The Nature of Faith

UntitledCreative Commons image by Harsh on Flickr.

What is the nature of faith? That’s kind of what Jesus is asking the disciples with his unassuming question, “soooooo, what were you chatting about back there?” The NRSV translates the verb “argue” but it can also be translated, “discuss, consider, reason, ponder.” In this simple question, Jesus points out to his disciples, albeit with significant subtlety, the truth of faith — that faith is not about certainty but wonder. Not about answers but questions. Not about compulsion but conversation. What a great way to start a new church year.

A new program year, a re-gathering of the faithful, perhaps calls for a re-examination of what faith can be. A reminder, a remembrance, a rejoinder that the first question of faith should be that which Jesus asks the disciples, “so, what are you talking about?”

What are you talking about? What have you been talking about? What should we be talking about when it comes to faith? Let’s begin the new church year, everyone gathering back to together again, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and imagination; dialogue and discovery; a community willing to ask one another, what do you think? Okay, granted, the subject matter that the disciples decide to discuss could be a sermon all its own. “Who’s the greatest?” “Who is greater?” as if faith is a competition — and a lot of people think that’s true. Maybe that’s why Jesus asks a question rather than making a statement. Maybe that’s the point. He says, “what were you discussing?” not “I know what you were talking about.” There’s a lot of “I know what you are thinking” when it comes to faith conversations these days rather than, “tell me, what are you thinking?” and really coming from a place of true interest. How do you communicate what faith is to your parishioners?

People assume from you and about you a knowledge of faith, on many levels, that they themselves do not have. You went to seminary or divinity school. You took Bible classes. You have skills in the area of biblical interpretation. You are, by the very nature of your role, an authority when it comes to doctrine. People will look to you for a range of possibilities when it comes to their own understanding of faith. They will want the answers toward which you can point, although it will be up to you to note that when faith is about answers, then you have already defined what faith is. They want help in making sense of what faith is all about.

A significant aspect of what it means to preach is to realize that you are entrusted with helping your parishioners have an imagination for faith. How you engage the Bible, talk about God, teach your denominational confessions, will communicate not only what your faith means to you, but also what faith is and what it could mean for them. None of your statements about, or references to, faith is a throw away line. Your language about faith is critical to your effectiveness in ministry and to the influence of your preaching.

We relinquish a considerable amount of our power in preaching and in our ministry if we keep silent about the nature of faith, because what happens is that we then allow other sources to shape the faith imagination of those we accompany in ministry. There is certainly no dearth of opinions about faith — which faith is greater, whose is greater, what’s the right faith — nor is there a lack of very vocal presenters about the Christian faith who know how to get heard. If you do not talk about your faith and what it means to you; if you do not help those to whom you minister to think about it, discuss it, wonder about it, ask each other questions, then they will listen to others who do. They will go elsewhere for resources to assist them in understanding what faith is all about, and you might not like where they end up. Where you could have been offering ways of imagining the Christian faith that are generative and creative, instead you end up having to offer correctives…and even bringing some back from despair.

As a result, one of the issues for preaching these days is to present a posture about faith that may run counter to what your people are witnessing in their lives. In the end, your goal is not to convince or coerce but to invite conversation. It is to help people trust the uncertainty of conversation rather than bank on the self-assurance of solutions. It is to affirm that questions and dialogue are essential to faith. It is to insist that agreement is not a necessary ingredient to live in community. It is to encourage their own abilities and intuitions as interpreters of the faith and as ones empowered to express the meaning of faith — on their own terms and yet aware of the other.

And speaking of faith, who are your conversation partners? Do you have any when it comes to sharing what your faith means to you? Yes, I know you get together with colleagues about the biblical texts for preaching. But, when was the last time you sat around and talked about faith? Maybe something to put on the fall calendar along with committee meetings, text studies, confirmation…because you need opportunities to talk about your faith as well.

Jesus’ question is easily overlooked. A rather simple inquiry. But therein lies the depths of faith we have yet to plumb.