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Saturday, February 25, 2006

types of faith

Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, speaks of four types of faith. He categorizes them by four Latin terms for faith that each have a distinct emphasis. Briefly, they are:

  • assensus: accepting a statement to be true; this might be called "head belief"

  • fiducia: trust or reliance on God

  • fidelitas: faithfulness, living for God

  • visio: a way of seeing reality; in particular, seeing God's grace at work

Borg also lists the opposite of each type of faith:

  • assensus: doubt or disbelief

  • fiducia: anxiety or worry

  • fidelitas: unfaithfulness or "adultery"

  • visio: viewing reality as hostile or indifferent

Borg doesn't give any examples of the different types of faith, but I think all four are evident in the gospels.


An example of assensus would be Thomas' statement from John 20:25, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Head belief is rooted in physical evidence, accepting what can be seen and felt.

Another example of assensus is on display in John 5:39-40, "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life." Head belief isn't worth much if it doesn't sink down into the heart.


Fiducia can be found in Luke 8:43-44, "Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped." She must have known Jesus' reputation as a healer, but her actions were grounded in her trust that simply touching his clothes could make her well.

Another example of fiducia is in Mark 2:3-4, "Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay." Again, it wasn't intellectual belief that led them to action; it was the trust they had in Jesus' ability to heal their friend.


Even though Thomas is remembered primarily for his lack of assensus, he displayed a remarkable fidelitas in John 11:16. Jesus has just announced that he is going to Jerusalem to die, and Thomas says, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Unlike the examples under fiducia, Thomas is sticking with Jesus even with the expectation that things will end badly. Personally, I find it very encouraging to see such faith in a person who struggled with head belief. Though Thomas' intellectual doubts are well known, his faithfulness is striking.

Another example of fidelitas when Jesus sent his apostles to preach. Here's a link to Matthew 10:5-42; I won't quote the whole passage. Jesus' instructions made it clear that they would not have an easy time: "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles." They were simply to rely on God, not just for safety but for even their basic physical needs: "Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food."


The paralytic whose friends showed such fiducia was introduced to another type of faith in Mark 2:5. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’" With five short words, Jesus opened up a new visio, a whole new way of seeing life. We don't know what this man's sins were, but whatever they were, they left him paralyzed. By demonstrating God's grace, Jesus enabled the man to become whole.

Another example of visio is in Matthew 16:15-17, "He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.'" Peter was given insight to see who Jesus really was. And though Peter still struggled with his faithfulness until the day Jesus died, he eventually let this insight transform his life so that after the resurrection Peter became a bold leader who had no fear of earthly rulers.

* * *

In the modern world it seems that faith is most often associated with assensus. Yet that is the shallowest of the four types of faith. Even though when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he told Thomas not to doubt, Jesus added, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Thomas could believe again because he had physical evidence. This gave him head faith. But belief without seeing -- that's faith of the heart. And that's what Jesus says is blessed.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

mistaken identity

It can easily happen that a person loses his Christian faith as a result of forcing himself to try to accept a view of the Church, or of God, or of life in Christ, which is so distorted that it is practically false. Yet he may be under the impression that this view of the Church is the right one, since it appears to be the view actually held by most of the Christians with whom he associates. In such cases, the effort to cling to a deficient and imperfect concept of Christianity not only does no good, but actually contributes more quickly and effectively to loss of faith. What is necessary in such a situation is not force, not self-castigation and confused efforts to conform to second-rate Christians, so much as a clarification of the real issue and a restoration of true perspectives.

- Thomas Merton Life and Holiness

Whether or not we ever have a crisis of faith, and whether or not the crisis causes us to lose our faith, we all have distorted concepts about God and about the church. We can't help it; as human beings we each have a limited perspective.

Merton goes on to say:
...we may also have to confront in our lives inadequate ideas of God and the Church. Indeed, we may have to grapple with actual abuses in the life of Christians, in a so-called Christian society, and even in the Church herself.

Indeed, the concept of a "Christian society" is one that needs to be clarified today. Certainly the affluent, secularized society of modern Europe and America has ceased to be genuinely Christian. Yet in this society Christians tend to cling to vestiges of their own tradition which still survive, and because of these vestiges they believe that they are still living in a Christian world. Without a doubt the pragmatism and secularism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have entered deeply into the thought and spirit of the average Christian. On the other hand, the violent defensive reaction of the Church in the nineteenth century against the French Revolution and its consequences has left a spirit of rigidity and even a certain fear of new developments. This difficult situation results in many conflicts and apparent contradictions in Catholic life.

... and in Protestant life. None of us are immune from the distorting filter of human nature. In a nation where Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, the distortions are even thicker as societal mores become intertwined with church teaching to the point that we forget (if we ever knew) which is which. And there can be no doubt that many political leaders have encouraged the church not to take its role and its message seriously.

But regardless of the state's level of interference with church activity, the fact remains that the church is made up of human beings, fallible people each with a distorted image of God. Should we merely accept this as the best we can expect? Merton didn't think so. If nothing else, we can use this reality as an incentive to look within ourselves, to examine our own distorted pictures. That, of course, is not easy.
Some Christians are not even able to face this task directly: they can never fully admit it to themselves. But they cannot escape the anguish which wrings their heart. Perhaps they do not know the source of the anguish, but it is there. Others are able to admit to themselves that they see what they see: but it becomes a serious scandal to them. They rebel against the situation, they condemn the Church, and they even try to find the means to break away from it. They do not realize that they have now come close to the real meaning of their Christian vocation, and that they are now in a position to make the sacrifice that is demanded of adult Christian men and women: the realistic acceptance of imperfection and of deficiency in themselves, in others, and in their most cherished institutions.

Honestly, I wish Merton had stopped there. That much I can do, without much difficulty. But he continues:
They must face the truth of these imperfections, in order to see that the Church does not merely exist to do everything for them, to create a haven of peace and security for them, to sanctify them passively. On the contrary, it is now time for them to give to their community from their own heart's blood and to participate actively and generously in all its struggles. It is time to sacrifice themselves for others who may no longer seem to be very worthy.

Merton seems to be asking a lot. Yet, Jesus sacrificed himself for us who were not worthy. All Merton is asking is that we follow Christ's example. After all, isn't that what the name Christian means?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

in god we trust

Jonathan Kozol, in Ordinary Resurrections, describes his visits to the afterschool program at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Mott Haven in the South Bronx. The book focuses on the lives of a group of grade-school children who, because of the neighborhood where they were born, will not have the same opportunities many Americans take for granted. Toward the end of the book, Kozol reflects how his own father had a life-changing experience when traveling through Europe one summer during his college years. Kozol's father, who had already been accepted to Harvard Law School, met some prominent physicians in Europe and decided on a medical career instead.

Kozol then reflects on how he would like for some of the Mott Haven children to have the same opportunities, and how he is unable to even discuss such an idea with those who work with the kids every day:

Reasonable people might observe that scarcely more than 10 percent of children from Mott Haven even graduate from many of the local high schools with degrees that could enable them to enter any four-year college and that very, very few of these survivors could conceivably get into colleges like Harvard, let alone go on to Harvard Law School. Hypothesizing aspirations for these children from my father's life, or from my own, therefore, seems utterly romantic to some people. Even some black and Hispanic educators whom I've known for years just smile at me when I say things of this sort. They put their hand quite firmly on my elbow, as if they're affectionately checking on my mental health, and look me in the eyes and tell me that I'm dreaming.

"These children are not going to be lawyers and psychiatrists," I'm told. "They'll be very lucky to get jobs as medical assistants or as sanitation workers with a union and some good health benefits." (Yes: Black and Hispanic educators do say things like this to me, and not only political conservatives, but lifelong activists and intellectuals who have the deepest loyalties to inner-city kids but also know the outer limits of the possible or what they view, at least, as outer limits.) Several of the inner-city school officials who are close to me politically, and personally, have told me nonetheless that they regard it as unrealistic, even overreaching, when they see me juxtaposing aspirations and ideals from regions of experience that seem to come out of two different worlds.

Statistically speaking, those kids have a better chance of going to prison than graduating from high school. They don't have enough adult role models to help them make wise choices. While St. Ann's and other churches do everything they can to help, they only have the resources to help a few kids, and even those kids face strong pressures from other influences.

* * *

Those are the sort of images that come to my mind whenever I hear impassioned pleas about keeping the words In God We Trust on American currency, or similar such displays of public piety. In truth, if the United States were a nation that did trust in God, we would not be a nation that turns its back on its most vulnerable children. If we were "one nation, under God," as the Pledge of Allegiance so blithely states, we would not be a nation where one's opportunities are largely determined by the place of one's birth.

While some TV preachers are pressing to have the United States officially labeled a "Christian nation," as if the measure of a nation's faithfulness is in the appearance of its currency, children are dying. Does that make any sense at all?

If one of the Old Testament prophets could be dropped into 21st century America, he would be outraged at the superficiality of what passes for faith in this country. Outraged, but not surprised. We're not so much different from the people the prophets were first sent to:

Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

God doesn't care what is engraved on our coins, not if our hearts are callous toward injustice.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

recommended reading

These books have helped shape my understanding of God.

  • The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In my opinion this is the definitive exploration of the grace of God and what how it affects our lives, written by a man who would later live up to his own words, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

  • Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster: This book helped me to see that Christianity was not simply a set of beliefs to be accepted, but a way to live.

  • Life and Holiness, Thomas Merton: Merton talks about practicing holiness in everyday life, without ever getting legalistic about it.

  • The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg: How we think about God affects how we practice our faith. Borg builds a bridge between the biblical tradition and contemporary thought, uncovering a God who is intimately involved in our lives.

What's on your list?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

walking the labyrinth

Recently I've been hearing more and more about labyrinths. Last month my church hosted a labyrinth for a weekend. I was intrigued but was unable to attend due to family obligations. Last week, a post at the Street Prophets website spoke of the benefits of walking a labyrinth. So, through an online search, I found a local church with a permanent, public labyrinth. It's not far from where I work, so the other day I went there during my lunch hour to walk.

Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has only one path. Unlike an interstate highway, a labyrinth has many twists and turns. The center represents God, and the winding path represents our life journey. I followed the path as it wound around the circle, sometimes moving ever so slowly toward the center, sometimes turning closer to the circle's edge, and I realized how God's ways are not always our ways. Though my rational mind told me I was moving away from the goal, I realized that every step, no matter which direction, was leading me one step further along the path to the center.

Through most of the walk, both on the way in and on the way out, I was distracted by many thoughts, and unable to focus. Despite the revelation about the winding path leading me where I need to go, I felt like I hadn't really connected with God. Yet even as I started my car, I could feel the stress draining from my body. By the time I got back to work, I felt a sense of peace greater than I've experienced for some time, a peace that stayed with me for the rest of the day.

So, even though my mind didn't cooperate during the walk, I think it was a positive experience. Next time, maybe with a little advance preparation, it will be even better.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

intimacy with the land

If I choose not to become attached to nouns – a person, place, or thing – then when I refuse an intimate's love or hoard my spirit, when a known landscape is bought, sold, and developed, chained or grazed to a stubble, or a hawk is shot and hung by its feet on a barbed-wire fence, my heart cannot be broken because I never risked giving it away.

But what kind of impoverishment is this to withhold emotion, to restrain our passionate nature in the face of a generous life just to appease our fears? A man or woman whose mind reins in the heart when the body sings desperately for connection can only expect more isolation and greater ecological disease. Our lack of intimacy with each other is in direct proportion to our lack of intimacy with the land. We have taken our love inside and abandoned the wild.

- Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger

If there's one thing we've lost in the modern world, it's a connection with nature. For every technological wonder we accept into our lives, we take another step away from the created world. In doing so, suggests Terry Tempest Williams, we retreat from each other as well.

I don't think I completely agree with her. Certainly, if we are watching television or spending time at the computer, we are not spending time either with the land or with other people. Certainly, if we are talking on the telephone or typing our thoughts in a blog, we are not seeing people face to face.

On the other hand, the person on the phone or the person reading the blog is possibly in another city, another state, even another country. We may not have the opportunity to see them face to face. If I am only able to contact my family through electronic media except on rare occasions like holidays, maybe the technology is not a bad thing.

Still, I think Williams has hit on something that we often forget in the modern world. Technology has truly transformed our lives, though not always for the better. And the more time we spend in our climate-controlled homes, the more we lose sight of the fact that our lives are dependent on a healthy earth and a healthy ecosystem that can provide plants and animals for our nourishment. Forgetting that, we can easily rationalize the loss of wildlife habitat in the name of economic development.

Whether it's the controversy over spotted owls a decade ago, or today's push to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, business interests want to portray the conflict as a matter of jobs vs. the environment. But there's something larger at stake. We've already caused a lot of damage to the environment, and we add more pollutants to the air and water every day. The more we damage the ecosystem, the more we imperil our own survival.

Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer
Almighty God, we thank you for making the earth fruitful, so that it might produce what is needed for life: Bless those who work in the fields; give us seasonable weather; and grant that we may all share the fruits for the earth, rejoicing in your goodness. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.