Posted by: Ascentury | Monday, 29 December 2008

Excerpt on faith

The following is an excerpt and draft of a much longer essay on nihilism and existentialism in the light of the Gospel that I am currently composing.

Faith is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects to coherently discuss in religious discourse. It is a difficulty exacerbated by the myriad definitions and applications of the word. In Latter-day Saint circles, this is further compounded by a cultural fixation on the simplistic and rarely insightful Lectures on Faith, purely a relic of a nineteenth-century itinerant preacher’s theology.

A brief review of the classical scriptures revolving around faith yields the following definitions:

Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true (Alma 32:21).

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJVHeb 11:1).

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (IVHeb 11:1).

Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen (Ether 12:6).

Furthermore, “faith is a strong belief of truth within our souls that motivates us to do good” (Gospel Principles, 117); “faith is the assurance which men have of the existence of things which they have not seen, and the principle of action in all intelligent beings” (Lectures on Faith 1:9).

What are the common elements of these descriptions? Faith encompasses hope for unseen truth, belief of truth, and activity. It is, in short, a word so broad as to be useless for precise discussion. Faith used to describe the activity of planting a field in the hope of harvest is far different from faith used to describe acceptance of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in one’s life. Indeed, although strictly consisting of the “assurance of things hoped for” while “not seen”, the former sense is of no theological use whatsoever. Faith as a principle of power, while intriguing, does not immediately bear on the discussion at hand and will similarly be omitted.

Loosely speaking, Protestants have embraced a view of faith as an act of the individual towards God while Catholicism holds that faith is a supernatural act of God in the individual’s life. Both views are defensible scripturally and logically, and the simplest resolution is that both are correct. There are two basic classes of faith—the inwardly-motivated, and the divinely-motivated.

The first is willful belief, or the decision undertaken to believe in something. This is a purely human act, though not ignoble for it. “Belief is not a knowledge but an act of freedom, an expression of will” (Kierkegaard, 83). This is a species of science and metaphysics, as those paradigms emanate from certain keystone assertions, such as the supremacy of logic or the homogeneity of experience.

However, belief may be so constituted as to have anything as its object, true or false. “Untruth has exactly the same range as truth—for human eyes, not for God’s” (Kierkegaard, 103). Degrees of belief are elementary—contrast, for instance, “I believe that women should vote,” “I believe in the doctrine of the Eucharist,” and, most dangerously, “I believe in God”—as if that somehow justified (remember this word!) one’s behavior.

This is reminiscent of James’ theory of live and dead hypotheses (James, “The Will to Believe”). But a paradigm of willful belief alone cannot account for the attested transcendence thereof: Saul of Tarsus, while “consenting unto [Stephen’s] death” (Acts 8:1), was not pondering the possibility that the entire conception of the law had moved radically into historical and eternal obsolescence with the gift of God’s Son.

We are also told that faith is a gift of the Spirit. This faith is not fundamentally opposed to reason, nor allied with it; it exists at right angles to reason, and uncorrelated thereto. In conjunction with the light of Christ, a person is led toward truth; thus far, faith as a gift of God may be present and active even in the context of a fundamentally false religion, although with the golden canon of charity.

In their higher expressions, the light of Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost guide the individual into greater truth, nobler activity, and deeper humility. They effect the death of the natural man, and realize the Atonement’s redemption and quickening.

The second class of faith often follows as a direct consequence of the first:

For ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith (Ether 12:6).

Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (D&C 88:63).

It can also be deflected by the first, ill-used.

…After ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved—•…the man that doeth this … cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness; therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples (Mosiah 2:36-37).

The final stage of faith, the fully religious act, as Kierkegaard has it, is often referred to as fideism, belief for belief’s sake, faith without evidence and as a radical principle. Faith has passed beyond one consideration among many; it has transcended the logical and embraced the absurd, the paradoxical. Of Abraham it has been written,

Wherefore it was reckoned unto him for righteousness (Romans 4:22). Wherefore? Because Abraham’s faith is faith before God (Romans 4: 17); because faith is not one element in his character, but forms the absolute limitation which marks his behavior and dissolves it, the absolute Miracle, the Pure beginning, and the Primal Creation (Barth, 144-145).

Abraham’s assurance that God is able to perform His word is the impossible assurance (KJVRomans 4:21)…. If the line of death—his human disestablishment through his establishment by God—be removed from Abraham’s faith, its whole significance is removed. For faith would then be no more than a subjective human act, and would be depressed to the level of other relative and precarious human actions. Abraham ceases to be Abraham, if his life by not the consequence of his death. He did not merely believe: he believed—in God (Barth, 121).

This is faith in God—faith not as directed towards God the object, but faith in the context of God[1]. This is the union, the at-one-ment, of the two classes of faith, the individual embracing God and God embracing the individual. Ultimately, this is the leap of faith, the unreasoned and total commitment to the Lord, the religious stance of standing upon nothing except God’s word. This is what Kierkegaard’s knight of faith has attained—and yet not, for there can be no thought of ascribing this success of God to man.

And even faith, if it proceeds from anything but a void, is unbelief; for it is then once again the appearance of the slavery of unrighteousness seeking to suppress the dawning truth of God, the disturbance of all disturbings (Barth, 57).

The void, total acceptance of the consequence of faith as an intervention of God on our behalf, is what permits our belief and faith to be fixed upon true objects. No preconception may be carried into the furnace of de-cision; all that emerges must be shaped and augmented by God, and subjected to the Atonement. There is a necessary gap between myself and the object of true faith; even when placed in a principle (as faith in virtue), I recognize that I am not its paragon but its parable, imperfect and limited.

Faith is the first principle of the Gospel, and the last, destined to grow from Alma’s seed into the tree of life, nourished inasmuch as the death of the individual permits the light of God to penetrate. Indeed, we ourselves are naught but a shadow, an absence of light–neither its source nor its obstacle. That which is in us obstructing the grace of God is its obstacle; we are whole inasmuch as we are devoid, space through which light may pass. As a zero, we are a placeholder for something greater which God intends to make of us.

If we take the word ‘divine’ seriously, we mean that in this man the invisible has become visible, that what he is calls to mind what he is not, that a secret lies above and behind his behavior, and is hidden as well as illustrated by his conduct.  We do not in any case mean that the secret is to be identified with his actions.  When objects are thrown into the shadow by the application of a brilliant light, we do not call the shadow light; nor should we, when the light of the righteousness of God throws the works of men into darkness, call these works righteous (Barth, 119).

The dying, resurrecting God, death-in-life and life-in-death, is the ground of nihility against which we stand.  Thus Barth speaks of Abraham’s “faith before God” as not “one element in his character, but [as forming] the absolute limitation which marks his behavior and dissolves it…” (Barth, 144-145). To remove my refined palate, or capacity for higher mathematics, or ability to speak a foreign language, is not to fundamentally alter my existence. I may continue as the same class of creature. To remove my faith, “the line of death,” is to destroy me—and this is what the son of perdition (L. perditio, the state of complete and utter lostness) has committed. Faith as an intervention of God, accepted by the individual, alters existence—redeems it, quickens it.

Consider, in this light, the questions of personality and pride—ego. Whether I prefer Debussy or Chopin is, of course, of no bearing on eternity. Accidents of taste and opinion do not grind against the heavenly spheres, while love of one’s neighbor and submission before the Divine do.

This [non-historical] radiance [belief in God] obliterates the isolation of personality, the remoteness of the past, the aloofness of peculiarity, and all those purely incidental elements of which the individual is made up, and brings out what is common to every happening in history as well as its dignity and importance (Barth, 140).

Pride is the placement of any demand, any desire, any consideration above the eternal in our affections. God does not concern Himself with whether I drive a Cadillac or a Volkswagen, and neither should I—to the extent that I do, I am necessarily out of touch with the divine will.

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? …∙Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin… (Matt. 6:25, 28).

Obviously, this extends far beyond mere physical considerations, to habits of attitude and personality—recent centuries have been far too concerned with fine-twined linen and tinkling ornaments and being first in line at the Rameumptom, culminating in a ‘me’ generation of designer clothes, polychrome iPods, and Internet pornography. Rather than live for a moment with the truly unsettling—Nibley’s ‘terrible questions,’ we prefer to force it all to recede into the background.

Faith forces us outside this limited context, into a greater. Faith is a deep act of God. Consider Benjamin’s hypothetical in his famous discourse:

…If you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another, …if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants (Mosiah 2:20-21, emphasis added).

There is no illusion that any human action “justifies” human behavior to the divine. We are the unprofitable servants, though servants we indeed may be. No human thing is truly righteous, and we forget that at our peril.

The Lord does, however, intervene in the world as the faith of men permits them to receive it.

I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith (2 Nephi 27:23).

Operative here is not the positive assertion of the will of men, but the negation thereof—the negative space through which the light of God may pass unhindered.

By faith in the revelation of God we see men bound, confined, and barred in, but even this is the operation of God. We see mean under judgment, yet nevertheless thereby set aright. We see sense in the non-sense of history. We see that truth has burst its bonds. We see in men more than flesh. …We see the faithfulness of god [πιστις] remaining firm, even though the noblest human hopes and expectations are dashed to the ground (Barth, 95).

The exercise of faith is fundamentally hopeful, and is incompatible with a sense of ultimate tragedy. So often we are taught that tragedy is higher than comedy, that to stoically accept the fundamental unhappiness of the universe is nobler than to seek its harmony and joy.

The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man (Campbell, 21).

These are the fruits of faith, among others: that men accept Christ, that they aid Him in His work not only among their brethren but within their own souls, and that they transcend the world by realizing its dissolution and impending rebirth as a result of the same Atonement which bridged the gap of death within themselves.

What then is to be done, if faith is truly an act of God in my life؟ I suppose, proceeding from what dim light is mine, that I must implore Heavenly Father for faith, true faith, and that I must choose to believe that which I already suspect to be true. This should not be a validation of my current outlook, but an invitation to change it, to die to the world and be reborn in God. Thus men must “repent, and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore” (Moses 5:8).

[1]Is the great sin of the Enlightenment the enshrinement of Doubt as the cardinal virtue in place of Faith or even Wonder? Aside from the (admittedly fundamental) question of the role of Science in such a world, we must meet head-on the question of what we are seeking to establish most firmly in the heart of the individual. “Doubt is conquered not by the system but by faith, just as it is faith that has brought doubt into the world” (Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, I, 891; Philosophical Fragments & Johannes Climacus, 256). See also Johannes Climacus.



  1. […] (Incidentally, the Confluence now constitutes the bulk of my site traffic.) The two earlier posts Excerpt on faith and Excerpt on justification and sanctification are early versions of that work, which is an […]

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