Sitting in Sabbath school this morning, discussing the meaning and importance of “faith,” I was struck by the degree the discussion is hijacked by an abstract, rationalistic mode of thought. (Of course, I would identify this with Platonic dualism and Parmenidean timelessness, but that’s a story for another time). In short, we talk about faith as an act of the mind. We conflate faith and belief into something like an assertion of hope–more than expectation, but less than the ability to actually accomplish what we desire. Thus faith becomes a mere intellectual statement, an abstraction from daily life–or even in apparent opposition to it. Given this abstraction, it becomes difficult to speak of “faith” as anything valuable or functional in modern life. This becomes a problem when we encounter the Biblical text which repeatedly presents faith as a vital part of salvation and discipleship. In turn, we say things like “faith is believing without evidence” or “faith should not be a weapon” or “faith is letting go (of sense)” or “faith is your private business.” I don’t mean to denigrate this positions or even particularly critique them–each may have its merits and its meaning. I’m more interested in refiguring how we speak of “faith.”
An idea which has deepened my own ability to comprehend and speak of “faith” has been the idea of “good faith”–as that acting for and acting with which is necessary to community, necessary to life together. I see the lack of “good faith” as a particular problem in contemporary Western and religious dialogue. Instead of conducting ourselves and our conversations in good faith, we act in bad faith. Instead of acting towards the other as if they are equally vulnerable and equally reticent to inflict harm, we approach with bad faith; we approach the other as if they are an enemy willing only our own destruction and primarily concerned with inflicting harm upon us (or at the least imposing their will). This approach leaves little space for a true meeting. Rather our encounter degrades into posturing and even violence as each of us strives for mastery over the other. Of course, we cloak this struggle for mastery in terms of “caution” or “self-defense”–but these words imply fear of an attacker, and figure the other as hostile and dangerous rather than equally human and vulnerable. Furthermore, in order to protect ourselves, we must hide/shield/protect/minimize our own vulnerabilities and, in turn, our own humanity. When two parties approach each other in bad faith, there is no room for relationship or “with-ness” because each presents an invulnerable, inhuman facade. (This figures into last weeks critique–good faith begins with an admission of vulnerability, not offensive posturing and accusations of ill-will or danger). This is not to say we should be naive, nor that we should ignore danger as it presents itself, but to say that unless we act in the hope that we can do good for and to each other, and in the recognition of a shared vulnerability, we are already doomed to (self)destruction. Put concisely, good faith is acting towards the other as if they did not mean us harm–recognizing that we cannot predict or control their actions, but that any productive and meaningful encounter must begin on the possibility of mutual benefit. This is more than the self-interested gospel of exchange which so permeates our culture to the degree that it opens the possibility of a true freedom with–a living together, an entanglement–rather than a mere exchange between distant, discrete (invulnerable) entities.
So what does this have to do with God? What if we thought of faith in God as approaching him with good faith? Not faith as the means of achieving our own will, as the leverage to move God himself, but as the condition of possibility for any meaningful encounter, any relationship, any at-one-ment with the ultimate Other. This is not a merely intellectual faith which can be asserted without any risk or without any change, but a faith that risks self–a faith that admits vulnerability and lack of control and opens the self to change by the very encounter. This is not a merely intellectual faith which can be abstracted from the material conditions of our existence, but a faith which is always in (bodily) action, a faith which moves us in this material world, in our daily lives. This (good) faith is a way of living towards God which opens the possibility of reconciliation and relationship with Him and by extension with those who bear His image–our fellow human beings.
I would argue that this focus on with-ness, on freedom with, on God with us is the very center and foundation of the entire Biblical narrative, epitomized by Christ himself coming as a human, making himself vulnerable and surrendering control so that he might enter into a relationship with us grounded in (good) faith. I would contend that this (good) faith is exactly what Christ extended to us throughout his life here–even in his dealings with the Jewish leadership who sought his destruction. He was not naive, he was not blind, he was not in denial. He clearly identified and challenged the ways in which they demonstrated bad faith, yet he continued to act in good faith towards them. Eventually he surrendered to their will, knowing full well they would kill him but allowing for the possibility it might be otherwise–allowing for relationship–even as they utterly rejected him. Thus Luke records Christ speaking from the cross: “Father, forgive them…” Thus Paul writes that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” and that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Admittedly this does not answer all questions. For example, what is good faith in the face of systematic violence or abuse? Is good faith the same as being a victim? Perhaps I will address those in the future. Perhaps you will have some suggestions. For now, do you find yourself acting in good faith toward God and man? What might that look like?