What Faith Is Not – Part I

The Owl owes a debt of gratitude to the readers who commented on the recent post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered succinct definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Each of these words has a lot of colloquial meanings, but the Owl tries to be consistent, using them in his own way. As we said on the home page, day one, this means our language cuts across conventional understanding, because our thinking lies athwart that of our culture. It turns out that the more Christians remember our citizenship in God’s kingdom, the more we find ourselves aliens in our cultural settings.

Aside: This is the reason we ought to cultivate solidarity with aliens in our midst. It is not because we are historically a “nation of immigrants.” That is a side issue, to be dealt with by secular politicians, pragmatically and generously as we may hope. The more important truth is that people everywhere are in a sense alien to this world. Some who know of their true life, hidden in God with Jesus Christ, know how the love of God sustains them. Others—and not only Christians, but all others have the love of God too. It would be immensely sad to go through life not knowing this, but it maybe the majority do. Nothing else so well explains people’s fecklessness in action, their forlornness in spirit, their dread of anonymity, their displays of anger in defense of outlandish and sterile versions of Self.

Having said those things, let us go on to expand upon the first of our key terms: Faith. Remember what the Owl said in that earlier post: “If only one thing is clear so far, let it be this: the initiative belongs to God.”


Faith is not religion. Religions are products of cultures, which are products of human efforts, taking millennia to evolve, expressing the best and the worst of our nature. The study of religion is not theology; it is a branch of anthropology, the study of humankind.

Jacques Ellul gives us a serviceable general definition of religion:

a sacral system, an order of feelings, experiences, objects, rites charged with either a potential or inexpressible energy, or an explanatory potential. On [its] basis we find an order in the world relative to three aspects of human life: space, time, and society. Finding ourselves in an incoherent, menacing, and incomprehensible space, we set up coordination points. As concerns time, there are sacred times that give meaning to time. All days are not alike. Relative to society the sacred produces the integration of individuals into the group. It gives individuals an incontestable place.

(Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1986, pp. 52 – 55 and 10 – 13.)

It is religion that politicians either anathematize or patronize. When it serves their purposes, they promote their programs and ideologies to the status of ultimate concerns—in other words, objects of devotion. Such religion is the principal weapon which culture uses against faith. It is in the nature of religion to promote one idolatry or another; that of country, race, ideology, or culture, to the defeat of faith.


Faith is not spiritualism or vague spirituality. We owe a great debt to David Hume (1711–76) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), whose philosophical investigations include analyses of the human mind, that delicate bit of meat up behind the eyebrows, with its limitations. Spiritualists don’t like being meat. They prefer the flattering idea that our maker so constructed our minds that they understand him and his creation intuitively. All we need to do is center ourselves properly, remove distractions, and we cannot err. This is the romantic view of a humanity; not that we necessarily construct gods out of whole cloth, but we are possessed of a quasi-dvine spirit. From there it is but a short step to saying we are gods—or, to be a little more modest, godlike spirits trapped in bodies of flesh.

Today, Christians are up against this classic heretical movement, which thrives both inside and outside the church. It resembles the Gnostic movement of the early centuries, which never went away. Its salient doctrines are:

(1) denial of the body. If this sounds paradoxical in our time, with its emphasis on sex, think again. So it was also in Lyons, the city of Irenaeus (ca. 130–ca. 202 ce), and Alexandria, the city of Clement (ca. 150–215 ce).

(2) denial of sin and judgment; on the contrary, human beings can and ought to perfect themselves in behavior and thought, so as not to need God’s mercy.

(3) pretensions of belonging to an elite with a just claim to certain privileges, including exploiting others without compunction, and 

(4) the expropriation of the name Christian, with certain superficial resemblances in program and slogans

People fall for this with depressing ease (Matt. 18:5–7). Delusions are as good as reality, and offer more entertainment. When they can, people flee from judgment and pain, in favor of sentimentality. They know nothing of the God whose love is borne as sacrifice. They are the crowds who accept Jesus’ healing, but drift away when he alludes to the shedding of blood (John 6:52–69).

It is easy to see why “spiritualism: is the human default setting. In the absence of authoritative teaching, each generation thinks it has discovered this path all on its own, but the truth is, it is the oldest antagonist to faith. Its lineage goes clear back to the serpent’s promise: “You will not die. You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4–5). It resembles faith, because it has a god, or many gods, but its gods are always creatures of their devotees, under the devotees’ power.

Even before Christ, spiritualism lent itself to being turned into a business. Its hallmark is the relentless flattery of the customer. It demands an act of willful ignorance on the buyer’s part, but it opens such enticing vistas. New Age theologies resemble Gnosticism. It is a wide open field for charlatans, from the ancient Valentinus up through Fichte, Schelling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Krishnamurti, and to the present. The list includes not a few clergy people, who cannot distinguish between Gospel and “positive (i.e., self-aggrandizing) thoughts.”

Opinions, Feelings, Emotions . . .

There is more to say about what faith is not, under several headings. It is not an emotion or a feeling; it is not moralism. But the Owl thinks we’ve said enough for one day. We’ll get to the rest in due time. Meanwhile, God keep you all.

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