DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Is faith a necessary aspect of life?

The Bible�s Letter From James makes an important point about faith: 

Don�t just listen to God; do what God says. Otherwise you�re only playing games. People who listen to God and do nothing are like those who notice the bags under their eyes when they look into the mirror, and then carry on with the lifestyle which makes them look so tired (1.22-24). 

This practical approach to Christian living causes problems for some - especially those who say we need only �faith� and not �works� to be accepted fully by God. 

This sort of �faith� is often construed as assent to theological propositions. So if a person �believes� that Jesus is the Son of God, for example, then his or her life (it is said) will be guided and strengthened by that belief. Conversely, one who professes to be uncertain about such propositions is generally regarded as of little faith. 

But what happens if we test this �faith as belief� in real life? We find that no two Christians have exactly the same beliefs about God and about Christianity in general. Not only that, but large groups of Christians differ so widely in their propositions that they can�t bear to live with each other. Indeed, they have often murdered each other in large numbers over these differences. It seems that �faith as belief� has negative, not positive, results. 

Martin Luther, for one, had a different take on this. He said that, by analogy, faith isn�t the belief that a boat won�t sink when we get into it: it�s actually stepping into it, trusting that it won�t sink. 

Faith as trust is much more true to life. You and I may suppose that we trust a certain person; but that is of little account until he or she acts to vindicate our trust. I think to myself, �Jack seems reliable.� But not until Jack consistently meets his commitments to me should I actually trust him. To blindly assume that Jack will do what he promises is gullibility, not faith in Jack. 

Again, inflexible beliefs tend to damage us. Few things are so personally and socially  toxic as a group of fanatical ideologues who will sacrifice themselves and (preferably) others for the sake of their so-called sacrosanct beliefs. 

In contrast, nothing in our lives will work well without trust. It�s the basis of almost everything we do. Without trust, trade and business would be impossible. We usually trust a doctor to properly care for our health. We must trust that even the bread we buy won�t harm us. No human relationship can function without trust. We commit ourselves in relationships when we risk that others will meet their side of the trust equation. Conversely, trust once broken is difficult to restore. It�s as though trust operates on an on-off switch: I either trust you or I don�t. 

So faith as trust permeates every aspect of our lives. It�s not optional, but necessary. And trust isn�t trust until it issues in action. I can�t say I trust the bread in the shop until I buy it. 

Perhaps the ultimate question in life is this: Can we trust God? Can we trust a �person� who is more totally beyond us than even the most enduring mysteries of life and the universe? Can we as it were step into a God-boat? Can we trust that life - with all its agonies and joys, with its limited horizons and boundless mysteries - is worth living zestfully for its own sake

If we can - or if we at least try - then, I say, we have faith.

_____________________________________________________________________ 

Faith may be understood in a number of ways and contexts. In ordinary conversation it is usually equated with religious belief. However, faith or confidence in something unknown may be considered a part of everyday life, a fundamental factor of the human psyche that permits persons to function normally. 

Confidence in the unknown or untried usually arises from similar previous experience. As for instance, each morning I arise from bed with confidence there will be a floor on which my feet alight. I will then with confidence, proceed to the bathroom for my morning ablutions. When I am in a strange place my confidence for the smooth repetition of such events is not as strong. Yet there are general features that allow me to conduct my behavior in a similarly reliable pattern. At any point, uncertainty may arise and my efforts can be confounded. Maybe there is a loose item on the floor and I trip and fall leading to injury. One can never be certain about future time. However, to be continually wary of what might happen next, to relinquish a sense of confidence in the likelihood of future events, would make daily life vexing if not unbearable. Part of our living is in the unrealized future. 

I am trying to say that not only is faith necessary for living, but that it is an unavoidable part of the reality of the human mind. One need not be embarrassed or scandalized by adopting faith. It is ubiquitous. 

Now, the crunch comes when we discuss the more esoteric objects of faith. It is one thing to have faith there will be a floor under the bed and another to say there is a benevolent loving God with whom I have a relationship. Such a faith makes positivists livid. For me it is a comfort. 

The object of faith is a personal choice. Such choices are the product of each individual�s experience and reasoning. What works for one may not be appealing to another. As for me at this stage in my life, my world view requires a God who knows me. In that, I have faith. This faith was developed through many years of study, contemplation and above all, by exposure to the Saints with whom I had the good fortune to live. 

For me the epistemological problem of faith finds its solution in the goodness of my church and my fellow parishioners. They are not perfect but they strive for something above their own interests and to imitate the example of Jesus Christ. Few human institutions can make such positive contributions to civil society. Such faith is thereby validated. 

If God gives me the mental tools to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of life and to realize a rich full life experience, I would count that as a valid test of faith. In this sense I am a pragmatist. I do not think that religious pragmatism in any way dilutes the quality of my faith. Thus far it has worked.

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