What is Faith?


I believe that all faiths arise and endure because they have something to teach us.  Today’s blog is the first of a three-part reflection on my own faith.  I hope that those of you who come from a different faith tradition will share what you’ve learned in the Comments section at the end of today’s blog post.

What is Faith?

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  I Corinthians 13:13 (New Revised Standard Bible)

As an English teacher, I can’t help but notice the nuances of words.  In the personal narratives of my own life, I sometimes need loved ones to remind me that not everyone deliberates over word choices as I tend to do.  Sometimes my feelings get hurt by a word choice that, as they remind me, is just a word—not a dagger designed to wound me.

I taught my daughter, for example, that “I’m sorry but…” is not an apology—that an apology is an unqualified, “I’m sorry,” that doesn’t try to explain or make excuses for poor behavior.  It took her a long time to realize that sometimes other people—those who didn’t have me as a mother—truly were sorry, even when the apology was followed by the word but.  Sometimes we don’t always communicate exactly what we intend, even when our words are carefully chosen.  In my zeal to teach my daughter to accept responsibility when she hurt someone, I somehow forgot to tell her to focus on the whole context of the apology.  I’m sorry your feelings got hurt, implies that the speaker did nothing to contribute to your hurt feelings. On the other hand, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but here’s what I meant to say, really is a sincere apology.

When I read great literature, I seldom make the mistake of looking at word choice and context separately.  And that includes the sacred texts of religious traditions, most of which we acknowledge as great literature whether we espouse the tenets of the faith or not.

In the text I’ve chosen today, I know that Paul wrote his first letter to the people in Corinth because the church was in danger of being torn apart by differences of opinion over the nature of the faith.  As my minister pointed out in a recent sermon, Paul was simply writing letters.  How could he have had any concept when he wrote the letters that they would be read as Holy Scripture by millions of people over the course of more than 2000 years?  And when we think about that, we can see how important it is to consider the reason for the letter and the audience for whom it was intended.

In I Corinthians 13:13, I can’t help but notice that of the three key words—in this and most other translations—the word faith is the only word that is simply a noun—a concept, an idea.  Hope and love are not only nouns, but verbs—action words where the person who hopes, who loves, is putting the idea into action.

But the opening of the letter makes clear that the members of the church in Corinth are arguing about exactly whose ideas should be their own.  Paul actually names the factions and the people in whom they are placing their faith, including himself.  He points out that none of them, not even he, is the final authority—that Christ has the ultimate Word.  This is particularly interesting to me in light of the fact that so many Christians count his letters as being absolute and infallible truth.

Paul then goes on to admonish the church for all sorts of bad behavior that distracts them from the truly important work and from the basic tenets of their faith.  In fact, from his characterization of them in the letter as a whole, they sound like the cast of characters from one of today’s reality shows.

Faith, he tells them, is important.  But how do they know where to place their faith?  He gives them some guidance for their particular place and time together, and some of what he says doesn’t translate well for us today if it’s taken out of the context of his letter—particularly his comments about women and slaves.

So how do we know where to place our faith, especially when our holy texts are full of contradictions?  Some things we know for sure:  Our faith doesn’t give us the right to stone a woman to death for committing adultery.  Our faith doesn’t justify slavery.  There are countless examples of commands written in the Bible that we no longer consider compatible with our faith.

Faith requires either blind acceptance or careful thought to overcome doubt.  The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, who doesn’t identify himself as Paul usually does, tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1 NRSV).  Or as most of us have heard more often in the King James translation, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Though blind acceptance is easier, I believe that any faith worth having, no matter what our religion, demands that we scrutinize what’s at the core of our beliefs.  And for those of us who call ourselves Christians, Jesus is at the heart of everything.  The evidence of his words, his life, his ministry should form the substance of our convictions before we come to any certainty, any assurance, of what we believe.

It is precisely because of the way Jesus lived his life that our faith in him abides—and the reason that even non-Christians believe that Jesus’ life is a model for humanity.  And because Jesus the Christ gave us hope and taught us how to love, “…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”