Friday, July 23, 2010

Shallow Reflections on Deep Faith

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry
Jean-Baptiste Théodon
(French, 1646–1713)
Church of the Gesù
Rome, Italy
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm re-reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so I have encountered for the second time an aphorism on religious belief:
"Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman." (David Mitchell, "Letters from Zedelghem," Cloud Atlas: A Novel, page 75)
This remarkable, offhand remark is penned by Robert Frobisher, would-be composer -- and son of a sinecured Anglican minister -- as he later records the thoughts first entertained while sitting in a Catholic church in Bruges envying the believers kneeling in prayer . . . and also envying God for being privy to their secrets.

Whatever what Frobisher might mean by "faith" -- and I'll reflect on that in a moment -- the Hebrew terms are "'emeth" (firmness), "'emuwn" (faithfulness), or "'emuwnah" (firmness), etymologically related to the more familiar term "amēn," meaning (according to the Blue Letter Bible):
1) firm

a) metaph. faithful

2) verily, amen

a) at the beginning of a discourse - surely, truly, of a truth

b) at the end - so it is, so be it, may it be fulfilled. It was a custom, which passed over from the synagogues to the Christian assemblies, that when he who had read or discoursed, had offered up solemn prayer to God, the others responded Amen, and thus made the substance of what was uttered their own.
None of these quite captures Frobisher's use of the term "faith," which seems to imply a trustful emotion that runs deep in the believer. Nor does any of these clearly express what I've sometimes been told about the Hebrew understanding of faith, that it means belief expressed in action.

When I was growing up in the church, I understood the word "faith" to designate dependence, a deep trust in God that whispered not even a single doubt . . . but I've long since come to deeply distrust that understanding because I've seen that it often means trusting in some other person's subjective insistence on God's will.

I've gone through a pretzel's tangle of different positions on this faith issue, but I've ultimately come to the conclusion that God wouldn't demand an irrational faith, for the character of God, properly and correctly understood, would have to be -- as Pope Benedict maintains in his Regensburg lecture, "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections" -- eminently reasonable:
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the λόγος [logos]" . . . . God acts, συν λόγω [syn logō], with logos. Logos means both reason and word -- a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
One need not be Catholic to appreciate an insistence that God is essentially reasonable. If God's not, we're all in big trouble, for if God's character is not reasonable, then faith itself must be unreasonable, even irrational, never truly engendered by trustworthy persuasion but always imposed with the threat of violence. We see this most explicitly in the faith of religious terrorists, but the threat is more often implicit, especially when obscured through the manipulative cunning of some who would set their own subjective faith up as the objective standard by which to judge everyone else's. Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular . . .

The Greek term for "faith," incidentally, is pistis, which has the following meanings in the New Testament (borrowed from the Blue Letter Bible):
1) conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man's relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and joined with it

a) relating to God

1) the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ

b) relating to Christ

1) a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God

c) the religious beliefs of Christians

d) belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same

2) fidelity, faithfulness

a) the character of one who can be relied on
The correspondence of pistis to the Hebrew terms "'emeth," "'emuwn," and "'emuwnah," as well as to "amēn," is clear, though this Greek term seems to carry a good deal more theological content.

Just to satisfy curiosity, mine anyway, here's the etymology for the English word "faith," borrowed from the Online Etymological Dictionary:
mid-13c., "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from O.Fr. feid, from L. fides "trust, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from PIE base *bhidh-/*bhoidh- (cf. Gk. pistis; see bid). For sense evolution, see belief. Theological sense is from late 14c.; religions called faiths since c.1300.
All of this is very interesting, I suppose, though I'd need to reflect on it a lot before I'd have anything interesting to write, but why did Frobisher say that faith has the craftiest doorman? We have to read the aphorism in its context:
"Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I've stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again." (David Mitchell, "Letters from Zedelghem," Cloud Atlas: A Novel, page 75)
That sounds a bit like disappointment, but perhaps Mr. Frobisher is simply directed to where, deep down, he really wants to find himself, and the doorman's craft thus consists in recognizing this innermost desire, but you'll need to read the larger context, the entire "Letters from Zedelghem" story, to find out for sure.

After all, why trust me?

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