The Common Good

Redefining Faith

Lately I have been spending a lot of time reading the book of James. Reading this small yet powerful book has challenged me to think and re-think the very nature and meaning of faith.

Bible opened to book of James, Vibe Images / Shutterstock.com
Bible opened to book of James, Vibe Images / Shutterstock.com

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I have found it interesting to listen to people speak about faith. Often faith is used to describe what a person believes and does not believe. For example, we might say that we believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Mohammed, Torah, the Bible, the Quran, and so forth. What people say they believe is then equated with their faith. Faith in God means that he or she believes in God. Because I believe in God, I have faith. Faith and belief seem to be synonymous.

This understanding or definition of faith, however, does not seem synonymous with actions or the way we live. Although ideally we believe that faith should affect the way we act, we still speak about faith and action separately. In other words, faith and living out that faith — action — is differentiated and understood separately. For example, it might be possible to have faith, yet not live a life that is based or reflects that faith. It might be possible to have faith in God, even in Jesus, but act in ways that are ungodly or un-Christ-like – participating in violence and war, killing, being inhumane, lying, cheating, being corrupt, and so forth. Although we may act in these ways, and participate in actions that are less than holy, the claim remains that we still have faith. We have faith because we believe in something.

This understanding is quite common. We hear of the many stories of soldiers at war, and hear about the faith that keeps them engaged in that battle. We are reminded about this reality in almost every presidential speech. In Africa it is unfortunately all-to-regular to hear about the faith of a particular politician or public official and yet hear of ways in which he or she have been involved in government corruption, state sanctioned violence, and, in some cases, atrocities of the worst kind. This is the understanding of faith, for example, that depicts Rwanda as being more than 90 percent Christian at the time of the 1994 genocide. These examples demonstrate a separation between faith and the way in which we live. In other words, this way of understanding faith does not speak into or affect the way in which we live.

The example of Rwanda can be, as Emmanuel Katongole has put it, a mirror to the church and, I would add, a mirror as to how we understanding faith in general. Katongole says, “When we look at Rwanda as a mirror to the church, it helps us realize what little consequence the biblical story has on the way Christians live their lives in the West” (Mirror to the Church, 85). Put another way, although we “believe” in the Bible, in Jesus, in God, and so forth, it does little to the way in which we live our lives. Like one Facebook message that I recently saw put it, “Faith is like WIFI: it’s invisible, but it has the power to connect you to what you need.” Faith is equated to what we believe, which is differentiated from the way we live.           

The book of James challenges this understanding of faith. We are reminded of the well-known verse in James that says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17), and again, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). The book of James reminds us about the interconnectivity between faith and works; the one requiring the other; an interconnectivity that is difficult to embrace, even leading Martin Luther, for example, to describe James as the epistle of straw!

Lately, however, I have been wrestling with this interconnectivity found in James between faith and works. Often, I suspect, these verses and this book continues to be read with the assumption that faith and works are two separate and distinct things; things that should be together, but two things nonetheless. Even groups like Sojourners who have a strong and admirable social conscience and encourage social action, describe their work as “Faith in Action for Social Justice.” Although they do well in bringing the two together, faith and action are still referred to as two distinct things – “faith in action.” In other words, it seems that the reverse is also possible — to have faith that is not in action.             

I have begun to wonder whether this is, in fact, what the writer of James intended. I wonder whether James was reminding people to bring these two pieces of the puzzle together, or whether the one piece — faith — is in fact indistinguishable without works? Let me explain the nuance.

We often assume and speak as if faith = belief. If this leads to action, that is wonderful. Yet we still assume it is possible to speak about faith even if there is no action.

I wonder, however, if James is actually describing faith as that which requires both belief and action. In other words, faith = belief + action. The two, belief and action, are required elements in order to have faith. If one piece of the equation is not present then what is left is not faith. For example, action without belief is no longer faith; it is humanism. Likewise, belief without action is no longer faith; it is superstition. In order to have faith, belief and action are both required.

This, I think, is a substantial challenge to our current understanding and definition of faith. This is a challenge that does not allow us the comfort of believing in something and not putting it into practice. This is not faith. James, I think, provides us with a different definition – faith without works is dead. In other words, faith without works is not, in fact, faith!

Andrew Suderman is a Mennonite Church Canada worker in South Africa and is the Coordinator of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa

Image: Bible opened to book of James, Vibe Images / Shutterstock.com

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