I have to confess as I begin this post that I find myself reaching for words. I reach for words to say something I know, but which is hard to express. To believe the truth is not the same thing as having a correct opinion – indeed the two have almost nothing to do with one another. And this is a great difficulty – for most of the things that we think of ourselves as believing – we in fact only hold as opinions. What a man believes, in the way the word is used in the New Testament, is not seen or heard in the syllogisms he is willing to confess, but rather in how he lives his life.
Thus, when the Scriptures seek to express what it is to have faith in God, the images cease to have any particular intellectual content (or virtually no such content). Instead, Christ will use images such as a vine and its branches. To believe in Christ, to hold to Christ as Lord and God is to be like a branch to a vine. This is not an intellectual image but is a very understandable image of a way of life.
In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is a peculiar phrase. It is more than asking, “Do you give consent to the following propositions?” It is asking someone if they are willing to live as a branch to which Christ is the vine.
St. Paul uses the image of a body and its head. Are we willing to live as a body lives in relation to its head? St. Paul also uses the image of the union of a husband and a wife.
These are living images – images to which we can relate. But they cannot rightly be reduced to syllogisms or abstractions. To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the true God, in Whom alone is found salvation, is to unite one’s life to His life. It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life.
It is in this way that argument is so often beside the point. I know what it is to be corrected or even to lose an argument and be convinced that something I once believed is not, in fact, true. But many times this represents only a shift in opinion, a matter of little consequence. To accept that Christ is the Truth is more like accepting that the air in a room I am entering is breathable (and then breathing).
By observation I see that people believe many things in this way that are not the truth. Some people believe that they are economic units, defined by production and consumption. Life is good depending on the level of production and consumption. The world is good as measured by its production and consumption. I doubt that those who believe this would ever actually confess this to be the case. But the evidence of this faith will be found in their manner of life – what they choose and how they choose it. What center organizes the activity of their day?
Some people believe in pills or alcohol or sex.
Some people barely believe in God (and that they do so is a good thing). However, it is also possible that having a minimal faith and an unmanageable life to go with it, does not restrain the same person from holding careful opinions about God and the Christian faith and diverting themselves with opinions about almost every aspect of the faith.
The Christian faith uses words – but the force of the words is found in the reality from which they are spoken. A single word from a saint can bring a sinner to repentance. The most correctly stated argument from an unbelieving life may have little effect, none at all, or even be deleterious to those who hear it.
To believe the truth is to venture onto the holy ground of reality and not the fantasy of well-formed ideas. On holy ground we remove our shoes and remain silent – giving voice to words of praise letting words possess integrity. It is a very difficult thing indeed.
It is a rare thing to meet a man who believes in God – but it is a life-changing encounter. May God give us all the grace to believe.