On the Nature of Faith

I’m currently making my way through ‘The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology by Simon Critchley. I’ve got about half way through chapter 4, ‘You Are Not Your Own: On the Nature of Faith,’ which is an examination of the Pauline turn continental philosophy has made in recent years.

Critchley’s goal is to get an idea of what Paul had in mind when he spoke of “faith,” so that he in turn can perhaps use such a definition in the construction of what he calls a “faith of the faithless.”

The definition of faith Critchley sees in Paul looks like this:

Faith is an announcement that enacts, a proclamation that brings the subject of faith into being… Faith announces itself in a situation of crisis where a decisive intervention is called for. In other words, faith take place in a situation of struggle. At stake in the struggle is the meaning of the future and the exact extent of the shadow that the future casts across the present… Faith is not an empty, fixed, or constant state with the distant  pay-off of final bliss in the afterlife. It is, rather, an enactment in the present that is shot through both by the facticity of the past (for Paul, the fact of the resurrection) and the imminence of the future (parousia).

This is certainly intriguing, especially when it is played off of another extract from the chapter; which emerges from a reading of Giorgio Agamben.

For Agamben, there is an essential decline in the experience of faith from Pauline pistis to the forms of sacramental faith that emerged in the centuries after Paul. The history of theology – and perhaps theology itself, the science of the divine – is the reduction of faith to creedal dogma or the articles of a catechism.

This is a biting criticism of Christian theology, and the practices of the church more widely. The suggestion being that how the nature of faith has been articulated since the 1st century has diverged from what the first Christians thought they were doing.

The general idea is that for the first Christians, and Paul especially, faith meant being seized by the event of the resurrection and proclaiming/enacting what they thought it pointed to – Jesus’ Messiahness – and in turn making present the conditions of the kingdom/new creation in a present that didn’t reflect them – if you weren’t doing this, you weren’t being faithful.

Counter to this idea is the thought that faith became, over the years, a set of static ontological facts  one holds or that a community possesses (e.g. Jesus is the Messiah), that mark it off as different from others; coming complete with a set off rituals that underscore the difference and reinforce our correctness.

There are questions to be asked here. Is this a good reading of Paul? To what extent can a faith centred around a past historical crisis make sense and be of use to us? Is the analysis that plays Pauline faith against that which the church sought to devise totally accurate and fair? Can we get on board with readings philosophers give of Paul when they don’t intend to follow wholesale to the Christian tradition? These are all good questions and they won’t be explored here.

What I do think though is that the above makes sense to me. There is something that Christians can learn from a reading of Paul that is free of traditions that predispose our thinking of the NT toward certain conclusions. To this end there is something deeply instructive to be gained from this analysis of faith, especially when it rubs up against its contemporary, Agamben-esque articulations.

  • Perhaps there is some truth in the suggestion that many contemporary expressions of faith reflect an implicit commodification – we can talk about “my faith being strong” because I bought the latest awesome book, CD or entry to this worship event that reinforced so much.
  • It seems accurate that faith now often gets associated with “right thinking” (orthodoxy) – which only then makes “right practice” (orthopraxis) intrinsically valuable.
  • Maybe it is also that the residue of Christendom expresses itself in faith being a kind of vicarious experience of confidence or assuredness because we hear someone preach, got baptised, feel ashamed at Eucharist (funny right?) and so on.

In all of this faith has been made fixed, static, objectified and in turn has become something to be possessed (or rather, bought).

We should recognise that faith is not a possession or something that we own, it does not and should not operate as some weird trump card due to its perceived implicit veracity.

What if faith was understood as a proclamation? Something we are charged to make true. Something we struggle for and in. Something weak and defined by love. Something foolish. Something outnumbered. Something political that imagines the world differently. Something that yearns to be manifest. Something that claims us, rather than we it. Something that approximates and anticipates a deeper something.

This is where Critchley is going with the idea of faith. I’m inclined to think it is a reading of Paul that has merit.