Friday, January 16, 2015

unpacking faith

Image from blog.oxforddictionaries.com
It is interesting to note that in common usage, the verb "to believe" is a weaker word than "to know." If I say, "I believe there is some chocolate in the cupboard," what I mean is something like this: last I checked, it was there, but someone may have eaten it in the meantime. When I say, "I know there is some chocolate in the cupboard," I mean something along the lines of: I was just looking in the cupboard and saw it there. However, when we are speaking theologically, the word "believe" is a very strong word indeed.

The Hebrew word, emunah comes from the root aman which means firm, something that is supported or secure. You can find it in Isaiah 22:23 for a nail that is fastened to a "secure" place. When emunah is translated as "faith," it is related to firm action. In the Old Testament context, to have faith in God means that one not only knows that God exists or that God is faithful, but one acts with firmness toward God's will.

In the New Testament, we have the Greek word pisteuw which is translated as "believe." The noun version, pistis, is usually translated as "faith." The word carries with it the idea of conviction and trust compelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative. The Amplified Bible expands the verb,  "believe" to read "trusts in, clings to, relies on."

Let me unpack the idea of faith, theologically speaking, by pointing out three key elements.
1. Faith includes recognition of who a person is. This means we have logged some time with them, know something about their character, have some basic connection or relationship.
2. Faith includes confidence in someone's abilities. Our confidence in a person is rooted in some knowledge of their ability either through direct experience, the witness of others, documentation, etc.
3. Faith includes making a decision to trust someone. This carries with it a certain amount of risk, because though we have some idea of a person's character and some indication of their ability, our knowledge is always partial. In other words, we cannot absolutely know how things will unfold.

Faith is informed and discerning. Its strength and legitimacy lie not in itself (how strongly we believe something) but in the object of faith. Faith is trusting action based on compelling experience and knowledge. It is not blind by any means, but neither is it without risk.

Let's say that we meet world record weightlifter, Behdad Salimikordasiabi. We have a meal together and get to know a bit about him. He is 6 ft. 6 inches tall. He weighs 377 pounds. He is from Iran, 25 years old, and holds the world record for the snatch (lifting weights in one continuous motion from the floor to above the weightlifter's head). Oh, and the snatch record which he set in 2011 is 214 kg or 472 pounds. We are understandably impressed. Then Behdad does the unexpected. He asks if he can lift us up above his head and run around the room. Um...awkward. First, because we are in a really nice restaurant. And second, it's just awkward. But really, think about it. This is a once in a lifetime chance to be lifted by one of the strongest men in the world!

Let's look at what we know: 1) Behdad is a nice guy. In our conversation we did not sense any anger, tendencies toward revenge, or ill feelings toward us. In fact, he seems genuinely concerned about our well-being. 2) Behdad has a reputation as being very strong. We have not seen it personally, but there are witnesses, records, pictures, and stories to back up his reputation, so we are inclined to believe it is true. Plus, he exhibits no signs of injury. And so we come to the moment of decision: do we trust Behdad enough to put ourselves in his hands? Do we take the risk? Are we okay with perhaps looking foolish? Are we okay with people not understanding what is happening? Are we okay with taking a risk in a public forum? And we decide, yes, yes we are! And we say to Behdad, "Let's go, friend! I have faith in you! My life is in your hands. I go where you go." And so Behdad does what he loves to do (be strong) and I laugh with delight and, at times, scream in panic as the world whirls by from the secure vantage point of Behdad's strong and capable hands.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled (distressed, agitated). You believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely on God; believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely also on Me." - Jesus, John 14:1, Amplified Bible

Watch Behdad's record breaking snatch (2011) here.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Emunah is a type of knowledge. But it shouldn't be confused with reason. In our society, reason is the faculty in which we are certain. Reason is the faculty in which we place our trust.

Hebrew 11 from the Orthodox Jewish Bible states:

“11 Now Emunah is the substance of things for which we have tikvah. Emunah is the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is the conviction of things not seen. It is firm. But it is also blind. They're not necessarily opposites.

You do not have to recognize God as person (whatever that means), have confidence in God's abilities (whatever those are), or even make a decision to trust God in order to live in faith. Faith is the action of trusting God, which then forms your inner life and being. Tikvak, or hope, should be placed in things not seen, meaning not in reason.

Matte Downey said...

I understand what you are saying, but my point that faith is not blind is meant to counteract the idea that faith is not based on anything. It is. Just like trust, it is based on knowing something about the person you are trusting, whether through firsthand knowledge or from some kind of witness. Faith is not always reasonable, nor can one see all the implications of faith, but it is not totally blind.