Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Belief or Faith?

We ought to  ask ourselves whether the focus of our religion is belief or faith. The two differ.

Belief could be described as acceptance of doctrines. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the council fathers published a creed. They were responding to a controversy in the Church about whether Jesus was equal to the Father. A priest named Arius argued that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, that Jesus received his being from the Father at the beginning of time.

Others insisted that Jesus was not subordinate, that Jesus was truly God like the Father.

As the intensity of the conflict increased, the Emperor Constantine called the bishops of the Church together to settle the matter: What do Christians believe about Jesus' relationship to the Father?

The major result of this council was the creed which formally defined that Jesus is "from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father."

Although this proclamation settled the matter about what the council bishops believed to be the truth, the controversy continued for many decades. A second council was called in 380 AD to respond once more to the Arian heresy.

It is clear that spelling out one's beliefs has an enormous effect upon one's faith. If faith is a lived response to God, then it makes a difference to a believer whether Jesus is God or not. How much more awesome (and filled with mystery) is God's love for the world if indeed it was God who "became man and dwelt among us" and not simply some emissary.

Belief, then, is important, but acceptance of a creed is only the first step; the second is faith.

It is conceivable that a person could believe what the Bible and the Church teach and still not be a Christian in the full sense of that designation.

Believing a set of doctrines does not a Christian make. To be a Christian one must be a disciple of Jesus, must pick up his cross, must walk in his footsteps, strive to live out the Gospel, and have a personal relationship (deep and intimate) with Jesus.

It is much easier to be a believing Catholic than to be a practicing one.

Catholics who are intense about doctrine are also called to be intense about compassion, kindness, forgiveness, service, and many other Christ-like virtues.

When Church members become "liturgical police" or "heretic hunters," they may distort both their religion and the faith. Attitude is a vital element of true discipleship. Jesus' concern was people over law. He did not denigrate the law, but neither did he condemn the law-breakers.

Belief, then, is a matter of creed, of doctrines and magisterium. Faith, then, is a matter of living one's beliefs, of loving one's neighbor, of intimacy with Jesus.

It is noteworthy that in the middle of Mass the congregation pauses to profess its faith in the words of the creed.

It is especially noteworthy that, as scholar Karen Armstrong explains, "The word 'belief' itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear...In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus...to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, a credo."

She continues, "I believe did not mean, 'I accept certain creedal articles of faith.' It meant 'I commit myself. I engage myself.'"

With that insight in mind, note that the creed becomes an excellent transition piece between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Think of that next Sunday.

The so-called "profession of faith" is no longer a mere recitation of beliefs; it is rather a committing to faith, an accepting of the Father as Creator, a welcoming of Jesus as Lord, a being open to the Holy Spirit, a rededicating of oneself to full partnership in the community of Christ.

Belief and faith are not opposed to each other; they need each other. Belief without faith is dead.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent reflection, Norm! You are certainly unholding the standards of Vatican II in all your articles that I have read and enjoyed here. Thank you for your clarity, lucidity, and candor. I will share your material with my RCIA folks and have recommended your site to other AUSCP brothers. Thank you for continuing to unfold the deposit of faith as a living organism.
    Grateful for you,
    Bob Cushing, AUSCP Board Member, Pastor of St. Theresa Church in Cordele, GA.