Thursday, July 12th, 2012...2:24 pm
Love, Actually: Chapter Three: “Poor Foundations for Faith”
Continuing my series featuring selections from my new book, Love, Actually, here’s Chapter Three:
Poor Foundations for Faith
God has good reason to give us faith, for there is someone completely trustworthy for us to believe in and be saved by. The faith he gives us is rooted in his Son, who became flesh for our salvation. We have good reason to have faith, for we have a Savior who has purchased our salvation for us. He has done all that it takes, once for all, signed, sealed and being delivered. Our faith has a firm foundation: Jesus Christ.
– Pastor Joseph Tkach
Faith is simply surrender: I yield myself to the impression the tidings I hear make on me. By faith I yield myself to the living God. His glory and love fill my heart, and have the mastery over my life. Faith is fellowship; I give myself up to the influence of the friend who makes me a promise, and become linked to him by it. And it is when we enter into this living fellowship with God Himself, in a faith that always sees and hears Him, that it becomes easy and natural to believe His promise as to prayer. Faith in the promise is the fruit of faith in the promiser: the prayer of faith is rooted in the life of faith. And in this way the faith that prays effectually is indeed a gift of God.
-Rev. Andrew Murray
The word “faith” is often extended to worshippers in a mysterious way. There is simply no complete way of understanding it. “Faith” often comes up to explain the most inexplicable of religious confusion.
The word “faith,” though, is simply a word. Words cannot be mysterious. They can refer to mysterious things, but the reference will be particular and direct. If a word’s definition is mysterious, it becomes a sound. “Urgomp” is a sound. “Faith” is a word. Words impart particular meanings. They can have more than one meaning, but each particular definition must be firm. A particular definition of “faith” cannot refer to different things at different times, and a person who tries to use terms without holding them to a precise definition is simply avoiding real communication.
Faith does not refer to a large compounded mass of cotton candy that builds up in one’s spirit after very intense bouts of prayer and reflection. Faith is not an unseeable cloud of heavenly smoke that leaks from below church pews, and, once breathed deeply into one’s lungs, allows a person to set aside all reason to see the hidden truth in something very unreasonable. No. Faith is real.
“Faith” refers not simply to confidence, but to confidence in one’s belief. You can’t have “faith in God.” You may have faith in your idea that God exists. You may have confidence in God. You can have faith in your belief that God will or will not do something, but you can’t have “faith in God.” The reason ministers so often impulsively lose their control over this term- they use “faith” as a synonym for “confidence” and drop off the part about that confidence referring to one’s beliefs- is because their impulse is to becloud the nasty fact that people are actively choosing to adopt beliefs.
Imagine, one minister stands and booms, “We must have faith in our belief that God exists!” In the head of more than a few congregants, a question arises: Do I believe that God exists?
Another minister exhorts, “We must have confidence in God!” The congregant asks herself: Is God worthy of my confidence?
A third minister says, “We must have faith in God!” By misuse of the term “faith,” the third minister has added a layer of confusion that can easily be mistaken for religious mystery, and simultaneously extinguishes the personal awareness of choice that sensibly arises in the congregant’s thoughts. The end result is no concrete message, just an imperative for persons already disposed toward cooperation and fellowship to act without rationality.
Faith refers to confidence in one’s beliefs. If enough people misuse it, it may eventually be listed in the dictionary as a direct synonym for confidence, in which case “faith in God” will be correct, but the meaning the preacher is seeking will remain the same confusion as before. When a preacher says to have “faith in God,” they are not trying to encourage us to trust God. If you already believed in God, an omnipresent font of virtuosity, you would not need someone’s encouragement to trust God, would you? No. He is trying to encourage you to lean on a belief in God uncritically so that a whole world of religious understanding can grow on a foundation you have not scrutinized.
The problem with that is that if the quality of the source of faith is not strong, one really doesn’t believe a thing.
Religious figures commonly exhort their flock to have faith, and they disparage those of waning faith, but little attention seems to be paid to the source of faith.
What makes people believe strongly in their religion?
I offer three examples of common sources of faith in religious belief that I propose should be avoided for being deeply flawed:
The basis for that devotee’s faith may be irrational. A lack of elementary knowledge can reveal religious devotion to be plain foolishness, such as in the case of the pamphlet-pushing lady I met on the subway who informed me, “Jesus spoke Old English,” to explain why the Bible was so hard for most people to understand- or the talk radio show caller I once heard who said, “They dug up Adam and Eve’s bones and did a DNA and found they were Africans!” According to a recent Pew survey, avowed atheists demonstrated a significantly greater knowledge of religious teachings, history, and leadership than those avowed to a particular religious belief, which demonstrates how widely-spread may be this flawed source of faith. Mark Twain observed, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
People sometimes get caught in a fetish of their own cultural group. Say you believe in God because you believe that anything said by your local pastor, your religion’s greater leadership, or even the religiously-demagogic political leadership in your society is right and that it is just evil to question those authorities. Your abdication of control to the cultural group expunges your ability to claim or disclaim any responsibility for your behavior.
People often believe tradition validates religious belief. You may, like some, believe human thought to be so insignificant that you have a laconic disinterest in justifying your beliefs, even to yourself. You will just plod on as those before you have, with blinders beside your eyes and a smile on your lips, trusting in the past. It is magical thinking that God has created an environment for you where mere obedience to the most obvious authority- tradition- is all that you need to do to succeed. Some of the greatest horrors of history have come from such silliness. The Salem witchcraft trials spring to mind, or Christian Scientists who have stood by while their children died of curable illnesses. Still, I would argue the problem is more elemental than is demonstrated by such notorious examples. I would use a broader brush and say that, when it comes to our moral maturation, due to our respect for tradition, nearly all humanity seems to be impotently waiting for the past to push it forward.
The course of history shows us truth and selfless critical inquiry will always trump ignorance and pride in the end, regardless of one’s commitment. Ignorance, by its nature, has a limited lifespan. Every ignorance in the world is destined to pass away some day (…which is not necessarily good news, as in a later chapter I will address the separate issue of whether the ignorance will pass away in time to keep us from destroying ourselves.)
Some would have us embrace ignorance, asserting religion is not beholden to rationality. That sounds good- kind of an escape clause from all reasoned debate. Still, it is Kool-Aid® poppycock. Those who take cover with such a notion are under the mistaken impression that their own spirituality could not find a way to survive in the light of reason.
Religion must be truthful. It must be real. It must be intensely relevant, connecting directly to us.
And this is just where faith comes in.
In their failure to be scientifically relevant, many religions turn to faith. In its best form, this “faith” is something more concrete than, say, suspension of disbelief. Here, we are instructed to reach inside for an awareness that we are already invested with. This “inner light” is what allows us to see the higher, ultimate truths, and it is what makes it unnecessary to feel our understanding of our spiritual place is threatened when we are called on to acknowledge scientific insight.
There is not enough talk of this “inner light,” though. Religious leaders tend to spend more time assailing failures of faith in their followers than working to connect them to their “inner light.” If these leaders really did believe in this inner source of truth, they might rather be spending all their time holding retreats, like a Seventies self-awareness movement, with leaders urging, “Reach inside, ye of little faith! Find that inner light that God gave you!”
I see a pastor now, casting arms over the congregation. “All these people are here because they know from inside that God is here. It isn’t belief in this group or belief in the Bible as a historical document they depend on. They are here because of the faith that arises from what they feel within, which gives awareness of God’s purpose!”
Provided the “inner light” this leader refers to impels the propagation of the faith, such a leader will not waste time in debate or castigating others for poor moral behavior. This leader will be a mere world wanderer, trying to help every person to get in touch with that awareness God has bestowed.
But I’m not sure most religious followers would feel comfortable being limited to an inner foundation for their faith.
Let’s try an experiment. So as not to offend, let’s imagine a religion. We’ll call it “Zezuism,” based on the teachings of Zezu, a 3rd Century BCE healer, who is claimed by his followers to be the real God. Let’s try to strip away the ungrounded sources for faith from Zezuism- those weaknesses I mentioned earlier- not because these poor sources of faith are necessarily poor components of religion- but, just as an experiment to see what bedrock elements are left.
Let us imagine someone discovers a text tomorrow that, let’s say, can be authoritatively proven to have been carried by Zezu. Further, when cracked open for the first time in more than two thousand years, this text has Poseidon performing all the holy miracles Zezuism’s teachings have ascribed to Zezu.
The illusion of historical relevancy serves as backbone of faith for a significant portion of religious followers. Historical relevancy, though, cannot be demonstrated. Religion is based on texts that come from spoken-word tales that were passed for decades or centuries. There simply is no historical evidence proving any of religion’s spiritual claims.
So, with Zezu’s book, let’s say we’ve removed an irrational basis for faith- an illusion of historical relevance.
If we also remove the possibility for fetish of the social group from religion, we will take a step further into the core of faith. Let’s imagine Zezuism, having lost credibility with the whole Poseidon debacle, finds its donations plummeting just as its investments take a sudden downturn with the economy. Short on funds, Zezuism sells off all its real estate and replaces its churches with internet chat rooms that are so anonymous they don’t even allow you to go by a nickname, thereby incapacitating the group identity to an extent that fetish, or tribalism, could never rise above a whimper.
And then in a foolish “New Coke”-like move, Zezuism changes its name to FaithWorldUnited.com, destroying its claim to tradition.
What would be left to offer those who had previously just followed blindly in the rutted path before them, whose parents and grandparents had been pious Zezutians?
If you were of Zezutian heritage, why would you log-on to this new religion?
What would you be curious to find?
If you take away the false impression of a rational base, the group identity, and the tradition from your religion, is your religion still your religion?
Those who would answer “It is not,” need to ask those who would answer “It is,” the following question:
What is left?
Ideas that are not exclusive to religious thought, perhaps. Awareness. That character I told you about who is roaming the world trying to help people get in touch with their “inner light” would certainly still be in business. Inspiration.
What we are left with is a religion guided really by nothing but our faith in an “inner light,” something we know somehow all by ourselves, which allows us to see our way to truth.
Once again, scripture may guide it, but only after that inner awareness has indicated the scripture’s relevance, so that the inner awareness- not the scripture- is the core source of that faith.
 “Discipleship 101” by Dr. Joseph Tkach,, WCG.org
 “With Christ” by Rev. Andrew Murray, CCEL.org
 For source/more info, see: http://pewforum.org/other-beliefs-and-practices/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey.aspx
 Using the New Testament as one example, see Bart Ehrman's 2007 work, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, USA.