Faith: The Way of the Heart: Experiencing the Heart of Christianity

What constitutes a “good” cup of coffee?  What are the first few thoughts that come to mind? 

Maybe for you, a good cup of coffee is a free cup of coffee!  For some of you, a good cup of coffee means that the beans were roasted to perfection, which means there is no bitter, burnt taste.  Also, it means the beans used were of good quality, and from regions around the world that produce varying flavor profiles.  You want nuttiness, so you throw in some beans from Guatemala.  But you also like a bit of a fruity, winey taste, so you add in some beans from Ethiopia.  Then is has to be ground correctly – and not too long after it was roasted.  Naturally, the coffee has to be brewed appropriately and served at the correct temperature.  For it to be really good, it needs to be served in a decent mug, in a great setting with some of your favorite people, with the right playlist in the background.  That’s a good cup of coffee – for me, at least. 

The way we define “good” varies from person to person depending on a wide range of factors, doesn’t it?  The words we use to define “good” sheds light on a lot of things, including who raised us and where, how much exposure to different coffees we’ve experienced, and much more.  We don’t think about why we define good the way we do until something encourages us to do so.

What does it mean to have faith in God?  What are the first few thoughts that come to mind?

The way we think about faith also varies from person to person, but the prevailing way most people in Western culture understand faith is simply believing in God, and believing certain things about God.  There is billboard on I-80 that states in huge letters, “There is proof that God exists!”  For agnostics and atheists alike, faith and belief are about God’s existence.  Is that how people have always thought about faith?  Addressing primarily Jewish Christians everywhere, the Letter to the Hebrews in the Bible’s New Testament gives us a picture of faith:

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God's call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.
     By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That's how it happened that from one man's dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.
     Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them. – Hebrews 11:8-16 (The Message)

The word faith is obviously a critical part of the equation in these verses.  In fact, some refer to the whole eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews as The Hall of Fame of Faith because it lists so many people in Jewish history who were champions when it comes to faith.  Did they understand faith the same way most Western people do today?

In short, the answer is no.  It’s not that we get it totally wrong so much as we don’t appreciate the fullness of the meaning of the word as those who have gone before us.  This is largely due to the massive paradigm shift that took place in the 1600’s whereby the scientific approach to everything bled into theology.  The reason we can be confident that we’re missing out on something is related to the meaning of the word faith over time in the Christian tradition.  In the history of Christianity, there have been four ways to think about faith, each described below.

Faith as Assensus (think “assent”).  The most dominant way most Western people think about faith is that it is an assent to belief in something as true.  Factually true, to be more precise.  Factually true even in the absence of evidence.  As Borg stated, “Faith is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.  Even more strongly, faith is what you need when beliefs and knowledge conflict” (30).  In contemporary culture, the earlier Christian view calls for faith that God created the world just as Genesis portrays, that the Red Sea really was parted, that the sun really did stand still during a battle, that a virgin really did become pregnant, and every other miraculous thing happened just as it reads in the Bible.  Borg points out that there was no conflict between belief and knowledge prior to the scientific revolution, because the conventional wisdom of the day (regarding everything) was totally aligned with theological thinking.  Faith required no effort then as it does now.  The opposite of this kind of faith is doubt and disbelief, which is often viewed and articulated as sin.  Borg contends that this faith as belief is relatively impotent because it holds very little transforming power.  This way of faith is one that remains largely in the head – a thinking exercise.  In contrast, the remaining three are relationally understood uses of the term.

Faith as Fiducia (think “trust”).  Rather than giving assent to a list of beliefs about God, this way of faith is “believing in God as trusting in God”.  Kierkegard described faith as akin to floating in a deep ocean.  Panicking and flailing your arms struggling to stay afloat will get you drowned in a hurry.  But trusting the ocean – that buoyancy is real – and relaxing will find you floating.  Think of Peter walking on water to meet Jesus.  When his trust shifted from the Spirit of God to the choppiness of the waves, he sank.  The Bible depicts God as a rock, a fortress upon which we found our lives.  Jesus invited us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field to teach about this kind of faith.  The opposite of this is mistrust, which leads to anxiety and worry, which is what motivated Jesus’ birds/lilies analogy.  Jesus taught that little faith, little trust in God led to anxiety.  The hope offered in this mode of faith, then, is a less anxiety-ridden life, which is a free life, free to live and love.  That kind of radical trust offers great transforming power.

Example: Kevin Durant & Nick Young.  I am a Golden State Warriors fan.  Last year, the Dubs acquired Kevin Durant.  This year, we picked up Nick Young.  Both of these players came from teams with a very different culture than the Warriors.  Each player came in reflecting the team culture they left behind. I knew it would only be a matter of time before the the Warriors’ culture worked into them.  It happened.  The Kevin Durant who was interviewed during his first few months as a Warrior compared to now is stunning in contrast.  The 2016 Durant was guarded, “tough”, spoke few words, and was fairly defensive and short in his responses.  Today, Durant is open, warm, relaxed, engaged, and generous with his love for his teammates and the fans.  Nick Young’s first few games showed everyone that he was used to shooting the ball every time he touched it.  That’s not Warriors culture – we’re known for passing the ball around to open up shots.  Now, after half a season, Nick Young is much more Warrior-like, playing like the culture that has welcomed him.  The culture wins, and wins every time.  I trust the culture of God to win, too.  It may take time, but love really does win.  I have faith in God to do that everywhere.

Faith as Fidelitas (think “fidelity”).  This kind of faith refers to a loyalty to a person, a relationship.  Allegiance and commitment of self at the deepest level are intended here.  The opposite, of course, is infidelity.  Cheating on God – choosing not to be faithful – was an issue the Jewish nation struggled with in the form of idolatry.  The prophets told Israel they were guilty of adultery. Fidelity means much more than “not cheating”, however.  Faith in this way implies a radical centering on God so that to love God means to love what God loves.  Bells might be going off in your head as you recall the greatest and second greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor with everything you’ve got.  It’s ethical, not just a head trip.

Example: Pete and Lynne Shaw.  The household I grew up in put high value on music and the arts in general.  My sisters introduced me to musicals at a young age, which undoubtedly contributed to my eventual participation in many shows and singing in groups since high school.  I still love a good musical.  My wife, on the other hand, was raised on Kansas City Royals baseball.  She fondly remembers Sunday afternoons sitting with her dad watching a game on the single channel their rabbit-eared TV could pick up.  She is a baseball junkie.  Faithfulness for us means that Lynne has learned to appreciate – even love – musicals.  And I have learned to appreciate – even love – watching games with her (now add Warriors, Niners and Chiefs).  We have done so because we love each other, and have therefore learned to love what the other loves.  When I spend time watching a game and she spends time watching a musical, we show love to each other.  I think this is how it works with faith, too.  As I learn what God loves, I am interested in knowing more.  There are many things I now love that I did not before.  I grew to love them because I love God, and God loves those things.  To love those things is, in a very real way, loving God.

Faith as Visio: “Vision”.  In this mode, faith is a way of seeing, our vision of the whole, of what is.  Borg nods to theologian Richard Niebuhr in his unpacking three ways of seeing.  A first way of seeing envisions the world as hostile and threatening, which leads to a defensive posture warranting our desire for greater and greater security.  In earlier ways of thinking about Christianity, Godself needs to be feared as one who will “get us” in the end if we don’t get things straightened out.  A second way of seeing has us looking at everything as indifferent and uncaring.  While this does not breed the same level of paranoia as the first, it still makes us walk with a tight grip in order to maintain security.  The third type of vision sees “what is” as life giving and nourishing, even gracious.  Faith involves seeing God as generous which leads to radical trust in God, and a willingness to spend oneself for the sake of a vision bigger than self.  It is a marked that is recognized by freedom, joy, peace and love.  The Christian tradition itself in all of its fullness is a metaphor for God – to live within one is to live hand in hand with the other.

Aside.  Borg points out that Martin Luther’s life changed dramatically because of his faith.  Earlier in his life he committed himself to a life of faith in the assensus kind of way.  In fact, it was after he tried his best to live in assent to beliefs about God and beliefs about rules to follow that he came to the conclusion that there had to be another way than the works of and assensus-type faith.  His transformation led him to see differently, trust God, and be faithful – the last three relational modes of faith. 

Example: Pavement weeds.  When I was a kids, our street got a fresh few inches of asphalt.  When they laid it down, it “bled” beyond the original pavement, covering over dirt and grass and weeds.  Whatever it covered, it apparently killed.  The next spring, however, much to our surprise, through a small crack near our mailbox emerged a lone weed!  To quote a great recurring line from the Jurrasic Park movies: life found a way.  We are all too familiar with how destructive fire can be, leaving behind black mountainsides that were once lush and green.  But even just weeks after the devastating fires, after a rain came, so did fresh green shoots of grass.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless after you’ve been burned.  It makes us tighten up in every way.  But the nature of God’s creation and everything in it speaks of more, of life that comes despite the burn.  Faith means I choose to see the world this way.  In doing so, I naturally become part of bringing it about.

Is there value in the mode of faith that calls for assent to certain beliefs?  Borg says yes.  Within the faith tradition, there are some big notions that deserve big affirmations: the reality of God, the centrality of Jesus to the Christian faith, and the centrality of the Bible.  He notes that our heritage who created and affirmed the creeds of old weren’t simply making statements of items of belief, but that they were committing to a person – God.  Their affirmations were statements of loyalty.  For them, to believe was to belove.

So, what makes for a “good” cup of coffee?  I wonder if your way of thinking about that word “good” has actually whet your appetite to rethink wasting your taste buds on crappy sludge, even if it is cheap or free.  Maybe you’ll think about it a little more now, and enjoy a more satisfying cup because you did.

I wonder also about your faith.  As I’ve noted throughout, it is very likely that the dominant way you have understood faith is through the assensus vein.  Now that you have learned or been reminded of more ways to think about faith, I hope your appetite for God has been whet as well, that perhaps you’re realizing that you may have sold faith short, that there is more here than we’ve thought before.  Something incredibly rich, life giving, rewarding, inviting, and compelling.

Which aspect of faith do you sense God inviting you to explore more?  Here’s an idea.  Pick one of the ways to develop.  It’s not hard, just reflect on it, pray about it, and ask God to lead you toward it.  Then keep your eyes, ears, mind, heart, and hands open and see what develops.  If you need help, I’d be happy to sort some ideas out.  The point is to develop a robust faith that fosters more divine and less dust…

We conclude this session – as with each session – with a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer (Jim Cotter):

Eternal Spirit,

Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all this is and that shall be.

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God, in whom is heaven.

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love now and forever. Amen.

*Note: This is a twelve week series based on Marcus Borg’s seminal book, The Heart of Christianity, with significant input from  the group discussion book, Experiencing the Heart of Christianity by Tim Scorer.