What is faith?
by Chris Waddle, Director of Leadership and Spiritual Life
April 2021 — What is faith? I have heard faith described as “believing things you don’t really believe.” I’ve also heard faith defined as “believing things you cannot ultimately prove.” I like the latter better than the former. Still, it misses a bit of the point of faith to me. It seems to me faith is not primarily about believing beliefs. Beliefs matter. By this I mean core beliefs. Beliefs that relate to ultimate meeting and our relationships with God, creation, each other, and our selves. Still, faith is more than belief — it is about actions. It is about investing ourselves, being vulnerable, and taking risks. Faith is not a passive act of believing beliefs but a courageous act of risking ourselves based on those beliefs.
One day, when I was a pastor, I was visiting someone in his office. He was a collector of antiques and he invited me to sit down on this flimsy looking antique chair. I was honestly not sure whether or not it would support my weight. I considered just hovering over it and not putting my full weight on the chair. However, that was impossible since the chair had no arms, and I did not want to spend the whole meeting looking like I was sitting on the toilet. So I took a leap of faith and sat down. Thankfully, the chair did support me. This story is both an example of simple faith and a metaphor for all acts of faith.
Sitting on ancient chairs is easy compared with other leaps of faith in my life. One of the biggest leaps of faith that I ever made felt more to me like an abandonment of faith at the time. It came right on time. I was in my first year of college when another campus ministry invited our campus ministry to participate in a discussion about creation and evolution. We agreed to a discussion. However, what they had planned was more of a lecture.
I can sum up the whole presentation in three sentences:
- The Genesis creation story is scientifically accurate and historically true.
- If you believe in evolutionary theory you cannot be a Christian.
- We have biblically accurate dinosaur coloring books for sale at the table in the back.
I remember thinking to myself, “This is not science! This is The Flintstones! If this is where taking the Bible seriously is going to lead me, then I cannot be a Christian! Wait a minute! Why should I believe ANYTHING anyone taught me in church?”
I began questioning everything I had ever believed about God, Jesus, and my United Methodist Christian tradition. I also questioned every religious experience I’d ever had. I believed it was entirely possible, and most likely probable, that my religious experiences were just a combination of wishful thinking and emotion.
It was a gut wrenching experience. However, I was determined that I was not going to trust the full weight of my life on anything that could not stand up to my most rigorous questions. Just like that antique chair, I figured my Christian tradition, rooted in an unscientific world-view would crumble beneath the weight of my reason and I did not know where that would leave me. My whole world view and my most significant relationships were rooted in my church culture. However, I wanted to know the truth, even if it meant discarding my whole belief system.
Since this leap of faith, I have let go of some beliefs. Other beliefs I hold more loosely. Still, most of my core beliefs remain and I can tell you why I hold them and why I believe them to be rational and compelling. However, the truth that I found was not quite the truth I was seeking.
The truth I was seeking was a knock down drag out argument for the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the loving, forgiving nature of God. What I discovered was that faith, by its very definition, can never have the kind of lock-down drag-out kind of proof I wanted. However, most of what makes life good and meaningful is a matter of faith and not ultimately testable and provable. I began to see that there is no life without faith even If I did let go of my belief in God. I also learned that the core beliefs of my United Methodist Christian tradition actually did take seriously the integration of science, reason, and experience. In taking the leap of faith to challenge my tradition I discovered an intellectual rigor to my tradition that I did not know was there. It welcomed and was even able to engage my most challenging questions. This allowed me to be more open to the possibility that my spiritual experiences were more than just wishful thinking and emotion. Of course, they could be. But that is the nature of faith and I am ok with that now.
I hesitate to say this because it seems that when I feel at peace with my beliefs is also when I have an experience that challenges me to grow once more. Still, there is a difference in me now. I just don’t get as worked up about it as I once did. I now have more perspective and, I dare say even faith, in the midst of my doubt. I’m not sure I even understand what I mean when I say this. However, let me share how I have experienced it.
I remember one morning, while in seminary, thinking to myself. “I’m not sure I really believe in God today.” Then I chuckled when I sensed God saying to me. “That’s OK Chris, I still believe in you.” and I went on with my day as usual. My freshman college “me” would not have found this compelling at all. . . but it is so very compelling to me now.
Back to my original point. Core beliefs matter but they are not the same as faith. Faith happens when I invest in and risk are when I am vulnerable based on my core beliefs. Faith is not a noun, it is a verb. Faith is not something we have. Faith is something we do, exercise, and practice. It always involves risk and it always involves vulnerability.
Dr. Brené Brown is an expert on courage and vulnerability. She is very quick to correct people when they say “I understand what you are saying, if I am vulnerable and live courageously, I might fail.”
“No,” she says, “I am saying if you are committed to a life of courage it will require you to be vulnerable and if you consistently live this way, you WILL fail many times.” While I know I am paraphrasing a bit, this is the spirit of her words and she is talking about the life of faith.
Since I was a young child I have sought to live prayerfully. As I have grown I have tried not to make decisions based on fear and have tried to listen and respond to what I believe the spirit of God is guiding me to be and do. However, things do not always work out. I have lost a job, I have lost money, I have lost friends, I have made mistakes, and, I have been an ass at times when I thought I was being faithful or prophetic. Faith has not always protected me from pain and loss, even when I have been prayerful and courageous. Still, living prayerfully and courageously has often helped me sense and avoid danger, endure pain and difficulty, and drawn me into life-giving relationships and experiences. I believe that most of what is best about me has come from big and small acts of faith.
If you have taken enough time to read this far then my guess is that you are somewhere on an intentional journey of faith. My question is “Who is on this journey with you?” Churches synagogues, mosques, temples, and other communities of faith can often be these kinds of communities. However, I find that we also need communities within and outside of these communities. We need a smaller circle of people with whom we can develop deep trust.
If you are looking for this kind of community, one option is the PrairieFire community at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center. It has been a place where many people have discovered and rediscovered genuine courageous faith. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you might want to learn more about our next two-year community that begins this fall? Make no mistake, it will cost you something. You will not come out of the experience the same as you entered. However, I believe you will find that change a welcome one. If you would like to know more about this community of courageous faith please go to https://dmpcc.org/prairiefire/
Your partner in hope and healing.