Friday, December 02, 2005

Moving the Discussion on Faith and Belief

We are still having a rather exhilarating (if you're into that sort of thing) discussion on the post Well... He's a Liberal, But..., which has become in part a discussion on the distinction I make between faith and belief. That there is a distinction I think no one doubts. But, what we make of that distinction has brought about some interesting arguments.

I have said that because there is a distinction between faith and belief, it is possible (but perhaps not likely) to have faith without belief. Some people are understandably skeptical about this. To catch up on that discussion check out the original post and the comments which have been left there.

The Russian Orthodox tradition, I am told, has a story which I think comes from Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. In the story there are two men. One of these men is a very pious (and relatively wealthy) church-goer who professes to have faith. The other man is a poor, simple farmer who, the story goes, is ignorant to the true faith.

A shabby looking man visits these two men, who could not be more opposite. First he visits the wealthy, pious churchman, knocking on his door and asking for some food and shelter. Of course the churchman turns him away, for he does not want his daily prayers interrupted by some smelly bum. Next the shabby looking man visits the humble farmer, again asking for some food and shelter. He is welcomed in like a long-lost brother, and is given the chance to share everything that belongs to the farmer.

The next day the shabby looking man reveals that he is, in fact, Jesus, come down from heaven for a day to see how His people are doing. He was turned away by the man who claimed the name of Christ, but is welcomed in by the man who did not.

In welcoming this incognito Christ into his home, the farmer did an act of service for a Lord in whom he did not believe. In denying Christ food and shelter the man who believed in the Lord refused to serve Him.

What does this have to do with the possibility of having faith without belief? A good teacher never explains a parable until the students have had a crack at it. But I am not a teacher, much less a good one, so I'll do my best to unravel this one.

I believe in God, and I have faith in God. As part of my belief in God I believe certain things about God, which roughly become my flexible creed. But those things which I believe about God are almost certainly wrong, or at least extremely incomplete. After all I am a mere mortal trying to understand the incomprehensible mystery of the divine. To what extent do my beliefs about God resemble God? At a certain point I have to accept that my belief in a description of God is not a belief in the one true God of the universe, because it bears so little resemblance to who God actually might be. If faith is not possible without belief, what does this improper belief say about my faith?

In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus teaches that the people who truly serve the Lord do not really know the Lord whom they are serving while they render their act of service. Their beliefs are mistaken. They think that they are merely serving other people, but in fact they are serving the Lord. Startled by this realization, they ask the Lord, "When did we serve you?" They don't understand the full implications of their actions.

If, as the parable and the story which came out of it suggest, we can serve God without believing that we are doing so, why can we not have faith in God without, at the moment of the birth of that faith, believing in the God who is the object of our faith?

I have faith in God, and I believe in a God (or a description of God). But, as it is unlikely that my beliefs about God are anything like the way that God actually is, do I believe in the God in whom I have faith?

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