By Christian Bergmann
Faith is one of the foundational concepts of Christian belief and practice. It is a core ingredient to salvation itself: “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). In modern political discourse, you’re likely to hear people refer to “faith communities” or “faith leaders” or “faith-based communities”; umbrella terms that contain within them a variety of different religious beliefs and practices, without singling any particular religion out for special consideration or treatment. The problem with this terminology, however, is that it tells us almost nothing about the nature of faith, or what these differing communities actually believe constitutes faith.
Having been formed, as a young man, in Protestant and Pentecostal communities, I can attest to the fact that my understanding of faith, and thus my faith, has taken on a different shape now that I have allowed myself to be formed by the Catholic theological and intellectual tradition. And the difference between the two is not insignificant.
Given the fact that our society is saturated in language of “data” and “modelling” and “analysis” and “expert science” – and treats faith as somehow subordinate to these more concrete forms of knowledge – it is imperative we recover an understanding of faith today that truly makes sense.
One of the basic problems, I think, was outlined by Pope Francis in the document he co-authored with Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, Lumen Fidei. In the introduction, Francis points out that faith, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onward, came to be associated with a kind of darkness. With humanity now coming of age, and outgrowing the superstitions and beliefs of previous eras, faith was seen as darkening the mind and shrouding people in ignorance. There were certain Christians, such as Søren Kierkegaard, who tried to rescue faith from this problem by agreeing, in some way, that faith involves darkness. But they said that faith involves a leap – a jump beyond into the darkness where reason cannot go.
The problem with this, Francis says, was that faith became subjective and ceased to be something that “could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way” (LF, 3). It was comforting for individuals making their way through the world, but it was not a shared light.
We treat faith the same way today. Faith is something consoling for the individual; it is private and subjective; it is not appropriate for the public space, which needs robust forms of knowledge (data, analysis, experts, modelling, etc.) in order to make our way into the future. It has very little to do with truth.
Benedict says this: “Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age. In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable” (LF, 25).
Unfortunately too many Christians fall into this trap. They fall into the trap of thinking of faith as being blind. If it isn’t in some way blind, then it isn’t truly faith. If we keep thinking like this, then faith will always be considered less important than our technology, than our modelling, than our desire to map ourselves out socially by data alone.
But is faith something that can light the way? Is it something that can help us to see clearly, think clearly, hear clearly? Is it something that can be shared as a light?
We will answer this in later posts.