From the Chapter The Power of Faith in “First Sight: The Experience of Faith” (Continuum 2011)
Before this faith came, we were close prisoners in the custody of the law, pending the revelation of faith. The law was a kind of tutor in charge of us until Christ should come, when we should be justified through faith; and now that faith has come, the tutor’s charge is at an end. For through faith you are all children of God in union with Christ Jesus… `there is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:23-29)
Like other human capacities the capacity for transcendence takes time to develop. We don’t expect children or adolescents to have it fully developed. We make allowances for inexperience and youthful mistakes. But it doesn’t only take time. It also requires will-power. You have to want to develop it. You have to have some small insight into what it means and why it is important for human development. You also need to have the personal, the communal, the cultural reinforcement and support for this process of developing it. Faith grows and it is a measure of our growth as a whole person and as a citizen.
St Paul understood this as he watched and guided the early Christians. He planted the seed of the gospel way of life among them, by word and example. Then he had to leave them to grow it themselves. When he saw them drifting back to their old ways dominated by fear, superstition and escapist desire he strongly called them back. In a passage like this we can see what faith meant to him:
Here we see that faith is more than belief. It is choice to be and to remain free. Just believing something doesn’t make all this happen. We also see in this experience of spiritual community that faith is and operates in more than a psychological reality.
True, our spiritual growth is effected in our psychological experience in the way that mind is reflected in brain chemistry. But they are not the same thing. Faith in Christ doesn’t just make us feel better through the release of endorphins. It realises our oneness with all other beings regardless of social or even gender differences. Faith achieves such a high dividend because it evolves into love. An early Church Father taught this shortly before he died as a martyr for the faith he held.
Of all these things none is hidden from you if you are single-hearted and if you direct your faith and love toward Jesus Christ. These are the beginning and the end of life: the beginning is faith, the end is love. The two bound together in unity are God. Everything else that belongs to goodness follows from these. No one who professes faith sins, and anyone who possesses love does not hate. The tree is known by its fruit. (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians)
Faith grows and bears fruit; it grows through trial, even death and certainly through daily temptation. Crucially – if we are to avoid the dangers of perfectionism – it also grows through failure and forgiveness. The spiritually-oriented person is not a perfect person. Everyone is unfaithful at times, in thought, word or deed. But the spiritually-active person makes this growth process a matter of high priority and this turns failure, infidelity, around.
This doesn’t mean we separate faith-development from the other aspects of our lives in which faith is practiced. That would be phoney religion of the most anaemic kind. An artist does not confuse the studio with the work he is doing or a musician the instrument with the music played. They are simultaneously distinct and inseparable: just like faith and the responsibilities and realities of life. Work, family and relationships are the laboratory. We cannot claim to be faithful in family life and lie and cheat at work, or be faithful to a spouse but exploit the poor. Faith is an unfolding of the core identity of the human person. It is a central value, a central, constellating aspect of our whole human development. In whatever we are doing at work, in our personal relationships, in family life, in our responsibilities to the marginalised, we are putting this quality of faith to work at the very centre of our life. In every act of faith we turn towards another more fully. If we turn to one person in this way we turn to all. Transcendence of self thus leads to growth in love and onwards to the ultimate goal that is union with God, the ultimate other in whom all selves meet and powerhouse of love.
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For growth there needs to be a consistency between the three levels of our self where faith is active. The physical level is the field of action – just do it. Mentally, we need to understand why we are doing it and what it really means. Here we formulate and test the right beliefs expressed as accurately as we can. I have said we should not confuse faith and belief. Nevertheless faith needs to be conscious and so will always be related to beliefs, the attempts we make to understand, to conceptualize, and express the meaning of faith and what we are putting our faith in. This is needed if faith is to open the spiritual dimension. So, intellectually, philosophically, theologically, we need to understand as clearly as we can. In dialogue with tradition and with new fields of knowledge we need to find and test the beliefs and doctrines that we live by. A healthy tradition capable of transmitting itself to a new generation has belief and faith in harmony.
Holding beliefs with integrity doesn’t mean that what I believe necessarily contradicts what you believe just because they different. Dialogue, respect and reverence for other’s beliefs are more than tolerance although they form a mark of a just and civilized society or religion. We should seek to identify and understand the truth in others’ beliefs and then treat them with the same reverence we give our own even while we remain with our own. We may feel that in my tradition I find the best beliefs by which to strengthen and express my experience of faith. And, without being bigoted or trying to convert others we may also believe that our tradition is objectively the best, the most clear, comprehensive and inclusive expression of faith. However we may value our own tradition, if our beliefs express faith but don’t try to substitute for it, we will not condemn others for believing differently or force them to change. Even if we feel our tradition is the highest expression of truth we will also know that truth can never be imposed. If our attachment to it makes it into a cause of conflict it ceases to be the truth we started out with. Faith may make us die for the truth but it will not allow us to be violent or dishonest in the cause of truth. Where faith is active, dialogue replaces conflict and mutual curiosity replaces condemnation.
In trying to understand our beliefs, we will only ever achieve limited success. But hitting our limit – and recognising it when we do – is a notable achievement. We are meant to come to this limit of our intellectual understanding because this is the point where the contemplative consciousness awakens. ‘We can never know God by thought, only by love’ as The Cloud of Unknowing says, or as St Augustine put it concisely: ‘If you can understand it, it isn’t God.’
Touching the limits of our intellectual and emotional understanding of God may at first feel like failure. They are frustrating, as all limitations are, especially if we put all our eggs in one cerebral-emotional basket. A higher intelligence needs to be listened to that says that coming to this frontier is a real spiritual achievement and the beginning of a new stage of our development. The darkness of faith at this stage is simply the failure of the mind to conceptualise. Even if beliefs and feelings seem to falter and confuse at this stage – as they will – the way of faith will see us through.