’t believe church teaching are deservedly condemned or “lost eternally” is associated all too often with the kind of judgmentalism that Jesus opposed so vigorously in his day.

All this is justified on the basis that it is in the Bible. Yet as long ago as the third century Origen pointed out that there are different levels in scripture and that if we restrict ourselves to the simple literal level we can miss the spiritual meaning. For many the bible acts as a mirror in reflecting their own hopes and fears, prejudices and priorities. Oscar Pfister, a Calvinist pastor and psychoanalyst, said: ‘Tell me what you find in your bible and I will tell you what sort of man you are.’ 4 Churches need to revise the images they use, learn from science the concept of standing on the shoulders of giants and recognize that questioning ideas and building on the past is an integral part of a developing faith.

As individuals we should also be open to faith development at a personal level over time. Professor James Fowler has postulated3 that there are stages in faith development that reflect the long-recognized stages in intellectual, social and personal development. Religious leaders are often very effective at helping their members to move through the early stages of faith development to the point of commitment. Many seem far less skilled in supporting those who are ready to progress further. A friend of mine described attending church as like being kept down in Class 2 year after year and always repeating studies at the same level. Some people leave formal religion because they outgrow the image of God from their childhood and they have never been helped to progress beyond that level of understanding to one more appropriate to their stage of maturing spirituality. As J.B. Phillips recognized over 50 years ago4, these people are rejecting a “God who is too small”. There is an understandable reluctance among many religious leaders to accept the questioning of doctrines. This is more likely to be seen as a loss of faith or as a challenge to the church’s authority than as a necessary part of progressing spiritually.

Professor Fowler suggests that the final stage in faith development is a universalizing faith that transcends the limitations and conceptions of one’s own tradition and culture and is ready for fellowship and co-operation across faiths. The few who achieve this stage are “grounded in a oneness with the power of being or God” and their visions seem to free them from the paradoxes and polarities for a passionate spending of the self in love and a commitment to overcoming division and oppression that anticipate an in-breaking of God’s commonwealth of love and justice. Challenging existing power bases is never easy. Since such people work across and beyond existing religious traditions, they can be seen as subversive of those structures which promise the security of salvation and God’s protection. They may even suffer the consequences of this through being ostracised or worse.

What these people have realized is that faith is about far more than assuring one’s own survival and salvation and gaining God’s favour during this life; that in a true relationship of love, one is more concerned about what one gives than what one receives. They have recognized that it is more important that someone’s beliefs are inclusive, life-affirming and healing and that they live these out and allow God to work through them than that they share our beliefs. We face a range of evils within our world, including serious political, ecological, humanitarian, and economic crises; and religious fundamentalism is one of the problems. It is important to appreciate that all those whose lives are contributing to the furtherance of the realm of God and to the defeat of evil – even if they don’t understand it in those terms – are our allies.

If God is Spirit and has to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, we are never going to encapsulate him in a catechism. Let’s get back to a proper emphasis on those dimensions of faith which are focused on love of God and love of others. After all those first Christians who had a strong enough faith to die in the Coliseum had never heard of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed and many were illiterate and never read any of the books that would later be included in the bible. But their trusting relationship with God and their loving compassion, not only within their own fellowship but to all those in need, showed that they had a faith worth having.

© Philip Sudworth 2009

1 Albert Schweitzer – Out of My Life and Thought. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1931)
2 St Augustine – Serm. 117, 5: (PL 38, 673.)
3 James Fowler – Stages of Faith. (Harper & Row, 1981)
4 Pfister, O. – Christianity and Fear. (Allen and Unwin,1948)
5 J.B. Phillips – Your God is too Small. (Epworth Press 1952)