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Marcus Borg, a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and a prolific author and speaker about the importance of a progressive Christianity, was on a plane trip sitting next to a woman who said, “I’m much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than I am in Christianity.” When he asked her why, she said, “Because they’re about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing.” She continued: “I don’t think beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way.”
He commented later in one of his books: “I understood her comment, even as I silently disagreed with part of it. To begin with the disagreement, Christianity is about a way of life, a path, and it has been from its very beginning. At the center of Jesus’ own teaching is the notion of a ‘way’ or a ‘path,’ and the first name of the early Christian movement was ‘the Way.’ Indeed, seeing Christianity as a ‘way’ is one of the central features of the emerging paradigm.” (The Heart of Christianity, p. 31)
The woman’s statement does reflect the most common understanding of the word “faith” in modern Western Christianity: that faith means holding a certain set of “beliefs,” “believing” a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. If you possess this faith, you’re even 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. But significantly, that was not the central meaning and use of the word “faith” in scripture and among followers during the centuries from the time of Jesus to the Enlightenment. Faith was not a matter of the head but a matter of the heart – that deep level of life below our thinking, feeling, and willing (intellect, emotions, and volition), deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in our heads.
And faith was always seen as central to experiencing the God-life, accessing the divine spirit and allowing It to transform existence. One of the authors of the Christian New Testament even stated this spiritual reality in strong terms like this, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6) He’s not suggesting that God hates us if we don’t have faith, or that if we don’t believe the right things God thinks less of us. No, he’s saying that “faith” is central to the spiritual journey – it’s a key to accessing the divine life and living a transformed life. In fact, that verse is in the context of a whole chapter that tells the stories of how various people in the Bible journeyed with God – some of them knew a lot about theology, others knew very little. But all of them chose to stay on the journey with God through thick and thin, successes and failures. That was called “faith” – the willingness to be in presence (in synch) with the divine spirit
OVER THE NEXT FEW BLOG POSTS, we’ll take a look at four words that are translated as “faith.” We’ll unpack each word and explore 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 helps define ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life.
TODAY’S WORD: “fiducia”
This is the Latin word for “faith” which literally means trust, confidence. It’s where we get our financial word “fiduciary” – a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another. Of, based on, or in the nature of trust and confidence. I mean think about it – if you’re going to give another person access to all of your money and estate, you want to be able to trust that person. Right?
In a biblical context, this word for “faith” is describing a radical trust IN God. This trust “faith” may not mean you know everything there is to know about God. There will still be lots of questions, maybe even doubts about the metaphysical issues surrounding the divine, the universe, how it all came into being, who or what started it all and how everything is sustained. But faith as trust is the willingness to connect with God (as you know It/Him/Her) and has a degree of confidence that this Divine Force is, as Albert Einstein put it, a friendly Universe – that God has your best interests in mind.
So let’s look at a couple of metaphors and illustrations of what TRUST is – how TRUST relates to our experience of God and the spiritual life – what are some of the dynamics of TRUST?
Floating in Water:
Soren Kierkegaard, one of the pre-eminent existentialist philosophers and spiritual writers in the 20th century, described faith like this: “Faith is like floating in seven thousand fathoms of water in the ocean. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”
So, if God is the water, and we’re floating in It, what does this metaphor mean? Floating in water (without struggling and thrashing about) describes a kind of relaxing quality to trust – you can hold your life without struggling – you relax with yourself and with the Unknowns in your life (after all, you don’t know or understand everything about the fathomless ocean you’re floating in but you can still be there) because you’re being “held up,” supported – the physics works whether you understand everything about the principles and dynamics or not.
Fighting and struggling and thrashing about only tire you out and facilitate your sinking. Trusting means letting go of your fears and anxieties and uncertainties and simply letting yourself live life in the embrace of God and God’s love; relaxing in the truth that the Universe is friendly and is on your side and will bring what’s good to you and will redeem what’s painful and evil and bad by bringing good growth to you.
So would you describe your personal spirituality or style of life with the word “relaxed?” Would your faith be described as a “relaxed confidence” in Life or God or Goodness? Do you feel that the Universe is fundamentally friendly (as Einstein once said, the most important question we’ll ever ask ourselves is, Is the universe friendly?). Faith as TRUST is about relaxing, holding life with an open hand (rather than a clenched fist that tends to signify our desire to control, to hang on for dear life from fear of losing something). A relaxing confidence!
Rock and Fortress:
The Hebrew poets of sacred scripture, especially in the book of Songs (Psalms) often used two other metaphors to describe faith as trust: God is both Rock and Fortress. Notice this piece of poetry:
5 Let all that I am wait quietly before God,
for my hope is in him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress where I will not be shaken.
7 My victory and honor come from God alone.
He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me.
8 O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62)
What do these metaphors – Rock, Fortress – say about trust? God is secure, solid, able to be counted on. What’s that insurance company that uses the “rock” in their advertisement? Prudential. What’s their point: you can count of them when you need to – they’re reliable – “rock solid.”
Notice the phrases about “trust” in these verses: waiting quietly before God, putting hope in God, not being shaken, resting in a safe place, pouring out our hearts to God. The poet’s point is that he can trust in God as the one upon whom he relies, as his support and foundation and ground, as his safe place. A solid confidence!
Does this kind of “solid” trust mean that you never have any doubts about God? That God always comes through for you by protecting you from evil or harm or danger or pain and suffering? This is certainly the kind of theology (picture of God) that many religious people have – it’s very simplistic though real to them. But, as I’ve experienced personally, the danger of this belief is that when you go through the storm, the tendency is to question God and wonder what the heck is going wrong? Where is God? Why am I going through this? God really must not care about me after all! When I lost my job, went through a divorce, experienced great failure in my life, I wondered where the Divine Rock and Fortress were for me. Either I had failed so miserably that God had left me and wouldn’t have any more to do with me or God simply wasn’t going to come through for me and couldn’t be expected to. Either way, I was on the losing end! There wasn’t much solid in the swamp I was in.
The psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald May once wrote: “I know that God is loving and that God’s loving is trustworthy. I know this directly, through the experience of my life. There have been plenty of times of doubt, especially when I used to believe that trusting God’s goodness meant I would not be hurt. But having been hurt quite a bit, I know God’s goodness goes deeper than all pleasure and pain – it embraces them both.”
The naive belief that if God is truly good and solid in that goodness then your trust in God will be rewarded with lack of pain and trouble and suffering. God’s goodness = no pain. I learned that, as Gerald May wrote, it isn’t true. God’s goodness, God’s solid rock and fortress, can be counted on to be a reliable presence in the midst of ALL of life’s experiences (self-imposed or externally imposed). God showed up for me during those dark times most often through other people who chose to come along side me and support, love, care for, and journey with me. And as the dark tunnel finally emerged into the light, I saw that God’s goodness was involved in helping to redeem the pain in my life by ultimately bringing good out of it, by doing a work of transformation in me, maturing me, establishing my confidence in myself, in others, and ultimately in God.
So would you use the word “solid” to describe your confidence in Life or God? What would you use the words “rock” and “fortress” to describe in your life? What power outside yourself can you count on to bring you redemption and transformation or is it just up to you alone to muddle through the swamp? Is God a “safe place” (as the poet described) you can be with or be in?
Faith is about trust; and trust is about both a relaxed and solid confidence in Another. And that kind of trust can only come from a journey … together … through the bumps, bruises, hurts, joys, sorrows, ecstasies of life … where you begin to discover that nothing you do minimizes or maximizes the Divine love or Goodness for you. It continues flowing like a River all the time, in you, around you, through you, enveloping you, embracing you. Trust is about choosing at some point to relax, to give in to the Flow and embrace It back and let it carry you along the winding waters until It empties out into the boundless and deep Ocean.
Stay tuned to word two for faith.