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By: Jacques Ellul
Out of the single verb "to believe" come noun forms for two radically antithetical actions: belief and faith. However, when I wish to use a verb form to give expression to my faith, I still have to use "to believe," unless I happen to use an even worse formula, "to have faith."
Belief provides answers to people's questions while faith never does. People believe so as to find assurance, a solution, an answer to their questions to fashion for themselves a system of beliefs. Faith (biblical faith) is completely different. The purpose of revelation is not to supply us with explanations, but to get us to listen to questions.
Faith is, as Barth so often reminds us, in the first instance, hearing. Belief talks and talks, it wallows in words, it interpolates the gods, it takes the initiative. Faith takes an entirely opposite stance: it waits, remains on guard, picks up signs, knows what to make of the most delicate parables; it listens patiently to the silence until that silence is filled up with what it takes to be the indisputable word of God.
Faith isolates; belief (Christian or otherwise) brings together. We find ourselves joined with others in the same institutional current, all of us oriented toward the same object of belief, sharing the same ideas, following the same rituals, enrolled in the same organization, be it social or religious, speaking the same language. Belief is quite useful for the smooth functioning of society. Belief is the key to the consensus we look for, the one long proclaimed essential of communal life. Faith works in exactly the opposite way. Faith individualizes; it is always an exclusively personal matter. Faith is the personal relationship with a God who reveals Himself as a person. This God singularizes people, sets them apart, and confers on each an identity comparable to none other. The person who listens to His word is the only one to hear it; he or she is separated from the others, becomes unique, simply because the tie that binds that individual to God is unique, unlike any other, incommunicable, a unique relationship with a unique, absolutely incomparable God. God particularizes, singularizes the person to whom He says, "I call you by your name" (Isa. 45:4). Faith separates people and makes each of them unique. In the Bible "holy" means "separated". To be holy is to be separated from everyone else, to be made unique for the sake of a task that can be accomplished by no one else, which one receives through faith.
Faith presupposes doubt while belief excludes it. The opposite of doubt isn't faith, but belief. The "knights" of belief comply unfailingly with the law and the commandments. They are unbending in their convictions, intolerant of any deviation. In the articulation of belief they press rigor and absolutism to their limits. They unceasingly refine the expression of their belief and seek to give it explicit intellectual formulation in a system as coherent and complete as possible. They insist on total orthodoxy. Ways of thinking and acting are rigidly codified. This leads to a very high level of efficiency; the believer is a person who gets the job done, but all this activity is hollow at the core. Believers have so little internal reality of their own that they can live and express that reality only by and in a conventional established unit. They are the people of gatherings. Believers find encouragement and certitude in the presence of others the certitude that those others really believe and so community life fills up the existential void. Multiplying the number of liturgies, commitments, and activities gives believers complete satisfaction in the midst of them they have no need of questioning the truth or reality of their belief; activity keeps them busy. But in this situation you can imagine how intolerable the diversity of beliefs becomes. There must be neither doubt nor uncertainty, for that would be radically destructive. So diversity cannot be tolerated. Diversity is always a source of further questions, of self-criticism, and thus of possible doubt so belief is rapidly transformed into passwords, rites, and orthodoxy.
Faith is summarized in the words, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Faith constrains me above all to measure how much I don't live by faith; how seldom faith fills up my life. Faith puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing. It leads me ineluctably to question all my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs, and policies. It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity. It detaches and delivers me from money and the family, from my job and my knowledge. It is the surest road to realizing that "the only thing I know is that I don't know anything." Faith leaves nothing intact. The only thing faith can bring me to recognize is my impotence, in incapacity, my inadequacy, my incompleteness, and consequently my incredulity (naturally faith is the most unerring and lethal weapon against all beliefs).
Belief is reassuring. People who live in the world of belief feel safe. On the contrary, faith is forever placing us on the razor's edge. Though it knows that God is the Father, it never minimizes His power. "Who then is this, that even wind and the sea obey Him?" (Mark 4:41). That is faith's question. For belief things are simple: God is almighty. We normalize God. We get comfortable with God's power. It is faith alone that can appreciate the immensity of God, and His true nature.
The doubt that constitutes an integral part of faith concerns myself, not God's revelation or His love or the presence of Jesus Christ. It is doubt about the effectiveness, even the legitimacy, of what I do and the forces I obey in my church and in society. Furthermore, faith puts itself to the test. If I discern the stirrings of faith within me, the first rule is not to deceive myself, not to abandon myself to belief indiscriminately. I have to subject my beliefs to rigorous criticism. I have to listen to all denials and attacks on them, so that I can know how solid the object of my faith is. Faith will not stand for half-truths and half-certainties. It obliges me to face the fact that I am nothing, and in so doing I receive the gift of everything.
Belief relates to things, to realities, to behaviors that are raised to the status of an ultimate value that it worthy dying for. Belief transforms next-to-last human realities into ultimate, absolute, foundational realities. It turns everything that belongs to the order of the Promise, of God Word, of the Kingdom into epiphenomena, into sweet pious words, ways of making life easier, and a process of self-justification. Faith runs totally counter to this. To begin with, faith acknowledges the Ultimate in all its irrefragable truth, and so it depreciates and attaches little importance to whatever offers itself as a substitute for that Ultimate. It is not a matter of looking to some external ultimate reality; the Kingdom of heaven is (at present) in you or among you. As of now it is you who constitute it. Faith is the demand that we must incarnate the Kingdom of God now in this world and this age.
One never moves from belief to faith, whereas faith often deteriorates into belief. You can't get to faith by way of any old religion, or belief, or some vague spiritual exaltation, or aesthetic emotions. It is not "better" from a Christian viewpoint to "believe" than not to believe, to "have religion" than not to have it. There is no road from belief to faith. You can't transform a conviction of the value of rites into the act of standing alone in the presence of God. The reverse is true: every belief is an obstacle to faith. Beliefs get in the way because they satisfy the need for religion, because they lead to spiritual choices that are substitutes for faith; they prevent us from discovering, listening to, and accepting the faith revealed in Jesus Christ.
Kierkegaard argues that it is more difficult for people brought up on all the lore of Christmas, for those who have had all their little religious needs met by the church, to receive the shock of revelation, to discover the Unique One, and to enter into the dark night of the soul, than it is for those who have done nothing but search continuously without ever coming upon a satisfying answer. Belonging to Christendom and to one of its churches is the main obstacle to becoming a Christian. There is no path leading from a little bit of religion (of whatever kind) to a little more and finally to faith. Faith shatters all religion and everything spiritual. On the other hand, the passage from faith to belief is always possible and always a threat. It is the downhill slide to which the church and the Christian life are always subject. Faith is constantly degenerating into multiple beliefs. No phrase expresses this imperceptible change better than "to have faith." When we take possession of faith and claim to be the proprietor of faith, we naturally think we can dispose of it as we wish. The only thing we are really entitled to say is that "Faith has me." The rest is mere belief.
Faith is neither belief nor credulity, neither a reasonable acquisition or an intellectual achievement; it is rather the conjunction of an ultimate decision and a revelation, and bids me bring about the incarnation of the ultimate reality today, the Kingdom of God present among us. I am summoned by a Word that is eternal, here and now, universal, personal. I accept this summons. I am willing to act responsible; I enter upon an illogical adventure, knowing neither its origin nor its end. Such is faith.
Apologetics tries to prove that Christianity is true, that it is superior to other religions (which of course leaves us arguing on the religious level), and that it answers all human questions. We can show that Christianity makes a reasonable case, but these debates among intellectuals are utterly sterile: nobody ever succeeds in persuading anyone else. No apologetics have ever brought any unbelievers to faith, even when they could see that they had been beaten by their adversary's rhetoric. There is no intellectual road to the attitude (and more than the attitude the life) of faith. The logical, intellectualist approach winds up in a ditch. The intellect does not call forth or show the way to faith.
Belief is a refuge and flight from reality. It is seized upon as protection, as a guarantee or insurance policy. Faith is taking risks, leaving behind safety and security, scorning guarantees, stepping out of the boat onto the Sea of Galilee. If we live by faith there is no need to plead with Him to save us from danger. It is enough to know that since He is there, even if the danger should prove mortal, whatever God's love wishes is being done and will be done in us, no matter what.
Why believe? (Using "believe" for participating in faith.) We have no answer for it. Believe for what? With an eye to what? To achieve what? To get what? We believe for nothing. There is no objective reason for faith; you have to live it. Faith has no origin or objective. The moment it admits of any objective, it ceases to be faith. If you believe in God in order to be protected, shielded, healed, or saved, then it's not faith, which is gratuitous. This will prove shocking, especially to Protestants, who have talked so much about salvation through faith, about faith as the condition of salvation, that they end up saying you believe so that you'll be saved. But we have to keep coming back to grace and its gratuitousness. If God loves and saves humankind without asking any price, the counterpart to this is that God intends to be believed and loved without self-interest or purpose, simply for nothing. It is scandalous, and yet so easy to understand when you think of love. The moment that a man and a woman love one another for something, whether it be for money or prestige or beauty or job, it is no longer love. Love is without cause and selfish interests; love is without reason.
Faith is constant interplay; it never stagnates or settles down. One cannot incarnate faith in some static, definitive fashion. Faith is the perennially new critical point. Faith therefore implies the continual presence of temptation and an ever clearer vision of reality; it implies criticism of Christian religion, of civilizing missions, of Christian moral codes imposed from the outside, of a Christian truth that excludes claims to it from any other area of human culture. Faith is the point of rupture (not with our fellow human beings) but with religions. Faith must proceed to criticize, to judge, and radically to reject all human religious claims. We have to be careful here; it is not people who are being judged or criticized here; it is their will to power and the expression of that in religion. But faith's critique of religion can be rooted only in its critique of itself.
Faith leads me to take part in everything, while at the same time it shows me everything in a light that is not that of reason, experience, or common sense. This is not a intellectual operation, but an existential attitude. Faith brings about the "new person" manifested in love and lucidity.
The faith of Christians in the church today has gone astray. Their obsession with the contents of faith (theologians quarreling over technical terms) instead of with the movement and life of faith is what has triggered our worldwide crisis. But the unchangeable remains unchangeable. The Ultimate One, the Unconditioned, the Wholly Other has not changed. Faith is our responsibility to see to it that the Transcendent, the Unconditioned, the Totally Other Being, becomes an active reality here and now. Faith moves mountains only when it speaks to the omnipotent Creator, and when it also accepts its role of hearing the word of faith.
From: The Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers. 1983. This synopsis is taken primarily from the chapters entitled "Traditional Misunderstandings," "Believing for What?", and "Critical Faith." It is recommended that the reader acquire and read the entire book.