Faith Is Lived

Faith Is Lived August 23, 2018

Faith is to be lived, not researched. Faith, fidelity, is manifest in love, in the way we live out that faith, and not in the way we can research and recite the way others have presented their faith. We get more out of a simple life, living life with justice and love, than we do in a life lived in pursuit of intellectual discourse founded solely upon scholarly endeavors. We can know much through study; we certainly can benefit greatly thanks to such study, as scholars can help us understand the depths of our faith better when there is a crisis of faith, but such knowledge in and of itself does not indicate the quality of faith of those who have done such research and accumulated such knowledge. There is no end to the studies which can be done: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl. 12:12 RSV). If our faith came out of scholarly pursuit, and not something alongside it, we would have no faith, as there would always be something more to explore before we can say we are finished and ready to act in faith.

To be people of faith, we need to pursue more than words and ideas. It does no good to have a treasure map if we are unwilling to follow the map to the treasure itself. We can possess great wisdom and insight and still lack faith. Without love, it is nothing. It is all in vain. For many theologians, scholarly vanity hides a weak faith. Wanting to know and understand is good. Accumulating knowledge and wisdom without then employing it for actual self-reform but rather, for the pursuit of fame and glory (however limited the fame and glory might be) might temporality satisfy the angst which lies within, but eventually, such vainglory will not satisfy, and the one who is weak in faith will find that faith diminish even more because they have not pursued God in the midst of all their God-talk.

For this reason, St. Augustine explained that we actually learn more, and so gain more, in humility and mediation and prayer than we do through scholarly activity:

Therefore, I think in the first place that the manner of life has more effect in this kind of research than the manner of speech. Those who have learned from our Lord, Jesus Christ, to be meek and humble of heart make more progress by meditation and prayer than by reading and listening. [1]

This is not to say there is no place, no room, indeed, no need for such intellectual pursuits. We are to worship God with our mind, body, and soul; we can, indeed, should engage theology as a way to worship God and not as a way to bring glory to ourselves. Our goal should be to praise God, to lift God up, and we can therefore use theology as a form of prayer. This is not to say it will appear in the form of a basic prayer: it will not. It should be done in the spirit of prayer, with great humility, indeed, with the acknowledgment of our limitations, not expecting more out of our scholarly research than is possible to attain from it. We cannot comprehend the truth: we should not expect our scholarly engagement, our theological speculations, to be more than mere approximations, conventions used to help us have faith and open ourselves up to God. Our theology should not lift us up in pride, but rather, should open us up in humility, so that as we grow in love for God.

Many great saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, were known to approve of the study of theology only if it did not get in the way of someone’s spiritual life. Others, like St. Anthony the Great, were known to become wise through meditation and contemplation, able to find the world itself to be filled with insights that scholarly theological reflection was not necessary. As Plato understood books as often becoming memory crutches, so the pursuit of scholarly theological study is often a crutch for the spiritual life itself. Both books and scholarly studies are good when used appropriately, but when they used as substitutes for actual personal reflection and spiritual development, it is better to throw them aside and to start meditating so we can come to know ourselves. By knowing ourselves, we can come to know our place in the cosmos and our proper relationship with God. Indeed, this is what St. Anthony the Great said is expected of those who are truly reasonable instead of those who portray themselves to be for vainglory:

The rational man who has prepared himself to be set free through the advent of Jesus, knows himself in his intellectual substance. For he who knows himself knows the dispensations of the Creator and all that He does among His creatures.[2]

We will find ourselves often having trials and tribulations of faith. It is easy to have a library of texts which tells us what to believe, and to pretend by reciting such texts we will solve our crisis in faith. They can help. They can give us insight. They can show us the way. But we need to do more than recite. We need to live. We need to pursue. Our trials and tribulations should show us something is wrong; we can’t just let it all go and just turn to some book and ignore our problems hoping they will go away. It certainly might seem like it works, but deep inside, that angst will remain; the problems which confused us will remain, and they will find a way to hinder our faith until we are willing to face them head on, pursuing, with much humility and prayer, the resolution from within. Such trials, though painful and sorrowful, are also means by which God is at work with us, transforming us, making sure we become greater in and with him, so long we use the opportunity wisely. “For if trial does not come upon you, either openly or secretly, you cannot progress beyond your present measure. For all the saints, when they asked that their faith might be increased, entered into trials.”[3]

When we have a crisis of faith, it means we still have faith; when we find ourselves tired and confused because of the trials, we might need rest. We might need the help which others can offer us. Reading through the faith progress of others, and how they were able to explain their understanding of the faith, can do us good, but there is a limit to that good. We must not expect more of out them than they can offer. We cannot expect them to provide for us a resolution to our own crisis of faith. They can give us some ideas, some props, for us to pursue, but in the end the resolution is going to come from our own interaction with God.

 

[IMG= Young Woman Praying [CC0 Public Domain] via PxHere]


[1] St. Augustine, “Letter 147: The Book on the Vision of God”  in Letters III. Trans. Wilfrid Parsons, SND (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953), 170.

[2] St. Antony the Great, “Letter III” in The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 9.

[3] St. Ammonas “Letter IX” in The Letters of Ammonas. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 11.

 

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