“Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything” – St. Gregory of Nyssa
The difficulty in distinguishing faith from belief is immense. This is primarily so because of our post-Enlightenment penchant for conceptualization and rationality within the framework those concepts create. Yet for the present I will attempt to distinguish the concepts of faith from the concepts of belief with an eye towards how biblical faith is not a concept, but a life.
Conceptually, beliefs are the mechanism we use to make sense of the world; they are the ideological boundaries we impose on our experiences in order to make sense of them. In order for me to maintain a firm grip on reality I must be able to assign some sort of category or label to my experiences. These categories can be quite broad, such as “bad” or “good,” or they can be nuanced such as “progressive” or “creative.”
Faith, as we conceive of it, is the assurance that our experiences will fit into the categorical structures of our beliefs; the confidence that our understanding of reality is right. In this way, our faith is subsumed beneath the heading of belief and relegated to the subservient role of confirming our beliefs.
And so in a conceptual sense, we have indeed created an idol of belief for ourselves. Our faith is to be in God, not in our beliefs. But when our beliefs are given primacy over faith, they are unconsciously given the authority to construct the framework for who God is.
It would be nice and pleasant if at this point I could saying “Instead, the bible says…” and rattle of some perfectly obvious scripture. But that option is unavailable to me, because the bible does not conceptualize faith and belief in this way. In fact, it does not conceptualize at all; that is part of the problem with how we read the bible period – conceptually. When we function within the conceptual structure of beliefs that I have just outlined, we read Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for, the assurance of what we cannot see,” to assure us of the reality of our structures of belief. But then we go on and continue reading chapters 11 and 12, and we get confused because this is not how the bible talks about faith. When Abraham’s faith obeyed God by leaving his home and going where he did not know, we stumble, because faith led Abraham into uncertainty; into experiences that his beliefs could not contain.
This is the crucial turn: faith leads us into experiences that our beliefs cannot contain. They are mysterious. They are mysterious even years after they occur. I think that what St. Gregory was getting at in the quote above was that our concepts of things (St. Gregory was a Platonist, meaning he considered ideas to be real entities, nouns if you will) cannot take the place of radical openness to what God is doing. God will always offend our sensibilities and personal sense of righteousness. God is constantly offending and upsetting my beliefs. And faith in God will always lead us out of certainty and into the assurance of what we cannot comprehend.
NEXT WEEK: Beyond the concept of faith and into the realm of living.