John Twistleton considers the nature and meaning of faith, for the individual and for the Christian Community
To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible wrote Thomas Aquinas. This wisdom of this saying is brought out in the story of the acrobat who wheeled his son in a wheelbarrow as part of his high wire act. When they asked his son how he felt about the exercise his only comment was I trust my dad. Here is faith defined as the extra sense it is, quite beyond the natural senses, but nevertheless based on experience. The boy needed no explanation for the faith he had in his father though few others would rise to it.
By analogy Christian faith in God is the certain conviction you will be carried forward in all the perils of life by one who loves you beyond reason. The strength of Christianity lies in this revelation of God as the Father of Jesus who acts by his Spirit to carry us forward through all the pitfalls in our life to resurrection glory.
Reconciled to God through the death of his Son… we shall be saved by his life.. .we are filled with exultant trust in God through our Lord Jesus Christ St. Paul wrote to the Romans (5vl0-11). Faith in the Christian perspective is such exultant trust in response to the gift of Jesus and all God promises through him.
If Christian faith is this quality by which one believes it is also the faith that is believed by Christians handed on to them by the community of faith and expressed in the creed. As Austin Farrer explained the creed defines the contours of that world on which faith trains her eyes…the widely spread circumference of Gods revealing action in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Christians come to active faith through immersion in the community that believes in Jesus. Von Hugel described this corporate faith as the many-side love of God only to be grasped ‘with all the saints’. The content of the faith is spelled out in church catechisms which expound the bible, creed, sacraments, commandments and prayer. There are different emphases here among the denominations as to the content of so-called apostolic tradition eg. in the doctrine of the last things, the number of sacraments, the role of bishops including the Pope and so on although recent ecumenical agreements demonstrate a growing consensus of faith.
As something God-given personal faith is inevitably mysterious. Believers hold things together in their experience that live in tension from a rational perspective. Hence faith is both a virtue and a gift, a human act yet one prompted by God, a personal act yet inseparable from the corporate faith of the church. These paradoxes are captured in the famous definition of faith provided by Thomas Aquinas: Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.
Though seen as a human act, faith is also something moved by God through grace. Though a subjective disposition it is one that embraces so-called divine
truth which is upheld by the authority of the church. It is upon this body of teaching, referred to earlier as the apostolic tradition, that Christians are seeking a fuller convergence
The subjective and objective aspects of faith are evident in the New Testament. Hence St. Paul writes I know whom I have believed (2 Timothy lvl2) witnessing his personal faith. Elsewhere as a church teacher he writes of the content of apostolic faith e.g. of the church tradition of the Eucharist I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you (1 Corinthians llv23).
Another paradox is to be found in the relationship of Christian faith to human reason. God, the object of faith, is beyond reason but both faith and reason are seen as lifting people up to him. Thomas Merton writes: Faith without depending on reason for the slightest shred of justification never contradicts reason and remains ever reasonable. Though God is beyond reason as its creator he can never be at odds with it. Christian faith has a historical foundation in the death and resurrection of Jesus that can be rationally scrutinised, yet, however reasonable this foundation might be, faith does not depend upon it but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians lv9b).
Each Sunday Christian faith is celebrated and built up through the celebration of the Lord’s Day which is made so by the happening of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. On account of this foundation faith for Christians is distinctively metaphysical, a creed that goes beyond (meta) the world as we see it (physical). As the most popular biblical definition set within the letter to the Hebrews expresses it, faith is certainty about things invisible (llvlb).
Like the natural eye the eye of personal faith is examined with difficulty because you are trying to look at something that is the main tool for looking, be it the natural or supernatural eye. To put faith in God as a Christian is like engaging with an invisible photoelectric beam to trigger a visible light. Like electricity God is unseen yet real. So real to Christian experience that the same writer of Hebrews, addressing Christians under heavy persecution, could speak of a certainty you can stake your life upon, a hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters… where Jesus..has entered (6vl9-20).
Christian faith steers a middle way between credulity, which is trust in ambiguous authority, and scepticism, which is trust in the senses alone. As the main object of Christian faith God is believed without ambiguity as one who is certain though beyond reason or the senses. As mentioned earlier, the content of divine truth, or apostolic tradition is made ambiguous in some measure by Christian divisions.
To the eye of Christian faith God himself is as unambiguous as the sun for it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4v6)