What Faith Is Not – Part II

The Owl thanks the readers who have borne with us so far. Here we will continue to ex[and on the post, What the Owl Is Trying to Say, in which we offered our definitions of five key words: Faith, Love, Covenant, Freedom, and Obedience. Taking those five as our outline, we are still on 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.”

Belief Systems

Having reminded ourselves of that, it is safe to say faith is not is a belief system. It is not a body of knowledge about God, or how the world was made, or why evil exists, or anything else. Those things are beliefs, more or less cogent, that have arisen from people’s experiences; experiences worked over in thought and imagination. Some wag said opinions are like bellybuttons; everybody has one. Another says atheists are careful to honor God by keeping their backs turned to him. They have opinions about God, indeed very strong ones. They are very sure of what a god should be, and sure that God as people of faith know him doesn’t measure up. A person of faith might well answer them: I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in, either. Debating along such lines leads nowhere. Once a person identifies with an opinion on any subject, not just God, then it seems like disloyalty to one’s very self to give it up.

Of course the church does have a body of teachings—or rather, we should say the churches plural, develop teachings that reflect on the relationship between God and his human creatures. These are preserved in the writings of the church fathers, some of them almost as early as the later New Testament  writings, and down through the centuries. Theology is still being written today. Scoffers may say that the number and variety of religious teachings invalidate them all. Some say the differences are the reason for much if not all the violence in the world.

It would be more accurate to say that where there are human beings there will be conflict, and conflict will lead to violence. When that stage is reached, people grasp at any obvious points of identity—race and ethnicity come into play as much as religion—and adopt them as causes to motivate the parties. As a matter of fact, the century from which we have just emerged, probably the most violent in world history, was one of anti-religion: Nazism against Jews, Stalinist Leninism against “the opiate of the people,” and Maoism’s resolute rejection of Christianity among others, account for about a hundred million deaths.

Two paragraphs up we flew past the word relationship. The doctrines of the churches encapsulate people’s experiences, ancient and modern, in their relationships with God. With that we are back on safe ground, because God has the initiative; there would be no relationship unless it begins with God’s self-offering. This is the case from the relationship established at Sinai, in the covenant we celebrate in worship, and in that you may have in your individual private prayers. Belief systems in the sense of traditional church doctrines exist to encapsulate some truths that Christians have discovered in answers to their prayers, and shared with each other in crises through the ages.

Feelings, Emotions

Faith is not a feeling. Prayer is not a mood. But these things are easily confused, because we hold feelings sacrosanct, and whatever has that status must be somehow entwined with religion. Part of the definition of sacrosanct is unchangeable, inviolable. It seems to people in the throes of their feelings that they cannot and should not be challenged. They are self-validating.

That last aspect of the thing is insidious two ways. First, a person who wants to prevail in an argument will say, I feel that . . . —what? the world is flat, or fill-in-the-blank. The one hearing this had best not contradict; it would be more than a difference of opinion, a violation of feelings. Second, a person who wants to accuse another will say, You make me feel . . . thus and so. That assigns the initiative or the blame for some uncomfortable feeling to the other. Marriage counselors make a good living just by calling this out; you are responsible for your own feelings. And that is good advice.

Having said that, we are back to the essential point: feelings are products of human thought and imagination. They are human responses to human situations, for which the person who has them is responsible. Throughout the transaction, though the feelings be held sacrosanct, there is none of God’s initiative in it. Therefore, emotions are not to be confused with faith.


If you go to your local bookstore to look for religious inspiration of information, you will find it in the section labeled “Psychology and Religion.” Psychology is one of the humanistic sciences, but from the retailer’s and most customers’ point of view they are one and the same.

One of my fellow parishioners is a psychiatrist who has written about the junction between church life and good emotional adjustment. It turns out that the purpose of church life is to construct an environment where love prevails against the destructive influences of parental child abuse at home, and bullying kids encounter at school or elsewhere. When that succeeds, we get healthy grownups, ready to nurture the next generation. But note: it works by constructing a delusional space, deliberately divorced from reality.

Now let’s go to a different kind of book, the Bible. The most cursory reading of the Gospels surely shows that Jesus addressed himself to rich and poor, sick and well, and to madmen who broke chains and screamed at him to go away. His world is not a benign environment. He doesn’t much care whether you had a good upbringing. He is getting ready to give his life and doesn’t have time for theories about human nature or anything else. He’s going to save us from sin by accepting total condemnation in our stead. It doesn’t work by taking notes while we lie on a couch talking to the ceiling. It works by his hanging in the hot Palestinian sun with blood and worse running down his legs. (See the crucifixion panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece, last Owl post before this.) Ever to let that become a through-constructed delusional space is a grave error.

Moralism and More

There is yet more to say about what faith is not, but let the Owl not belabor it too much for one day. Part III to follow in due time. God keep you all.

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