In almost every area of education today we are talking about formation. It’s not so much information or training that is needed, but the formation of the person who will exercise those skills and do something with that information: and this is happening in disciplines such as Engineering and Health Sciences as much as in Education, and in Theology. It’s really about character—the formation of character.
At Whitley College, our curriculum is centred upon the idea of ‘forming faith, hope and love’. These things are activities and qualities of persons, of individuals and communities. We are about forming people and communities of faith, individuals and communities who live in hope, and who do so with deep and world-transforming love.
We are constantly reflecting on the challenge of how to nurture these cardinal virtues (as they have been called), these practices and dimensions of character. This requires a number of things together: we need to know what these things really are: what is faith? What do we mean by ‘hope’? What does it really mean to love? But this is not just a question of conceptual analysis: we need to have some idea of how these qualities and practices develop and are nurtured.
In this and two following posts I want to explore these ideas and some of their implications, in sequence: faith, hope and love. But right away I need to say that the sequence is itself misleading, in the sense that they don’t come in an order, as if we work out and develop faith, and then hope, and then love. Rather, these are not separate things at all, but are deeply interdependent, just as the persons of the Trinity are deeply intertwined.
So in what follows I offer some biblical reflections and theological analysis, along with some thoughts about the practical implications of each of these ideas. These reflections need eventually to be read together. They are also, it has to be said, inadequate—in the sense that there is always more that can and should be said. But here is a beginning: and what is crucial, too, is not the ideas, but rather what flows from such reflections. It’s about formation, about character, about being.
To begin, then: what do we mean by ‘faith’?
Whereas I have taught and published much about this concept, including about the relation of faith and doubt, that is now where I propose to start. Rather I want to start with a question we find in the Bible and a question many people have wrestled with. It’s the question of how we make our faith grow.
What do we mean by that?
A biblical reflection:
Luke 17, 5 & 6: The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
While it is vital to see this little passage within its wider context, there are some fascinating things to note, which help us dive into an exploration of this idea of faith:
- The text tells us that the ‘Apostles’ ask Jesus to make their faith ‘stronger’, or to ‘increase’.
- These are very common concerns amongst Christians, I have noticed. It’s a bit like taking one’s spiritual temperature: focusing on the ‘strength’ or the measure of one’s faith.
- It’s fascinating that the text uses the term ‘apostles’, which was not generally used as a term for the original leaders of the Christian movement until much later. This is surely significant. So we are being told that right from the beginning of the Jesus movement there were people—the leaders, no less—who were concerned about and perhaps preoccupied with this aspect of their lives. They felt inadequate or in need of ‘stronger faith’.
- Jesus’ response seems (as is the case more than once) a bit like a put down. Actually this saying has no parallel in other ancient Hebrew literature. It’s a very strange saying, and I think works to jolt their thinking.
- It looks like Jesus is saying the kind of thing many seriously unkind people have said to people in difficult, illness or trouble: If only you had stronger faith you wouldn’t be in this situation. If you only had a little bit of faith you could toss mountains into the sea. (Who would want to do that?, I wonder. Pity about the people who live there.)
- The peculiarity of this saying suggests we need to look somewhere else for its meaning. It’s not literal and should not be used that way.
- I think this saying is pointing the apostles (and us as readers) away from a concern about the measure of our faith. The issue is not how much faith we have or how ‘strong’ we feel.
- The issue is about what faith can mean and can do, for us and among us, if we get a proper perspective on what faith really is.
- So we have to think not so much about us, but about the object (or rather the subject) of our faith: In whom do we trust?
- In short, this saying is not really about how strong our faith needs to be so much as how ‘strong’ God is. This directs us to think again about the nature and meaning of faith and its formation.
In the New Testament we find the basic term for faith is a word for trust. It is much more about trust than belief. The focus on belief is there, but to centre our concer
n on belief is too easily to make faith into something purely intellectual, what used to be called ‘assent’ to propositions or doctrines, as if this alone is what faith is about. On the contrary, faith is primarily about the orientation of our lives, individually and collectively, in trust: trusting God and all that God has created. It is a life-stance. It is a mode of being. It is a form of living: living trustfully, faith-fully, with gratitude, in hope, and with love.
Two vital things flow from this.
First, before we think about our faith, let alone the ‘measure’ of our faith, we need to recognize and realize that God is the faith-full one. God is faithful, reliable, trustworthy and trusting. Jesus and his mode of living show us this. God comes to us as a person who loves life and people, unreservedly. Jesus lives with that gratitude and trust that is faith. God is primarily the exemplar of what we have just described as ‘faith’—the exemplar and also the source. God enables us to be trusting, caring, loving and grateful. All we have to do is pay attention really. God’s Spirit or presence draws out from us this possibility. We just have to allow it, give ourselves to it, trust ourselves to it. Faith is not an achievement, it is something to be received and lived into.
So, then, how do we form faith?
It’s not a course we can do, though there are many courses that will help us learn something about it. (This for example is why I teach my course Lives of Faith, to help us learn from other people’s journey and experience in faithing.)
It’s not a skill or ‘competency’ we can acquire, though again there is much we can do to help us to continue on the pathway of faith.
No, in an important sense, the most we can do is to put ourselves in the way of it.
By this I mean that we can do several things to help faith to form and grow.
The first is we can help each other deal with the things that block trust. For many of us there are reasons and causes why we struggle to trust God: one of them is intellectual confusion. So many people have been taught absurd and unworthy things about God, as a demanding super-parent, or a strict cosmic judge, and so much more. Teachers and pastors can help us name and reject these misleading ideas.
But that’s just a part of it: reasons are often only part of why we find it hard to trust. There are causes as well, and these are often experiences, hurts and resentments, put downs and frustrations. These too need to be brought to light and dealt with in caring and constructive ways. This is about healing. This is fundamentally what we see in so many gospel stories: a little bit of openness, or even begging, for healing leads to a transformation of the individual’s life and the community’s situation. And from this flows so much more trust and joy. It’s faith that is alive and lived into.
We can from faith through putting ourselves in the way of it: intellectually, in relationships of care and nurture, healing and encouragement—and through prayer and worship. Such prayer may be public or private, it may have words or be silent, but whatever it is it will be honest, real and simply open. It will perhaps be full of questions and anguish at times, while at others it may be vibrant with joy and wonder.
Forming faith is a life-long journey. It is a life-giving journey. It is the journey of life and faith, in God and with God and all that God has created.