Faith, love, and true religion

I was thinking of writing a post about Christian faith today when I stumbled across this quote from the 19th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.

What better spot from which to embark on a discussion of Christian faith? Shelley’s wish is a popular one: for a religion of love and kindness, stripped of heavenly pretensions or supernatural hopes. (At the time, “charity” meant love or goodwill toward others, rather than its narrow contemporary meaning of giving to worthy causes.) It is plain that Shelley sees charity and faith as being at least somewhat opposed; either one or the other will be the guiding principle of one’s religious life. The poet is not the only one with this perspective. Many today see what he calls charity as practical service and care for others, while faith is an airy and impractical mass of heavenly hopes. Charity stretches out a hand to one’s neighbor to help him, while faith casts prayer and belief heavenward in hopes that one’s soul will follow on the final day. If that is an accurate picture of faith, then it is easy to see why religion must pick one or the other as its emphasis and foundation.

But that is assuredly not the picture of faith offered in the Bible, which warns Christians, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:14-17). The Bible says that salvation is by faith in Jesus, but Jesus told his followers that in the final judgment those with faith will be identified by the fact that they cared for the hungry, thirsty, and needy, welcomed the strangers, and visited the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Whatever faith is, Scripture sees it not only coexisting with charity, but actually requiring it!

So what is faith as far as the Bible is concerned? When we talk about religious faith today, we have to start by clarifying away a thoroughly unbiblical picture of faith which comes to us courtesy of 19th-century philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard. Influenced by thinkers like Immanuel Kant a generation earlier who had insisted on the absolute unknowability of God, Kierkegaard saw faith as an irrational, even apparently insane, act of belief in a deity with whom man could have no other point of connection or knowledge. Kierkegaard’s cramped focus on divine infinitude and transcendence ignored God’s revelation, both verbal and incarnate, to humans who were created in his image, so the Danish philosopher left man with no way to relate to God except through the “blind leap of faith” for which he is famous. Thus, faith became a one-way street to who knows what; unreal, impractical… and unbiblical.

Faith, in the Bible, is a much meatier thing. In fact, biblical faith, by definition, requires someone in whom one has faith. You literally cannot have biblical faith in an abstract idea. It is impossible to have faith in democracy, or capitalism, or religion. One cannot even have faith in Christianity. Faith, in the Bible, means believing in a trustworthy person (including the person of God).

In Genesis 15:6, after God made promises to Abraham, we are told, “Then [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This belief of Abraham is referenced several times in the New Testament (cf. Romans 4, Hebrews 11) as the epitome of faith. The Hebrew word aman, translated “believed” here, is used elsewhere in the Old Testament when Jacob was unsure whether to believe his sons’ report that Joseph was alive (Genesis 45:26), when Moses feared that the Israelites would not believe him when he returned to Egypt with a message from the Lord (Exodus 4), and when Sihon king of the Amorites did not trust Israel enough to allow them to pass through his territory (Judges 11:20). In each case, someone is evaluating someone else and determining if they can be trusted.

We need to bring this sense of trusting a person with us as we read the famous definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Taken by itself, that line might evoke the image of a Kierkegaardian unreasoning leap. But the examples of faith which fill Hebrews 11 are from the Old Testament, and faith in the Old Testament is faith in someone; trust in a trustworthy person.

In Hebrews 11, we meet exemplars of faith like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Moses, and Rahab. From Noah, who built an ark because God said a worldwide flood was coming, to Rahab, the prostitute who hid Hebrew spies because she trusted in their God, each of these figures believed God was trustworthy–and acted on that belief.

Nowhere does the Bible ask for blind, unreasoning faith. In Numbers 14, when the Israelites complained in the wilderness and demanded to return to the security of Egypt, God’s rebuke is striking: “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe [aman] in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” The Lord grounded his accusation on the amazing power and faithfulness that his people had witnessed as he brought them out of Egypt. Since the people had seen his trustworthiness, he asks, why will they not trust him? Where is their faith?

Understanding what the Bible means by “faith” brings us back to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dream of a religion of charity rather than faith. He is right, of course, that true religion ought to be full of love. But his assumption that one must choose either a charity that loves one’s neighbor or a moon-eyed faith that gazes up at heaven is simply incorrect. Rather, biblical faith means trusting and following God’s word, and in God’s word, the second greatest command is to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:35-40). That is why true faith must lead to works of love, because if we are not living as God tells us to live, then we are not walking by faith.

And as we love, the Christian’s faith gives us hope that love will last even beyond the grave. In Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias,” he paints one of literature’s most famous images of the effects of time on the glories of mankind.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Charity itself is not exempt from the leveling power of the years. If man is the measure of all things, then even the most generous love will crumble away into lone and level sands before relentless time. How sad, if every act of love was merely the courtesy of one lost soul to another on a shipwreck sliding forever into darkness. There would still be a nobility in such transient kindnesses, but how one wishes the story could have a happier ending. In Shelley’s “Elegy on the Death of John Keats,” he mourned,

For he is gone, where all things wise and fair
Descend—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
Will yet restore him to the vital air;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.

What a tragedy that Shelley seems to have died without listening to the words of the King of kings who fell down into that Deep, swallowed death and laughed at despair, and burst again into the vital air. Beauty alone does not make a story true, but surely a poet would be glad that the true story is also beautiful; that true religion says, “We love, because He first loved us.”

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