In my prior post on the subject of faith, I addressed some of the tensions between faith and reason, pointed out the tightly-constricted world of those who embrace the material while a priori excluding the transcendent, and attempted to make the point that faith of any kind — be it as simple as starting your car or as mystical as praying for healing — requires both a trust based far more on experience than knowledge, and a trustworthy, dependable faith object.
But faith requires more than simply trust in a reliable object — it requires that such a trust proceed from the true nature of that object. Thus when we talk of religious or spiritual faith — and this is the faith of which we are most concerned — it is not simply sufficient that our trust in God (whom we understand to be completely trustworthy) will invariably bring results. Our trust must be consistent and harmonious with the nature of God to bear fruit. These conditions or constraints which dictate and direct the faith relationship I have called — for lack of a better term — the transaction of faith. To simply trust, while disregarding the true nature of God, is to practice mere wishful thinking or magical projection. And a trustworthy God in whom no genuine trust (or misdirected trust) is vested will likewise avail us nothing.
Faith is not an intellectual artifice … but rather aims at implementing true transformation
It is here in the transaction of faith where knowledge increasingly comes into play. Knowledge — while not a necessary precondition for faith (and sometimes an impediment to it) — can guide and direct it by providing understanding of the nature of God, and thereby influencing actions and attitudes which will place trust appropriately, leading to the desired — or better, desirable — outcome. For faith is meaningless without an outcome: we do not trust simply as an intellectual exercise, but rather to reach some definite end. Hence we have faith that God will give us strength and wisdom in difficult times; or that healing may occur; or that a proper decision be made; or that there be change in ourselves or others. Faith is not an intellectual artifice, erected to satisfy some desire to achieve cerebral cosmic congruency, but rather aims at implementing true transformation in ourselves, in others, and the world around us — a metamorphosis not achievable through our own efforts alone.
Given that God is transcendent and ephemeral, not given to inspection or investigation by the tools used to explore the material world, how then may we achieve some measure of knowledge about such a being? The answer, I believe, is threefold: by experience, by history, and by revelation. While any one of these may provide some insight regarding the nature of the God we seek to trust, each plays a role in reinforcing the other, and providing needed correction to the others. Any of these elements, set apart from the others, will quickly lead to distorted, incomplete, or erroneous conclusions about the nature of God and adversely affect the trust relationship with Him.
The importance of experience arises from the spiritual nature of man, who, unlike any other life form, has a mind, a free will, and the ability to perceive the immaterial, transcendent aspects of life in the cosmos. Thus the mind is free to interpret the events and occurrences of life, to abstract seemingly disconnected occurrences into a cohesive reality by inference, deduction, and reason. The will transcends the deterministic fatalism of nature without spirit, allowing change and choices, wisdom and foolishness. The spirit, competent as it is to perceive the intangible reality and richness of life, can soar at the beauty of a symphony, ache at the pathos in great art, marvel at the magnificence of a sunset, and most importantly reach for that which is beyond itself: love, relationships, passion, beauty. These three allow an experiential connection with the divine, Himself comprised of mind, will and spirit.
But experience alone is insufficient to fully understand God, for it is limited by the peculiar blindness of our self-referential nature, and the expansive essentiality of an infinite, timeless divine being who sometimes — or often, more accurately — acts in a manner beyond our limited spiritual ability to perceive or comprehend.
Furthermore, we are by nature communal beings, incomplete in ourselves but far vaster collectively in union with one another. And we, unlike God, live in time: we are born, live, and ultimately die; others have lived before us and will live after us. Thus we are changeable beings; we learn from our prior experiences, and those who have lived before us and with us. Thus history is the collection of man’s experience with himself and others, and provides an objective external point of reference whereby we may judge both experience and revelation. How does our own experience compare and contrast with those also seek God, or those who wish nothing to do with the divine? Does our understanding of revelation (of which more will be said later) compare favorably or unfavorably with those also believe, or who have gone before us believing — especially those closer to the origins of such revelation? As we observe the outcome and consequences of free choices manifested by others, does this not influence our own choices and awareness of the consequences arising from them? History represents a vast pool of experience against which we may judge our experience; tradition, as Chesterton once said, is the democracy of the dead: their lives cast votes for or against our own.
And so we come to revelation — perhaps the most challenging component of our knowledge of the divine. At one level, the idea of revelation is entirely reasonable: a divine being, immaterial and above time and space, wishing to communicate His mind and spirit to a material creation bound by the mortal and temporal, would most certainly provide some substantial and durable means of communication to His creation whom He loves and treasures. The integrity of such a communication would be jealously guarded over time, especially in light of the corrupted and rebellious nature of these created beings. While such a transmission of the will, mind, and nature of the divine would by necessity embody things quite strange and mysterious to man — constrained as he is by time and material nature, and corrupted by a rebellious tendency toward proud independence — it would nevertheless be sufficiently verifiable as divine in origin that man, through reason, history, and experience, could confirm its divine origin even within the finite limits of his nature and intellect. It is also reasonable to assume that man, driven by self-will and refusal to submit to divine authority, would produce clever forgeries of such divine communication which would support and portray the vision of a god created in man’s image — hence engendering a proliferation of scriptures claiming divine inspiration while having none.
From man’s perspective, however, the task of verifying the divine origin and veracity of such divine transmission of knowledge would prove formidable indeed, for each of the forgeries would lay claim to divine origin and assert their righteous dominion over the mind and morals of man. Even the genuine article could be easily misinterpreted, perverted from its purpose in drawing men toward the divine to nefarious ends, corrupted, if not in essence, then in application, toward the ends of man’s self-aggrandizement rather than submission and service to God.
It is here that both history and experience step in to affirm and confirm the veracity of of the divine communication. History brings to the table its tools of archeology, language analysis, manuscript scholarship, and correlation with actual historical events. It also brings the testimony of tradition: what those who had close proximity to the origins of the documents understood to be their source and message. Experience brings a different perspective: what was, and is, the impact of such divine transmission on the lives of those who have embraced its message and morality? The experiences of lives transformed; relationships healed; intractable evil mastered and defeated; great works of mercy and grace accomplished: these bear testimony to a power transcending that of mere mortality, a power for good, a power arising from divine goodness. The spark of the spiritual nature of man may be fanned to flame by the divine wind transmitted through the true logos.
Thus the transaction of faith — reliance on the trustworthy divine, made more secure by the knowledge gained by experience, history, and revelation — brings the feeble faith of the foolish in contact with the utter reliability and power of divine wisdom and grace. It is from this fountain that faith draws its capacity to transform those who trust by the power of God who is both good and utterly trustworthy.