Sunday, January 24, 2010

What is Faith? - Marcus Borg

In The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg examines faith through four lenses, each encapsulated in a Latin word. Marcus then synthesizes these four views to provide a fuller picture of faith. Marcus' picture of faith goes far, far beyond the idea of faith as giving intellectual assent to a set of beliefs.

Having grown up within the Roman Catholic Church and its faith-as-belief system, I am moved and excited by Marcus Borg's picture of faith.

FAITH AS VISIO. Visio is faith as seeing: the way we see the world. Marcus says that there are three possible overall ways to see the world: as hostile, as indifferent, as gracious.

If we see the world as hostile, Marcus says that we will respond defensively. We will set up systems to protect ourselves from a threatening reality. If we see the world as indifferent, Marcus says that we will also respond by seeking to protect ourselves, though with less paranoia. A hostile universe is out to get us, while an indifferent universe is not. Yet we need systems to keep ourselves safe in both cases: whether from active threats or from nature's vagaries.

Faith, though, Marcus says, invites us to see the world as gracious. Nature is abundant, beautiful, and varied. The world is full of feasts for the eyes (sunrises and sunsets, gardens, clouds, butterflies), for the ears (bird songs, music, rain and wind, silence), for the skin (the touch of our animal friends, warm clothes, running water, breeze), for the nose (sweet olive, coffee, rose, mint), for the tongue (chocolate, strawberry, peach, oregano, pepper). Our minds are storehouses of pleasurable material--our memories, our thoughts, our imaginations. We can experience the deep joy of creation--writing, music, visual art, ritual, celebrations, decorated space, inventions, ways to serve and give enjoyment to others. We have each other--our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors.

I would say that seeing the world as gracious includes an acknowledgment of those places where we will encounter hostility or indifference in an overall gracious world. Thus, it is well to recognize the evil of which people are capable and to take sensible precautions--locking doors in the city and suburbs, staying out of dangerous neighborhoods, being alert when walking on the street at night--for some people will indeed hurt us. It is also well to respect nature--seeking shelter during a thunderstorm, evacuating for a serious hurricane, avoiding contact with poison ivy--for lightning, hurricanes, and poison ivy operate indiscriminately.

I would say that seeing the world as gracious leads us to relax at the core our being, to enjoy our lives, and to be grateful. If we are accustomed to seeing the world as hostile or indifferent, I believe that we can move into seeing the world as gracious by consciously practicing relaxation, enjoyment, and gratitude. These are certainly things that I need to do because I did grow up seeing the world as hostile. I was actually taught by my father that the world is a dangerous place where rapists and other criminals abound and that people in general don't care about you and are out only for themselves. I was taught by the Catholic Church that a God of Wrath was always ready to judge and punish me unless I believed correctly and avoided sin.

So here are some ways to practice faith as visio.

  • Relaxation at my core. Set aside time daily to relax into centering prayer.
  • Enjoyment of life. Plan a weekly artist date, as described by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way, and consciously enjoy it. Plan one or more small pleasures to consciously enjoy daily: a pot of ginger tea, a piece of dark chocolate, a bike ride on the levee, a hot shower, a good book, a talk with a friend.
  • Gratitude. Take time each evening to thank God for the blessings of the day. Expand this into additional times of gratitude throughout the day. Expand this into a continuous prayer of gratitude. Thank at least one person for something every day.
FAITH AS FIDELITAS. Fidelitas is faithfulness. Marcus says that we show our faithfulness to God by "being attentive to the relationship" (page 33). Marcus explains, "We are attentive through the simple means of worship, prayer, practice, and a life of compassion and justice" (pages 33-34).

I see this as nurturing one's relationship with God as one would nurture one's relationship with a spouse, a daughter or son, a sister or brother, a friend.

FAITH AS FIDUCIA. Fiducia is faith as trust. Marcus says that fiducia is "radical trust in God" (page 31). Marcus says that "faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water" (page 31). Marcus continues, "Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being" (page 31).

In the Catholic Church, I did not learn to trust God. I learned to fear God instead. Not only did I learn that God would judge and punish me for wrong belief and for sinful thoughts and acts, but I also learned that even God's love was painful. According to the Catholic Church, God actually sends suffering to those God loves. The saints, for example, were especially close to God, and they suffered a lot. Most saints suffered terrible illnesses or were tortured for their faith or were allowed to share in the sufferings of Jesus through such odd and painful phenomena as the stigmata. If not, they became pleasing to God through inflicting suffering on themselves: fasting, wearing hair shirts, fashioning a crown of thorns for themselves, flagellating themselves. As a child, I knew that I didn't want God to love me too much because I didn't want all that pain. God was not someone I wanted to get close to.

To this day, I struggle with fear that, if I indicate a desire for closeness with God or a changed life, God will grant my request in a terribly painful way. I think, for example, of Joni Eareckson Tada, who prayed that God would change her life--and shortly thereafter she had a diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down for life. As a result, Joni has indeed experienced a changed life and a much deeper relationship with God--but this truly horrifies me and makes me VERY hesitant to ask for those things. I DON'T want a deeper relationship with God if it means paralysis or pain. I've heard many stories of people who asked for those things--and ZAP--they were placed in extremely painful situations that did result in changed lives and closeness with God--but at what cost! A cost I don't want to pay.

Well, and don't you know, Marcus says that the opposite of fiducia is worry and anxiety--exactly what I have just expressed in the preceding paragraph. And exactly what my life is full of. I am a person who frequently worries and feels anxious.

Marcus cautions that, if we recognize worry and anxiety in ourselves, the idea is not at all to come down on ourselves harshly. Rather, Marcus invites us to "recognize the good news implicit in this realization" (page 32). Marcus reminds us, "Growth in faith as trust casts out anxiety. . . . Faith as radical trust has great transforming power" (page 32).

I understand this to mean that, as a person with high levels of worry and anxiety, I have plenty of material with which to practice fiducia! I can certainly take baby steps in fiducia and grow gradually in trust. I would say that the ways to practice fiducia are very similar to the ways that I have listed above for practicing visio, which is closely related. I would simply add to the practice of relaxation at my core: besides setting aside time daily to relax into centering prayer, it would be well to take a few moments to do so right when I notice myself becoming worried and anxious.

FAITH AS ASSENSUS. First, Marcus clarifies that the view of assensus as mere intellectual assent to a set of beliefs is a misunderstanding.

Second, Marcus puts forth three affirmations that he sees as central to Christianity: affirming the reality of God, the centrality of Jesus, and the centrality of the Bible. I can affirm the reality of God and even the centrality of Jesus. About affirming the centrality of Jesus, Marcus says, "It means seeing Jesus as the decisive disclosure of God and of what a life full of God looks like. It means affirming Jesus as the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the light of the world, the way, and more, all known in a person" (pages 37-38). Yes, I can affirm that.

I find it hard, though, to affirm the centrality of the Bible. About the centrality of the Bible, Marcus says, "Just as Jesus is for us the Word of God disclosed in a person, so the Bible is the Word of God disclosed in a book. Being Christian means a commitment to the Bible as our foundation document and identity document. The Bible is our story. It is to shape our vision of life--our vision of God, of ourselves, and of God's dream for the earth" (page 38). Oh, my! No. The Bible is not my identity document, and it is not my story. It is the identity document of the extremely patriarchal Hebrew culture, and it is the story of the men of that culture. What on earth can Marcus Borg be thinking?

Well, okay, I can affirm the reality of God and the centrality of Jesus, but not the centrality of the Bible. However, I am not going to concern myself with the Bible right now.

I should also mention that Marcus qualifies what Christians affirm: "Christian faith as assensus means to affirm all of the above deeply but loosely. Deeply: faith involves our loyalty and trust and seeing at the deepest level of the self. Loosely: we need to avoid the human tendency toward excessive precision and certitude" (page 38). In other words, we recognize that, while these are our central affirmations, other religious faiths very legitimately hold other persons and scriptures as central. Thus, we affirm what we affirm in humility and openness. We don't know everything, and others have deep wisdom from other sources. We do not have the exclusive truth.

Finally, Marcus explains the way to understand assensus, which is found in the meaning of the word credo, with which the creed begins. Marcus says, "But credo does not mean 'I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.' Rather its Latin roots combine to mean 'I give my heart to' " (page 40).

Therefore, Marcus explains, here is what we are saying when we say the creed: "Thus, when we say credo at the beginning of the creed, we are saying, 'I give my heart to God.' And who is that? Who is the God to whom we commit our loyalty and allegiance? The rest of the creed tells the story of the one to whom we give our hearts: God as the maker of heaven and earth, God as known in Jesus, God as present in the Spirit" (page 40).

Marcus says, "Most simply, 'to believe' meant 'to love.' Indeed, the English words 'believe' and 'belove' are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God" (page 40). To belove God, Marcus says, is "to love God and to love that which God loves" (page 41). We develop and demonstrate this love through acts of compassion and justice.

WHAT IS FAITH? Faith is beloving God. We love God and we love those God loves--ourselves, other people, all creation--and we show this love through acts of compassion and justice. We see the world God created as gracious, and we demonstrate this vision by relaxing at our core, enjoying our lives, and expressing gratitude. We are faithful to nurturing our relationship with God. We grow in deep trust of God.

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