Chapter 15: Faith as an Essential for Human Existence

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 15: Faith as an Essential for Human Existence

Much of what has been traditionally regarded as orthodox Christianity has been progressively dissolved by the advent of the new world. The liberal extreme has been led to abandon Christianity as no longer tenable. The conservative extreme attempts to defend as many of the bulwarks of orthodoxy as it can, and for as long as it can. Each extreme results from a superficial understanding of the origin of the new world and the nature of the Christian faith, and the weakness of each constitutes a reason for the other’s existence. By returning to the roots of the Judeo-Christian heritage, we have tried to show that the new world owes much of its strength to these roots. But if they are abandoned, the new world may cease to blossom and turn to decay, instead of bringing forth fruit.

To avert such a disaster, the Judeo-Christian heritage must be allowed to shed its outworn forms, and by finding that mode of expression most proper to the context of the new world, demonstrate to men that it possesses the same creative vitality that it has manifested in earlier periods. This is no time for clinging rigidly to the doctrinal formulae, the ecclesiastical systems and the liturgical forms of the past. We must learn to do without the security which such traditional institutions give us. Those committed to the Christian heritage are called quite simply to a venture of faith.

But what a paradoxical situation! Is not faith what Christianity is all about? While it has traditionally taken the form of a religion, and has appeared eternally committed to a large body of doctrine, Christianity has been most accurately described as ‘the faith’. Jesus has been called ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’. The first Christian martyr was ‘Stephen, a man full of faith’.

To learn how the God of the Christian heritage is addressing us in the new world, calling us, as he ever does, to venture into the unknown by faith alone, let us start at the very beginning and examine the nature of faith itself. First, we must look at faith in its most general form. One thing that should have come home to us from our study of biblical origins is that the Christian heritage is not a body of esoteric, supernatural knowledge which has been miraculously introduced into the human situation where it is somehow out of place. The Word which men heard from YHWH is that which came out of the historical scene. It addressed men through those elements which were already a part of the human situation, and faith is an essential for human existence.

What does it mean to have faith? Faith is an attitude of acceptance and trust. Christianity has no monopoly of it. Faith of some kind is as essential to the human spirit as blood is to the biochemistry of the body. Were there absolutely no faith present among men, there would be no community, and where a once strong community faith grows weak, civilization and culture give way to disorder and decay. The absence of faith in the individual is not so much doubt as distrust, isolation and utter loneliness. When a man has no faith at all, he is lost indeed, and it is from such that suicides result. It is far better to have an inadequate and superficial faith than no faith at all.

But there are different kinds and different levels of faith. A man may have faith in his car, in the Government, in his wife, in his pet theory and in God. In each case faith involves a relationship of trust which prompts the man to do certain things as a result. Indeed, it is only when faith does lead to decision and action that it manifests its reality, either to the man himself or to an observer. So the Bible says that faith without works is dead. The more faith one possesses, the more it leads to initiative, decision and action.

It is not just a part of a man, such as his intellect, which acts in faith, but the whole of man. Faith at its deepest and most all-embracing level is that attitude of acceptance, trust and initiative to which his total experience leads him. Faith is present in the human being from the point of birth, and it is in the infant that the intellectual content of faith is at its absolute minimum. Parentage and family setting provide the context which prompts and fosters faith from the human being’s earliest experience. In the years of infancy and childhood parents provide the ground for faith, and are as god to the growing child.

It is only when the child has already been involved in a good deal of basic faith experience that he steadily attains more self-awareness, and his developing mind recognizes that the context of his human existence is one in which the horizons are being pushed ever farther back. Intellectual knowledge and beliefs, such as he has already absorbed from his cultural environment, now begin to play a larger part in the total body of experience which continues to nurture his faith. But faith is an essential ingredient of human existence at all levels. It is neither more real nor less real in the infant than it is in the intellectual genius, but in the maturer person there is much greater awareness of the grounds for faith and the challenge to commitment. The practice of infant baptism is the visible acknowledgement that from birth the child is being shaped by his faith environment; and the practice of confirmation of baptism is the recognition that on reaching years of discretion a person must decide for himself between commitment and rejection.

In every human community there is some degree of common faith, or else the community will fall apart and perhaps disintegrate. The vitality of a community and the strength of the mutual relationships of its members reflect the faith common to them all and the degree to which its members are actively committed to it. If there is to be active commitment, then there must be some degree of intellectual understanding of what the faith involves, and this in turn means that the faith is expressed in certain practices and doctrines. These forms give practical and verbal expression to the common faith of any one generation and, when handed on, become the vehicle for transmitting and nurturing the faith of the next generation.

But this can readily lead to the fallacy of identifying faith with the practices and doctrines in which it has expressed itself. In the case of Christianity, the fallacy has led many to think that to embrace the Christian faith one must give intellectual assent to a body of standard unchangeable doctrines which have been handed down, supposedly, from the beginning of Christianity. Unless one can accept, say, the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and the Trinity, then one cannot be a Christian believer.

But when we examine the history of any one of these doctrines we find that in their beginnings they were not the origin of faith at all, but the result or expression of it within a particular context. Let us take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. The word ‘Trinity’ did not even come into Christian use until about the beginning of the third century, and it was another two centuries before the orthodox form of it was hammered out in Christian thought. However much some may think the doctrine to be implicit in the New Testament, no one can maintain that it is explicitly stated there. To make Christian faith dependent upon accepting the doctrine of the Trinity leads to the absurdity that there were no fully Christian believers until the doctrine was clearly formulated.

Doctrines and formulated beliefs are neither to be identified with faith nor regarded as the origin of faith. Doctrines result from faith, and constitute the expression of faith for a limited historical period. Thus doctrines come and go. Sometimes what has been an orthodox doctrine for some long time has to be discarded. Sometimes a new doctrine comes to expression which has had no explicit forerunner at all. The history of the church illustrates this living, developing process over and over again. Too often Christians have clung to the doctrinal formulations of former generations long after they could be honestly held, and this has led to that all too popular idea of faith, so aptly defined by the schoolboy, as ‘believing what you know ain’t true’. Once a traditional doctrine ceases to be meaningful, it ceases to stimulate faith, and becomes a means of quelling faith. Many people in the new world have abandoned active commitment to the Christian heritage, not because they wanted to, but because the church led them to believe that the Christian faith was to be identified with certain dogmatic statements, which for them no longer had the ring of truth.

We must go behind doctrines and beliefs if we are to understand the origin and meaning of faith. Let us return to the family setting where the infant takes his first steps in faith. Leaving aside those infant actions which fall into the categories of reflex and instinct, we can discern the gradual appearance of responses which manifest the growing faith that the child is learning to have in his surroundings and particularly in his parents. These responses are not self-originated. Rather they are drawn out of the infant by aspects of the environment, particularly the care and interest shown by parents and the words they speak. Faith at its deepest level is personal, and is fostered in the newcomer to the faith-situation, by the faith that already exists in the community. It is widely recognized nowadays that the young child quickly learns to absorb the attitude of faith manifested by those around him, while, if such faith is deficient, the child too becomes diffident, perhaps distrustful, and builds up barriers in self-defense. Faith is an attitude to be experienced. It is not dependent upon prior knowledge, nor does it lead necessarily to knowledge of an objective kind. It is experienced most clearly in the human or personal situation, where there are so many unknown and unpredictable factors that the scientific method, which has been so fruitful in some fields, has shown itself to be quite limited in its application. It is not knowledge but faith which enables a person to blossom in maturity and wholeness. It is faith which creates the human community and makes it wholesome and stable.

If faith, simply as a human phenomenon, can do these things, then why is there any need to be concerned with some additional special kind of faith known as the Christian faith? First of all, it must be recognized that it is out of the heritage of Christian culture that we have been led to speak of faith in this general way, and to appreciate its role in the human situation. So widespread is the influence of the Christian faith in the culture that has nurtured us, that nothing we do or say is left uninfluenced by it. The second point is that it has been of the very essence of the Christian faith to have brought to light the role of faith in the human situation.

While this is by no means the sum-total of the Christian faith (as later chapters will make clear), it can certainly be said that the Christian heritage rests upon faith as the basic experience. The Christian heritage points to the way in which faith was drawn out of man by, what it calls, the word of God. The history of Israel as a people of faith begins with the story of Abraham, and of him the New Testament says, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go." He received no map, no clear instructions, no guarantee of a safe return. He did not even have a signed affidavit which guaranteed that the voice he heard was the voice of God. But what he heard gave him faith; it gave him faith to hear it as the word of God, and he obeyed.

It is salutary for us to remember that Jesus is recorded as having recognized the presence of faith in the most unlikely places, even in those who had had no share in the inheritance of Israel. He did not ask men what doctrines they believed. He did not catechize them. It was sufficient to recognize in them the response of faith, and he said, "Your faith has made you whole." Just as the Word of God heard and proclaimed by the prophets of Israel engendered faith, so those who had known Jesus in the flesh had found him to be one whose very presence radiated faith and so brought forth from men the response appropriate to faith.

For faith, as we saw, cannot be separated from the action to which it leads. The man of faith is continually being prompted to actions and decisions, for faith which is engendered by the Word of God must lead to commitment to obey the Word of God. Yet it is not the clear and straightforward plan of action, that is most commonly associated with faith, but that which is begun with a certain amount of fear and trembling, and definitely with uncertainty. It is an act of faith just because it is not known for certain to be the right way. Abraham’s journey into the unknown describes this very aptly. The path of suffering which Jesus chose to tread, the agony in Gethsemane, and the cry of dereliction from the cross, all reveal the intensity of faith, just by virtue of the uncertainty that marked each act of obedience.

In every generation the Word of God calls men to faith and obedience. In spite of all the accumulated Christian witness of the past, it must still be for the believer a path of faith and obedience. Men are continually tempted to evade this path by resting on the laurels of past generations. Appeal is made to the examples of the saints and theologians of the past. Admittedly they have much to offer us, but what they give must never be allowed to take the place of the road of faith into the unknown. Each person, on reaching maturity, must learn the path of faith for himself. He who seeks refuge in an infallible church or in an infallible Bible is less acquainted with the way of faith, than the person who knows neither of these, but who nevertheless obeys the word of God in the midst of his own uncertainty.

In the new world, God challenges men of all religions and men of none to go forward into the unknown in faith. Christians are not excused this challenge to faith just because they can point to the ancestral line by which they have inherited the Christian heritage, for the Christian heritage, when examined, is found to start with an act of faith. The Christian finds himself in the paradoxical situation that the more he thinks he knows about God and his world, the less justification there is for him to be called a believer, while the less he knows with certainty of God and human destiny, the more he is challenged to that obedient faith which alone can lead to wholeness of life.