What is faith for?
While this isn’t a question that is asked very often in my experience, I have come to believe that it’s an extremely important aspect of faith to examine. Our perspective on the role and purpose of faith in our lives can decide whether we include spirituality in how we live and, if we do, it shapes what kind of faith we have.
Take a moment now to pause reading and ask yourself this question. If you are a person of faith, why do you include spirituality in your life and what does your faith look like? What do you hope your faith will bring to your life? What is the ‘goal’ of your faith? If you do not hold to a faith of some kind, what is it that keeps you from faith?
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FAITH
One mistake that we often make when it comes to talking about faith is to assume that we’re all talking about the same thing. We dive into arguments about different religions, different doctrines, and different practices assuming that we all work from the basic premise, even if the specifics and the object of our belief is different. But this is clearly not the case.
The second mistake we make is to differentiate faith based on the specifics of our beliefs. This may sound like a contradiction of what I’ve just said, but the details of our beliefs are not what separates one kind of faith from another. In essence, all fundamentalists approach faith in the same way regardless of whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Atheist.
What sets different kinds of faith apart is simply one thing: whether faith is good or bad (I am indebted for these ideas to Brian McLaren’s thoughts in his book Finding Faith which I read a long time ago but has stayed with me). It doesn’t really matter whether we invoke Christ, Allah, Yahweh or Science as our ‘higher power’. What matters is the impact that faith has on our lives, attitudes, relationships, and actions. Good faith looks much the same in all religious and spiritual paths, and bad faith is the same. But good faith and bad faith are about as far away from each other as it is possible to be.
So what makes a faith ‘bad’? And on what basis do we make this decision? Well, that brings us back to the question we started with: what is faith for? My sense is that the fundamental difference between good and bad faith lies in the answer to this question.
One dominant perspective on the purpose of faith, particularly within the Christian tradition, is that it is the thing that gives us an assurance of a god life after death. Anyone who has been approached with the unfortunately common inquiry, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” has experienced how central this question is to the faith of millions of believers.
But what happens when we view faith as little more than a guarantee of a blissful afterlife? Firstly, it starts our faith journey off from a place of self-interest. I don’t know who it was who first raised this objection, but if faith in Christ is only about getting into a personal heaven when we die, then it is extremely selfish. And yet again and again the Gospel is framed as ‘Jesus died for our sins so we could be forgiven and spend eternity in heaven.’
What follows from this foundation can only be viewed as bad faith. For many people, the God who forgives them hates those who don’t believe, act or look as they do. And when we believe that God hates other people it is a very short step for us to hate them too—and act accordingly. And when the focus of our faith is on what happens after we die, then it becomes very hard to value anything on this side of the grave like justice, social change, and care for the planet.
If bad faith is self-interested, disconnected from the world and other people, and self-righteous then good faith is obviously the opposite of these things. For many people faith is not about what happens after we die, but how we live here and now. In this case, faith draws our attention to the suffering and struggles in the world and gives us a vision of justice, mutual care, peace, and ‘enoughness.’ It sees the beauty, truth, and goodness in the world and seeks to maximise and nurture it while working to transform what is ugly, false, and evil.
What concerns me, is the extent to which the last few years have revealed people of faith to be opposed to the values of love, justice, inclusion, and a good life for all. We have seen people of faith support corrupt leaders, torture of enemies, exclusion of black and LGBTQIA+ people, and conspiracy theories opposing masks and vaccines in the face of a global pandemic. Too many wars have been fought in the name of religion, and too many innocent people have been harmed and killed in the name of God. Somehow this bad faith needs to be identified and eradicated in our world.
And this is where the challenge comes in for those of us who are committed to good faith. It is not good faith to stand silent in the face of bad faith. It is not good faith to claim that everyone has the right to believe whatever they want. It is not good faith to offer grace to those who will use it as an opportunity to do more harm. What we believe matters. And people of good faith cannot stand by and watch as harm is done in God’s name.
PUTTING GOOD FAITH TO WORK
What can people of good faith do to stand against bad faith? We have to find ways to resist evil without becoming evil. I can’t find the source of this quote, but years ago I read these words somewhere: “If in seeking to overcome the beast, we become the beast, the beast has won.”
Here are a few suggestions for what I believe can make a difference and ensure that good faith ultimately grows and overcomes bad faith:
- Richard Rohr is right that “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” Perhaps what is most needed in our world today is people who allow their good faith to be visible. This isn’t about trying to convert others to our faith by showing off what we believe. It is simply about living lives of grace, love, listening, accepting, supporting, caring, and generosity.
- When we are confronted with bad faith we do not have to get into debates or try to change the opinions, beliefs, and behaviours of the other person. But we can simply state that we see things differently. We can offer a perspective that is rooted in compassion and justice. In my experience, while doing this may have little effect on the person with whom we are interacting, it often does have an effect on those who witness the exchange. This is particularly true on social media platforms.
- When we witness someone being hurt by bad faith, we can step in, stand in solidarity, offer comfort and support, and, in whatever way possible, provide protection.
So let me ask you one more time: what is faith for? And how can you ensure that your faith contains more good than bad?
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[…] here’s the thing—and this is where what we call ‘spiritual practice’ comes in: Not all faith is equally good at getting us where we want to be. Some faith can be destructive and harmful. And some faith can be creative and […]