Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Marcus Borg Clarifies My Thinking on Faith

Yesterday I started reading Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which I picked up on my vacation. I'm ot quite half-way through it yet, but I'm already struck by how similar it is to what I've been teaching the last few years. When I get really excited about something I've read, I read it aloud to my wife (she is very patient with this sort of thing, thank God!). When I read her passages from this book, she says something like, "That sounds just like you... only better!" My thoughts exactly.

Anyway, on the subject of faith, I've often taught that while we often see faith as belief in, or intellectual assent to, statements which can either be true or false, usually concerning the nature of God. But I argue that this is not really faith. That faith is much richer than this. I then teach on faith as "trust," which is personal and relational rather than propositional.

I sometimes include a story about my aversion to flying. I say that I believe that flying in an airplane is safer than riding in a car. I've seen good studies which demonstrate this. If I look at the data, it is clear that flying in an airplane is safer than riding in a car. But, I say, you will have a hard time getting me to agree to get on a plane. Why? Because I have no faith in airplanes. I may believe they are safer, but that belief is merely intellectual assent which in so way impacts how I live my life, because I lack faith.

So I contrast propositional belief with personal faith, saying that faith involves my entire being, not just my intellect. Faith rests in the person of God, and my relationship to and with God, rather than in statements about God.

But as I've been reading Marcus Borg's take on faith, I realize that I've been over-simplifying again. Borg identifies four kinds of faith, three of which are personal, and only one of which is propositional. He gives both Latin and English names to these faiths, and even identifies their opposites as a way of giving a fuller depiction of these faiths. Since I don't have the time or the energy to give a proper treatment to his accounts of these faiths - or views of faith - and since I have no desire to just type out the chapter which deals with this subject, I'm just going to briefly list them in a sort of rough chart. Hopefully this will lead to some decent discussion.

1. Faith as Assensus - that is, faith as intellectual assent (the English version of the Latin assensus, or "belief." This is the only propositional faith. Its opposites are "doubt" (soft) and "disbelief" (hard).

2. Faith as Fiducia - that is, faith as "trust" in the person of God, rather than trust in beliefs about God, which would be just another form of assensus, anyway. Its opposite is "anxiety" or "worry."

3. Faith as Fideltias - that is, faith as fidelity, "faithfulness" to our relationship with God. It is a kind of commitment or allegiance. Its opposite is "infidelity," which is described by the Biblical metaphors of "adultery" and "idolatry."

4. Faith as Visio - that is, faith as vision, a way of "seeing." This kind of faith colors how we perceive everything around us, everything that is. It impacts our view of the whole. Borg goes into great detail about this, but I won't go there because I'd like to know what this kind of faith means to you. How does your faith impact your way of "seeing" that which is?

The opposite of this faith is, as Borg puts it, "seeing reality as hostile and threatening or as indifferent."

Significantly, while faith is often seen in our churches as primarily propositional, that is, as concerning statements which may or may not accurately describe reality and the nature of God, three out of these four approaches to faith are personal, grounded in a personal relationship with an experience of the person of God which transforms our persons.

How does this speak to you?


Liam said...

Very interesting. Some of it reminds me of what the Jesuit Roger Haight (if I understood him correctly) referred to as the difference between faith, which is the basic ground of the religious and believing experience, and creed, which is posterior to faith and involves assent to certain propositions about the nature of what is experienced as faith. He sees a danger in mistaking creed for faith, and that doing so ("credalism," if I remember his words right) is as dangerous as fundamentalism.

In my own case, I find that the faith experience works in two ways. One is the grounding in an experiential encounter with God (knowing that God, i.e., meaning and transcendence, is "obviously there), the experience that we discussed with the fellow from the skeptic website. This experience -- the experience of grace, I suppose -- is elementary and practically involuntary. Once has the feeling that one is merely acknowledging what is before one (not always easy when you are coming from an atheistic background, but it doesn't require the intellect per se, but the heart). I feel that God exists and that God is good and present (fiducia, I guess), but I don't know what God is.

The next step is organizing myself existentially and socially so that I can worship God. This is when I have to dialogue with a creed in a way. In my case that means moving from the experience of the transcendent to understanding of Scripture, Christ, and Church. This is where I guess assensus and fidelitas must come in. Postmodern Catholic that I am, I feel that God (whose being and goodness I know through experience) guarantees that the truths of the Bible and the Church are true -- in some way. I assent to them and enter a community of worshippers (alive and dead), although I am constantly challenged to interpret both Scripture and the church as both, though inspired, are human productions.

Sorry to be so long-winded, but your post was very provocative and made me try to articulate some things I've been chewing on. Thanks, Chris, and I hope you are having a good Holy Week.

crystal said...

Is Marcu Borg one of the Jesus seminar guys?

Faith for me started with experience and feelings, and from there added theology to sort of explain that. The foundational experience, as Ignatius might say, makes considering the creed possible and worth the effort.

Brian Cubbage said...

Great post, Sandman-- when my Sunday School class read Borg's book, I had the duty of teaching the chapter in question. Good stuff, although Borg's books always feel underargued to me. I come away from them thinking, "This sounds really good, but..."

Liam raises an issue that I don't recall Borg saying quite enough about: the relationship between faith and truth (broadly conceived as something more than just propositional truth). The one thing that accounts for why it makes sense to talk about all four of these kinds of "faith" in the same breath is that each of them can presumably be engaged in wisely or unwisely. I can judge the truth or falsity of propositions correctly or incorrectly; my trust can be well-placed or misplaced; I can be faithful or unfaithful in the sense of fidelity; and I can "see" the world well or badly, optimistically or pessimistically, etc. Borg argues that point quite well, but it's quite another thing to suggest some way in which we might figure out which propositions are true and which false, who is worth trusting and who not, etc.

If these distinctions have something to do with some facts of the matter (broadly construed), then it becomes worthwhile to try to figure this out. But I don't recall Borg offering anything terribly memorable in this area. At the very least, framing the issue as one of "truth," despite the connotations of exclusively propositional truth it brings with it, has two advantages: (a) propositional truth is in the phenomenological ballpark as fiducia, fidelitas, and visio (as observed above), and (b) we have sharper intuitions about propositional truth that could do some work for us in unlocking what's going on in the other three analogous cases.

(In other words, to speak the language of analogical theology, we can't reduce all of these senses of faith to one another, but faith as assensus would be the primary analogate, the one that holds the key to understanding the others.)

I don't think that Borg wants to give the sort of account I give here, but I had a hard time finding a substitute for it (in that book, at any rate). And I don't WANT this sort of account to be the right one; if it is, then I think a far more conservative theology than mine is warranted.

Crystal might just have a better account than this in her appeal to foundational experience. I'll have to mull that over for a while. Where does Ignatius talk about that?

Tom said...

All I can say is: "cool".

Tom said...

BTW, that last comment was about the post and not the comments, as I haven't read through them yet.

Sandalstraps said...


Yes, Marcus Borg is one of the scholars in the Jesus Seminar. He shares their project of trying to identify the "historical Jesus" (a quest which I think is helpful, but ultimately impossible). However he is not just interested in the "historical Jesus," whom he calls the "pre-Easter Jesus." He is also interested in what has often been called the "Christ of faith," which he calls the "post-Easter Jesus." The post-Easter Jesus is how Jesus came to be understood after the Easter experience. This is the Jesus we worship in church.

He makes a distinction between these two Jesus not, I think, because he believes them to be two separate persons, but because professionally, he has two. As a secular scholar he has to operate with a somewhat different standard for what constitutes knowledge than we do in church, because the Bible is not authoritative in academia. So he makes a distinction between what he can as a scholar (that is, what his research into the historical Jesus tells us about the human Jesus who lived in first century Palestine) and what he can say as a Christian (that is, what the Christian tradition says about Jesus, particularly about his role after the resurrection).

My wife just got home from work, so I'll deal with the rest of the comments later. Good stuff!

crystal said...

About faith-based NT scholarship ... There is an excellent blogger-cooler discussion going on regarding faith-based scholarship, sparked by Michael Fox's SBL forum article here. Michael Fox himself wrote his article in partial response to an SBL Forum article by Mary Bader (and see letters to the SBL editor about Bader's article here). Please take the time to read the blog's on this subject ... here

Brian Cubbage said...

Before you offer any comments on the comments, I realized that I never really answered your question, at least not in any obvious way. Keeping in mind my previous post, though, here goes:

I tend to see the world as a rather large and mysterious place, and to think of God accordingly. I believe in God's immanence ("being-thereness," in the language I used in commenting on a previous post), but it's a strange sort of immanence thoroughly permeated by transcendence and absence. For partly biographical reasons too involved to bring up here, I tend to lay more stress on transcendence than immanence, but when I think to correct for my own biography I believe that God is characterized by both immanence and transcendence equally.

So I guess that, per Borg's discussion of faith as visio, I try to have it both ways: in light of my belief, the world is both a place where I feel at home and one in which I feel utterly alien. The world is both friendly and hostile. (Or better: language such as "at home" and "alien" for me only points towards a reality that language can't adequately capture.)

I think that Borg is trying to overcompensate for the utterly transcendent, authoritarian God of contemporary fundamentalism by veering too far in the other direction towards immanence. Neither one by itself really captures my faith very well; both are woven together seamlessly, and all I can do in talking about them is rip them apart.

crystal said...


Ignatius talks about the Principle and Foundation in his Spiritual Exercises, and the way he puts it is pretty medieval - the discovery of our purpose, which is to praise, reverence and serve God. But another way of expressing it (as I read in a book by William Barry SJ) is to think of the desire to be part of everything (God?) shown in this Wordsworth poem -

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Sandalstraps said...


Your balancing of immanence with transcendence speaks both to my experience as a Christian who must always balance doubt with faith (I once wrote an essay on why doubt was actually good for faith) and to my understanding of the Biblical narrative.

As this is Holy Week, perhaps we ought to meditate on the culmination of the admixture of immanence and transcendence, as Christ, the one who reveals God to us so completely that he embodies God, says this on the cross:

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?


My God, my God, why have you forsaken men?

and then dies.

If the one who makes God present to us, who is God with us for us, still experiences the existentially disorienting absense of God, why should we wonder that we do? God may be the groud of our being, but we do not always experience that ground as a present reality.

And, of course, we can here manipulate that ground metaphor quite a bit, seeing the existential trap door open up, leading to the free fall of the soul. But I'm getting a bit poetic, aren't I?

Anyway, thanks for your comment, reminding us to balance God's presense with God's absense.

Troy said...


one, I think it's cool you bring in Borg here (almost every human on this planet can teach me something) and

two, there is no doubt faith is not just intellectual assent to some proposition. It can't be just that. James didn't think so. Paul didn't think so either. Jesus, with his many works-based parables definitely didn't think so (though he asked Peter 'who do you say I am' and was it to Mary at Lazarus tomb, 'do you believe this?')

It all mixes together, man; my own
'Message' summation.

In your final comment, isn't it 'forsaken me' not 'men'? Or is this a new reading of the Greek? I never got past the alphabet as a pledge.

No doubt, hanging on the cross, beat more than half to death, near death itself, Jesus did say that. It seems one of the most difficulty to contest sayings in the gospels. And what does it mean? I can't even imagine. What did he expect God to do for him? How did he envision the kingdom's entrance? Was it largely an emotional outcry of despair? Probably. It's a great line, though, taken from the Psalms (a final intentional placement of himself at the center of the OT), and as you say we've all felt like that at times. Me, even today. Hopefully, not tomorrow.

Peace friend.

Sandalstraps said...


Sometimes a typo is just a typo. I still need an editor (a running gag that's run so long it isn't really a gag anymore)!

My last comment should have had Jesus saying

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Brian Cubbage said...

I noticed that, too, but assumed it was a typo. In another context, though, such a cry of lament might actually capture a real sentiment-- one entirely worthy of the Psalmist(s).

(Not that I think God ever really forsakes men-- or women. It's just honest to say that sometimes it sure does feel that way.)

Paula said...

Chris, have a Happy and Blessed Easter with all your family!

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for theologically redeeming my typo! I think you're right. That is the sort of thing that Phillip Yancy pointed to in his great book, Reaching for the Invisible God.


Thanks. Happy Easter to you and yours as well.