What does it mean, Christianly speaking, to have faith?
When I was 20 I went on a study abroad trip to Russia, recently reorganized after the collapse of the Soviet empire. I attended several Orthodox churches, all of which presented this Midwestern holiness boy with a strange new world. The first of these Sundays I recall watching a small girl ask her mother to pick her up so she could kiss her favorite icon in the back of the church.
I felt conflicting energy battling within me at this sight. I didn’t know how to recognize that icon-kissing as an act of faith. Faith to me was an intellectual conviction about the identity of Jesus, held with sufficient sincerity. Lips were for saying particular confessional prayers to Jesus, not for kissing icons. But something awoke in me at that moment, a curiosity. If that child was displaying her faith, and so was I, then what is faith? In some ways my journey into theology began at that moment.
C.S. Lewis speaks of the kind of love that is about deep memories, connection to things familiar, a sense of belonging in a world with other people, objects, experiences. Affection, we call this love. When that child kissed the icon, I was seeing affection. And when I felt the tension of that act with the sermons, teachings, swimming pool baptisms, and testimonies that populated my early years, I too was feeling affection.
Maybe faith is a kind of affection.
Paul’s Affection Problem
Paul’s letter to the Romans is about a similar awakening to curiosity. I hear in it a question about what it is in our acts of faith that make us into just companions of God. The question is rather simple: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?” (3:29). If the answers to those questions are “no” and then “yes,” then Paul thinks we need to ask how both groups come into companionship with God. What is the shape of human faithfulness?
Judaism is centrally a love of God’s gift of Torah. “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” (Psalm 119:97). This is the affection that powers their faith. I imagine that when Paul read Psalm 119, he was flooded with memories of family holy days and of communities gathering for prayer and study.
Is that “just faith?” Is it the sort of affection that we should consider fitting to a just and holy God? How does it pair with the affection for the story of Christ’s death and resurrection?
Well, Paul’s first answer to his own question is that “it is God who justifies” (8:33). His curiosity receives the theologically sound and very un-diagonal response of “nunya business.” Still, Paul likes the challenge of working out the story of salvation through fear and trembling, so he gives his curiosity some lead rope. So can we.
What Happens in Romans
By the time the epistolary dust has settled, Romans seems to me to be saying something like this.
God comes to us twice. Once through the Son, who lived and died as one of us, and whom God raised. And once through the Spirit, by whom the affection for divine things has been poured into our hearts (5:1).
These two sendings are what the later tradition calls the two missions of God. I like Sergei Bulgakov’s language of one doubled mission, since it suggests that both sendings were accomplishing the same goal. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit in order to make us just companions of the holy God.
When Paul looks out on his Gentile companions who are being baptized and falling in love with the story of Jesus, he sees a new affection taking hold. He sees, that is, the work of the Spirit. When he looks out on his Jewish companions and sees their love for Torah and prayers, and their lack of affection for Jesus Christ, he is confused. It’s almost as if the Spirit is poured out so strongly in their love for Torah that they have no need for Jesus.
Well, Paul doesn’t think this is the case, and he hopes that eventually these two affections, Jewish and Gentile, will come together into one great celebration of affection for both sendings. That’s what Romans 9-11 is all about.
Justification by Diagonal Affection
Throughout the letter, though, Paul is certain that the justifying of faith is God’s work. Justifying of faith, or let’s say naming it as a humanly appropriate way of expressing affection for divine things.
God’s work, though, is still work that involves us, so work that falls on the diagonal. For that reason, that same Spirit who is poured into our hearts in chapter 5 returns in chapter 8. Now the Spirit is the one who interprets all that affection to the Father’s ear. “All that messy affection they’re expressing? They’re trying to say ‘Abba.’ They’re trying to have faith.” So our reaching out becomes, by grace, a reaching up.
Our calling as people of faith is not to figure out what ‘s the right way of believing. We get to love what God has given us to love, and the Spirit is there loving along with us, within us, and interpreting all that affection as “faith.” And then justification is God’s response to all that messy affection. “Yes to all that. The Bible verses, the candles, the icons, Torah: that is what I made you for. To love that way.”
Paul hopes that this will be God’s response to the faith of the Jews and Gentiles alike. He hopes this despite the differences in their affections. My theological curiosity awoke when I experienced affection for divine things in a Russian Orthodox church. I was curious: I wanted my own faith to be justified, and I couldn’t see how both could be.
For that reason, I’m glad that justifying these faiths wasn’t my job. I think Paul is glad of that too. The Spirit can hear, then and now, our messy and imperfect attempts at faith, and interpret it heavenward. “They’re trying to say ‘Abba.’”