In a recent lecture at the National Cathedral, Terry Eagleton discusses the radical nature of Christian faith. Yet he also notes an implicit problem within the grammar of, “having faith.”

The tortured, mutilated body of a political criminal who was done to death because he spoke out for love and justice, that this is what it all comes down to, this is it and no mistake. This is the single stark signifier of human history; all the rest is delusion, idolatry, false idealism, cheap sentimentalism. Those who can see this are commonly known as “having faith,” a terrible way of talking. It sounds like ‘having an i-pod.’

Indeed, much of our language about faith is terrible. How does one’s faith not become a commodity, some valiant act of abstract will, or worse yet, slip into fideism? Brad Gregory helpfully traces the history of this development. As he argues, it was when the Continental reformers domesticated and subordinated caritas – the substantial bond of Trinitarian community mediated over time – that faith became a possession characterized by obedience. This helps us to see, “why in the early twenty-first century many Christians understand ethics less as the pursuit of holiness linked to human flourishing as part of the imitation of Christ, than in legalistic terms as ‘following the rules’ lest punishment ensue.”[1] The punishment in question of course is either going to hell or failing to purchase the right products, including ideas or beliefs.

Would we then be better off in jettisoning the language of “having faith” or even, “faith alone?” In Tokens of Trust, Williams notes that the Creeds, as the earliest articulation of the faith, insist not on belief but upon trust or fidelity. Williams writes,

I believe in God the Father almighty’ isn’t the first in a set of answers to the question, ‘How many ideas or pictures have I inside my head?’ as if God were the name of one more doubtful thing like UFOs and ghosts to add to the list of the furniture of my imagination. It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage in my life, where I find solid ground, home.[2]

Williams understanding seems much closer to the mark of recalling the crucified body of a tortured and political criminal as “the single stark signifier of human history.” His grasp on faith-as-trust also sheds light on how facile understandings of sola fide can become so woefully inadequate. Faith is not simply about my Jesus or my belief, but about the Jesus who encounters us within history and material reality; namely, the church, the sacraments and the stranger. In this light, staking one’s life on the Logos incarnate, crucified and resurrected as the heart of the world and all reality, seems much more pronounced than simply having the latest gadget or fancy new set of ideas abstracted from the community of Christ’s body given over time.


[1] Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 210.

[2] Williams, Tokens of Trust, 6.

Advertisements