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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

Faith, belief, trust, troth

Faith as six impossible things before breakfast, or a way of seeing divine potential

The reading was from Romans 4.13-end where St Paul expounds the idea of Justification by grace through faith. Before the reformation the doctrine wasn’t much emphasised – so John Barton tells us in his great book 'A History of the Bible'.

The doctrine came to prominence through Martin Luther who, at the Reformation, saw it as a strong rebuttal of the abuses associated with the idea that a place in heaven could be earned by good works (eg pilgrimages) and most notoriously by giving money to the Church by buying indulgences for time off Purgatory. (That really was a joke – both purgatory and the idea that paying an earthly institution can give you heavenly brownie points).

St Paul, I think, didn’t come from the same angle. He just felt that earning salvation by works was a challenge too far – which of us is ever going to be good enough, and altruistic enough, to earn God’s grace by our own efforts? Won’t we inevitably fall by the wayside? But we can put our trust in God – we can have faith, and that in itself will put us in such a relationship with God that we will find salvation.

But what is faith?

What do you think? Many people seem to think it’s about signing up to a list of propositions. You know, six impossible things before breakfast to believe in. I am not convinced.

After Christmas in 2019, the artist Grayson Perry was guest editor on the Today Programme. He invited Rowan Williams to come in and discuss religion. He asked Williams how he’d define belief. Williams said, ‘belief is a perspective on things, a framing of the facts you see – stories, perspectives, not so much statements you say yes to, but taking a stance.’

Perry: Not about facts.

Williams: Not about conclusions. He cited changing your mind: something triggers a new perspective.

Perry: We are creatures of metaphor. Religion is a giant embroidered metaphor for lots of other things we might need in our lives.

Williams: You produce a myth, an emotionally charged story. All belief systems have limitations - a good belief system helps you learn, doesn’t close down the learning system.

You might notice here that faith and belief are words that do some degree are used interchangeably – neither has precise meaning. The two are difficult to untangle: belief can be as in a ‘set of beliefs’ or propositions; belief can also suggest a percentage of likelihood that something is the case – I believe grandma is coming round next Thursday, but I can’t be completely sure. The creeds begin, I believe…and in that context belief is seen to be subscribe to these claims.

Faith, on the other hand, seems to me more like what Grayson Perry and Rowan Williams were talking about. It is a disposition, an attitude to life, way of looking and of seeing things. Being open to certain possibilities…it is fluid, on the move, developing, relational. At this point it merges into more into trust. If I trust someone, I have a gut feeling that they will act reliably and do the right thing. I trust their character and hopefully they will pick up (perhaps by a gut feeling) that I have faith in them and respond. Trust also implies an ongoing give and take etc between people. In the wedding service, we come we hear the bride and groom pledging their troth to each other; it is the same word as trust. Troth and trust. I have promised for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to trust you.

This week, I was chatting about this sermon to a former curate of mine, now Anglican Chaplain to the Hague, and I think he felt I was being too open-ended about faith. He said he thought, for many people, faith was like living in a house surrounded by your familiar furniture and favourite nick knacks. Faith is the security of those familiar things. I get that. You want a bit of security in your religion; you want your marker points, your heirloom grandfather clock, your Staffordshire dogs. But as our children keep telling us, things change, they don’t want our old furniture, and if they think we are too attached to them, they tell us to get out more.

But I must still be careful. Some of you know that I have a part time publishing job. I publish a series called 'Quaker Quicks': most sell about 1000 copies, (eg Quakers and chocolate – Cadburys, Fry, Bournville the Quaker Utopia in Birmingham, or Quakers and Pacifism). But guess which title sells 3 or 4 thousand copies: ‘What do Quakers believe?’. A simple title telling people what they want to know…

Pascal describes God saying to the agnostic in search of God: you wouldn’t still be looking for me, if you hadn’t already found me.

That kind of sums up what I am trying to say: that faith is an attitude to life and to the possibility of the divine other, rather than a doctrinal straitjacket.

Are we interested in reaching out to people on the very edge of Christian faith?

If so, we must take all of this into account.

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