The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 5th August 2007
‘There abide three things, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.’ That well known verse from the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians has provided me for the theme for three of the sermons for matins in this month while I am in residence, because they are three basic qualities of Christian living that seem to require some examination. And I start today with the first, faith. What exactly do we mean by faith?
There are obviously two elements in the use of the word faith in the Christian tradition; it can refer to the faith which is believed, the content of belief, or it can refer to the faith by which we believe, the subjective process of believing. It is the latter element I wish to think about this morning, the subjective process, and just what does it mean to believe?
To ask the question almost immediately raises another issue, namely what is the relationship between reason, which includes the process of trying to think carefully and logically about matters theological, and faith, which the author of the epistle to the Hebrews defined as ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’.
Now in Anglicanism three things have always been seen as having authority in the belief of the church, scripture, tradition and reason. And the process of thinking carefully, analytically and critically about theological matters is a quite proper and sensible activity. It might well expose the foolishness or the inadequacy of some ways of thinking, it can open up new possibilities of how to formulate some aspect of belief and it can even force us to think about something in a fresh way. But at the end of the day at least in areas of theology it can rarely prove anything. For example I believe that careful and logical thought can certainly show that believing in God is a perfectly rational and sensible thing to do, especially if, in the process it forces us to examine exactly what it is we mean by God. But that is all it can do. It cannot make someone into a believer. You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Much the same can be said of reason. Without it we might never get to the water, or we might get to water but never realise that it is brackish and will not do the horse any good. So reason is very important both in providing a route and in correcting some falsehoods or distortions. But there is then needed the process of faith, by which what is observed can be made our own. Faith is not essentially an act of the intellect, but an act of the will, by which we say ‘Yes, I will live by that.’ And it is that notion of living by something that seems to me critical to the concept of faith. Can we ever know for certain that God exists? No we cannot. We can think it highly likely, we can consider it the most probable explanation of how things are, we can believe it a logical and reasonable assumption, but we can never finally know. But what we can do is to live as though God exists, we can order our lives and assumptions on the basis of that belief, we can use it as the story that provides the background narrative by which we live. That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith. It is not the process of screwing ourselves up to believe a whole series of improbable propositions, the ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ that the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland said she believed in. Neither is it the process of abandoning critical thought and taking the whole Christian tradition as a sort of bundle that we have to accept as a package deal, but it is the process of finding some core Christian concepts and resolving that we will live by them.
And I believe that can help us even if we encounter what some of the great spiritual writers like St John of the Cross described as the ‘dark night of the soul.’ There is nothing in the more serious Christian tradition to suggest that being a Christian believer will always be easy or comfortable. I suspect many thinking Christian people go through periods when they wonder whether the whole thing is true, or, as my former tutor at University, Fr Harry Williams one wrote ‘that the whole Christian bundle of tricks is a lot of … nonsense.’ Doubt in the sense of intellectual questioning is not the enemy of faith, for the honest examination of doubt can be the beginning of the process of refining what we believe to find a deeper conviction at the end. ‘The dark night of the soul’, as many of the great spiritual writers discovered, can lead to a new and more fundamental way of believing. But what is critical through the process is to continue to live as though the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ provides the background against which we shall live. Faith in this sense is belief in action; it has implications not just for our internal intellectual life but for our external relationships with those around us.
Now in England at least at the moment faith is under various forms of attack. Scientists like Richard Dawkins set up an aunt sally of faith and he then goes on to say that it is like a virus that infects religious human beings and which should be eliminated for everyone’s benefit. Others of Christianity’s more cultured despisers simply think the whole thing can be ignored because it is obviously incorrect. Such intellectual challenges deserve a considered response, and such considered responses have been heard from this pulpit in the past. But perhaps what will be most effective is not just the intellectual response, but lives lived in response to the God shown to us in Jesus Christ, lives which reveal loving and caring service of others, lives which illustrate the difference being a person of faith can make. That, I suggest, is the challenge of faith for all who dare to say ‘I believe.’ And it is for many a way of living that authenticates itself, the very process of believing in that way provides what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews described as ‘the evidence of things not seen’.