Encountering faith on our way

  • January 9, 2013

A young couple was crossing the Atlantic by boat. During the trip, they got to know their fellow passengers, some of whom were Christians. The couple were atheists, and having Christian friends was a new experience for them. They were astonished to discover that people of faith could also be people of intelligence and sense. Then, they were astounded to realize that they’d always assumed otherwise. Why shouldn’t faith and intelligence go together?

Author Sheldon Vanauken recounts this story in A Severe Mercy. He and his wife didn’t know their journey to England was also a journey to faith.

Decades later, in this “Year of Faith,” our world is desperately in need of faith, achingly uncertain of where or how to find it. That ache is only increased by the underlying assumption that faith is silly, outdated, backwards.

A course I once took introduced me to Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish existentialist philosopher. “Existentialism” and “philosophy” were daunting words, but my grandfather whom I’d never met was Danish, so I was interested in meeting Soren. He tore open for me the question “What is faith?” Kierkegaard puzzles and puzzles over Abraham’s response to God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved and in whom rested God’s promise that Abraham would father a nation. He imagines different endings to Abraham’s story, endings that might show courage or understanding or resignation, but not faith. Why is the real Abraham story so necessary? What makes him our “father in faith”?

Over and over, Kierkegaard concludes that faith itself is something, big, powerful, unbelievably precious.

What is that precious something? Kierkegaard taught me that the question is enormously important, and staggeringly difficult. We know people of faith: parents, teachers, friends, saints like Joan of Arc and Jean de Brébeuf. Yes, clearly, such people hold something big and precious. It isn’t just that they believe certain things or act in certain ways. There’s a way of being, a centre, an invisible rock upon which they stand. As with Abraham, it leads them to awe-inspiring places, in ways that break apart our understanding of how things work.

Faith isn’t ideas or thoughts that we can say Yes or No to. Faith is of a different order. Faith is one of the big three — faith, hope and love — dazzling, difficult to grasp, arduous to live. It takes us on the perilous journey.

This month we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s faith in Christ came to him along a perilous journey; he knew just where he was going, but was radically redirected. And led into darkness. He was blinded — “because of the brightness of the light.” Saul, the fire-breathing dragon who could tell everyone who was right and who was wrong, discovered he couldn’t see and must be led. His unexpected encounter with Christ took away his vision — or showed him he’d been blind all along. After three days his sight returned; or perhaps, he finally began to see. Faith is like that.

Later, sharing this new vision born in darkness, Paul described faith: “Now we see in a glass, darkly ... but then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). St. Augustine loved this passage, reflecting at great length upon it. What we’ll “see” after death, when we meet God, is what we “see” dimly by faith now, in this life. Faith isn’t beliefs or ideas we toss around like the names of breakfast cereals. Faith is a way of seeing what really is, what can’t be seen in any other way. Through faith the apostles, including Paul, could see Jesus as they did. Faith gave Jean de Brébeuf a way of seeing the people who needed him and the people who tortured him.

Faith is not a rulebook, nor a way to judge others or a weapon to coerce them. Faith is first of all God’s presence in us.

Our aching for faith goes hand-in-hand with our inherent loneliness and isolation. Faith breaks open our isolation. It awakens us to the possibility of relationship. Faith is what happens between two persons, says Olivier Clément; it’s the force that unites persons. And so it brings us into relationship. Abraham wasn’t the first to believe in a god; but he was the first to be in relationship with God who made life claims on him. It’s in our living that our faith comes to be. Faith is dangerous because in forging this new relationship, it changes all other relationships, as happened with St. Paul.

Encountering Abraham helped Kierkegaard learn faith; encountering Christians helped the Vanaukens learn faith; encountering Paul helped Augustine learn faith.

At the base of our faith is someone, a person, the one St. Paul met on his journey, the God-man whose very existence is rooted in relationship. Faith in Christ can’t be a system of beliefs, but a description of a personal relationship, the relationship we are part of because God desires us.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)


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