You have decided to buy a new computer. As the good and wise shopper that you are, you begin googling information and gathering recommendations for this so-important purchase. You are being rational. You learn, compare, question and weigh your options. When all is said, and done, you make a decision.
Rationality is about our ability to weigh, sort, compare, judge, and the such like. I like to think of it as our ability to find and pick the right berries to take back to the tribe. It can get very sophisticated, but, on its most basic level, it will always remain berry-picking. It has very little to do with “faith.”
We cannot “choose” God, for the simple reason that He is not one of a larger set. We cannot choose God for the same reason we cannot choose the sky or the sun. With the sky and the sun we can imagine other planets and think that their skies and suns would be better, but God is the only God and not subject to our shopping.
A difficulty, of course, is that “God” has become the name assigned to a concept that is indeed an object of choice, one of many versions from which we select. The relation we have with such a “God” is not faith. It is rather more like self-confidence in our own thinking. What many would describe as a religious “search,” is often little more than surfing the top of the religious world (or is it just “spiritual”?) and gathering an idea here or there.
We can read that faith is a matter of the heart, a statement that can leave us even more confused. In modern parlance, “heart,” is often synonymous with “feelings.” Nothing is more ephemeral than feelings – they are the basis for brief experiences but little more.
There may be decisions within the question of faith, but these are decisions about ourselves rather than God. “Faith” is largely a description of what we do after we have come to believe that God exists.
Of course, “God” is a very meaningless term – or, its possible meanings are so many that it is less than useful as a word. To say, “God,” immediately asks the question, “Which God?” and already matters have changed because if God is One, then “which God” makes no sense as a question.
Years ago, in the setting of an Anglican Christmas cocktail party, someone came up (I was wearing a collar) and, apropos of nothing, suddenly began to pronounce what they believed about God, some of which was nonsensical culture noise. My response was simple, “Then you are a prophet?” He was confused and asked what I meant. I explained, “It would take some kind of prophet to make such statements about God. But, I am a Christian, and it matters nothing to me what you think you think about God. God is not a matter for speculation. He is revealed.” I wasn’t a hit on the cocktail party circuit.
A Christian cannot begin with “belief in God,” for the simple reason that such a thing has no meaning in and of itself. We begin with Jesus. What we encounter in Jesus is a message regarding God that has content: God is the One whom Jesus names, “Father.” This is His witness:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:27)
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (Jn. 1:18)
Nor can we claim, strictly, to believe in the “God of the Bible.” God is made known in the Scriptures, but only as read through Christ. We cannot know “God before Christ,” for there is no such knowledge. There are versions of a concept that we call “God” that we read into, or infer within the Scriptures, and then seek to paste Christ onto that concept, but this is a serious error, born largely, I think, of our tendency to want to map things out in a linear, historical manner. God is neither linear nor historical. God, we may say, enters history in the moment of Jesus Christ. What is made known to us in Christ was never seen before, nor imagined. Shadows were glimpsed, with a rare exception:
…for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt. 13:17)
And the exception:
Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.(Jn. 8:55-56)
But Christ does not show us God as someone apart from Himself. When asked to show us the “Father,” He points to Himself saying, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” We engage in Trinitarian speech, not because we see “Trinity,” but because Christ has taught us to speak in this manner. “Trinity” is how we speak of what Christ reveals. He is the “Son of the Father.”
Belief in God begins with Jesus. It is His death and resurrection, His Pascha, that reveals what we could never have known otherwise. Pascha is God-in-the-world-making-Himself-known. The more fully we enter into union with Christ’s Pascha, the more fully we know and understand who He is (and who we are). Christ’s Pascha is the meaning of love, the heart of all the commandments, the journey to God and God’s journey to us.
Faith is the acceptance of Christ’s Pascha and the steadfast adherence to the life it reveals. On the practical level of our life, Christ’s Pascha is the content of the word “God” when rightly used by a Christian. For God does not name an abstraction or a concept. God is the only-begotten of the Father, united to our human nature, suffering, dying, trampling down death by death, setting at liberty those who are held captive, and seating them with Himself in the heavenly places, thereby uniting them with the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. It is the life of Jesus lived in us.
Our reason has many uses, some of them are even appropriate in doing theology. But faith is an abandonment to the work of Christ and His Pascha.
I have been present for several hundred deaths through the years. On some few occasions, I have seen death as a struggle, as something feared and resisted in futility. I have seen many, indeed most, die in the process of a coma, whether natural or induced. But I have also been present with a number of people who faced death without fear, and “gave themselves” to it, committing their lives to the hands of a good God. Most had no clear assurance beyond the end they saw in front of them. Nevertheless, they yielded themselves to the sweet embrace they could neither penetrate nor fathom.
That action has always seemed to me an act that well-expresses faith. It is an action in which we commit ourselves to something that we cannot possibly understand ahead of time. As such, it can never be a choice. But, as in the case of those dear souls, there was enough that they trusted to make their action possible. That, I believe, is grace. No matter that the Apostles had seen the risen Lord. Staring at one’s own death, holding to His promise, we can, at most, commit ourselves to the path of His Pascha. This, I believe, is the meaning of faith.