The Purpose of Faith
By Donald R. Ramsey
The world today is indeed a very confusing place. It seems that there is no end to competing claims of truth and authority while at the same time one is subjected to an endless stream of counter claims and questions of every sort--the goal of which appears simply to be an effort to obscure the original claims. The result of this chorus of competing voices in the world tends to cause every claim to be doubted and viewed with suspicion or apathy. For many, it just does not matter anymore whether any truth can be determined and for many of these it does not really matter what is believed. The effect of these attitudes is an increase of doubt and a corresponding decrease in faith.
Toward a Definition of Faith
As with most other concepts in the world, there are many different definitions of faith among the adherents of the world's religious communities. So stating an exact definition is not only difficult, but may be impossible. However, there are several facets of faith that would be useful to examine in order that we may be enlightened and strengthened. For our purpose here, we take as a matter of fact the existence of God. While recognizing that there are many who would argue with that premise, we accept that for the majority of humanity, there is an understanding that this premise is true, at least in some form.
We may observe the statement by the philosopher, William James, namely:
"The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed
cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which
religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: 1. An
uneasiness; and 2. It's solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers."1
The question of faith is no less than the question of the meaning of life. Why we exist has troubled many and the answers that fall outside of religion seem to fall short of satisfaction. Indeed many religious answers themselves are lacking in a sufficient explanation of this difficult question. We must arrive at a basic understanding of what faith is if we are to understand its purpose.
The distinguished Jewish writer, Abraham Joshua Heschel, makes these comments:
"Faith is more than inherited doctrine."
"It is more than awareness of God's power and presence."
"Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith."
"In faith, we do not seek to decipher, to articulate in our own terms, but to rise above our own wisdom, to think of the world in terms of God, to live in accord with what is relevant from God."3
The sense of awe and wonder to which Heschel refers is very important and cannot be stressed enough in our day. We humans are quick to be amazed at the achievements of various athletes and celebrities, but not for very long. And this is the way it has happened in respect to God. So many have been left doubting the existence of God or groping for some way to comprehend the idea of God that they have no sense of wonder at what God has done.
Many people have no sense of having had an experience with God. Although not absolutely necessary for faith in God, it certainly would help. Many people have no point of reference in regard to God or spiritual matters. An increasing number of people are left having no bond to God or God's people. (As used here, the term "God's people" refers to that entire body of believers in God--Jews, Christians, and others who believe in the one God.) Without the bond of attachment, faith is easily shaken.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains these statements:
"Faith is man's response to God." ¶26
"But this intimate and vital bond of man to God can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man. Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call." ¶29
"Faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. It is then that we must turn to the witnesses of faith." ¶164-165 4
Faith then is a turning toward God and is an expression of trust in a higher power.
The Difficulty of Faith
Many people do not believe in God or question whether God can exist primarily because they have no experience of God and do not accept the testimony of witnesses who have. For these individuals, proof is necessary and they interpret the very lack of proof as an indication that God does not, in fact, exist.
However, Abraham Joshua Heschel makes this very astute observation:
"We praise before we prove. Proofs for the existence of God may add strength to our belief; they do not generate it." 5
Another writer comments:
A characteristic feature of some works of medieval Jewish, and particularly Christian, philosophy was an attempt to prove God's existence. Obviously, if any medieval thinkers had succeeded in doing so, the word 'faith' would no longer describe people's relationship to God, since we use this term specifically because we lack definitive evidence. 6
Christians are fond of pointing out that faith is a gift from God. But what are we supposed to do with it? What is the purpose of having it?
The Purpose of Faith
Some Christians, and perhaps others, believe that faith exists as something to be exercised for the purpose of receiving something from God. This seems to grow out of the mistaken belief that God exists to provide them with whatever they ask. Then, if they do not receive what they ask, they often blame God and get angry.
This attitude is simply not adequate to determine the purpose of faith. God does not exist to serve man. Man exists to serve God. If God were to do nothing more for humanity, we would still need faith. Even if we were never to ask God for anything, we would still need faith.
Faith must be considered as the bond with God and the first step toward a reconciliation with God. Man is not what God intended and faith is necessary in order that we can find our way to God's presence. So faith is a foundation.
Since faith is a foundation, we ought to build on it. The obvious question is "Build what? And for what purpose?"
Mankind's mission as stated in the first chapter of Genesis is:
"Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all of the living things that creep on earth."7
Early man failed in many respects, but the mission remains the same. Evil is present in the world and this complicates the mission. Evil must be overcome. Men are called to be holy and blameless before God. No individual can accomplish this alone. It must be done collectively with others. This too requires faith.
In no small measure, to have faith means to be faithful. Faith in God requires faithfulness. Faithfulness to what? To the things he has given us to accomplish. To put it simply: God requires us to obey his word (commands). Although Jews and Christians differ on the exact commandments that are binding, the basic idea is the same. God has told us what to do and it is now up to us to do these things.
In order to be reconciled to God we must place our trust in God
regardless of the circumstances or whether God does anything for us or
not. Our attitude must be the one displayed by David as he was leaving
Jerusalem during Absalom's revolt, when he said:
"If I find favor with the Lord, He will bring me back and let me see it and its [the Ark] abode, And if He should say, I do not want you, I am ready; let Him do with me as He pleases." 2 Sam 15:23-26.8
Faith makes it possible for God to work through us. It is the first step of reconciliation. Only through faith can the will of God be accomplished in the earth. Only through faith can the redemption of God's creation take place. Since each of us is to have a part, each of us must have faith. And we must know how to use it.
1 William James, Writings 1902-1910, New York: The Library of America,
3 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, New York: The Noonday Press, 1995 ed.
4 Cathechism of the Catholic Church, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994
5 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man
6 Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994
7 Tanakh, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985