Sunday, March 10, 2013

Speaking of Faith...

(My talk in church today)

 I admit, I have often thought it was a little cheesy to start with a dictionary definition of something, but in this case I want to do just that, because there are two sides of what ‘faith’ means, and those two sides are what I will be talking about today.

The first definition of faith is “belief in something for which there is no proof.” We believe things we have been taught. We believe that God is there, we believe that He hears our prayers. But we don’t have proof for any of it.
The second definition of faith is “allegiance to duty or a person, loyalty, fidelity to one's promises, or sincerity of intentions.” This can be summed up with the word trust. We may have faith—trust—in a person or in a promise. When we speak in religious terms, we mean that we trust that the things we have been taught about the gospel will happen the way we’ve been taught.

The scriptures talk about some people having the gift of faith, or of belief. For those people, it seems natural to be trusting and believing. For many of us however it is not as simple. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican priest in the 1200s, taught that faith is ‘midway between knowledge and opinion.’ Faith resembles knowledge, Aquinas said, in so far as faith carries conviction. But it’s not the same as knowledge because there isn’t that physical proof.. Faith or belief becomes a choice we make when our senses are not able to give us scientific evidence. As Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). If we had sight—if we had proof—we would not need to believe, because we would know. 

The Greek word ‘pistus’ is the one that we translate as ‘faith.’ But the literal translation of it is not belief, it is trust. “To trust someone is to act on the assumption that he will do for you what he knows that you want or need, even when the evidence gives some reason for supposing that he may not and where there will be bad consequences if the assumption is false” (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). Trust requires vulnerability, and willingness to give up control to something or someone else. 

While belief is in our heads, trust is more in our actions. You may believe that parachutes work, but it is not until you jump out of the plane with one that you have shown that you trust that that parachute works. When we trust that the atonement has real power in our lives, then we go through the process of repentance. When we trust that someone is listening, then we say our prayers. In other words the belief side of our faith guides the trust—or action—side of our faith. We believe, and we behave as though we expect results.


Believing and trusting are part of a cyclical process. It is our belief that leads us to be willing to trust, but choosing to believe in the gospel in the first place is in itself an act of trust. Thomas Aquinas said that faith showed an orientation toward the divine. In other words, having faith doesn’t mean that you have to know everything, but it shows that you are choosing to go toward what you perceive as a good thing.


Terryl Givens is an LDS professor and author who spoke at BYU a couple of years ago about faith. His speech was titled “Lighting out of Heaven” and I will be quoting and summarizing ideas from it for most of the rest of my talk.         (italicized parts are quotes, the other is summary)

Some things are easy to believe. Nobody has to ask you to believe in gravity, because you have proof of it all around you. On the other hand, no amount of money could make you genuinely believe that snow is green, again because you have proof of the truth all around you. But God and the gospel are different, because there seems to be evidence on both sides.

It would seem that among those who are committed to the scholarly pursuit of knowledge and rational inquiry, faith is as often a casualty as it is a product. The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and to have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing them to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice—and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. The option to believe must appear on our personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. One is, it would seem, always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

[The gospel] message [spreads] because millions of men and women have freely chosen to believe. They [listened to] the opinions of doubters, and they gave a hearing to the critics. They know Joseph was human and subject to err, but they sampled [the gospel] and agreed [that the fruit was sweet]. They found reason to doubt, and they found reason to believe. They chose to believe.


Some people understand faith as a kind of knowledge attended by a certainty that excludes doubt. But faith cannot be all mental. The reformer Calvin said that faith-knowledge is not only ‘revealed to our minds’ but also ‘sealed upon our hearts’. In this model faith will have an emotional as well as cognitive side.

Studying and scholarship can create conditions under which faith can flourish, but they cannot create faith itself.


(Terryl Givens again)

If you consider the average LDS testimony meeting, you will probably hear person after person declare that they know things. That they know that God lives or that they know that the Book of Mormon is true. These messages of shared belief can be powerful for building community, but this rhetoric of knowing can also have a downside. It can create the tragic impression that with certainty there is no room or need for searching; and it can create discomfort and alienation on the part of those who do not or cannot share in expressions of serene, unconflicted conviction.

For those who are struggling with faith, or who are new to it, our these statements of knowing can be hard to hear. How can someone really know these things? The truth is that—at least in most cases—they don’t really know. They have faith. They choose to believe, and to trust, and to hope.

Alma says that faith exists when we simply hope to believe, or want to believe. Choosing to believe, along with trusting enough to act, is the backbone of faith. It is not certainty. Faith has never been certainty. Certainty that excludes doubt is not faith. Therefore, faith necessarily includes doubts, or questions. Lehi taught his son that "there must needs be opposition in all things," and so it is with belief. If you really care about your faith, about your spirituality, then you will have to face a certain amount of conflict over it. Sometimes that conflict comes from outside yourself, and sometimes from within. Sometimes it comes both directions. Joseph Smith had conflict, he had questions and doubts. Almost every revelation he had came as the result of a question he asked. A faithful people must be a question-asking people. Unless you are one of the few with the gift of faith, choosing belief probably means accepting unbelief as something that you'll have to face repeatedly. And that's ok. Because when your doubts cause you to question your faith, you can also use your faith to question your doubts. 

Like Calvin said about faith being ‘revealed to our minds’ and also ‘sealed upon our hearts,’ The Doctrine and Covenants says that the Holy Ghost speaks to us in our minds AND our hearts. Faith includes belief and action, and also doubt, and also feelings. A heart that believes—or even that simply wants to believe—can sustain us even when our minds go through ups and downs. For many of us, the natural ups and downs—the doubts that come hand in hand with belief—are scary things. Especially in the context of a church with so many people around us saying that they know. I’m sure we have all heard that faith is the opposite of fear, and that the two cannot exist together, because each will cast out the other. 1 John 4:8 says that “perfect love casts out fear,” so then I begin to think about the love—or heart—aspect of faith. Paul taught that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). God knows that we will have doubts, but he also tells us not to be afraid. Instead he counsels us to rely on power, love, and a sound mind. Our desiring, trusting, believing, learning, hoping, and pressing on in spite of doubts gives us the strength to cast out fear and carry on.

I have been through my share of ups and downs in faith. Study has both built my faith and poked holes in it. People around me have lifted me up at some times and dragged me down at others. Sometimes fear has snuck in. Sometimes doubts or questions cause me to hesitate or even withhold my trust for a time. But I still want to believe, and the combination of my desire to believe and my willingness to trust are the basis of my faith. I don’t have to know anything. I can have questions. I can hear arguments both for and against the gospel. And then I can choose. And I choose faith.

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