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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What is Faith

For those of us who are Christian, or any kind of monotheistic believer, faith is a core element of our spirituality. Paul abjures us to the virtues of "Faith, Hope and Charity".

It is generally thought that conversion, religious commitment, begins with belief and that belief and faith are the same.  But are those things true.

Many Jews say that your religion is what you do, not what you believe, cited the medieval theologian, philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides. What they mean is that your commitment to the practice of your religion is more important than conventional notions of belief.  At the other end of the spectrum on this question, many Evangelical Christians think that salvation is assured by answering an altar call and never wavering in belief, while the practice of ones faith is a small matter, since Jesus died for our sins. It's difficult to square that with the Epistle of James or many parts of the Gospels that call on the believer to do good works and avoid sin.

The Greek word for faith that the New Testament generally used was not in fact synonymous with belief, but  more like what we mean when we say faithfulness in a marriage. If that in fact was all that the New Testament meant, it would be saying essentially the same thing as Maimonides.  However in my Catholic faith, as usual, it is both and as the meaning, which I concur with. To explain what I mean I shall start with three examples of modern Christians.

First  is Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers, whom I never tire of holding up for emulation.  After years as a left wing journalist and New York city activist Dorothy Day found herself on Long Island living with her boyfriend.  She saw the religious sisters running a soup kitchen for the poor and in that saw a commitment to immediate practical help for the poor that was usually lacking in American leftist organizations. She began to spend time with the sisters and in Church, and finding herself pregnant by her boyfriend, she had the child baptized, even though he left her over the baptism. It was only after that that she herself converted.  So Dorothy first became involved with the works of the church, then the prayer, then the sacraments, and finally converted and believed.  Her belief and faith followed her conversion through the "Acts of the Apostles" so to speak. Dorothy then moved back to New York and began helping the poor, where she meet Peter Maurin who urged her to help him found a newspaper and organization for Catholic workers, which they did.  Dorthy's faith seldom if ever wavered from that point, and she always said she accepted all the teachings of the Church. So for her her conversion began through works, and continued with both believe and a faith walk through works.

The second is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, famed for her ceaseless work for the poor of India.  Mother Teresa was already a religious sister in a teaching order when she received her call to help the poor directly from Christ himself, who walked up to her as a poor beggar in a railway station and asked for her help. Yet after her death it was discovered in her diaries, that while she never abandoned her faith, she was racked with doubts.  She wrote that since her original call she never again was aware of Christ save in the Eucharist or the faces of the poor whom she helped.  She confessed to many moments of struggle and near despair over her belief.    So for Mother Teresa it was the practice of the Sacraments and the work with the poor that kept her faith alive, rather than her prayer life.  And yet she advocated a strong daily prayer life always beginning with contemplation. She believed, but the walk of the faith sustained her belief.
Finally there is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor.  Bonhoeffer was a vigorous opponent of the    the Nazis as an evil contrary to Christian teaching.  Bonhoeffer was in America studying under his friend  Reinhold Niebbuhr who had become close to the African American church in Harlem.  Bonhoeffers experience in New York was radically different than what was soon happening in Germany to which he returned in 1931 .  He delivered a radio address attacking Hitler and advocated church resistance to the persecution of the Jews.  While he spent two years in London, he returned to Germany to teach at an underground seminary for the "Confessing Church". After much persecution he returned to the United States, in 1938, but regretting it, he returned to Germany, even though he knew  this would likely lead to his eventual arrest or even death.  Eventually arrested he was imprisoned and executed a mere three weeks before the Soviet liberation of Berlin. For Bonhoeffer his faith walked wavered, but compelled him back to become a martyr. 

When I think of these three Christians I think that faith and action are bound firmly together.  I love my Evangelical brothers and sisters who are motivated by that first call to belief, and I know that in practice most of them have as much walk in their faith as belief.  And I also know that most of my Jewish brothers and sisters have a strong faith rooted in Abraham, not merely a walk. But few of us have the degree of faith that my three Christian heroes have, and I hope we all seek to have both their belief and there works. 

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