“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Monday, 30 January 2012

What is faith?

There is an interesting article about the definition of faith on The Glory Land, a Fundamentalist Baptist website http://www.thegloryland.com/ . They quote the classic definition from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

So far, so good. They go on to explain that "faith is not mere human hope. Faith is based on the Word of God alone. Human hope may be based on the sands of wishful thinking or human desire, rather than on the rock of the Word of God. Doubt and hope raise the question, "What shall I do?" Faith says, "I have done!" The common phrase 'I am hoping and praying' is incorrect. 'I have prayed and am believing' is more scriptural."

They go on to draw a distinction between 'natural human faith' and 'faith in God': "Faith is not natural human faith. In order to function in life, we must exercise a natural faith. We have faith in natural laws such as gravity and inertia, and assume that they will work the same every day. If the universe were unpredictable and untrustworthy, chaos would reign and life as we know it would be impossible. We trust inanimate machines. By turning an ignition key, flipping on a light switch, boarding an aircraft, we exercise faith in machines. [personally, I would rather say that we trust the expertise of the human beings who have designed and made these things, but that is an aside]. We trust vegetables and animals - we assume they will perform according to our past experience. We trust other human beings. We trust our surgeon, our spouse, our pilot etc. However, faith in God is supernatural - a gift from God."

So far as I, an outsider, understand it, the central requirement of becoming a Christian is to have faith in the fact the Jesus is your Saviour, who by his death on the cross somehow atoned for the sins of humankind, and enabled us to be reconciled to God. This was an unmerited gift from God, made by His grace, and the human part is to accept it with gratitude, and try to be worthy of it. It is not a path that most Unitarians can take.

And yet, Unitarianism is often spoken about by Unitarians as a "faith" rather than a "religion". In his book The Unitarian Life, Stephen Lingwood calls us "a faith community for those on a spiritual journey, for those who believe there is still more to be discovered in religion. We believe in religious exploration - through the intellect and through the spirit. Through the intellect we explore religious questions in sermons, lectures, workshops, and dialogue. Through the spirit we explore through worship, music, ritual, meditation, and prayer."

I rather like his distinction between intellectual and spiritual exploration. For me, having faith involves trust, whether it is the "natural human faith" mentioned above, or faith in Someone or Something beyond the natural world. It is not the same as belief, which you can do with your intellect. It is not by accident that people speak of "a leap of faith" - it involves jumping into the unknown and trusting that you will be caught.

But my favourite definition of faith is that by Martin Luther King: "Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence; it is adventure in scorn of the consequences." It means living your beliefs, regardless of what it may cost. It means having integrity; it means "walking the talk". Our free-thinking, independent-minded way of approaching life is poles apart from accepting a creed because someone higher up the religious hierarchy tells us to. I would like to share the statement of faith from the website of my home congregation, Northampton, which was cobbled together from a variety of other Unitarian sources*:

Our Faith
Unitarianism is a religious movement in which individuals are free to follow their reason and conscience; there is no pressure from creed or scripture. We are open to change in the light of new thought and discoveries.

We believe that:
  • everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves.
  • the fundamental tools for doing this are your own life experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understnading and the promptings of your own conscience.
  • the best place to do this is a community that welcomes you for who you are, complete with your beliefs, doubts and questions.
We offer:
  • liberty of conscience and freedom from imposed creed, confessions and dogmas.
  • a fellowship where people come together to worship; to share times of celebration and trial; and to help each other in the quest for a faith to live by.
We affirm the universal values of love and compassion, peace, truth and justice.
We welcome all who come to us in the spirit of goodwill and enquiry, regardless of ethnic or religious background, age, gender, or sexual orientation."

I think that's quite something. That statement of faith places a very high value on personal integrity - on finding your own way to the best that you know. It is not something that we do for one hour on a Sunday; it is a way of living - not only affirming the universal values of love and compassion, peace, truth and justice, but also doing our best to make them matter in the world, and in our own lives. It is something on which I can rest, in the assurance that if I try to live up to those ideals, I will be faith-fully working towards becoming the best person I can be.

*General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches leaflet A Faith Worth Thinking About, and Rev. Cliff Reed.


  1. Greetings from Fiji !! Your favourite quote is not from Martin Luther King .. but from Clarence Jordan .. the founder of Habitat for Humanity ++ The second part of the quote should be "but a life lived in scorn of the consequences" As a young Baptist preacher MLK knew CJ and often quoted him. Blessings from this side of paradise !! Brian, Rosie, William, Angelica and Yeshua Roadhouse brroadhouse@hotmail.com

    1. Hello Rosemarie,

      Thank you for the correction! Bright blessings to all your family from a grey and gloomy UK.