Some time ago I had a student in my office who was having a crisis of faith. Actually, it wasn’t so much a crisis as an honest admission that she was finding the sorts of things we say in the Creed to be hard to accept. Even though I teach folks who have already discerned a vocation in Christian ministry, it’s not that rare, in fact, that I have these “threshold” type conversations of one sort or another. From time to time, a student will want to bracket the exegesis and course selection questions, and just talk about faith.
Two Aspects of Faith
Students of Thomas Aquinas will remind us that there are two aspects of faith. There is faith in which we believe, the fides quae, and faith by which we believe, the fides qua. This still lives on in English, for instance when we say “keep the faith.” We mean something personal, in that we’re hoping the hearer will keep up the practices of believing. But we don’t simply mean “keep believing,” as if believing anything at all will do. The faith suggests a particular faith, perhaps the one a family or community passed along to us. Keep that faith. Thomas’s distinction gets at that. There is a faith to keep, and there also is a habit of keeping it.
The “that” of faith, the thing we believe, is the substance of theology. It’s my day job. We attempt to make connections between the ideas, especially the puzzling intellectual knots. For one random example: if God loves creation, does it make sense to say it will one day cease to exist? A theologian doesn’t set out to understand God so that she or others can believe, but instead tries to put language to the things of faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding, Augustine (and Anselm and Barth and…) said, not the other way around.
Faith as Persuasion
The subjective side, or the fides qua, we might call the “how” of faith. Christian faith is not simply a set of propositions I resign myself to abide by. That’s called law. No one says I have to love the Constitution in order to be a U.S. citizen. No one, in fact, has ever asked me about my personal practices of believing in it. I am just expected to follow it. But faith is different. There is a habit of believing that I bring to “the belief.”
Paul’s word for faith is pistis, and it carries notes of trust. Faith is a kind of trust.
But as soon as I’ve said that, I find myself skeptical. Trust can sound like blind and unwise vulnerability, like when the villain in a movie says “trust me.” My friends and family whose skin is darker than mine tell me that trusting authorities—even the authority of the Constitution—is often a difficult negotiation. Sometimes, as my grandfather would have put it, the wiser path is to trust someone only as far as we can pitch them.
Pistis, for Paul, is not a call to trust blindly. That’s the reason he goes to such great length, especially in Romans and Galatians, to make the faith persuasive. “The” faith, Thomas’s fides quae, is Paul’s evangelion, or paradosis, the story passed down. And Paul trusts it: he admits a habit of pistis or fides qua. Paul is compelled by this story, as I’ve noted before. What’s more, he wants to show us the connections so that we’ll be persuaded too. I think he’s doing systematic theology when he shows these connections. But that’s a discussion for another time.
The Spectrum of Persuasion
The how of faith is not the usual terrain of theologians, simply because there is no systematic presentation of “coming to believe.” People are persuaded into trust for a thousand different reasons. For me, it was a passage from Saint Augustine I was reading with some friends. For a woman I met last week, it was the strength of her own testimony, a moving account of the care of God for her as she crossed alone the hostile terrain between Central America and Texas.
More often than we might notice, faith in the New Testament is not an all or nothing endeavor. Jesus uses a register of greater and lesser when he talks about believing. He’s surrounded by those who are leaning in, curious, and at various levels of committal.
Faith is a spectrum, in other words. Those of us who hear of the faith, the evangelion of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection that claims us as God’s children, are always somewhere in the spread of that persuasion.
The iconic proclamation of faith’s spectrum comes from the poor tortured child’s father in Mark 9: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” It’s the same word that Paul uses: “I’m persuaded to trust! Help me overcome my apistia!”
Honest about Faith
I’ll admit that in my teaching I try to make the faith persuasive. It’s a gray line that I don’t have to worry much about, teaching at a Christian seminary. I’d have to be more mindful of it at a state school like the one I graduated from. But I think even there I would allow students to see that I find the fides quae to be fides qua inducing. The story Paul tells, Augustine’s contemplations of the Triune God, Francisca’s immigration story, my own long voyage with God across stormy seas: I find it all persuasive.
And not everyone does. If we decouple self-awareness about faith from anxiety about the Last Judgment—a crucial decoupling, if theology is to have integrity—then honest conversation about the persuasiveness of the faith can be a beautiful thing.
The student in my office was sorting these things out. She was moved by the faith, but not entirely persuaded. She found herself wanting to echo the words of King Agrippa, at least as the Authorized Version has them: “Almost thou persuadest me” (Acts 26:28). And we discerned together that that’s not such a bad place to be. Moved, deeply interested, and not entirely persuaded. What a gift, in fact, to have someone share such vulnerability with me.
It can be a gift, naming with courage and honesty where one stands in relation to the spectrum of faith.