Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton
Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.
Chapter 5: From Fear to Faith
In the harsh face of life, faith can read a bracing gospel. -- Robert Louis Stevenson, "Pulvis et Umbra"
Any spectrum of the types of courage will show something of its many-hued character. Now a further feature claims our attention, however, to which no series of still pictures can do justice. A different, more dynamic guiding image is needed -- that of progress or advance through a forbidding terrain. Normally, courage grows by being called forth, in situations of challenge-and-response, to borrow Arnold Toynbeeís phrase. And ideally, at any rate, this deepening of oneís capacity for courage should release potentialities formerly untapped. One such line of advance worth mentioning is that from fear to faith.
Courage and Fearing
Most people, if asked, would probably say that courage can be defined as fearlessness. Isnít it obvious that cowardice or timidity are telltale signs of fear, while courageous persons are neither frightened nor fainthearted? Why not then simply identify fearlessness with courage?
But this conventional wisdom does not stand up when it is examined carefully. Psychologists know better, and say so.1 A cartoon strip of "Fearless Fosdick," or a John Wayne movie extolling "true grit" may be diverting enough, but do not expect much insight into real-life courage from them. In folktales and fables the lion often stands for human courage, so that a cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz strikes us as an amusing anomaly. Yet a beast without a heart, where courage is concerned, is no match at all for those wounded lions on Assyrian bas-reliefs, or the mythical beasts of Kipling or C.S. Lewis The latterís Aslan, in fact, is a very special sort of lion, fiercely gentle, capable of fear and wisdom alike, as befits a figure for courageous humanity.
Only mythical demigods and the "tough guys" and "supermen" of popular song or story are fearless. Real people make no such claim, at least about themselves, for they know better. The fact is that courage arises on the occasion of fear, as an advance action taken in spite of fear, with a view to overcoming fear. So without the presence of some fear there is evidently no courage, although courage always seeks to banish fear. One might describe fear as the shadow-side of courage, furtive and insidious, yet serving as the necessary spur to courage.
Thus an understanding of courage means also to understand the place and force of fear experiences in distinctly human life, and many analyses of fear have been made, especially in our century. Studies of fear made in this period have generally tended to be of two kinds. On the one hand, they have been chiefly clinical and psychological, reducing the phenomenon of fear to its behavioral or emotive elements according to some given school or theory. Or, on the other, they have been carried on under the aegis of "existential" philosophy, treating fearís ramifications and reverberations in the human psyche as clues to some more inclusive reality such as selfhood or the paradoxes of being and nonbeing. In either case fear is regarded as a problem to be solved, whether in the form of sickness to be cured or of an "encounter with nothingness" awaiting philosophical solution.
What is curiously missing from these analyses and explanations, however, is quite frankly the humanly recognizable experience of being afraid of something or someone. This has been studied more intently by the creative art of storytellers and image-makers than by those who look for radical causes and profounder meanings. Novelists or composers are able to transcribe the feeling of fear without abandoning a human measure in favor of abstractions that presume to furnish answers when the real question has not even been heard.
Fearing is probably best described as an affective attitude that is assumed toward impending peril or hazard, usually accompanied by organic changes like the tensing-up of muscles and a quickened rate of breathing, perhaps also by optical dilation and cerebral agitation. Feelings of fear are prospective, stopping the normal flow of vital functions in shocked hesitation before an approaching danger. And they are imaginative, in the sense that they preview or "body forth" what has not yet come to pass, but as if it were a present fact. Since it is a common experience of what is uncommon, therefore shocking, fearing is bound to express itself in bizarre or grotesque images, arresting tones and colors, which recur frequently in every language and culture of the world.
Fear "causes us to tremble," as the black spiritual has it, just because fear brackets what is real with what is unreal in a single experience. That is why no one symbol or category can suffice for interpreting it. There are no "pure states" of fear, which places it beyond the reach of logical argument or controlled clinical analysis. Especially when measured by the counterpoint of courage, fear has an arresting multiplicity of faces. For a proper analogy for representing courage before fear, one naturally thinks of music. Only a dynamic patterning of sounds, progressing through strident opposition toward harmonic resolution, perhaps even reassurance, can rightly grasp the hard-won victory of courage over fear. A distinctly contrapuntal movement, resolving at the end a minor into a major key, winding and winning its way through confrontation toward completeness -- such would appear to be the kind of clue to follow.
When the United States was going through what has come to be known as the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his fellow citizens, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." His words had a tonic effect at the time, sounding a call to courage when inducements to discouragement had reached epidemic proportions. If the rhetorical strength of the Presidentís words has abated since then, their measure of humane truth still may be assessed.
For one thing, it is always interesting to watch a noun being made into a verb, as sentence structure shifts to take into account the significant change from being acted upon to acting. Did Roosevelt intend to say that it is fear that casts out fear? That would be nonsense apart from the transition from passive to active carried by the same word.
And the Presidentís statement has an even more important resonance. There are things we ought to be afraid of, and fear is one of them. Or is it? Long before, Aristotle had spelled out other useful, healthy kinds of fear: fear of losing a good reputation, fear of harm to oneís family or friends. Yet "fear itself" is scarcely an item on a list of things to be feared. It gives no information as to what should actually be feared. What, then? The only way to make sense out of the sentence is to see that one word, verb and noun, has two quite different meanings. The verb means fear in the sense of avoiding, while the noun means fear in the sense of panic or general apprehensiveness -- that which is to be avoided. An apparent selfcontradiction gives the sentence its memorable, compelling tone, and yet it is courage rather than fear that the speaker is actually recommending to his hearers.
For all that, the seeming paradox in Rooseveltís challenge will not go away. Overcoming fear with fear may be compared to "fighting fire with fireíí -- a metaphor that has decidedly literal import to a forest ranger working to contain a conflagration threatening acres of woodland. So too the arousal of fear may be a danger signal that should not be neglected or shrugged off. Moreover, it may act as a strong deterrent against rash or panicky behavior, rushing in where angels fear to tread. Probably it should not surprise us that courage itself sometimes wears a mask of fear, the better to contend with it on its own terms, so to speak.
Fear is a strange enemy indeed, as it is seldom if ever vanquished outright by sheer will power any more than by logical explanations. There is no arguing with a nightmare, no reasoning with a convulsion. And yet women and men have made repeated efforts to comprehend the spasms of fear that grip us all from time to time. Primitive humanity soon discovered that fear feelings are provoked by particular situations and objects. Their causes can be singled out for blame and targeted for removal; and when the snake slithers off or the storm passes over, the fear departs too. If that were the whole truth about fear it could be kept within practical, rational bounds. But as a matter of fact, fear remains a permanent possibility of feeling, set off by one stimulus or another. This being so, experiences of fear, far from being self-contained, open up a "window of vulnerability" that looks out upon the exposed, fragile nature of our existence in the world. Occasional shocks or spasms of fear are not enough to explain a liability to dismay or dread that seems more constitutional than incidental. What kind of life-world is it where brushes with danger, agitating and unsettling, can occur? And why should fearfulness be so visibly a part of humanness itself?
Hence it is not astonishing that feelings of fear should be accompanied by symbols of insecurity and inadequacy that dramatize and mythologize the universe. We tell each other stories of hostile demons and guardian angels, and entertain ideas of an underworld and overworld impinging upon this world. Whether by projecting our fears or by compensating for them, we seek their cause and cure in powers that are not of this world.
When Lucretius wrote, "Fear made the gods," he meant to assert that this inveterate habit of humankind is without real foundation, as the gods are but creatures of fearful imagination. Reality is material and atomic; the better part of wisdom is to accept this world as sheer fact with no religious implications. Yet when the Hebrew psalmist claimed that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" his words placed a very different stress on human weakness before alarming eventualities. Is fear a source of insight or only a symptom of ignorance?
It may be helpful to distinguish various forms of fear. Fear has an entire spectrum of its own, ranging from Kierkegaardís "nameless dread" through worry and care to the holy awe of which the psalmist spoke. One such distinction is that made by clinical psychologists and therapists today, who regard fear as an emotion aroused by specific objects or events, while anxiety is the term used to describe "free-floating" or "indeterminate" feelings without apparent cause. Here it seems simpler to continue using "fear" as including "anxiety," but to recognize the depth dimension that the latter term denotes. At this point we turn for assistance to modern existentialist philosophies that have described a more radical and general uneasiness about the why and wherefore of human existing itself: Sartreís "nausea," Heideggerís "anxious care," not to mention the variations upon these themes found in all the arts of our time. This root misgiving is popularly called an "encounter with nothingness." It is conveyed by images of shrinking, slipping, dangling, aimless wandering, evoking feelings of dizziness, queasiness, vertigo. Such descriptions are repeatedly corroborated by testimony of patients in mental hospitals, as by the notebooks of medical and psychiatric counselors.
Now when looked at from the vantage point of courage, the "nothingness" that fuels anxiety is neither a metaphysical vanishing point nor a symptom of incipient psychosis. Rather, it is an absentee partner lurking in every threat to human well-being, trivial or momentous. In other words, to be or not to be is always the question. When Gabriel Marcel compares the world with a watch that does not tick or a heart that has stopped beating in his play The Broken World, what is evoked by these symbols may be merely petty worries or acute depression. Encounters with nothingness are by no means as rare, or as lurid, as they are sometimes pictured. They are as painfully familiar to most persons as the experience of staring at absolute zero may be for a few. Their signals are boredom or distraction as well as violent or suicidal tendencies. Such signals may be typically transient rather than chronic, yet they represent what can only be called the presence of an absence, an aching void not unlike "vanity" as it is documented in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Part of the work of courage in facing anxious fear consists in distinguishing what is really dreadful from what is fanciful or uncalled-for. People who dwell in private hells of their own making are seldom helped by criticism from their peers. There are better ways of identifying and cordoning off anxiety than mockery or ridicule, which often only make matters worse for the sufferer. Although the sharing of similar feelings by friends may greatly help, confrontation with anxiety is lonely work which is finally oneís own.
It was an axiom of ancient science that nature abhors a vacuum. The same holds true of human nature. Those "passive diminishments" of which Teilhard de Chardin writes can harass and even halt the progress of any human life toward meaningful integrity. But courage alone is able to meet the enemy on its own ground, adapting modest strategies to the task of winning humble victories. Bearding the lion in his den or twisting the tigerís tail looks brave enough at a circus; however, it is a waste of precious strength to presume to attack that which must he endured. As always, the true toughness of the human spirit lies in its amazing plasticity. Choosing to be over not-being is the normal response of average people. This bedrock courage to be, so memorably yet abstractly described by Paul Tillich, show its mettle in guerrilla tactics waged in what medieval mystics called "the dark night of the soul." In this irregular, unprogrammed warfare, humor is perhaps the best freedom fighter of all. Sly innuendoes and knowing smiles deflect the full onslaught of anxious fear by keeping it at armís and soulís length, just as stories about monstrous nonexistent creatures absorb the shock of anxiety precisely by expressing it. Instead of taking drugs for my depression, it may be time for courage to send in the clowns. Their stock in trade is ambiguity, quick-changing irony, a refusal to take grimness grimly.
Isnít this what Roosevelt meant, or should have meant, by saying that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? A proper respect for anxious fear, coupled with stout refusal to let fear become a general apprehensiveness dominating oneís life, may well be among the best gifts and strengths of courage.
The Heart of Courage
In the vocabulary of courage, the heart has a conspicuous place. To a friend undergoing some ordeal or other one may say, "Take heart" or "Donít lose heart." When my own courage is in short supply I may confess, " I havenít got the heart." How does it happen that a hollow muscular organ beneath the breastbone which maintains blood circulation should come to stand for courage? Like any other metaphor this one sets up a tension between fact and meaning, as things unlike are likened to each other. That is the source of much of languageís energy and richness. Yet in taking off from a literal object, metaphor does not abandon the object altogether but invests it with new vigor and tenor. Thus it is as true to say that courage means the heart as that the heart means courage. A prominent surgeon, fresh from a poetry reading, recently remarked that the heart seems to be "a remarkably distended organ." In the index of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations six columns of references are listed for "heart," touching upon such various realms of experience as romantic attachment, moral duty, or religious devotion. A remarkably distended organ, indeed!
Let this serve as an added reminder that courage is physical or it is nothing. Socrates drinking the hemlock is indubitably a moral act but also a bodily event; and it is one only because it is also the other. The body is not a mere thing which I wear or have; I am my body, and all my relations with the world are bodily relations. "Everything is symbolic," writes Norman 0. Brown, "including the human body."2 And Brownís statement cuts both ways. Since all my experience is anchored in and mediated by my body, I never step out of body into something else called mind or soul; while at the same time and for the same reason, my body is not a mere self-evident fact but an entire arsenal of feelings and meanings, as gesture and posture, speech and thought, make constantly clear. So, when we use the old words "flesh" and "spirit," for example, in each case the wholeness of our humanhood is being referred to; and the heart stands as a significant reminder of that same unity.
This being so, it is not surprising that the heart, signifying the centered wholeness of human being, should have come to stand for many things besides courage. It may be prey to fear, as the biblical prophet Jeremiah confessed that his heart beat wildly or was broken, and accused his fellow countryfolk of acting with desperately corrupt hearts. Or it may be seen as the very organ of loving, hoping faith, as in Paulís repeated admonition, "Do not lose heart!" There are brittle, stubborn hearts and sensitive, caring hearts, open to both good and evil influences, depending on whose hearts they are. But whether fickle or firm, the human heart is what makes human beings human, what makes us "tick"; and so it is a telling symbol of that potential courage of which life is always capable.
Yet how difficult it is to understand the real motives and impulses that govern human hearts! Passage from anxious fear to confident faith is hampered by the fact that we become strangers to our own hearts, which grow more and more adept at keeping their secrets, so concealing us from ourselves. Out of touch with what I really live for and care most about, I lose contact with my capacity for courage, as Hilaire Bellocís poem "The False Heart" suggests:
I said to Heart, "How goes it?" Heart replied,
To carry on a dialogue with oneís heart, attentive to its pulsing beat beneath the surface noises that would drown it out, is to know oneself more and more fully. The prayer "Create in me a clean heart" is a plea for self-understanding in the form of courageous self-acceptance, neither overestimating nor underestimating oneís own inherent strength.
As the heart has its reasons which reason does not know and may not even guess correctly, it can trick us into thinking more highly, or less highly, of ourselves than we ought to think. Yet it is a fair question whether such misjudgments are to be laid simply at the door of a foolish or a fibrillating heart. Inaccurate readings and irregular rhythms are hazards that arise in life itself, organic to both self and world, but they are not fixed or incorrigible. Rather than blaming the heart, as prophets and preachers are wont to do, the wiser course would be to view the heart as the locus of human ambivalence whose soundness as a vital organ depends upon what its deepest attractions and aversions are. Out of the heart are the issues of life, for as a person thinks in his or her heart, so that person is.
Here is a human truth at once sobering and bracing. The heart maintains a leverage of its own in shaping the outcomes of an ongoing life. As the brain is nourished by blood coming from the heart, so the mind or the soul receives its élan vital from the deeply centered source I call myself. Yet it is not what enters into myself so much as what comes from myself that reveals who I am and shall become. I am never all there is of me and it does not yet appear what I shall be.
Knowing who one is in oneís "heart" means striking the balance between fearing the worst and believing the best. That such a balance is hard to sustain cannot be denied. Expressing it in words is even harder, though folk wisdom always manages to find ways, as in the upcountry proverb, "Us Maine women make good wives; weíve always seen worse." It has little to do with teetering from pessimism to optimism, as these are but temperamental habit patterns with no real staying power. (Gabriel Marcel has said that an optimist is essentially a maker of speeches, while a pessimist is a writer of books.) Nor is this balancing act of the heart to be defined as swinging from a realistic to an idealistic attitude; for it can only be termed a realistic idealism, fully aware of the heartís potential for appalling failure and amazing achievements.
Being human is as much mind-set as metabolism, goal orientation no less than genetic inheritance. The heartís balance, upset by fear, needs to be repaired by faith -- faith in my power to change and be changed, no matter what may happen, whatever pressures may be put upon me. Leaving aside for the moment the question of a favoring, enabling God, let us at least acknowledge that the self must discover in itself resources of life-changing vigor and worth. Tilting the balance toward "what man can make of man" and away from the fearfulness that religious traditions call "sin" is a task that only courage can perform.
It is entirely natural, then, that a sound, healthy heart should symbolize what courage means and does. For the heart is where the action is, where what matters most for human weal or woe is happening. Poets, it appears, understand this: "Batter my heart, three-personíd God" (John Donne); "My heartís in the Highlands, my heart is not here" (Robert Burns); "The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide" (Edna St. Vincent Millay). Courage in this perspective is the measured soundness of the heart, based on a will to live, beating in time with those profounder rhythms that keep life moving toward its own fulfillment. If the maladies that plague the heart are chiefly due to fear, must we not say that the heartís rightness and ardor are best seen as the gifts of faith?
Before answering this question, it is well to ask another: What faith, whose faith is intended? People have faith in many things from the ridiculous to the sublime; and one personís faith may be anotherís poison. Must we conclude, then, that faith is only a private matter? Hardly, since large numbers of people share a common allegiance and embody it in rituals and institutions of worldwide importance. Cults and crusades inspired by faith punctuate the course of history. The religious sphere alone contains many gods and many lords, each demanding and receiving worship from their devotees. Civil society, too, has its measure of faith, with its patriotic pieties and heroic sagas reinforcing the sense of community through times of peace or war.
George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher, went so far as to suggest that "animal faith" is a general feature of all human existence, tied closely to the will to live which implies confidence in the natural processes that support life. However inarticulate such faith may be, it nonetheless acts as an antidote to basic anxiety and as a spur to life-affirming purposes. Primordial and universal, it extends well beyond the human range. John Dewey has described a common faith, sometimes called humanism, showing again that faith is natural to humankind.
Faith in its broadest sense is ubiquitous just because it is indispensable to any human effort or endeavor. Whatever its immediate object and attending circumstances may be, it is marked by a sense of worth in life itself enhanced by wonder at lifeís possibilities and constancies. As Tony Stoneburner has written, faith is "a viewpoint available to a standpoint" which is adopted "as orientation and energy for being human."4 Neither an additive nor an ingredient, by no means a panacea or prescription made up to solve momentary problems, such faith goes deeper and lasts longer than any sort of fear.
Some, like Lucretius, would have us believe that faith in the generic sense is only fear magnified, but this is disproved by the very disposition of confident assurance that always indicates the presence of faith. "The soul can think of no devotion / greater than being shore to ocean" (Robert Frost). Any faith viewpoint is shaped by feelings, by what has been termed "passionate subjectivity," which may indeed be attached to unworthy, even evil objects. Not every star to which we hitch our wagons deserves the worship it evokes. Nevertheless, faith cannot be explained as a mere symptom of fear. Negative aversion and shuddering do not produce positive commitment and communion.
Faith is natural to humankind; we are predisposed to accept what favors life and growth as normal while regarding malign influences as abnormal. We hold fast to that which matters most to us, clinging stubbornly to it despite strong evidence to the contrary. Faithfulness, not fearfulness, is where the orientation and energy for being human comes from; it is a sign of health, organic to the interplay between self and world. Being in love, belonging to a family or some larger community, giving oneself in loyalty to a transcendent cause, are in this sense all matters of faith.
The point needs to be stressed, since several generations have been told that the emotional texture of faith is a mixed picture of attraction and repulsion -- mana and tabu, evoked by the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, in Rudolf Ottoís formula. Without denying that there is real ambivalence in all experiences of valuing highly, as much in sheer delight as in sublime awe, there can be no doubt as to where the primary accent is to be placed. It is upon the excellence and worth of the experience itself, not upon its mind-boggling effects. Faithfulness does not erase all distance between myself and the worthful Other, but its keynote is a strong sense of attachment and assurance in the Otherís presence.
Now perhaps we may venture a formula of our own: Faith is an experience of trusting belief or believing trust. Any act of trust involves the belief that what is trusted is indeed trustworthy; and any act of believing must express a basic trust or confidence in what is believed in, come what may. One without the other would not be itself. Therefore faith is not to be discounted as merely emotional, just as it cannot be said to consist in arguments or propositions at the purely rational level. It is as absurd to speak of unbelieving trust as of trusting unbelief.
But it is not in any way absurd to recognize in human faithfulness a significant unity of emotional depth with mental grasp, joining the poles of intimacy and ultimacy in one experience. A marriage vow, an oath of allegiance, or a churchly creed all manifest this remarkable quality, which has about it something of a venturing or wagering beyond rules of safety and certainty. The orientation and energy for being human have their source in such faith, in confidence approaching conviction, in assurance on the way to affirmation.
Of course, oneís belief may be mistaken just as oneís trust may be misplaced. The world is littered with the wreckage of discarded faiths, and with the chagrin and disillusionment they left behind them. People do grow up and out of childish attachments, provincial loyalties, demeaning relationships. Such growth, however, is seldom programmed in advance and never automatic. Most often it occurs by "the expulsive power of a new affection" more trusting, because more trustworthy, than the old. The cure for bad faith is always better faith. And that means steering clear of both blind trust and empty belief, while a more reliable, credible faith is being formed.
Progress in faith is difficult to measure. Generally, though, it is in the direction of clearer and greater conviction, and away from the perils of fanaticism and fundamentalism. "My country, right or wrong" indicates an arrested faith. So does this prayer of an elderly, prosperous farmer:
Bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife;
Today, with so many faith groups making claims on behalf of their chosen objectives, it is easy to dismiss all or some of these claims as so much propaganda. But in fact they are truth-claims that state not simply what is believed but what ought to be believed. Not every truth-claim stands up under testing, but it invites such testing as soon as it is made and by virtue of being made. In a pluralistic society it is harder than ever before to protect convictions from hostile criticism. Merely reasserting them with added emphasis does not guarantee their truth. Indeed, fervent reiteration usually works in the opposite direction; it protests too much as if the "true believer" had some doubt to hide. But how can a believer be expected to sit loosely in the saddle of his or her beliefs?
As believing is bound so closely to trusting in the vital issues of our life, it is admittedly difficult to keep oneís beliefs under constant review. That would seem to partake more of fear than faith -- the fear of being mistaken and misled -- rather like the child who kept pulling up the carrots in the garden to see how they were coming along. But we are not talking about making skepticism a habit, nor recommending a chronic case of intellectual jitters as the road to truth. All that is meant is that belief ought not to be confused with knowledge, nor subjective certitude with objective certainty. Reading the prophecies of Second Isaiah as if they were predictions with a dateline, or the Genesis account of the creation as if it were a scientific theory, ignores this most necessary distinction. If I believe I should not presume to know, and if I know I do not need to believe. For believing has its proper place in the broad zone lying between guesswork and known truth. I believe in order to know, and so I do not grow in either knowledge or wisdom by denying as false what I do not yet see to be true. I must act on my beliefs as if they were true or I shall never know whether they are true or not. Still, I do all my believing in what Pascal called an uncertain certitude, not altogether unlike what the apostle Paul described as the "foolish wisdom" of the Christian gospel.
Genuine faith, then, is in constant motion toward its own amendment and enlargement. Thus it is as far from sheer intransigence in believing as it is from that wide-open, anything-goes hunger for absolutes that characterizes personal and public life at present. In short, it possesses the same resilient steadfastness that all courage embodies. As trusting belief or believing trust, faith valiantly accepts change as the law of life, while seeking durable truth as the guide of life.
"Test all things, hold fast to what is good" is still the best rule to follow where humane truth is at issue. The search of faith for truth is never at an end but is always beginning all over again. Passing from fearful mistrust to confident conviction may indeed prove to be a rough journey marked by storms and setbacks, as many stouthearted believers know. It is no small matter to have found oneís way per aspera ad astra, through difficulties to the stars, for the way itself is pioneered by courage. Surely Robert Louis Stevensonís observation is much to the point:
As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good manís cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognize our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact.5
The fact that faith can be described in general terms does not mean that it exists in any universal, standard form. On the contrary, faith is always somebodyís faith, with specific traits and giveaway expressions of its own. This is most true, naturally, of faith in the religious mode where total trust and right belief are expected, and in many ways enforced. Parson Thwackum in Fieldingís Tom Jones said it bluntly enough: "When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion; and when I say the Christian religion, I mean the Protestant religion; and when I say the Protestant religion, I mean the Church of England."
Yet consider, as sympathetically as possible, the situation of someone who is asked, "What is your faith ?" Definitions like this call for no checklist of sentiments or opinions distinguishing any Christian, for example, from any Jew, Hindu, or Muslim; that would be an exercise in unreality. Rather, the question can be answered only by an avowal of where the would-be definer stands religiously. But since when is a confession to be taken as a definition? The reader may have suspected all along, and rightly, that when faith is mentioned it is some kind of Christian faith that is implied, so that the time has come for acknowledging the fact.
"We are Christians; we belong to Christ." That is how St. Augustine answered our question, and surely his words come close to the heart of the matter. A Christian is a person who consents with other persons to be placed under the influence of Christ, remembered and known still in the institution bearing his name. "Belonging" is not too strong a word to describe such an attachment, if it serves to make clear that it is we who belong to Christ, not Christ who belongs to us. What makes Christians indeed Christian is the covenanted devotion that defines oneís being as a belonging, rather than a set of true beliefs or standards of church membership. While this may discourage statisticians or sociologists it is the stuff of which real faithfulness is always made.
There is nothing especially Christian about wanting to be distinguished from non-Christians; that, as Kierkegaard might have said, is the least of the discipleís concerns. Authenticity, not mere identity, must be the test in these matters. Still, if only a non-Christian can ask the question What is a Christian? Only a devotee of Christ is able to answer it. Actually I need the otherís question to give body to my answer. I grow in my allegiance by being required to give an accounting of my faith to those who claim not to share it.
Also, it is useful to recall that "Christian" was originally an outsiderís designation, a disparaging term, which those inside the new-found faith were quick to accept as their own. In the New Testament other names such as "the saints" are preferred for indicating those who have "accepted Christ." Was this perhaps because the earliest Christians were less sure of their faith than we are today? That is by no means likely; but they may have better understood that a Christian is never simply what one is, but always what one desires and decides to become. Praying may well be more germane to this becoming than believing, and yet it is belief that keeps prayer honest no less than sincere. "Every man must do his own believing," declared Martin Luther, "just as every man must do his own dying."
Here again the note of courage is distinctly sounded. Christian faithfulness does not supplant the need for courage but intensifies that need. Trusting and believing in Jesus of Nazareth as pioneer and perfecter of my faith in the final goodness of existence means to sustain a kind of double vision in myself: a more-than-appears view of my life which is also an in-spite-of view, as it must contradict fear-producing and anxiety-justifying evidence. In order to keep such double vision from lapsing into double talk one needs more than a modicum of self-critical rigor and integrity. And if my loyalty to Jesus as the Christ of God is not to be a sometime thing, I shall do well not to stand mute but to be articulate and active in declaring the ground and goal of my allegiance.
Set speeches and fixed postures are poor indicators of faithful courage, more suited to commercial "messages" than to honest dialogue in an evangelical spirit. The sheer wonder of Christmas and Easter, shared gladly and surely, gives to Christian witness an air of generous, buoyant eagerness which translates poorly into the language of creed and dogma. I who consent to be known as a Christian can nevertheless testify to the joy of my desiring, pinpointed in historic fact and yet universally human, trusted and believed in as the very wisdom and power of God.
Are there, perhaps, "anonymous Christians," as Karl Rahner has suggested? The idea is attractive to those who find loyalty tests divisive. There appears to be good New Testament warrant for it when Jesus speaks of having other sheep not of this fold whom he knows and who know him. The possibility is strengthened by a vibrant reading of the doctrine of the incarnation, which does not hold that Jesus is God but rather that God was and is in Jesus reconciling the world to Godís own self. A Christ incognito in the least of these our sisters and brothers (Matt. 25:40) can hardly be restricted to the home base of explicit faith in him. That is worth remembering when Christians are asked to give reasons for their faith. Since we believe that God has claimed the whole of worldly life for the love of Christ, a Christian may be best defined as one who wills to make good that claim, neither fencing in its mystery nor ignoring its eventful reality.
Christian faithfulness, therefore, is a veritable school of courage. Its pattern is that found in the person and work of Jesus Christ who, in Augustineís words, "took our death and killed him, out of the abundance of his own life." The same pattern is repeated in the sacraments of the church. Baptism, as the rite of initiation, reenacts the gospel of new birth out of old death; and the communion service, under different names, embodies memory and hope in a rite of incorporation with the dying and rising Lord. Far from being a pageant manipulated by supernatural intervention, the Christ-event represents human struggle and stress in overcoming by enduring, winning through to victory over enemies as real as fear and death.
Christians have always believed in Jesusí full and true humanity. Nothing could be further from the faith than a view of his life and work as God playing a human role; that is the rankest of heresies against which the church has repeatedly spoken. He to whom we belong is vere homo, who began life under threat of death, worked hard and long at his fatherís trade, encountered temptation and opposition, spoke out against authority, cast his lot with the oppressed, went steadfastly up to Jerusalem to suffer under Pontius Pilate, died, and was buried. His brief life was one long exercise in courage, both fortified and gentled by his faith in the God whom he called Father. And therefore -- the word from the Gospel is significant -- God has highly exalted him, as witnessed by his resurrection, making him the way, the truth, and above all the life of those who take his name as their own.
The faith that God speaks and acts uniquely in the man Jesus, then, in no way lessens the force of Christian courage. There are no shortcuts into eternal life. In the world we too have tribulation. It is here, not elsewhere, that we must run the race that is set before us. However, faith not only demands courage but inspires and nourishes it. Belonging to Christ, we trust in Godís goodness to bring strength out of weakness, victory through defeat. It has happened before and it can happen again to those whose life is hid with Christ in God.
1. See for example David T. Lykken, "Fearlessness, Its Carefree Charm and Deadly Risks," Psychology Today (September 1982) 20-28.
2. In his book Loveís Body (New York: Vintage Books,1966),225.
3. A ribstone pippin is a variety of English apple.
4. Tony Stoneburner, "Triad From Great Britain," in The Poetics of Faith, ed. Beardslee (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1978), 116.
5. From his essay "Aes Triplex."
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