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The word “faith,” especially to Westernized Christians, has come to be seen as a primarily notional experience – having to do with what you think about God. It tends to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” believing a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. Your faith is judged by how much you believe and how accurate your beliefs are. If you possess this “right” kind of faith, you’re called a “believer.”
As a result, this concept of faith as primarily an intellectual exercise has turned faith almost exclusively into a matter of the head, too often with disastrous results by heartless, nonloving “believers.”
But significantly, that was not the central meaning and usage of the word “faith” in the history of human religion (including early Christianity). As Karen Armstrong, in her powerful book The Case For God, states, “Religion was not primarily something that people thought but something they did … Religion [from its very inception in human history] was always a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.”
It was a way of being and living, not simply a way of thinking. The stories and sacred scriptures of every religion emphasized the journey of heart and spirit in learning the sacred art of self-forgetfulness and compassion. As a result, religions developed powerful rituals and practices that, if followed and wholeheartedly engaged in, would enable adherents to step “outside” their egos and experience the Sacred and Divine, empowering them to live more compassionately and unselfishly toward others.
For example, as Armstrong points out, the early Chinese Daoists (over 300 years before Jesus and the early Christian followers) saw religion as a “knack” primarily acquired by constant practice. They, like the earlier Buddha and even Confucius, refused to spend lots of time speculating about the many metaphysical conundrums concerning the divine (as Buddha once said to a follower who constantly pestered with those kind of questions: “You are like a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow and refuses medical treatment until you have discovered the name of your assailant and what village he came from. You would die before you got this perfectly useless information!”).
Zhuangzi (c. 370-311 BCE), one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China, explained that it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. He then cited the carpenter Bian: “When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn’t make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn’t work! So not too soft, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it.”
Like the Chinese hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole and never missed a single one. He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task, and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it exactly, but he knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This “self-forgetfulness,” Zhuangzi explained, was a “stepping outside” the prism of ego and experience of the sacred. (from Armstrong, The Case For God, pp. xii-xiii, 23.)
No wonder Jesus, centuries later, reiterated this paradigm of spirituality and religious experience when he called his followers to “take up your cross and follow me.” He’s not simply talking about believing in your head the right doctrines and the core truths. He’s talking about a “way” of living. Referring to his own experience as the example for his followers, he said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who is willing to give up his life in this world will keep it forever.” John 12:24-25
Genuine faith is not just about your head, it’s about your heart, it’s about your journey, it’s about life transformation that comes from self-forgetfulness and an experience with God the Sacred and the Divine.
SO IN THIS SERIES, we’re taking a look at the four words that are translated as “faith.” We’re unpacking each word and exploring what it means and what the differing nuances suggest about developing a faith that works in real life, a faith that transforms life, a faith that defines ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life. It’s a return to the core of what religion was always meant to facilitate but has too often lost along the way: a transformation of the heart. In my last blog, we explored the 1st word for faith, “fiducia,” from which we get our English word “fiduciary” (a person in whom we place our trust to protect our finances and estate). So “trust,” is the central definition, which in the realm of faith then conveys a profound kind of relaxed, solid, worry-free confidence in God as a power that can be trusted and relied upon to have our best interests in mind.
Today’s word for faith is “fidelitas,” which is the Latin word for “fidelity.” It literally means loyalty, faithfulness – originally referring to a vassal’s loyalty to his Lord; a steadfast and devoted attachment that is not easily turned aside; constancy, steadfastness. Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart” to the experience of God not simply to statements about God. A radical centering in God from your heart and soul not just your mind. So what does that look like in real life terms?
There are two metaphors that the sacred scriptures use in describing our faith relationship with God that I’ll unpack in my next blog post. These metaphors describe what “fidelity” is NOT and so help to increase our understanding of what genuine faith as fidelity and loyalty is. Stay tuned!