Journey Group Packet 2014 Sep: Faith

Journey Group Packet
2014 Sep

Meredith's Reflection
faith (n.) mid-13th-century; "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," from Latin fides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from Proto-Indo-European root bheidh (source also of Greek pistis). Theological sense is from late 14th-century; religions called faiths since circa 1300.
-from Online Etymoligical Dictionary
Some us have a warm, fuzzy response to the word “faith.” Others of us have a cold, prickly reaction to the word. I understand the cold, prickly reaction. Far from its original sense of “fidelity; fulfillment of duties with which one has been entrusted,” “faith” today has sometimes seemed to mean “clinging to a belief regardless of the evidence – regardless, even, of any possible future evidence.” If that’s what “faith” means, it’s no wonder that many Unitarian Universalists would rather have nothing to do with it.

If we are to have fidelity to the truth, we understand that we must always be willing to change our belief in light of new evidence. To define “faith” as “refusal to modify beliefs, whatever the evidence” is to make faith into the opposite of the fidelity that “faith” originally indicated!

The Greek word was pistis. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the goddess Pistis personified trust and reliability. In Roman mythology, her name was Fides (hence, fidelity). The Greeks often spoke of Pistis together with Elpis (hope), Sophrosyne (prudence), and the Charites (a.k.a. Graces, which variously included such minor goddesses as charm, beauty, fertility, creativity, splendor, mirth, and good cheer – all attributes generally associated with harmony among people.) When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Corinthians that “faith, hope, and love abide,” he was clearly evoking this Greek background.

For the Greeks, Pistis evolved to include persuasion. In the Greek understanding of rhetoric, pistis are the elements to induce true judgment. So the idea of fidelity to duty morphed to refer especially to fidelity to the truth, and the logical means of persuasion of the truth.

In the hands of the writers and the interpretive community of readers of the Christian ("New") Testament, the Greek pistis evolved further from “persuasion” to “conviction.”

The Christian Testament was originally written in Greek, and pistis (uniformly translated to English as “faith”) appears many times. Below is a sampling. As you look over these passages, I invite you to consider what difference it makes if you read faith as “fidelity to an entrusted duty” or as “conviction of belief.”
  • “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13)
  • "So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)
  • “Since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Rom 3:30)
  • “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
  • “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” (Rom 4:13)
  • “For through the spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. . . . Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5)
  • “for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (Col 1:4)
  • “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess 5:8)
  • “When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one[a] in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matt 8:10)
  • “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’” (Matt 9:2)
  • “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’” (Matt 9:22)
  • “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you.’” (Matt 9:29)
  • “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matt 15:28)
  • “He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matt 17:20)
  • “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” it will be done.’” (Matt 21:21)
  • “’Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.’” (Matt 23:23)
  • “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40)
  • “Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God.’” (Mark 11:21-22)
  • “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” (Luke 7:9)
  • “And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:24-25)
  • “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
  • “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
  • “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail.” (Luke 22:32)
  • “Peter…addressed the people, ‘…And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.’” (Acts 3:16)
  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
All these meanings – fidelity, persuasion, and conviction – echo through our conception of faith today. What is at the core, unifying these disparate meanings?

Jumping from the ancient Greeks and the Christian Testament writers to today: recent reflections on the nature of faith provide important avenues for getting at the core of faith while discarding the association of faith with willful disregard of evidence and reason. Let’s take a look at three contemporary approaches.

1. Wieman

The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) provides helpful guidance on the nature of faith. Wieman’s view, as described by Virginia Knowles:
“Religious faith is the act by which we commit ourselves with the fullness of our being, insofar as we are able, to whatever can transform and save us from the evil of devoting ourselves to the transient goods of social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” (1992)
We all have egos, and our egos desire recognizable achievement -- socially, financially, physically, professionally, politically, or artistically. Our egos motivate us to do some good work, but Weiman identifies excessive devotion to the ego’s desires as evil. We may be saved from that evil, suggests Weiman, through commitment to grow and change in ways that make us increasingly better able to avoid the evil of overly focusing on the ego’s desires, increasingly oriented toward humble service of enduring values rather than ego desires and inconspicuous harmony with life and our world rather than recognition of achievement.

Wieman’s understanding of faith captures what has been most central and important about faith in Western religious traditions. The outcome of faith – personal transformation and transcendence of ego-centric desires -- is precisely the outcome that the traditional Western religions have seen as the product of a faithful life. Wieman has showed us a way to embrace this valuable function of faith without the unfortunate notion that faith requires irrational conviction that flies in the face of evidence. Try reading the above samples from the Bible with Wieman’s understanding of faith in mind. Does it work?

2. Salzberg

For American Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg (b. 1952), faith is
"the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."
Rather than believing without evidence, faith is a willingness to go forward to take in new evidence and new experience, ever-willing to be transformed. This throwing ourselves into the unknown often does feel like leaping -- hence the phrase, "leap of faith."

At the same time, Salzberg is drawing upon the tradition that faith stands in distinction from reason and evidence. After all, reason and evidence tell us about what we can know. Making our peace with unknowability is also a crucial part of a whole life.

While Weiman draws attention to the ego’s focus on achievement, Salzberg’s formulation points to another trick of the ego. The ego pretends to know more than it actually does know about what's going to happen next and about where your life is headed. Ego loves its illusion of being in control. Our conceptions of how things are “supposed” to go can close us to realities that present themselves. Faith is the liberating capacity to step out of our illusion, and, without pretending already to know, be open to surprise and mystery.

Following Salzberg, we can see that faith means engaged and open-minded and open-hearted participation in life. It means the courage to offer up all that we are to the world around us, not knowing what the world will ask or what we will find in ourselves to offer. Faith is the overcoming of the fear that could cause us to withdraw and stand safely on the sidelines. Faith is jumping in -- there's the leap again -- into all that life has to offer, the joy and the triumph and the grief and the loss. Faith is stepping, jumping, skipping, leaping, somersaulting right into the middle of possibilities for how we might evolve and for what goodness might burst forth. Faith's opposite, then, is not doubt, but despairing withdrawal.

This understanding leads to seeing faith as also awareness of an interconnected universe. We are not alone no matter how alone we sometimes feel. What happens to us and from us is part of the larger fabric of life, always rippling out through threads of connection.

If we read the above Bible samples with Salzberg’s understanding of faith in mind, do they may more sense? Less?

3. Fowler

James Fowler (b. 1940, Prof of Theology and Human Development at Emory and a United Methodist minister) defined faith as:
“a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.”
A “religion,” then, for Fowler, is “a community’s way of giving expression to faith relationships held in common.”

Fowler’s definition preserves our very common sense that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are faiths (or, more specifically, are names of communities that give expression to faith relationships held in common among the community’s members). Each offers a certain way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.

The idea that it’s a good thing to have convictions that are entirely unshakeable regardless of the evidence is a bad mistake. That idea does nevertheless convey, for all its misdirection, one implication that is true: evidence is not the same thing as meaning, and evidence alone does not suffice. The way we understand the world is more than just evidence. Fowler’s definition preserves that nugget of insight about faith: that evidence alone doesn’t offer much guidance. Mere phenomena present us with “a blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James) until interpreted, fit into an overall context, made sense of.

There are many various ways to put the same evidence together into a structure of value and meaning, and each way is, for Fowler, a faith. We all have faith – it’s unavoidable – since we all interpret and make sense of existence. To have “little faith,” then, would be to have a rather haphazard and often incoherent way “knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” To have a lot of faith would be to know, construe, and interpret existence in a way that coherently makes sense of a vast range of data. How does it work to read the above Bible verses with Fowler’s definition in mind?

Weiman, Salzberg, and Fowler each offer us an active conception of faith. It’s the act by which we commit (Weiman), the act of opening (Salzberg), and a way of doing something, namely, interpreting existence (Fowler). Faith is best understood not so much as something we have, but as something we do – or, sometimes, fail to do.

The Spiritual Exercise

For this exercise, we will consider faith in its aspect of trust. For the Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), faith involves trust in God. The core idea is that we don’t have to take responsibility for everything. How things turn out is, of course, an interactive mixture of what we do and what is beyond our control. Yet sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we control what we do not. One of our “secret” strategies for control involves “shoulding.” I try to ensure that other people – or even inanimate objects – will behave in the way I want by clinging tightly to a belief that they should behave that way. Thus, when somebody (maybe me) fails to be and do as they should, and the result is that things don’t turn out as I want, I get upset. Trust (whether in God, or in society, or in the universe) involves letting go of trying to control everything – including letting go of shoulding. There are two levels.

Level A: Trusting that things will work out the way I want them to
Level B: Trusting that things will work out in a way that is really and deeply OK even if it’s very different from what I would have wanted.

“Level B,” of course, gets more to the essence of faith – which reminds us that acceptance as well as trust are central aspects of faith.

Your exercise, then, is:

For one week try letting go of something that you normally spend energy “shoulding” about or otherwise trying to control. Just let go of worrying and meddling with it. Have faith that it will turn out OK (even if it isn’t what you would have thought you’d want). NOTE: Do exercise reasonable prudence in selecting something to let go of. Stepping back and trusting your toddler to make it across a busy street by himself would probably not be a good choice.

Come to your Journey Group prepared to talk about how the exercise went.

Questions to Live With

As always, don’t treat these questions like “homework.” You do not need to engage every single one. Instead, simply look them over and find the one that “hooks” you most. Then let it take you on a ride. Live with it for a while. Allow it to regularly break into – and break open – your ordinary thoughts. And then come to your Journey Group meeting prepared to share that journey with your group.

1. How would it change your life if you had more faith? Less faith?

2. “Bad faith” is a term in existentialist philosophy. It means: refusal to confront facts or choices. What, if anything, does this tell you about what faith is?

3. What did faith mean to you when you were 7-years-old? When you were 14-years-old? What was your faith then? In what ways is that still a part of you today?

4. For Fowler, a religion is “a community’s way of giving expression to faith relationships held in common.” What are the faith relationships that Unitarian Universalists hold in common?

5. Have you ever had a “crisis of faith”? Are you still having it? How did it change you?

6. What is faith? How does living with faith enrich one’s life?

7. Some forms of Christianity teach that faith is always a gift from God and never something that can be produced by people. How much control, if any, do you think we have over whether or not we have faith? Can you choose faith – or does faith choose you?

8. Which approach – Weiman’s, Salzberg’s, Fowler’s – makes most sense to you? Or does combining all three seem attractive to you?

9. What value, if any, do you see in strong conviction? What value, if any, do you see in doubt?

11. Is it good for a society for its members to be diverse in their faiths?

12. A few years ago UUA produced postcards that UU congregations could buy and use for mailing to visitors. The postcard had a nice picture of a diverse and smiling group and the words: “Imagine a place where people of different beliefs worship together as one faith.” Is it a good way to express what UU is all about?

13. People have different concepts of what faith means. How much does having different concepts of faith interfere with finding “Common Ground”?

14. What are the differences between faith and hope? What are the intersections between faith and hope?

Recommended Resources

As always, this is not “required reading.” We will not analyze or dissect these pieces in our group. They are simply meant to get your thinking started – and maybe to open you to new ways of thinking about what it means to live with happiness and joy.


“Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”-Rabindranath Tagore

“There are many things that are essential to arriving at true peace of mind, and one of the most important is faith, which cannot be acquired without prayer.” -John Wooden

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” -Helen Keller

“A man of courage is also full of faith.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero

“We are twice armed if we fight with faith.” -Plato

“If patience is worth anything, it must endure to the end of time. And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.” -Alan Watts

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” -Khalil Gibran

“The keys to patience are acceptance and faith. Accept things as they are, and look realistically at the world around you. Have faith in yourself and in the direction you have chosen.” -Ralph Marston

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

“Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right.” -Max Lucado

“Sometimes beautiful things come into our lives out of nowhere. We can't always understand them, but we have to trust in them. I know you want to question everything, but sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.” -Lauren Kate, Torment

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.” -Paulo Coelho, Brida

There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” -Nelson Mandela

“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” -Rainer Maria Rilke,

“Doubt everything. Find your own light.” -Buddha

“Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be a prudent insurance policy.” -Elizabeth Gilbert

“Faith is about doing. You are how you act, not just how you believe.” -Mitch Albom,

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” -Thomas Merton

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it's time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” -Edward Teller

“This is my living faith, an active faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, learn, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek.” -Terry Tempest Williams

“Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” -Paul Tillich

“Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.” -Mahatma Gandhi

“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“You have as much laughter as you have faith.” -Martin Luther

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” -Alfred Tennyson

“To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.” -Christopher Hitchens

“Life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death.” -Miguel de Unamuno

“A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.” -Arthur C. Clarke


Google “Fowler Stages of Faith” and peruse a few of the top returns.

Sharon Salzberg, “Faith” http://www.sharonsalzberg.com/archive/article/142

Blogger Dan Fincke’s post on “Why I Define Faith Philosophically as Inherently Irrational and Immoral”

Dangerous Faith? Faith vs. Reason on Responding to Climate Change

Audio: 3-minute audiobook excerpt from Salzberg’s Faith. http://www.sharonsalzberg.com/books-audio/78


Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (2003). Faith resides not in the outcome, but in the willingness to see the possibility for change.

James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981). Faith develops through life. Few ever reach the sixth and last stage. Many never progress pass the 3rd or 4th stage.

Chris Stedman, Faitheist: How and Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (2012). The story of a former Evangelical Christian turned openly gay atheist who now works to bridge the divide between atheists and the religious.

Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2010). A hopeful and moving testament to the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.


“Raw Faith” (2010) “an intimate and revealing documentary that follows two years in the private life of Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister." Trailer and other info:

“Dead Man Walking” (1995)
“The Virgin Spring” (1960)
“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)
“The Ruling Class” (1972)

Short Films on Youtube (about 6 mins each):


“Leap of Faith”

What’s the connection between faith and . . . animal resuce? Check out:

Neil deGrass Tyson says faith and reason are irreconcilable.


George Michael, “Faith”

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